MARK RECHTIN

The cold facts about Tesla

Mark Rechtin is West Coast editor of Automotive News.Mark Rechtin is West Coast editor of Automotive News.
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LOS ANGELES -- It is a scientific truth that electric vehicles fare poorly in cold climates. It's just the way electrons react when placed under that sort of climatic stress.

Plus, with no engine to push heat into the cabin, an electric heat pump and seat heaters are needed to warm the car's occupants -- further draining the EV's battery.

So when The New York Times took a Tesla Model S for a spin in freezing temperatures -- which ended with the vehicle out of juice on a flatbed -- it was almost to be expected.

What was not expected was Tesla's response.

On his Twitter feed, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk described the newspaper's Feb. 8 account as "fake" and said that data-loggers on the car's computer will "tell true story that [the reviewer] didn't actually charge to max & took a long detour."

Musk said Tesla would publish what technically happened on the drive in a blog on the company Web site, a transcript which, as of this afternoon, has yet to be posted.

Musk doesn't hate the Times. In September, Tesla gave the Times the exclusive first drive testing the newly installed superchargers between Lake Tahoe, San Francisco and Los Angeles -- a drive the Times recounted in gushing details that Musk repeatedly referenced in future comments.

But this latest report threatens to cause serious damage to an automaker still in start-up mode.

Electric vehicles are somehow not given the same measuring stick as normal internal combustion engines when it comes to mileage and range.

If you drive an EV on the autobahn full tilt, your mileage and range will drop precipitously. But so will it if you drive your Porsche 911 or Toyota Camry in a similar fashion. Yet for some reason, while traditional cars are given a pass for lead-footed driving, the reaction to an EV's reduced range under those conditions is, "Aha!" in a tone mixed with outrage and schadenfreude.

And with the latest Times report, the EV doubters are again climbing out of the woodwork.

Musk is trying to change the world by creating an EV that doesn't run out of juice after just 75 miles, like everyone else's. His claims that the Model S can do upward of 260 miles on a charge have been met with skepticism.

In the wake of the dead-Tesla review, true-believer Model S owners were quick to jump on the anti-Times bandwagon, recounting their own recent long-range cold-weather drives that suffered no conk-outs or noticeable losses of range.

Whether the Times was testing a car with a glitch -- always possible in an early-production car -- or if the reviewer was unfamiliar with EV charging procedures, it didn't matter. The car failed an important test in a very public forum.

Tesla can't afford for its car to be a plaything for rich people. If Musk truly is going to change the world, the world has to embrace his car. That means operating as close to seamlessly as an internal-combustion vehicle. No asterisks. No clarifications. No debates.

Addendum

Tesla Motors has subsequently published its blog, which highlights some inaccuracies between the New York Times description of the test drive and what is shown in the car's data-logs. Some of the differences of opinion could be seen as the equivalent of rounding errors, dramatic license or mild mis-rememberings of events.

And some of the reporter's ham-fisted driving and charging attempts could be seen as beta-testing by a clueless consumer -- not the worst way to do real-world evaluations.

If Tesla is guilty of anything, it is of not properly briefing a reporter on the proper way of driving an EV in cold weather. The reporter did not recharge the vehicle over the course of a freezing night -- a piece of evidence he skims over -- which becomes an event that determines the fate of the vehicle the next day.

Although the review was supposedly to highlight Tesla's Supercharger network, when the reviewer ran low on charge, and stayed the night partway through his drive, there were dozens of trickle-charge stations where he could have given the vehicle some precious electrons.

As such, the review carries little difference from one where a Camry driver is surprised when his car runs out of gas after he forgets to refuel it.

Tesla's latest version of events can be read by clicking here.


You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com. -- Follow Mark on Twitter

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