Saturday, May 30, 2015

Tesla Pops Up

Tesla Pops Up - PDFYou’ve seen the signature black ovoid grille and the sweep of its LED headlight signature all over town. At first you wondered what it was, and you asked your car buddy to explain it. Now it’s a common sight around Santa Barbara, and you know that Tesla Motors is the first successful, fully electric vehicle brand in the world.

Still, where do you buy one?

With Tesla’s rapid ascent as the premier brand of EVs, particularly in California, sometimes the retail presence lags a bit behind demand. While you can easily order a Model S online from the company’s website, you’d have to pick it up at the nearest store, which happens to be more than an hour away in Canoga Park, north of L.A.

While California is by far the most important market to Tesla, its stores are still relatively tightly clustered around the Bay Area and L.A., with outposts in a few other upscale enclaves like Monterey and Palm Springs. The number-one underserved market for the brand is Santa Barbara.

Which is why this is the location for the first Tesla pop-up store, here until late June, when it heads to its next stop in the Hamptons on Long Island, N.Y. People interested in the brand can experience the car, including a test drive, and see available color, upholstery and wheel options in the design center. And naturally, they can check out some Tesla-branded accessories, such as chic handbags.

What they can’t do, though, is take one home that day. Every Tesla is still made to order, and the wait is currently about two months. According to Tesla, though, that fits well with their brand.

“We’re here more to educate people about our cars than to sell them,” says Alexis Georgeson of Tesla communications. In fact, Tesla has made it a big part of their corporate mission to foster the EV ecosystem, even if it sometimes seems to go against their own interests; releasing their patents is a prime example, though it demonstrates that the company understands a strong brand can often be a more powerful competitive advantage than strong proprietary technology.

Tesla’s lineup is currently limited to the Model S sedan, which starts at around $76,000, though federal and state tax incentives can take off up to $10,000 for many buyers. Tesla also shows another $10,000 in savings on its website based on “estimated gas savings over 5 years,” though this math has been criticized as highly variable, and the EPA puts this savings at between $5,000 and $5,500; still, by most accounts Tesla drivers have been very satisfied with the cost-benefit balance of owning or leasing their vehicles.

I’ve driven Teslas before, and every experience has been positive. In my former position as an automotive forecaster, I had the chance to take a short road trip with a Model S, down to Santa Monica, and the need to return it with a reasonably full charge let me try out the company’s Supercharger facility in Oxnard. These chargers can give you a 170-mile top-off in just a half hour, and are strategically placed along travel corridors throughout the country to allow you to go just about anywhere in the lower 48 without fear of running out of juice. In fact, the company’s website map, showing its coverage, has few gaps, including West Texas (where they probably don’t take kindly to EVs, anyway), nearly the whole state of Arkansas, northern Michigan, and the northern edge of the Great Plains.

There is a decent number of chargers around Santa Barbara, including in parking garages and store lots, with more going up all the time. And Tesla also has seven different “destination charging” spots between Goleta and Carp for use when customers stay at a sponsoring location, mostly high-end hotels such as the Canary and the Biltmore. The Canary says that they’d be happy to allow patrons of Finch & Fork to use their charger if it’s not needed by a hotel guest.

The pop-up store happens to be just across the street from the Canary at 32 West Carrillo Street. When I stopped by, I was able to take out a P85D version of the Model S, the top vehicle in the lineup. When it comes to the S line, it’ll always have a two-digit indicator of the battery size in kWh, this one good for 253 miles of range, while the D indicates it’s a dual-motor model providing all- wheel drive. The P is the cherry on top, telling you it’s the Performance model, which can sprint to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds-in “Insane Mode”- faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo.

We took a run up the 101, briefly experiencing the kidney-compressing acceleration of the car, and then headed up the Old San Marcos Pass to see how it handled changes in direction. At more than 4,600 pounds, the Model S is certainly no lightweight (it weighs around the same as a Mercedes S-Class), but its center of gravity is low due to its heavy batteries arranged in a flat platform along the bottom of the car.

With this setup it has little problem handling tight curves, with just a bit of side-to-side motion in the more challenging sweeps. The torque is always there because of the nature of electric motors, so while you don’t get the same aural pleasure as when winding up a gas engine in the hills, it’s a fun experience nonetheless.

The driving experience is also a bit different because of the regenerative braking setup. While many early EV efforts from established automakers focused on making the transition from gas seamless, Tesla is proud to emphasize what makes it different. So when you take your foot off the gas there is automatic braking, enabling you to drive almost with one pedal. The excellent new BMW i3 I recently drove has a similar setup.

The functions of the car are all wrapped up in the central touch screen, which is intuitive and easy to use in the vein of Apple products – Tesla seems intent on being the Apple of automotive brands – and I only experienced one minor glitch in its function. In the context of most automotive infotainment systems, this is a pretty strong accomplishment.

This vehicle starts at $106,200, but you can get above $130,000 when you fill it with options, like the autopilot function. You can go to their website to see leases and do your personal financial calculation.

And then you can go to the pop-up store to experience the car for yourself. It will be in Santa Barbara until late June, open 11 am to 6 pm on weekdays (except Monday) and 11 to 8 on weekends, and by the end of the summer a full Tesla store is scheduled to open on Hitchcock Way.

