And so it begins. On Friday, Tesla Motors finally debuted the four-years-in-the-waiting Model S sedan, and it did it in typical company fashion with a big gala launch at the factory in Fremont, Calif. More important than all the speeches, which included one from Gov. Jerry Brown (who wondered if the enthusiasm could be channeled into a political campaign), was that actual customers got actual keys to actual cars.


From now on, Tesla doesn’t control the narrative about the Model S — the cars are going to get judged in the marketplace. Here's the introduction on video:



So far, it has been mostly journalists providing feedback. And, without exception, they’re ecstatic: Katie Fehrenbacher of GigaOm: “The low center of gravity, smooth ride, and lack of vibration were pretty amazing.” Wayne Cunningham of CNET: The Model S “felt like a freight train.” Frank Markus of Motor Trend: “My eyes are wide and my jaw has dropped.” Chris Woodyard of USA Today: "Tesla’s Model S luxury sedan is spectacular….The car is a flat-out joy to drive.” Me: “Give me the keys to one of the damn things!” Here’s video of Fehrenbacher’s ride:



Bill Lee with his Tesla SSo far, the emphasis is on the car’s low center of gravity (adjustable through the air suspension), its mind-boggling acceleration (4.4 seconds in the performance edition; 5.6 in the base car), and the fact it can do all of this with all the excess noise of a Quaker church service. I haven’t heard much about the 17-inch touch screen yet, but maybe that’s because the early adopters are getting enough entertainment from just piloting the Model S.


Unfortunately, unlike lucky Model S owner Bill Lee (at right), I’ve yet to drive one, though I hope to remedy that sad situation later this week. I’m assuming I’m not going to hate it, but the real news right now is that the car is on the road. As the California governor put it, the goal now is to get “thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, then millions” of electric cars in customers’ hands. That’s the way the narrative changes from “electric cars are a disappointment” to “wow, EVs rock!”


According to Elon Musk at the ceremony, “What the Model S is really all about is breaking a spell. The world is under the illusion that electric cars can’t be as good as gasoline cars, that you have to accept a product that is worse. We’re saying fundamentally that an electric car can be the best car in the world — that’s what makes the Model S really important.”


The ceremony’s MC was marketing chief George Blankenship, who I met at the opening of Tesla’s latest store in Westchester. Here’s Blankenship from that visit:



Franz von Holzhausen, who designed the Model S, said his initial brief from Musk was a car that could carry seven, with the best aerodynamic efficiency, the lowest center of gravity, the best zero to 60 time, best functionality and, not coincidentally, the best-looking car in the world. “Not only did we hit every one of the items on the list, but the car actually got better — it’s also the safest car in the world, more functional than some crossovers, and it just might be the most beautiful sedan in the marketplace.” That last item was a big applause line. If there’s one thing Tesla isn’t, it’s humble.


A little humility might be useful now. I was surprised to see Tesla’s stock price down a bit on Monday, the first full day of trading after the roll-out. But at $33.47 a share, it’s doing darn well — people buying at the IPO price of $17 would neatly double their money.


Still, Tesla, which has gone through $759 million and taken $465 million from the Department of Energy (not surprisingly, in the audience at Fremont), has yet to make a dime. The company’s first product, the $109,000 Roadster, was something of a loss leader. Only 2,150 were sold. Obviously, the Model S, which could be seen as twice the car at half the money, will sell a lot more.


Tesla is projecting 5,000 sales for the remainder of 2012, and 20,000 in 2013. I have no doubt the company can make the first number, but the second will depend on the car being a significant hit in the marketplace. Good word of mouth will mean more than any hype generated from the Palo Alto headquarters. As the Washington Post points out, Nissan has sold 30,000 Leafs since the car was introduced at the end of 2010, and the Leaf is half the price of the Model S.


A word about pricing: Tesla, like many other electric automakers, often quotes a bottom line inclusive of the $7,500 federal income tax credit all plug-ins get. Since the first 1,000 Model S cars will all be Signature models (with the 85-kilowatt-hour, 300-mile battery), prices at the 14 U.S. stores will actually start at $95,400 before the rebate. Some 10,000 people have put down deposits, and some of them will be buying base cars at $57,400 before the rebate. But, of course, you do get the rebate.


Sometime around now, workers with brooms are sweeping up the tinsel from Friday’s celebration. The factory will be getting back to the serious business of churning out the Model S. And then we’ll see what happens.


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