Tesla has a secret weapon to compete with other carmakers

Tesla D SpeedMark Ralston/AFP

Tesla is special. It excites people about its cars in ways that other car makers can only envy.

There are other car brands that achieve this. But they have names like "Ferrari," "Lamborghini," "Pagani," "McLaren," and "Porsche." People put posters of the hottest rides these automakers make on their bedroom walls. They're dream machines, and they look the part.

And consequently the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the world are compelled to make their sexist and most exciting cars stand out. This is not subtle styling, but that isn't what the customer expects if they're spending more than $1 million:

ferrari laferrari red small sizeFerrari

Over-the-top doesn't even begin to describe it:

McLaren P1 GTRMcLaren

Supercars, it goes without saying, are supposed to be super. If you want to play in the rarefied fields of 0-60 in under 3 seconds, you need to follow the leaders.

Unless you're Tesla.

Tesla is currently building one car in one factory. It's a relatively luxurious sedan. It's elegantly styled. But it's hardly wild and crazy:

Tesla Model S Tesla

But the most high-performance version, the P90D with "Ludicrous Mode," can do 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds. Numerous supercars are slower. Very few are faster.

The P90D, Ludicrous-equipped, can be had for less than $150,000.

Compare that with a McLaren P1 at $1.2 million.

McLaren and Ferrari build very few cars each year, so they're justified in charging staggering sums for the privileges of ownership. And they do have to spend a lot to develop exotic bodystyles and high-horsepower engines. But the price is also part of the marketing. A supercar needs to be super-expensive.

Tesla, meanwhile, builds a fairly simple vehicle. The Model S consists of four main parts: the chassis; the electric drivetrain; the battery pack; and the in-car interface, the software systems that govern the car's functions. Pricing is certainly at the upper levels of the "everyday" auto world, in the same ballpark as BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. But it's hundred of thousands less than the exotics that the Model S can match for performance.

Tesla D Getty 2Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

This is a bigger deal than it might seem.

Here's why. Supercar ownership is something of a burden. It's been said that the two best days of your life as a Ferrari owner are when you take delivery of the car and when you sell it. Driving a Lamborghini Aventador around the broken asphalt thoroughfares of a major American metropolis is a nerve-jangling affair. Very fast and very expensive cars are very cool for short burst on open freeways. That acceleration! That sound! But traffic invariably appears and kills the party.

The Model S, by contrast, is no burden all. It can quite competently imitate a classic highway cruiser. It can be equipped to seat seven. It has a back seat. There's room for luggage. In a lot of ways, it's really a blisteringly fast Buick.

2013 tesla model sGreen Car Reports

The performance has been one of the genuine surprises of the Model S story. Tesla entered the auto business with a snazzy car, the Roadster, that was supposed to be fast - the goal was to prove that electric cars didn't need to be glorified golf carts. The assumption was that the Model S would be a more stately and domesticated vehicle, a precursor to Tesla's assault on the mass-market.

But over time it became evident that the particular characteristics of electric motors meant that the Model S could achieve some stunning numbers, without the company needing to do much on the car's basic architecture. They basically added small spoiler to some of the higher-performance trim levels. Zowie!

It was the value add to end all value adds. The car of the future, powered by electrons, designed and built in Silicon Valley, was a four-door Ferrari!

At a tenth of the price.

Ultimately, this is the greatest frosting anyone ever put on an already delicious automotive cake. You can have a beautiful, luxurious, virtuous, futuristic car. And it can delivery mind-bending speed. The 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year can do it all. And it can travel upwards of 300 miles on a single charge. Impressive.

tesla model s burnoutRoad & track / YouTube

The supercar market and the run-of-the-mill luxury market are separated by a vast gulf. It takes a lot of convince a customer to upgrade from, say, a BMW M4, an incredibly powerful and exciting car that goes for around $100,000, to a idiosyncratic supercar with seating for 1.5 humans and the ground clearance of a boa constrictor with his stomach sucked in.

Gotham Dream Cars-20Gotham Dream Cars

You might ask yourself, "Do I really need to spend the extra million to be thrilled beyond speech four times a year under ideal conditions, but with no place for my golf clubs much less a gym bag?" You have to be very passionate about supercar ownership. You have to be something of a zealot in exchange for the wowser velocity.

With a Tesla p90D, however, the heroics are ... just ... there. Sort of like Clark Kent. He's got the costume under his suit. If he needs to, he can fly.

Tesla didn't set out to sell a supercar. It was only with the arrival of the P85D last year that it dawned on us all that the Model S could do some amazing things in a straight line. But now with the advent of Ludicrous Mode, the Model S can be thought of as a save-the-planet supercar alternative, quite easily.

That's a secret weapon. Although maybe not so secret anymore.

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