Mall at UTC

Tesla: Drive our cars, but no pressure

UNIVERSITY PARK -- It's a strange thing to drive a sports sedan from 0 to 60 in under five seconds and have the whole experience fail to raise so much as a tiny growl from the motor. But for sales associates in Tesla's new showroom at The Mall at University Town Center, silent speed is a selling point.

The mall showroom, one of 40 in the United States for the California-based luxury electric car manufacturer, is located in the midst of what the company sees as one of its strongest markets. This week, before the first potential customers entered the 3,000-square-foot retail space Thursday morning, members of Tesla's eight-member staff got ready to do what they were trained to do.

Strangely, selling cars is not at the top of the list. The company has a "no pressure" sales approach.

"Most of the people who come in here aren't in the market for a car," said Alexis Georgeson, a Tesla spokeswoman who was on hand for the showroom opening in University Park. "We're here to educate the public about the product."

Tesla has striven to be an outlier in the automotive industry since the company got its start building and selling exotic, $110,000 battery-powered roadsters in 2008. It markets directly to its customers out of its company-owned dealerships and showrooms. In a way, it sells its products more like a computer or a smart phone, with showroom associates spending up to four hours per customer teaching and introducing them about the company's sole car, the Model S.

The product on the floor at the Mall at UTC Tesla store can be compelling to the serious driver. The Model S is a 4,700-pound, aluminum-bodied, four-door luxury sedan that is faster than most sports cars on the market. For about $70,000, a buyer can order the base model, which comes with a 208-mile range on a single charge of its batteries.

And unlike most electric cars on the market, a 30-minute charge on a dedicated Tesla "supercharger" is all it takes to get 170 more miles out of a depleted set of batteries.

On opening day, there were two stars in the Tesla show: the car and the showroom itself. Bradenton residents Amber See, Josh Robey and James Pirkle each sat in the cars on the showroom floor, but spent more time outfitting a virtual car on an interactive monitor with different trim levels and colors. They also worked with a hands-on display with which they could nest samples of upholstery inside metal forms painted with available exterior paint colors.

"It's really cool," Pirkle said. "It's incredible. I've never seen the cars in a room like this."

The opening also drew current Tesla owners. Dave Marsh, a Sarasota resident who has driven his Model S for two years and 23,000 miles, is getting ready to take a 7,000-mile road trip with the car. He recently did a shorter trip to Charleston, stopping just twice along the way to juice his car's batteries at Tesla chargers.

The experience of owning the car is as close as he's been able to get to automotive nirvana.

"It's closer to perfect than any other car I've driven," he said.

That's the feeling Tesla is looking to give UTC mall visitors coming to its showroom for a test drive. The showroom keeps several Model S test cars in the mall's east parking lot. Anyone of driving age interested in taking a drive need only ask.

On one test drive this week, Tesla communications manager Will Nicholas emphasized the car's quick acceleration and its slippery, low-drag exterior. A sprint up to the 40-mph speed limit on North Cattlemen Road took only a couple seconds. A quick u-turn at speed to head back to the mall was just as exhilarating. The tires squealed, but the bottom-weighted car barely leaned through the turn.

Nicholas said Tesla's mission is ultimately to sell more affordable electric cars worldwide. Profits from sales of its high-priced models have gone toward developing a $30,000 Tesla 3 model, which is expected to hit the market in 2017. The company's chief executive officer, Elon Musk, also announced in September that the company will build a factory in Nevada that will build enough batteries each year for 500,000 Tesla cars.

Those who do find the showroom and test-drive experience compelling have some choices to make. The Model S comes with two motors, with the larger extending range to 265 miles. In December, Tesla will start building a two-motor version of the car that will make it to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds, or about as fast or faster than almost every Lamborghini and Ferrari on the market.

The wait time for a current-model Tesla is two to three months.

The options add tens of thousands of dollars to the price tag, but Tesla vehicles do qualify for a $7,500 electric vehicle credit from the federal government. The company will also buy its cars back after three years for a guaranteed 50 percent of the original purchase price.

The Tesla showroom can be reached at 941-866-6597.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.

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