On a recent Sunday afternoon, Participant Media CEO Jim Berk made a social call at the Malibu residence of one of the heads of the six major film studios. After the visit, the mogul and his wife walked Berk out to his car, a black Tesla Model S Signature. Berk, who declined to name the couple, says they are "environmentally friendly" and were instantly taken with the car. "He ordered one that afternoon."
Berk, whose film and TV company makes socially relevant projects such as The Help and Waiting for Superman, has become -- without even trying -- an evangelist for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla Motors Inc., maker of the Model S, the first all-electric high-end sports sedan. Since receiving his electric car in early September -- the 101st off the line -- he has grown accustomed to passersby snapping photos of the sedan at stoplights ("Believe me, they aren't taking them of me") and entertaining queries from friends and associates. "I think I've sold probably four of them," he jokes.
Since its June release, the Model S has made inroads in Hollywood -- long an important market for establishing the bona fides of a new ride -- thanks in part to grassroots exposure from the likes of Berk. (The Participant Media parking lot "looks like a Tesla dealership," he says, with founder Jeffrey Skoll and COO Jeff Ivers also driving the Model S; actor Morgan Freeman is another early buyer.) With no formal ad campaign from Tesla, the Model S, which starts at $49,900 after a tax credit (luxury versions with a larger battery pack and such features as a 580-watt Dolby stereo, LED fog lights and 21-inch wheels can top $100,000), also has been praised by the automotive press and won awards like Motor Trend's Car of the Year. The Model S, which seats five but has optional rear-facing seats for two more, has been lauded for its intuitive design, luxurious interior (including a web-enabled touch screen that resembles an iPad) and electric powertrain, which delivers up to 300 miles on a charge (and can go from zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds).
But it's the sleek exterior that will make green-car holdouts take note. After all, much of the competition -- including the electric Nissan Leaf or plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius -- sells on practicality, not aesthetics (never mind Fisker's sporty but troubled Karma hybrid). "Not even Charlize Theron in nothing but her couture cloak from Snow White and the Huntsman behind the wheel could make a Prius sexy," says Matt Hardigree, editor of car blog Jalopnik.com. "The Model S is faster than a BMW M5, has a longer range than any other pure electric car and looks like the future."
At the end of September, Tesla, publicly traded and headed by CEO Elon Musk, had delivered 250 cars to customers and received more than 13,000 reservations for more (a $5,000 deposit is required; the wait time is about nine months). It expects to deliver as many as 3,000 by year's end, says company spokeswoman Shanna Hendriks.
But things weren't always so rosy. After Tesla went public in June 2010, the stock dipped in part over concerns about Tesla's ability to deliver a mass-produced car (before the Model S, the company made the $109,000 Roadster, a head-turning electric sports car; about 2,400 were sold worldwide). The company also was pulled into the fray this campaign season, when Mitt Romney dubbed Tesla a "loser" during the first presidential debate, taking issue with the $465 million loan Tesla received from the U.S. Department of Energy. "Watching people attack the Model S and then eventually winning people over is really inspiring," says Bill Lee, a Tesla investor who owns a Model S. "When it first came out, tech people in [San Francisco neighborhood] SoMa applauded the car when they saw it, out of respect for the technology."
Hendriks says the company isn't targeting Hollywood in its marketing but notes that Tesla is open to product-placement opportunities. And the company has a strong presence in the L.A. area: Tesla's design studio is in Hawthorne, Calif., and it has four stores in Southern California, including one on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. Says Hendriks, "We look forward to more Model S's being spotted in the wild on the streets of Hollywood."
DRIVER'S NOTEBOOK: Behind the Wheel of the Tesla Model S
A handful of THR staffers logged seat time in the top-of-the-line Model S. The drivers, ranging from a mother of three to an automotive geek and a green car skeptic, had praise for its performance and a few concerns about its futuristic features.
1. Outstanding performance: The Model S impressed with its "awesome acceleration" and terrific handling, one driver said. Because the car lacks multiple gears, there is no delay as power is delivered. "It is so completely bad-ass. Merging onto the 10 Freeway and changing lanes became a huge pleasure," another driver said.
2. Touch screen concerns: The car's 17-inch center console screen, which controls such functions as stereo navigation and HVAC, impressed with its clarity and functionality. But drivers worried that Internet connectivity would be distracting and dangerous. "Why encourage people to look on a screen while they are driving?"
3. Charging: Most Model S owners charge their cars via 240-volt outlets -- speedier than the conventional 120-volt socket one staffer used. A 10-hour, overnight charge "ended up only charging the car one-fourth of its capacity." (Tesla-built Supercharger stations offer the fastest charge time.)
4. Ingress/egress issues: The Model S key fob is cleverly designed to look like the car, but drivers had trouble locating the hidden buttons that lock and unlock the vehicle. The car's handles, which emerge from the doors after being touched, were a treat for kids, but one person felt they were a gimmick and could break.
5. Head-turner: The Model S attacted attention across L.A., from a delivery man in Mid-City who had plenty of questions to a middle-aged poodle walker in Santa Monica who said he might buy one. One staffer said, "I think this car is going to own the whole Westside in a year."
TOMORROW'S HOT RIDES: What to See at the L.A. Car Show
2014 Mercedes SLS AMG Black Series: The German carmaker's two-seat supercar is a souped-up version of its SLS AMG, which went on sale in 2010. The Black Series retains the SLS AMG's iconic gullwing doors but has a V-8 that has been tweaked to produce 622 horsepower, rocketing the car from zero to 60 in an estimated 3.5 seconds. Hardigree says "It looks so aggressive, it can't be driven into Poland for fear of startling the locals and making them believe they're being invaded."
2014 Audi A7 TDI: The A7 already is a popular car in Los Angeles, and the company is expanding on the range with a diesel version that will return improved fuel economy while offering heady performance from a turbocharged V-6. The car will go on sale in fall 2013 with a price north of the standard A7's $60,100 base price. Hardigree says "This isn't your grandpa's old dirty diesel Chevy. It's Audi's best-looking car with one of their best engines."
2014 Chevrolet Spark EV: The all-electric version of Chevy's Spark minicar will go from zero to 60 in less than 8 seconds and can be charged to 80 percent of its capacity in 20 minutes. Expected to go on sale in summer 2013, the Spark EV will cost less than $25,000 after tax incentives. It joins the Volt in Chevy's green stable. Hardigree says "Unlike most electric versions of popular cars, it offers more speed and power than its dinky gasoline equivalent."