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Have plug, will travel: DeBordieu couple takes to the road in a Tesla

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Joey and Stacy Rabon saw a “60 Minutes” episode about a new electric car being built in California and, after some research, decided to put down a deposit on one.

“The more I read,” Joey said, “the more I liked the whole company and whole concept.”

Four years later the Rabons, owners of Kudzu Bakery, have gone gas- and emission-free with their blue Tesla Model S.

The Rabons still watch prices at the pump — they have what Joey calls two “gas guzzlers” from the era when tax credits were extended for vehicles over 6,000 pounds. They both prefer the electric car and have racked up 2,700 miles in just four weeks, driving to their bakeries in Mount Pleasant, Litchfield and Myrtle Beach, in addition to the original in Georgetown. “It’s an amazing car,” Stacy said. “It’s gotten to where I hate to drive our other car.”

Tesla has extended the chicken-and-egg theory in its own technology vs. driveability debate. The company said it has 250 patents with more pending. The Model S represents Phase 2 of the Palo Alto company’s ambitions. Unlike the original two-seat roadster built on the chassis of a Lotus sports car, Tesla built the Model S from scratch, using the principles of electric motors demonstrated in the 1880s by inventor Nikola Tesla, hence the name.

“Tesla set out to make the best car you’ll ever drive,” Joey said. “Steering, acceleration, braking, everything about it is better than any car I’ve ever driven. It’s not inexpensive, but you factor in there is no engine, starter motor, timing belt, radiator, all that stuff. Maintenance is pretty simple.”

Sticker prices for the Tesla range from $58,000 to $82,000 — the Rabons chose the middle of three power options, a 60-kilowat-hour battery. A loaded version, like the $106,900 car Tesla founder Elon Musk drives, is priced to compete with high-performance BMW and Mercedes models. Tesla paybacks come in two forms: tax credits of $7,500 and operating costs of about 6 cents a mile.

Joey said he chose the middle power option for its 235-mile range and the fact that he wouldn’t need a performance car that could reach 133 miles per hour. His Tesla has pickup aplenty: it leaps into the flow of traffic at 60 mph and accelerates past 90 in seconds.

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The car is designed for handling, from its aerodynamic shape all the way to the retractable door handles. Power comes from roughly 1,000 pounds of lithium-ion cells — all integrated into the car’s floor pan to provide a low center of gravity and a stiff chassis. The underside of the battery pack forms the underside of the car.

Rabon likes the fact that his Tesla’s exterior design blends in with other traffic. “It could be a Hyundai,” he said.

When the car was selected as Car and Driver’s 2013 Car of the Year, one judge summed up the design theme as “safe and conservative.” Tesla designers resisted the temptation to make the Model S look different for the sake of being different to call attention to the fact it has an electric motor, Car and Driver magazine said.

While occupants of other vehicles on the highway might not notice, drivers and passengers in the Tesla begin any journey in an envelope of serenity. There is no start-up noise, no transmission clicking into gear. The driver’s choices are minimal: forward, reverse and park.

The car recognizes the driver from a fob he carries that unlocks the doors.

“Sit in the seat and touch the brakes and it knows who you are,” Rabon said. “It will adjust the seat and the steering to your pre-set levels. It’s really just about building the best car they could build.”

The dominant feature of the interior is the giant touch screen that controls everything from the air-conditioning to the navigation to the sound system to the car’s steering, suspension and brake regeneration settings. The only button visible unlocks the glove compartment.

The touch screen appears similar to an iPad and can be divided in half to display a map and music choices or one big screen for Internet browsing.

There’s an iPhone app that allows owners to track their car’s speeds, location, and even how many doors open when it stops. Rabon loaned the car to his father and surprised him with a phone call after he stopped at a restaurant.

“I see you got there safe,” he said, “even though you were driving 80 mph when you hit Brookgreen.”

Rabon said his friends loved the Tesla until they saw that feature.

“You can disable it,” he said, “but then you’d have to explain why you disabled it.”

The car is powered by an electric motor about the size of a watermelon between the rear tires.

“There’s not a lot to go wrong, although it’s very high-tech,” Rabon said. “If you’ve got a hardware problem, you’ve got a problem, but if you’ve got a software problem, you download to the mother ship in California and they fix things. The car is continually updated. It has features now that it didn’t have the day I got it a month ago.”

The Rabons volunteered to test new software for the company and get updates sooner than most other owners.

They plug the car in at home every night and the next day it’s ready to go 200 miles.

“They like for you to top it off every night,” Rabon said. “What limits it is the battery. They give you all kinds of information how to best take care of the battery. You could charge it to a max of 235 miles, but the recommended standard charge is 200.”

Tesla is building charging stations on interstate highways in California and the Northeast and promises to have 100 superchargers capable of recharging a car in 30 minutes by 2015. A search on the Tesla’s computer for “Cargo” turns up the nearest electric charging station: Coastal Nissan in Pawleys Island.

The car’s storage capacity is particularly amazing. Joey opened the hood and revealed an empty space — the frunk — big enough for suitcases or golf clubs. The only familiar sight was the lid for windshield wiper fluid. He opened the hatchback and pushed the back seats down to expose 63.4 cubic feet of storage, not far shy of the 63.7 cubic-feet in a Chevy Equinox.

Driving the car takes some changes in habits: It does not coast to a stop. Letting off the gas engages the braking system that generates electricity and feeds the battery. Indicators on the dashboard show the driver how much electricity has been consumed and how much is going back into the car. Cruising around city streets, the car estimates it’s getting the equivalent of 147 miles per gallon of gasoline with its electrical usage.

The car itself won’t settle the debate between brains and brawn. It can be set up to charge the battery and cut off or to be charged by a specific time. It will call the owner’s iPhone when fully charged. The iPhone app will let an owner find the car in a big parking lot. With no emissions to worry about, it can turn itself on inside a garage and warm up the passenger compartment on a cold morning — or cool it in summer.

The futuristic car provides its owner a lot to think about but there’s one thing that’s been easy for the Rabons.

“You get used to not stopping at gas stations,” Joey said.

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