Tesla’s little stand at Cobo Hall, squeezed into a corner near Bentley and Volvo, was mobbed during the company’s press conference, which seemed to serve multiple purposes: to show the Model X crossover concept for the first time at an auto show; to allow the company to gloat over the resounding critical success of its Model S, including the fact that it is the 2013 Automobile Magazine Automobile of the Year; and for company executives to spread the gospel of Tesla.
Tesla’s supreme leader, Elon Musk, was nowhere in sight, but George Blankenship, the former Apple executive who is Tesla’s Vice President of worldwide sales and customer experience, took to the stage wearing jeans, a blazer, and a wool scarf casually draped around his neck. “Our vision is to accelerate the adoption of zero-emission vehicles,” he said, aping similar comments we’ve heard from his boss. “It’s not about building a car.” But it is, George, it is. Blankenship is particularly pleased with the growing reputation of Tesla, noting that a whopping 1.6 million people traipsed through 19 of the company’s 23 U.S. company stores [Tesla doesn't have traditional dealerships] in the fourth quarter of last year. Tesla will open 25 more company stores in 2013, half of them in the United States. The first store in China opens this spring.
The never-ending question about electric cars, of course, is where and how to recharge them, but Tesla is optimistic about its plans to allow owners to do so easily with its Supercharging stations, which provide a full battery recharge in about 30 minutes and will allow Tesla drivers to travel from San Diego to Vancouver on the West Coast and from Miami to Boston on the East Coast. “In a couple of years, you’re going to be able to drive from San Diego to Maine [using our Supercharging system],” Blankenship promises. “Our charging is FREE, so people will be eager to adopt our technology. [Tesla] is about a bright future for your children and grandchildren,” he concluded, a little too sweetly, before turning the microphone over to design chief Franz von Holzhausen, who was also wearing jeans but no scarf.
Von Holzhausen, who designed the Pontiac Solstice and served as Mazda’s North American design chief, turned to the Model X concept sitting behind him. “We want to transfer our [electric vehicle] technology into a segment [SUVs] that is presently horribly inefficient,” he said. “Minivans are incredibly practical, but you kind of sell your soul to get that practicality. With the Model X, you get practicality in a sexy vehicle.” Von Holzhausen opened the Model X’s Falcon Wing doors, which pivot in two places to open vertically before they swing out, so the Model X can be parked in conventional parking spaces. “Creating the second hinge at the cant rail was the big innovation,” Von Holzhausen told us after the press conference. “When the doors are open, they are seven feet, four inches tall, and most garages are about eight feet tall. There will be sensors to prevent the doors from hitting anything.”
With all of its doors open on the show floor, the white-over-black Model X looked like a multi-winged bird. We wondered if all those huge apertures would compromise structural integrity, but Von Holzhausen reminded us that “the Model S sedan’s structure is equally porous, but both have 60 hertz of structural rigidity. The battery pack is an integral part of the structure.” The front “hood” opens to reveal a huge, wide cargo cavity, and the rear hatch also exposes a considerable amount of storage space. We climbed inside the Model X and found a decent amount of room in the second row, if considerably less in the third row, but all three seats in the second row move back and forth independently, and headroom is good in both rows. The Model X concept’s body is constructed of fiberglass, but the production vehicle, which is expected sometime in late 2014, will have aluminum body panels just like the Model S. The all-wheel-drive Model X will have 60-kw and 85-kw battery packs but no entry-level 40-kw pack like the Model S offers. Tesla promises a 0-to-60-mph time of 5.0 seconds.
Looking even farther into the future, Von Holzhausen is most excited about the prospect of Tesla’s third-generation car, which will, he says, “be an Audi A4, BMW 3-series, Volkswagen Jetta type of vehicle that will offer everything: range, affordability, and performance. We’re confident we can do it at a starting price of $30,000, which is the break-in point, where we can bring all this excitement and technology to the average customer.”