Tesla Cars on Sale for Half the Price

PALO ALTO, Calif. ( TheStreet) -- You know who you are: There are 12,200 of you who have put down deposits ranging from $5,000 to $40,000 for the new Tesla ( TSLA) Model S electric supercar. Only 10 of you have actually taken delivery.

The price that most people pay for the first 1,000 units of the Model S is around $100,000, or $90,000 after tax incentives. What if I told you that you could get a Tesla almost right away for half the price, instead of waiting as long as nine months?

It's true. Yes, there are some caveats, and I'll get to them in some detail, but here is the background: Two years ago, Toyota ( TM) had invested in Tesla, and the companies agreed to jointly develop a Toyota-branded all-electric car with Tesla's signature battery and electric motor, among other components.

For the body, they chose the small SUV called the Toyota RAV4, which is everywhere on U.S. roads. The fruition of this conversion will be hitting the dealerships a month from now, and the price is $50,000 before tax adjustments, so $40,000 after, in California.

Speaking of California: The only place it will be sold is in that state's four major cities. That's the biggest caveat. The second caveat: Toyota and Tesla are committing to build only 2,600 units, compared with Tesla's 12,200 for the Model S.

Starting in a couple of weeks, you will be able to place an order for the Tesla-based Toyota RAV4 Electric, pay $50,000, take delivery of the car in California by September, and then get a $10,000 tax credit. If you were waiting for a Tesla Model S and prepared to pay twice as much -- and you didn't know whether to expect the car in September 2012 or in May 2013 -- this can be a terrific deal for you.

I got the chance to drive the Tesla-based Toyota a few days ago, to the tune of 60 or so miles for a couple of hours. If you have already driven another Tesla, a Chevrolet Volt or any of the other excellent powerful electric cars, you should be able to guess what to expect once you have read the specifications of this unique vehicle.

The body of the RAV4 has undergone aerodynamic improvements on every side, forming the most aerodynamically efficient SUV on the market today. Under the skin, the regular gasoline engine with its muffler, gasoline tank and other gazillion components have given way to Tesla's key streamlined electric car modules.

The battery has a usable capacity of 41.8 kWh, although the total capacity is greater -- and unspecified -- but the "standard" mode of charging will fill it to only 35 kWh, because that lengthens the life of the battery. The warranty is 8 years and 100,000 miles.

The electric motor and its related components sit up front, same as where the gasoline engine usually is. In other words, it's basically a regular Tesla, except this one is front-wheel drive. The battery looks like a gigantic 800-pound iPad and sits in the floor of the car, which makes for a zero-compromise interior with lots of space for people and their luggage.

The interior is basic cloth and cheap mouse-gray plastic. By no means is this a premium car. The electronics in and around the center stack are similar to other premium electric cars, however, such as the Chevrolet Volt.

The basic ergonomics of the Tesla-based Toyota are straightforward in a good way. You step into the car very comfortably, and you can start driving it without any tutorial. I really don't think you even need to know that it's an electric car -- just press the start button and go. And go it does!

Performance: It's mostly about driving range.

In a pure electric car, what most people want to know is the range. On a 35 kWh charge, the EPA certification looks to be 92 miles on average. On a 41.8 kWh charge, it would be 113 miles. I drove the car aggressively with modest A/C and it looked like the car would be able to go at least around 100 miles if I had driven it to empty.

The theoretical maximum range is 170 miles. I suppose most people will have no problem clearing 110 miles in most of California, unless they drive very fast on the freeway. The top speed is limited to 100 miles per hour.

As for acceleration, it's quick. Zero to 60 mph comes up in 6.9 seconds, and I found that the limiting factor was the economy-oriented wheels. This is no Chevy Corvette or Volt, which has relatively fat low-profile sports wheels. I tore up the asphalt, leaving long tire marks, and embarrassed a variety of exotic European sports cars.

