Photo: Tesla Motors

Tesla is sending their new Model S Beta prototype premium electric sedan on a road trip across North America to “introduce the country to the car of the 21st century.”

I had a chance to see the Model S Beta (borrowing from its Silicon Valley roots, “Beta” means the car is in final testing phase before being released), in person at the Tesla dealership just south of Ft. Lauderdale, FL. In a departure from their tiny, 2-seat, $100,000+ (and discontinued) Roaster, the Model S is the sign of things to come in both design and performance. This new vehicle is a long, sleek Tesla, priced at under $50,000 to start, yet looking more like a European luxury sports sedan than a green all-electric.

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Photo: Tesla Motors

Speed, Efficiency and Handling

This isn’t a tame electric either. Equipped with Tesla’s advanced electric powertrain, the Model S provides instant torque to the rear wheels, and will accelerate from 0-60 in less than six seconds. The all aluminum body is engineered to deliver superior handling, and with the battery pack spread out under the entire car, the S has nearly 50/50 weight distribution, which will definitely help deliver that handling. (Since the one I saw is just a prototype, about 90% of what the production vehicle will be in terms of fit, finish and performance, and the actual S won’t be available until later in 2012, I wasn’t able to test drive the car, so I have to take Tesla’s word for how it will handle.)

The Model S platform. The"floor" is the battery pack. (Photo: Eric Rogell)

With the most energy dense battery pack in the industry, and best-in-class aerodynamics, Model S also claims the longest range of any electric car in the world. And depending on your driving habits and needs, you can choose from three battery pack options: 160, 230, or 300 mile range. It can be recharged using any conventional outlet and is capable of a fast charge in about 45 minutes.

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Closeup of the battery pack (Photo: Eric Rogell)

Charging the batteries (Photo: Eric Rogell)

High Tech Isn’t Just Under the Hood

Tesla didn’t just put all their tech wizardry into the powertrain. The interior of the Model S boasts a huge 17-inch touchscreen display in the center stack. Think of it as a giant iPad that controls everything in the car, notifies you of important things like open doors and batter charge level, and provides an endless supply of entertainment from its internal hard drive and over the Model S’s Wi-Fi. Tesla is also planning its own app marketplace, where you’ll be able to download and install third party apps to make the driving experience in your Model S more fine tuned to your liking.

The Model S digital dash (Photo: Eric Rogell)

Two different views of the 17-inch touchscreen controller (Photos: Eric Rogell)

Maintenance is So 2002

And because there’s no internal combustion engine or transmission tunnel in the car, there’s no oil or transmission fluid to change, or any spark plugs, pistons, hoses, belts or clutches to replace. That means less routine maintenance than other cars. (But should something go wrong, their mobile service program will send a Tesla Ranger to your home or office.)

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The engine (Photo: Eric Rogell)

Space for 7 Passengers and Their Gear

Remember that nonexistent engine and tranny? That gives the Model S class-leading cargo space, including a fairly large second trunk under the hood. And the S is a 7-passenger premium sedan, seating 5 adults and 2 (small) children in comfort. Those small children get strapped into two jump seats located in the hatch area behind the rear seat. I had visions of my days in the back of the family station wagon, harassing, I mean interacting, with other drivers.

Room for cargo under the hood (Photo: Eric Rogell)

Seating for two small children in the rear (Photo: Eric Rogell)

Taking Reservations

Deliveries of the Model S are expected to begin in mid-2012, and Tesla is taking reservations in their retail stores and online. So far, the company reports over 6,500 of the cars have been reserved. This marks Tesla’s transition into a mass-production automaker, and the creation of the world’s first sedan built from the ground up as an electric car. Starting at around $49,900 (that’s without the environmental impact credit taken off), the Model S is far more affordable than the 6-figure-plus Roadsters Tesla launched with, allowing you to give up trips to the pump, without giving up luxury,  performance or a large chunk of your bank account.

Photo: Tesla Motors