Tesla Motors is the drama queen of the auto industry. But if you can look beyond the company’s histrionics—lawsuits, financial struggles, exaggerated promises, repeated delays, and inflated egos—the brilliance of its vehicle design shines through. So far, the best example of its ingenuity is the Tesla Model S—a bright vision of what a practical and desirable all-electric sedan should and might be.

The Department of Energy gave a powerful endorsement of the Model S in June 2009 when it awarded Tesla with a $465 million loan to build the all-electric sedan and the battery packs needed to make it go. Tesla is promising to begin production in 2011, and ramp up to 20,000 units per year by 2013. With the money in hand and the deadline set, Tesla could deliver a winner—if the company and its executives stay focused, avoid controversy, and deliver on the big promise of the Model S.

“Awesome Clean Sheet of Functionality”

What makes the Model S so cool? First of all, the visual design is gorgeous. The New York Times compares it to the striking Maserati Quattroporte sedan, which sells for more than six figures. Second, it seats five—or seven if you count the two side-facing rear seats for small children. The key to the design according to Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla design chief, is a flat floor that houses batteries, motors and the electronic module. “It’s an awesome clean sheet of functionality and available space,” said von Holzhausen. The company fondly repeats the talking point: It can fit a surfboard, a 50-inch television and a mountain bike in the car at the same time (presumably with rear seats slid forward and using the front storage compartment).

Tesla Model S

More importantly, the Model S is way more affordable than the company’s $109,000 Tesla Roadster. The current price target for the Tesla Model S is $57,900 (minus a $7,500 federal tax credit)—still not in range for most mainstream buyers but moving in the right direction. Tesla reportedly has 1,200 pre-orders for the Model S. ($500 deposit required.) That number will surely grow between now and 2011, as the company expands its dealership network. Tesla has retails showrooms in Menlo Park, CA, London, and New York City, with plans for outlets in Chicago, Seattle, Miami, Washington, D.C., Monaco, Toronto and Munich.

If the visual design, spaciousness, and relative affordability of the Model S break ground, the specs on the electric drive are a bit more familiar. The driving range will be approximately 160 miles, with a full recharge time of about five hours. The battery will have a useful life between five and seven years, after which a new battery pack will cost “well under $5,000,” according to Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive. (Considering the size of the battery pack, the cost is more likely to be $10,000 to $15,000.) Electric drive vehicles are known for speed off the line—expect the Model S, with its single-speed transmission, to deliver 0-to-60 mph performance in less than 6 seconds. Musk says that Tesla is “aspiring to have the best handling sedan on the road” with the S.

Tesla Model S Touch Screen

Tesla Model S Touch Screen, as seen in Tesla promotional video.

Then there’s the 17-inch touch screen that is “the centerpiece of the interior,” according to von Holzhausen. The touch screen provides all of the vehicle’s interface components such as climate control and entertainment, but also offers 3G or wireless connectivity for Google Maps, Pandora music, and full browser capability. “It’s the iPhone of the auto industry,” said von Holzhausen. “It’s a huge landscape that we can control and continue to update, and re-skin, and make the car feel fresh and personalized.” The touch screen is a bold step toward a future where car and info technology blend and transform the automotive landscape.

Watch Out for Hype

You might expect that a revolutionary list of attractive features would be enough to promote the Tesla Model S—but as late night infomercial hucksters say, “That’s not all.” Tesla is suggesting that it could offer quick charging in 45 minutes, and an option to extend driving range to 300 miles. But these things, and a number of other futuristic features, are examples of Tesla getting ahead of itself. We’re more than two years away from the first customer accepting delivery of the Model S.

In April 2009, when Dan Neil, auto writer for the Los Angeles Times, drove an early prototype of the Model S, he wrote, “This lovely, porpoise-sleek design study, unveiled to worldwide hoopla March 26, is just barely ambulatory—more like a glorified golf cart than a harbinger of tomorrow tech.” Neil reported that the windows were still fixed in frames and the power-steering motor groaned. He wrote, “The 17-inch, touch-screen control panel with haptic feedback in the center console may not even make it to production, concedes Tesla designer Franz von Holzhausen.”

The biggest doubts relate to timing. Unlike the Roadster, which Tesla heavily relied on UK’s Lotus Cars to create, the Model S is a completely original ground-up design that will be manufactured in-house. The company is promising delivery—from prototype to release—in about 30 months. Neil describes that breakneck production pace as “an audacious timeline that makes many in the car industry roll their eyes…And people inside Tesla are leery.”

You should raise your eyebrows when Tesla suggests a 45-minute charging time or the notion that battery swapping might be built in. Don’t count on it. But again, that’s okay. We were already sold at “sleek spacious $50,000 five-seat all-electric sedan.” Bring it on.