Tesla unveils first production version of electric sports car

The first production version of Tesla’s Roadster, an electric sports car, was unveiled at the company’s San Carlos, Calif. facility earlier today. In fact, board chairman and proud new owner Elon Musk may be taking it for a spin as you read this.

“This represents the first production electric car on the road since God knows when,” Musk said.

This is good news for the company, which has had a tumultuous couple of months. We’ve reported on recent layoffs and production delays, but on the bright side, Tesla won the Crunchie award in January for top cleantech startup. The company said now it’s on-track to start production on March 17. Jeremy Cleland, Tesla’s senior manager of accessories and apparel, told me Tesla will ramp up slowly, initially building one car per week. When full production starts this summer, Tesla hopes to produce 1,000 or 2,000 sports cars – which can go 225 miles or more before needing to recharge – annually.

The price is still being determined, Cleland said. Early estimates pegged the cost at $98,000, but it’s probably going to be higher. All 600 of the 2008 models are already sold-out, and you’ll need a $5,000 deposit to get on the waiting list for 2009.

The company is also closing on an $40 million internal round of funding, spokesman Darryl Siry said. That’s on top of the $105 million Tesla raised previously. The company will likely go out for at least one more round this summer before going public sometime in the next year.

earth2techsmall.jpgTo welcome the first production car, Tesla hosted a big media event at its workshop. (The photo to the left is from GigaOm’s Earth2Tech.) Cleland walked me around the site, and gave me a close look at the both production car and some models used for testing. I’m not a automobile aficionado myself, but I can say the Roadsters look like real, honest-to-goodness sports cars, and nice enough that I was terrified of scratching the paint. The performance – 0 to 60 miles per hour in 5.7 seconds in this “public beta”, 0 to 60 in 4 seconds when the “permanent solution” is perfected later this year – hits “all the same figures” as other sports cars in Tesla’s price range, Cleland said.

The production model was actually assembled in England, the lithium-ion battery was built in Taiwan and installation will take place in San Carlos. I watched as workers started installing the battery in Musk’s car, but the process takes an hour or two, so I didn’t see the whole process.

Tesla isn’t going to stop with the Roadster, Cleland said. The next step is a four-door, five-person sedan, codenamed Whitestar, which Tesla hopes to bring to market in 2010. The company plans to make 10,000 to 20,000 sedans per year, which will be more affordable than the Roadster.

“The Roadster is just the beginning of the beginning,” Musk said.

That seems like a good step as far as going green and reducing fuel consumption. But I don’t know, a sedan just isn’t as cool as a sports car. So how about that raise, Matt?

[UPDATE: In an interview with CNET, CEO Ze'ev Drori said Tesla will be making two models of the Whitestar sedan: an electric model and a range-extended model, in which a small gas motor will recharge the battery. Read more here.]