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Getting electric with Tesla

Tesla Motors' Model S hit the streets this week, as its first electric cars rolled off the showroom floor, and into customer hands.

On Friday, Tesla held an open house at its manufacturing facility in Fremont, Calif., where CNET got a hands-on look at these new premium electric sedans.

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The Model S rolls off the line

Only two people got their Model S cars ahead of the general rollout, Tesla board member Steve Jurvetson and CEO Elon Musk.

Here, Elon Musk's own Model S is parked on the factory floor.

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The Model S

Tesla Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausen said that, when coming up with the styling for the Model S, he did not want to create something unfamiliar. He wanted the Model S to look good but also fit the public's notion of what a car should look like.

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Wheel detail

The Signature Performance edition of the Model S can be had with these 21-inch carbon gray wheels, wrapped in low profile tires.

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Model S steering wheel

The Model S uses an electric power steering unit, and Tesla took advantage of this fact to let the driver choose between sport and comfort settings. In the sport setting, the wheel has a heavier feel, but even in comfort mode it still exhibits responsive behavior.

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Backseat

The back seat of the Model S has a surprising amount of room for a luxury sports car. It includes seatbelts for three. The receiving ends of the seatbelts are embedded in the crease between seat and back.

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Rear seats

Tesla designed the Model S body with a hatchback, even though it calls the car a sedan. This hatchback space is large enough to accomodate two, small rear-facing seats. These seats only look large enough to accomodate children between the ages of requiring a car seat and up to approximately 15 years old.

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Rear seats folded down

These rear-facing seats fold down to maximize rear cargo space.

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Charging port

The charging port is tucked away in a small panel behind one of the rear side lights. This port takes a standard J1772 plug. Tesla includes an adapter cable to plug the Model S into a 110 or 240 volt outlet, and the car is capable of accepting electricity from what Tesla calls a Supercharger, a high amperage charging station. The Model S equipped with the 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack includes two onboard chargers, so it will only take 30 minutes to give its battery pack a 50 percent charge from a Supercharger.

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Charging door closed

The charging port is completely hidden by its cover when not in use.

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Model S test-drive

On the road, the Model S feels like a premium car, offering comfortable freeway cruising in a refined cabin, and impressive handling and acceleration on backroads.

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Inside of the Model S

Tesla kept the cabin of the Model S very simple, limiting the amount of switchgear on the dashboard. Designer Franz von Holzhausen said he wanted the 17-inch touch screen to be the "hero of the cabin."

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Recessed door handles

The door handles are recessed, and only pop out for use when touched.

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Recessed door handles

Close the door, and the door handles retract into the doors. This operation optimizes air flow around the Model S.

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Headlight design

Tesla did not use LED headlights on the Model S, which are more energy efficient but also more costly. These are xenon headlights. But the car does use LED parking and foglights.

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Tesla Motors

The Tesla Motors insignia on the front grille of the Model S.

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Model S parked outside the factory

The Model S was built at Tesla's Fremont plant from the ground up. In fact, most of the parts, even the seats and electric motors, were manufactured at the plant.

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Rear side view

The Model S uses an aluminum subframe and body, with a 4-inch thick battery pack making up the base of the car. This construction leads to excellent rigidity.

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Rear view

Tesla uses an air suspension for the Model S, which can be set to different heights. Underway, the suspension automatically goes to a low setting at freeway speeds.

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Taillights

Because the car slows down significantly when you lift off the accelerator, a result of regenerative braking, the taillights come on under these conditions, even if you are not pushing the brake pedal.

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Navigation screen

The big, 17-inch center screen shows navigation and audio, along with climate controls and a top menu bar. This photo shows the car using online Google navigation through its onboard 3G connection.

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Stereo screen

The top and bottom screens can be flipped with a touch to the LCD. This photo shows the music library selection screen at the top. Tesla has also integrated Slacker and Tunein radio apps.

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Car settings screen

This photo shows how the driver can change the steering wheel and braking regeneration from the touch screen.

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