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Friday, August 4, 2006 - Page updated at 11:00 AM

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Electric Tesla Roadster shockingly fun

Los Angeles Times

When Tesla, the upstart auto company based in Silicon Valley, recently unveiled its all-electric Roadster in Santa Monica, Calif., Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped in for a surprise visit.

The event — where Tesla was offering its first 100 "signature edition" cars for $100,000 apiece — seemed like automotive history. The sleek carbon-bodied sports car is, by my reckoning, the first plausible electric automobile of the 21st century.

To appreciate the Tesla, it helps to compare it to the much-lamented EV1, GM's electric car that was, in the mid-1990s, the most advanced vehicle of its kind.

The Tesla Roadster has a range of 250 miles, says the company. The EV1, with the best nickel metal hydride batteries, could go about 150 miles under ideal conditions.

A full charge of the EV1 could take eight hours. The Tesla's lithium-ion batteries can be raised from the dead to a full charge in 3 hours. Unlike the EV1, the Tesla will have its own portable charging pack so it won't be range-tethered to its home charging station.

Perhaps most important and most unlike the EV1, the Tesla offers fun, in large, hair-raising voltages. The company claims 0 to 60 mph acceleration in 4 seconds and a top speed of 130 mph.

Big brakes, racy suspension, optional leather and navigation system, air conditioning, heated seats. There's even room for golf clubs.

Tesla isn't the only bolt of battery-powered lightning out there.

A Monaco-based company called Venturi has a production-ready electric sports car, the Fetish, which is nearly identical to the Tesla in size, weight, power, range and performance.

The big difference is price: Compared with the $600,000-plus Venturi, the production Tesla (about $85,000, due on sale in late 2007) might as well be sold at Best Buy.

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The Wrightspeed X1 prototype, the work of another Silicon Valley startup, is based on the lattice-frame, open-wheel Ariel Atom built in England. It's even quicker: 0 to 60 mph in 3 seconds, with a quarter-mile time of 11.5 seconds.

There's also the Tango commuter car, an oddly shaped four-wheel electric car-cum-motorcycle (sold as a kit car) whose most famous owner certainly is actor George Clooney.

During a summer when a popular documentary asks, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" the car seems to be contrarily alive and well.

"There's a big market for green," says Chris Paine, electric vehicle advocate and the documentary's director, "but not as big as the market for something more primal. Speed and power have always sold cars."

"We want to do something about global warming," says Elon Musk, Tesla chairman and its principal investor. "But you can't achieve your philanthropic objective unless the company works."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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