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Nikola Tesla would have been impressed. Tesla, a Serbian-American inventor, is credited with discovering alternating current (AC)—the electricity that runs through our power grids.

Now, 69 years after his death, Tesla’s name has been revived for a car make. For several years, Tesla Motors has been in the news for developing a battery-powered Roadster that promised phenomenal performance as well as thrifty all-electric operation. In 2012, the emphasis has shifted to the Tesla S premium sedan, which has been publicized for some time and is finally in production.

Not often does a vehicle come along that qualifies as excellent or better on all counts. That’s especially unlikely when the vehicle isn’t even fully on sale yet, apart from a handful of early buyers. As of early summer 2012, 10 Tesla S sedans were in the hands of customers, though many more had plunked down deposits.

Even more surprising, the vehicle in question is a pure electric model—a powertrain that isn’t getting a lot of respect these days, except from hardened electric-car fans and early adopters.

Range is invariably the Number One question about electric cars, and Tesla has three answers. The Tesla S may be ordered with any of three battery capacities: 40, 60, or 85 kilowatt-hours. Starting at $57,400, the 40-kWh version promises a range near 160 miles. Another $10,000 buys the 60-kWh model, with a 230-mile range. For $77,400, the 85-kWh edition claims a range of about 300 miles (at 55 mph).

Performance varies, too, with 0-60 mph acceleration time as low as 5.6 seconds. Not enough? Acceleration advocates can shell out additional dollars for a Performance Package, which slices 0-60 time to a blazing 4.4 seconds. This ultimate Tesla S model also nets 89 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent).

Acceleration in a Performance Package stretches beyond astounding. This Tesla S shot forward with supreme smoothness and effortless action, seemingly eager to go on indefinitely. No, such performance is seldom necessary in ordinary driving. But most emphatically, no Tesla driver will ever have to worry about being short on response when it’s time to pass another vehicle, or enter a crowded expressway.

Better yet, the Tesla S grabs the pavement tenaciously and handles with confidence. Body lean is almost nonexistent through quick curves. As the Store Manager noted, the “passenger leans more than the car does.” Ride comfort matches just about anything in the luxury class.

Controls differ from any car on the market. Rather than buttons or switches, nearly everything takes place on a vertically oriented, 17-inch touchscreen display mounted at the center. A Tesla S is packed solid with technology and driver choices, but everything on-screen is clearly identified. Still, almost nothing can be adjusted while driving without taking your eyes off the road for a moment or two.

A Tesla S definitely looks the part of a luxury sedan, ready to rival four-doors from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Jaguar. Door handles retract into the body; moving out at a touch. Then, you pull lightly and the door opens. It’s one of many impressive extra features, such as having cargo space at the front of the car as well as below the rear hatch. Wearing an aluminum body for lightness, with an air suspension for ride quality, the rear-wheel-drive Tesla S has a battery pack, inverter, electric motor, and gearbox at the rear.

Anyone interested in a Tesla will have trouble finding a dealership. Instead of the conventional sales lot, Tesla is marketing its sedan at storefronts, typically in malls. Currently, there are 14 such “stores” in North American (24 worldwide), with another dozen expected later this year. No one is expected to buy a Tesla right off the showroom floor. The stores exist to drum up interest, with both a complete car and a Tesla chassis on display, along with wall-mounted interactive screens that give the full story.

Tesla Motors – Model S – Official Website

Design Your Own Tesla Model S

Reserve Your Own Tesla

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By James M. Flammang