To say that this car is fun is an understatement: Comparing the drivetrain of any other SUV to this Tesla-based SUV is like comparing a 12-year-old Motorola Razr flip-phone to an iPhone 4S. Everything else in the market feels distinctly Neanderthal in comparison.

As with the other premium electric cars, the Tesla-based Toyota makes wild acceleration into an undramatic event. There is no downshift, no embarrassing noise, and no shakes or rattles. It's just a totally silent "Andre the Giant's hand" lunging your car forward with a feeling you simply cannot translate into words. You have to experience it in the driver's seat. The Jetsons Age has arrived.

Handling-wise, the Tesla-based Toyota is limited, again, by the cheap wheels. This is no Chevrolet Volt in that regard. That said, the center of gravity is low thanks to the battery built into the floorpan.

One interesting anecdote is that Toyota, in attempting to perform the government's mandatory roll-over crash test, was unable to get this SUV to roll using the government's prescribed method. Its center of gravity is so low, it just wouldn't tip. This means the caution you feel while sitting so high up, and taking turns while riding on relatively squeaky tires, is, in the end, fundamentally unwarranted.

Unlike Tesla's Model S, the Toyota version uses a standards-based charging interface, so that you can use almost all electric car chargers without an annoying adapter. Toyota uses Tesla's 10 kWh on-board charger, so you can fill up large giant battery from zero in six hours or less, depending on amperage and climate. That's 50% faster than a Ford Focus and three times faster than a Chevy Volt or Nissan LEAF, on a per-hour basis.

You, future Tesla owner, it's decision time.

So let's say you have a deposit on the Tesla Model S -- and you live in California -- should you move fast and try to switch your place in line for one of the 2,600 Toyota RAV4 Electric SUVs before they're gobbled up? The answer is not easy, but here are the factors:

1. Price: The Toyota version will cost you $40,000 net, and the Model S, depending on which version you buy, will cost you anywhere from $47,500 to over $90,000 net.

2. Range: The Toyota version of the Tesla comes only with a 41.8 kWh battery capacity, whereas Tesla's Model S also comes in 60 and 85 kWh capacities. So while the Toyota version will give you a range of around 100 miles (conservatively), the Model S will give you options all the way up to 265 miles. That's a big difference.

3. Body: The Toyota is a conventional small SUV, whereas the Model S is a unique hatchback in that it also has an extra luggage space in the front. The Toyota has a roomier and much more comfortable back seat.

4. Handling: The Model S has an even lower center of gravity, and the tires are meant for aggressive cornering. Simply put, the Model S translates the awesome electric motor's massive power to the ground dramatically better than the Toyota.

5. Luxury factor: The Model S has unique styling, inside and out. On the inside, leather and other materials vastly outperform the budget look of the Toyota. On top of that, the centerpiece of the Model S's interior is the industry-first high-resolution 17-inch display.

6. Practicality: It's easier to get in and out of the Toyota, and the inherent SUV design means it's less fragile to a lot of real-world events, inside and out. Also, if you are planning on charging at public stations, the Toyota version wins out because of its standard port.

What's the bottom line? Given the net worth and income of a typical Tesla buyer, this gets tricky. Why? Well, just buy both of them. You probably already have a couple of cars, and if you're writing one $100,000 check, just write another $50,000 check. Compromise is for losers!

For those of you closer to reality, the Toyota version of the Tesla gives you a unique car in the market, essentially right now as opposed to many months into the future. The SUV body is "just right" in size and practicality, and the standard charger means it will be easier for you to fill up that battery when you are out and about.

California may be teetering on bankruptcy and drowning in red tape, but despite these calamities, the good weather and this Tesla-based Toyota prove that some things remain unique benefits for those who still haven't fled California's record-high unemployment in favor of Texas prosperity. I give the Toyota RAV4 Electric, made by Tesla, a superb 9 out of 10 rating. Nab one quickly before the 2,600 units are sold out.

At the time of submitting this article, the author was long TSLA and AAPL. Additional disclosure: Toyota provided airfare, lodging and meals to attend the engineering presentations and test drive of this car.

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