By Sarah McBride
FREMONT, California (Reuters) - Electric carmaker Tesla Motors <TSLA.O> threw open its factory doors to customers who have preordered its forthcoming Model S sedan on Saturday evening.
Customers were given tours of the Fremont, California, factory, rides in a prototype of the Model S, and a plea for support from Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk, a co-founder of PayPal.
"We need your help," he told hundreds of customers after driving onto a stage in a red Model S, saying many people thought of electric cars as unrealistic "unicorns." He asked the crowd to talk up the car and announced Tesla would be introducing a faster Model S that goes from zero to 60 miles per hour/97 kph in 4.5 seconds, shaving more than a second off current acceleration.
Tesla is hanging much of its future on the Model S, its first sedan, which it hopes to start delivering to customers next year. Its executives believe its production will help the company move into the black after years of losses.
The goal is to widen Tesla's scope beyond being a niche brand that sells only the expensive Roadster sports car. The base model of the Model S will cost about $57,400 compared to the Roadster's base price of $109,000, before a $7,500 federal tax credit and other rebates.
Tesla automobiles have captured the public imagination and helped spur Detroit to work on its own electric vehicles. Last year, General Motors <GM.N> started selling its hybrid Chevrolet Volt. On the higher end, Anaheim, California-based Fisker Automotive recently started delivery of its luxury hybrid Karma.
Tesla's Model S will have three battery offerings that will be designed to have a range of 160 miles/257 km, 230 miles/370 km or 300 miles/483 km on a full charge.
For the Tesla factory's visitors, who had all placed deposits on the new sedans, the highlight was a chance at a short drive in a test version of the Model S. With the last rides booked for 1 a.m./0500 GMT, guests had to content themselves with nibbling on smoked salmon and macaroons and ogling factory robots while they waited.
Tracy and Carl Quinn of San Jose, California, said buying a Model S underscored their commitment to a healthier environment. "We're a pretty green family in general," said Tracy Quinn. "We put solar panels on our roof."
She said she would likely be adding more panels to power the sedan in addition to the Tesla Roadster they already own.
For Teddy Hagerty of Tacoma, Washington, buying the car was more about having something unique.
"That feeling of being first, that's just such a good feeling," he said. Besides, he needs something a bit more fuel efficient than the 12-miles-per-gallon/24 litres per 100 km Chevrolet 300 he said he currently drives.
In January 2012, Tesla will phase out the Tesla Roadster to focus on the Model S. The Tesla Roadster sports car has a base price of $109,000. Most are selling at $140,000 or more.
The company plans to unveil its Model X sports utility prototype in December. The Model X is due out in late 2013.
Tesla, based in Palo Alto, California, held an initial public offering of stock in June 2010. Its private backers ranged from top-notch venture-capital firms like Draper Fisher Jurvetson and VantagePoint Capital Partners to Silicon Valley heavyweights like Google <GOOG.O> founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. It also won a $465 million loan guarantee in 2009 from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Tesla has about 1,400 workers.
(Corrects to show that Musk co-founded PayPal, not eBay, in second paragraph)
(Reporting by Sarah McBride and Bernie Woodall; Editing by Bill Trott)