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Tesla's New Electric Sedan: Five Passengers, 89 MPG, And No Engine

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The Tesla electric car company has high hopes for its new Model S, which it calls "the world's first premium electric sedan." The new car, which is being delivered to customers Friday, is priced at around half the cost of the only other Tesla model, the svelte, two-door Roadster.

The new car's sticker price starts around $57,000; a $7,500 federal tax credit drops the starting price just below $50,000. But like its gas-powered cousins, this electric vehicle has so many options available that its price can soar to near $100,000.

"It's certainly not mass market by General Motors or Toyota standards," Edmunds.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs tells Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne. "Tesla says they're going to make 5,000 of these this year, and then increase the production next year. So it still really is a niche vehicle."

The base model's battery can be upgraded from a capacity of 40 kilowatt-hours to either 60 or 85 kwh. According to Tesla, the performance version of the Model S can propel itself from a standing start to 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds.

Those larger batteries also bring the ability to drive farther on a single charge — about 265 miles, says the Environmental Protection Agency, which beats all other electric vehicles on the market. The EPA performed its tests with an 85 kwh version of the car, with an estimated sticker price of about $70,000.

Expressed in the EPA's "miles per gallon equivalent" used for electric vehicles, the Model S gets a combined 89 mpg — which the federal agency equates to about $700 in annual fuel costs, if you drive 15,000 miles in a year.

In the cabin, a Wi-Fi-capable 17-inch touch screen is mounted on the central dashboard to the right of the steering wheel. Its display options include a running tally of the car's consumption and real-time data on miles remaining.

"There is what's called in the industry 'range anxiety,' " Krebs says. "And that's where people are leaning more towards hybrids and plug-in hybrids, because it eases that worry."

As the Model S hits the streets, the California-based Tesla finds itself in an improving car market — sales projections for new vehicles in 2012 now stand close to 12 million, according to a new report by J.D. Power and Associates.

And Krebs tells Montagne that by Edmunds.com's count of electric and hybrid vehicles, "50,000 were sold in the month of March."

But there's a danger that the market's momentum might leave Tesla in its dust — because so far, at least, demand for electric and hybrid cars has moved in lockstep with gasoline prices. And over the past few months, gas prices have fallen.

Sales of electric and hybrid vehicles peaked at 4.6 percent of the market in April, when gas prices were higher, according to J.D. Power. That number has now fallen to 3.4 percent.

Speaking with shareholders earlier this month, Tesla founder Elon Musk — whose enterprises also include PayPal and SpaceX — reportedly told investors that the company had taken deposits from more than 10,000 customers for the Model S. He also said that Tesla needs to sell about 8,000 of the cars to break even, according to Bloomberg.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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