There are now plenty of electric car options on the market, and with the increases in charging infrastructure, especially in California, owning an EV is a much easier prospect than ever. But there are few brands that have such a fully developed electric ownership experience as Tesla.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Going Out on a Limo

Justin and Andrea M. Plackett with their son Zachary Nelson, next to their pride and joy on wheels
Out on a Limo - PDFStretching 26 feet from stem to stern, the bright yellow Hot Rod Limo is a sight to see. And if you live in Santa Barbara, you’ve no doubt caught a glimpse as it cruises State Street and Cabrillo Boulevard. If you live in the Riviera, you might have even heard it rumbling by your house. 

The limo has been adding personality to the streets of Santa Barbara and Montecito for two years now. In fact, when it debuted on April Fool’s Day 2013, people might have thought it was a joke. But it’s serious business for Andrea and Justin Plackett, the owners of the limo, since it typically does four to five tours around town per day.

The limo’s story began nearly a decade ago, when Justin spotted a stretched red 1923 Ford Model T in Los Angeles doing Hollywood tours. On a subsequent trip down there, he ran into it again, and talked to the owner, getting some insight into the ground-up build that was required.

Fast forward several years, and the Placketts decided to add a hot rod limo to the roster of A and J Limousine. We talked to Justin about the history of this unique vehicle, and what it’s like to run it in Santa Barbara.

The build began in 2012 with a 1927 Ford Model T, the final model year of that car’s two-decade run. While the frame is from the T, the rest of the vehicle is pretty much custom, giving it the classic hot rod look of a 1932 Ford. If you hear the designation Deuce Coupe, as in The Beach Boys song, it’s referring to the final digit of the seminal year for Fords, as those are the most sought-after starting points for hot rodders.

While the initial build took about a year, Plackett says, “Unfortunately, the first year we had it in service, [it] was basically a research and development vehicle.” There were several issues that had to be addressed, but they got lots of help from local mechanics. Plackett gave a shout-out to Mike Newton at Kennedy’s Automotive Center, who helped whip the car into shape that first year.

Even with all the major issues worked out, it’s still a classic car, which generally means some unexpected pit-stops. Luckily, mobile mechanic Dan Roan is on call, so it’s rare for a tour to actually be cut short.
On the off chance that the Hot Rod Limo does conk out, A and J can send one of their other limos to the rescue.

That’s really only happened once that Plackett can recall, and he says, “They were totally fine. They understood that it’s a custom vehicle.” Those guests even refused to accept a refund.

The Hot Rod Limo truly means business with a handful of tours daily
The limo is powered by a Ford 351 Windsor motor, attached to a 3-speed auto transmission. The exhaust has a fairly laid-back tune to it, since its important that passengers can hear the driver as he narrates, and also to make sure that it doesn’t tick off the locals. But the setup is powerful enough that it can do an inadvertent burnout if the driver’s not careful.

“I’ve accidentally burned rubber around a corner before,” says Plackett, but he tries to avoid it.

The construction included seating for eight, with trick electronic door releases on the passenger’s side – the “doors” on the driver’s side are fake – and custom seats in all rows, due to the fact that the cabin flares out wider toward the rear. Each row has speakers that can blast the limo’s signature ‘60s surf-rock mix, with a heavy emphasis on The Beach Boys.

Driver Joe Dammann, aka Hot Rod Joe, has been with the limo since the beginning. His tour route starts at the visitor’s center by the beach, and heads up State Street to experience the heart of downtown – most of his passengers are tourists, so it’s a great way for them to see State for the first time.

The route includes the courthouse and the house with the bronze dog, which apparently has an interesting story behind it – possibly involving the honored dog saving the family from a fire, but this was news to me – and by the Old Mission.

From there, the route takes what some might see as an unexpected turn, winding up Alameda Padre Serra through the Riviera.

This wasn’t originally part of the tour, says Plackett, adding, “We kept getting tourists coming up to us... saying things like, ‘We’ve done the trolley, we’ve done the Land Shark, we get it, we’ve seen the city. Is there any way we could see where people actually live?’”

While 26 feet is long for a vehicle navigating the narrow passages of the Riviera, “it’s not as long as you’d think,” he says, and the limo is just short enough to negotiate the roundabout on APS. From up there, riders can also get great pictures of the ocean and harbor, especially when there are cruise ships in town. Then the tour continues around toward Montecito, cruising Coast Village Road and driving past the Biltmore, before returning along Cabrillo. 

In addition to the standard one-hour tour, riders also have the option to hit the Funk Zone for some tastings for an extra half-hour, but many passengers opt to end their ride there, since there’s so much to see. 

The limo also handles private tours, and there’s plenty of wedding and birthday business. The Placketts do have some loose plans for a second hot rod limo, or perhaps even a franchising opportunity. For now, though, they’re just enjoying the response they’ve gotten to the original. 

“I’d definitely like to give a shout- out to Santa Barbara, the people here, because we have had, I would say, 98-percent satisfaction,” adding that the resdients seem to really embrace the idea. 

To score tickets for the limo or to book a private tour, visit