As Tesla Charges Into Oregon, We Go For A Spin

There I was, tooling down Scholls Ferry Road on the outskirts of Portland, test driving a Tesla Model S, the PR guy in the passenger seat and my son/photographer in back sporting his new Tesla cap, and what should we find in front of us? A Tesla Model S – the third one I’d spotted that week.

Damn, maybe they are taking over the world.

Hey, we’re not talking about Palo Alto here, where the Model S – with a price tag that can breach six figures when all the bells are rung and whistles blown – is a required technopreneurial accessory. USA Today just reported that 4,714 Model S’s were registered in California in the first half of the year, beating the pants off luxury competitors like the Lexus GS and Audi A6.

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© EarthTechling/Nikolai Danko

No, this was Tigard, Ore., where Nike billionaire Phil Knight probably drives an Outback. (OK, maybe not. But still.)

Tesla wouldn’t say how many of its cars are on the road in Oregon, but the company has a sleek store in a mall where citizens can use a touch screen to order up a Model S to their specifications. And on Thursday, Tesla opened the first Oregon outpost in its planned nationwide network of Superchargers, off Interstate 5 about 30 miles south of Portland in Woodburn.

With two Supercharger stations along I-5 in Washington state, and a whole bunch in California, the company says that by the end of the year it will have enough juice strategically situated to allow Tesla drivers to travel from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Phoenix.

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Woodburn, Ore., Tesla Supercharger station. (image via Tesla)

Clearly good things are happening.

Headline in Wall Street Journal this week: “Tesla-Mania Haunts the World’s Car Makers.” Key snippet from the article: “The big auto makers can’t take their eyes off Tesla, as the Silicon Valley auto maker’s market capitalization escapes gravity.”

The run-up in the company’s stock price has naturally led to a debate about whether Tesla is for real or not, whether it will grow into a manufacturing titan the way Ford and GM did in the middle of the last century, or if it will have all the staying power of AOL. People wonder: Will electric vehicles gain wide acceptance? Will there be sufficient infrastructure to support EVs? Can Tesla bring down its costs of production? And perhaps more than anything, can Tesla make a $35,000 car, as planned, that can reach a wider market?

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© EarthTechling/Nikolai Danko

Who the heck knows, right? But here’s one thing I am certain of: the Model S is a marvel. This is not an original sentiment, which is kind of the point: Everybody who drives a Tesla Model S loves it. Pulitzer Prize-winning auto writer Dan Neil got it exactly right when he said it’s a car that makes you grin.

I’m not a car guy, so I’m not going to dazzle you with any technical insight into the Model S. Instead, I’ll just tell you about what happened after we got out past the suburban morass and into the open spaces of berry fields and apple orchards. I slowed to around 25 mph, allowing the traffic in front to pull far away. Then I put my foot down on the accelerator. In seconds – and by that I mean maybe three seconds – we were over 70 mph. It was the kind of acceleration I’d only experienced on a roller-coaster plunge. The kind that pushes you back against your seat. The kid said, “Whoa!” I grinned.

A few minutes later, I didn’t wait to come out a traffic circle before speeding up. When I’d finished the circle and guided the car out to the right at about twice my usual speed, the handling was precise, the stability impeccable. I wanted to find an open road and just drive, drive, drive.

Yeah, there’s a big-as-my-monitor touch screen that you can use to open the roof or make a phone call, and you can press a button and say, “Play Bob Dylan” and next thing you know “Tangled Up in Blue” is filling the car. The motor is so small, there’s trunk space up front in addition to trunk space in back. The door-handles reside in the body of the car to reduce drag. They come out with a fingertip touch. All that wizardry is great, but at the heart of the Tesla Model S is the sheer wonder of how it drives.

People criticize the Tesla Model S because it’s expensive, but what they don’t get is that the car is pure luxury, pure performance and pure fun. Made right here in the United States of America. We’ll see what happens with Tesla’s future, but that alone is an immense accomplishment and has to bode well as the company takes on new challenges.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.