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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014
Business News

Mullins: Tesla isn’t your father’s electric car

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One perk of being a consumer trends reporter is that I occasionally get to drive supercars. Not just “sports” cars, but bona fide, ridiculous contraptions built to go 200 mph or more, and I’ve parked myself behind the wheel of a few with price tags pushing $200K. Spykers, Ferraris, Lamborghinis. All those companies like media coverage, so they indulge reporters. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

None of those cars compare to the feel of an all-electric Tesla Model S. It was a total accident that I found a Tesla to test-drive, but now you can, too, on any given day in Tampa. You’ll have to read further to find out how, but here’s a preview.

When I stomped on the accelerator (don’t call it the “gas pedal”) not only did my head snap back into the seat, but the absurd acceleration actually pulled my cheeks back — like some kind of science fiction movie where astronauts engage hyperdrive and struggle to breathe because of the force.

It makes gasoline-powered cars feel like riding lawnmowers: Loud, slow, smelly.

All this started by accident, as I mentioned, as I found the Tesla site in Tampa on the way to another news assignment. The only hint the office exists is a “T” logo in one of those anonymous office parks that fill up this town. There, parked out front, were seven Tesla Model S sedans. Frankly, from the outside, the cars don’t look much different than a high-end Lexus, but I met the friendly staff, who explained that this was one of many service centers they’ve opened nationwide — say, if you bought a Tesla in California but happen to live in Tampa and need a tweak or repair.

There are a few formal dealerships in places like Miami, but a couple of months ago, Tesla quietly started using the loaner cars for test drives in Tampa, and helping customers place orders for cars. Don’t call them “dealerships” because the lawyers will come after you for reasons I’ll explain in a bit.

“Can I, um, take a drive?” I asked. “Sure,” they said. “Let’s go.”

The car knew we were approaching because it wirelessly connects to the key fob the sales consultant was holding, and the door handles silently emerged. Very spaceship-like. Inside, the car feels far nicer than a simple luxury sedan. There’s a touchscreen panel in the dashboard the size of a cafeteria tray, and everything is digital and adjustable: Seat position, temperature preference, radio presets and the actual height of the car, which adjusts several inches up and down for stability. Every setting can be updated wirelessly through a 3G connection to the company. If it wants to add a feature, Tesla just beams it to the cars in the field like an app update.

There are hysterical features Tesla makes to help drivers adjust to an all-electric world. For instance, in a normal car, when you shift into drive and take your foot off the brake, the car creeps forward. But in an electric car, there’s no reason for the motor to turn unless you touch the accelerator. So in the settings menu on the touchscreen, there’s an option “Creep: On/Off.” Handy for the drive-through at McDonalds.

Pulling onto an empty side road nearby, I felt some real power behind that accelerator pedal, so I stomped it. Holy cow. Because the car is all electric, the massive battery can dump ALL of its amps in the motor at once. I stomped again as fast as I could. Before the pedal hit the floor, the car was already leaping forward. There. Is. No. Engine. Lag.

None. Even in a 12-cylinder supercar, there’s a fraction of a second as the engine winds up. With a Tesla, it’s like asking if there’s a delay between flipping a light switch and the light bulb turning on. And it’s almost silent. At high torque, there’s a very, very, subtle whine and crackle — which my sales consultant explained is the sound of electricity coursing through the motor. Whoa. This is not the car for people who like the sound and feel of a Chevy Silverado.

Which brings me to range: 200 to 250 miles on a full charge, I’m told, regardless of how you drive. If you rip around downtown, that acceleration is offset by breaking, which helps recharge the battery. For longer trips, Tesla handily built free fast-recharging stations around the country at places like shopping malls, so a 20 to 40 minute recharge is your chance to stretch your legs and grab a cup of coffee.

This is a major philosophical leap for many people, and the market will decide how ready Americans are for all-electric cars. There’s a 3- to 8-week waiting list. That’s for cars that can easily run $62,000 to $94,000.

The Union of Concerned Scientists just posted a report that found sales of plug-in electric vehicles (EVs), including both plug-in hybrids and battery electrics, are up significantly since last year. More than 59,000 EVs were sold in the United States by the end of August — already surpassing EV sales for all of 2012.

Which brings me to the dealership question. Current state law prevents auto manufacturers like General Motors from selling GM vehicles directly from factories to customers. Instead, GM must go through dealers, a system that either protects the community of dealers and fosters customer service or prevents competition, depending on whom you ask.

Tesla navigated this regulation by making this argument: “What local Tesla dealer would we be unfairly competing against? We don’t have any dealers.” After much lawyerly wrangling, the Great State of Florida granted Tesla a license to sell cars directly. This, as you might imagine, is not popular among the community of auto dealership owners. “This is not over,” said Robert Zinn, an attorney with Carlton Fields in Miami who represents dealerships.

In the meantime, Tesla set up the business apparatus of running a dealership — er, “Consultation Centers,” or whatever they call them — such as financing through Wells Fargo. Buyers who really want to purchase on site can sit with a consultant and pick their style, color, battery capacity, etc. Tesla staffers actually encourage people to park at home on the couch, pull out an iPad and order one online, like shopping on Amazon or something.

So, where can you test-drive one? Pssst, I’ll tell you. On the east side of U.S. 301 in Brandon, between Broadway and Adamo. I suggest you call ahead to reserve a test-drive, and be prepared afterward to consider your current car a riding lawn mower.

Meanwhile, here’s some other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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I have a bone to pick with Ocean Spray. We in The House of Mullins go through a great deal of fruit juice and have become highly attuned to market pricing. So, when I saw that the new bottle of O.S. 100 percent cranberry juice was slimmer, my fraud radar went nuts. Size shrinkage is a real phenomenon in the grocery market, and food companies are constantly trying to fool customers with ever-smaller packages. Peanut butter jars, bags of sugar, everything is dropping an ounce here and there. “New Look, Same Great Taste” is the slogan on the O.S. bottle. Hah! Instead of the usual 64-ounce, this bottle is 60 ounces. Same price, by the way. So I ask this. Really, Ocean Spray? Did that measly 4 ounces make the difference in your quarterly financial report? Did some V.P. persuade you people wouldn’t notice? Well, I did.

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One other note on grocery drinks. We at The House of Mullins are big fans of the Arnold Palmer lemonade/iced tea blends, and this week, we noticed a newcomer on the shelf. Golden Bear lemonade/honey mix is from the same company, with a folksy photo of Ohio’s own golfing giant Jack Nicklaus. Even in the grocery store, arguably the two greatest golfers who ever played continue their rivalry.

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In a case of timing is everything, I make mention of this news with no comment: Verizon FiOS this week announced a co-marketing deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to become the “official residential Internet provider” of the team. So don’t call Verizon a fair-weather fan.

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Here’s some fun new techie lingo for you: “Sockpuppetry.” No, really. It’s a word, and it came to light again this week when Wikipedia’s backers took a stand against sockpuppetry, which the always-helpful UrbanDictionary.com defines as “An account made on an internet message board, by a person who already has an account, for the purpose of posting more-or-less anonymously.” The problem Wikipedia found was “paid advocacy editing” by posters who likely work for big companies (or small) trying to burnish up their image. It’s not a new thing, necessarily. Politicians do it all the time, and more than a few Amazon product reviews absolutely reek of marketing puffery. Amazon tries to fight back by marking entries from “verified” buyers, but there’s no reason a marketing V.P. can’t tell a team of interns to buy their company’s gadget and post a glowing review. There’s a reason you hear so much advertising from companies saying they can improve your “online reputation.” Bah! That’s sockpuppetry.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813)259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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