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Tesla opens door to its electric car research center

October 6, 2010 |  2:16 pm

Tesla model s Electric car company Tesla Motors Inc. opened up its Palo Alto headquarters and research center to reporters for the first time Wednesday, divulging new information about its Model S sedan and showing off its growing automotive engineering capability.

One of the surprises of the $57,000 Model S is that its battery pack will fit in a large flat panel beneath the vehicle, providing rigidity for the body and enhancing handling and aerodynamics, according to Peter Rawlinson, Tesla’s chief engineer for vehicle engineering.

Tesla plans to produce about 20,000 of the sedans annually. They will be made at former factory operated by Toyota in Fremont, Calif., and are expected to go on sale in 2012.

The automaker also said it is exploring building variations of the vehicle, including an SUV, based on the same aluminum-and-steel platform.

Although the Model S is expected to attract buyers who want a full-size electric vehicle out of concern for the environment, Rawlinson said Tesla is designing the car “to compete on a level playing field -– the driving experience.”

The Model S is expected to accelerate from zero to 60 mph in under six seconds and will have a range of up to 300 miles on a single charge, according to the company.

It will have trunk space both in the front and the rear. And although it is designed to carry five adults, it also will have an extra row of fold-up seats that can carry small children.

Tesla will make the sedan after it reopens the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont, formerly operated jointly by Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp.

Tesla has already sold about 1,300 of its $109,000 Roadster sports cars, built on a platform manufactured by the Lotus, the British sports car maker. The car runs on a power train fueled by 6,831 rechargeable laptop batteries.

Earlier this month, Tesla said it was recalling 439 of its Roadsters because of the risk that a power cable in the vehicle could short and catch fire. The automaker said it had one report of a 12-volt cable rubbing against a panel in the car, causing it to short.

In June, Tesla sold shares to the public, making it the only publicly held automaker based in California and the first car manufacturer to float an initial stock offering since Ford Motor Co. went public in 1956. Its shares closed Wednesday at $20.46, up 66 cents. Tesla shares are trading 20% above its $17 offering price.

Toyota bought $50 million worth of stock in a private placement, giving the Japanese automaker a 3.6% stake in Tesla.

Tesla and Toyota are developing an all-electric RAV4 compact sport-utility vehicle that will be introduced at the Los Angeles auto show in November. Tesla is developing the model's battery pack and electric motor. The electric RAV4 is expected to go on sale in 2012.

Tesla has opened a battery pack development and manufacturing facility at its 370,000-square-foot headquarters in Palo Alto. It also is manufacturing and developing engines at the facility.

The company employs about 700 workers, including 25 at a design studio in Hawthorne. It expects its workforce to grow to about 2,000 once Model S goes into production.

--Jerry Hirsch

Photo: Telsa's Model S sedan. Credit: Jerry Hirsch/Los Angeles Times