Tesla Model S Exposed

One thing is clear from Tesla's presentation here at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit: The fledgling electric-car company is fortunate to have Peter Rawlinson as its vice president of vehicle engineering.

Rawlinson worked on the Bentley Continental, BMW 5-Series, Ford Fiesta, Honda Accord, Jaguar XJ and F-Type, and Land Rover Discovery, among many other highly regarded automobiles. This kind of brain trust will keep a young company like Tesla from falling into the kind of peril some pundits seem to predict.

The company's goal is daunting, for sure: creating from scratch a premium electric sedan for the masses that can compete with products from much larger automakers with billions more in market capitalization. Tesla seems undaunted, though, flush with $226 million in funding it raised through an initial public stock offering last summer, and riding on the clout of partnerships with Toyota and Panasonic.

In Detroit, Tesla showed off the guts of its coming Model S sedan, which will be the company's first high-volume vehicle, relatively speaking. The company says it has taken more than 3,500 orders for the Model S and needs to sell 20,000 a year to be profitable. Since it was founded in 2003, Tesla has sold more than 1,500 of its six-figure Roadster sports car.

More coverage from the Detroit Auto Show

Tesla Model S

Click to enlarge pictureTesla Model S Exposed (© Rick Wait)

Tesla Model S Exposed

Click to enlarge pictureTesla Model S Exposed (© Rick Wait)

Tesla Model S Exposed

What is it? A fully electric, rear-wheel-drive premium sport sedan
What makes it special? Everything about the Model S is special. But one of the main points Tesla hammered home is that the Model S was engineered without certain constraints that apply to conventional automobiles — the implication being that the Model S is a better car because of it. For example, the front suspension towers are linked by a large cross-member that improves ride, handling and safety. This is possible because much of the space in the engine bay that is normally taken up by a car's engine remains empty on the Model S. All of the machinery that makes the car move — its electric motor, gearbox and power electronic inverter module — is shrink-wrapped into a tight package that sits between the rear wheels. The Tesla Model S is so space-efficient, Rawlinson says, that it has room for a third row of seats — albeit a small one, only for children. Tesla also highlighted the way it engineered its lithium-ion battery cell, which is flat and relatively thin, and sits at the lowest point on the car, spanning the length and width of the undercarriage between the wheels. It acts as a structural member that increases the car's rigidity, and the smooth surface it creates under the car is ideal in terms of aerodynamics.
When will it be available? Production will begin mid-2012.
How much will it cost? Starting price is $56,400.
MSN Autos' take? It was a good move for Tesla to deconstruct the Model S and show how it was engineered. And the fact that someone of Rawlinson's caliber is at the engineering helm lends the car the credibility it will need to win over the type of savvy, affluent drivers who can afford to buy one. Real proof of the Model S' success will come once it actually hits the road.

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Matthew de Paula wanted to be an automotive journalist ever since reading his first car magazine in grade school. After a brief stint writing about finance, he helped launch ForbesAutos.com and became the site's editor in 2006. Matthew now freelances for various outlets.