Oct. 3, 2011 — -- With the Tesla Model S, Elon Musk seems to be trying to do for the electric car what Apple's iPod did for music -- make it profitable and very, very cool.
Musk, a serial innovator who already started PayPal and SpaceX, has now announced a souped-up version of the Model S sedan will do zero to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. That's faster than some versions of the Porsche 911.
"Like a world-class endurance athlete, Model S was designed to be the epitome of efficiency," said Tesla Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausen on the company's blog.
Electric cars have, for years, been regarded as one of those environmentally-friendly phenomena guaranteed never to happen. They were often pictured as overpriced, underpowered go-carts, with batteries that threatened to give out in the middle of the freeway on your way home.
Musk promises to change that. The Model S, Tesla has promised, will go on sale next year at a starting price around $57,000. It's not for the faint of wallet -- there are plenty of economy subcompacts out there if you're on a budget -- but the cost of gasoline is zero. You plug it in when it's parked.
And you'll plug it in less often, Musk says. The high-end Model S should have enough battery capacity to go more than 300 miles on a charge. It is packed with Lithium-Ion batteries, mostly in a rack on the car's bottom.
This will take a change of thinking for drivers. For a century, people have been used to watching the gas gauge; when it got close to empty, you knew you had to look for a filling station. If electric vehicles catch on, they'll be more like your cellphone; you'd better remember to plug in overnight.
They are substantially different from the gas-electric hybrids on the market, such as the Toyota Prius and Chevy Volt. Hybrids have both electric motors, and gasoline engines to share the work. But Tesla simply doesn't do gas tanks. There would be carbon dioxide emissions because people use the cars, but they would come from the electric power plants that supply juice to power them. By some estimates, that could reduce carbon emissions per mile by 70 percent.
The company has already been selling a small volume of Tesla Roadsters -- which, at $109,000 and up, are really not for the faint of wallet -- but in January, the company said, it will start to phase them out to concentrate on the Model S.