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Electric Car Review Dust-Up May Put Brakes On Tesla Profits

One of the long-standing knocks against electric cars is that it can be hard for the machines to hold a charge in cold weather. That's exactly what New York Times reporter John Broder says he found when he took a Tesla Model S on a road trip from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut.

According to Broder, the trip north involved white knuckles and cold feet. He had to turn off the car's heat outside of New York to make it to a Supercharger station — Tesla's new high-speed charging units — in Connecticut.

On day two, after leaving the car unplugged in freezing temperatures overnight, Broder ran out of juice and coasted to a stop on a highway offramp.

When Broder's tale of woe appeared in the Times, Tesla CEO Elon Musk lost it.

"We've taken great pains to ensure that the car works well in the cold," he said on Bloomberg TV, "which is why we are so incensed by this ridiculous article."

Musk tweeted that the Times article was a "fake" and argued that Broder drove too fast, went on unplanned detours and didn't fully charge the batteries.

"It's no different if you didn't fill up a gasoline car's gas tank, and then drove really fast and then ran out of gas," Musk said. "You shouldn't be surprised if that occurs."

The Times responded, saying any suggestions that the story was a fake were flatly untrue. Musk countered by saying he'd publish data from the car's black box: logs showing how far and fast the sedan was driven and how it was charged.

"If I was Elon Musk I certainly wouldn't get into a pissing contest with The New York Times," says Theodore O'Neill, a high-tech analyst who's covered Tesla for years. "It just seems like the wrong way to go about it. It's a public relations ... disaster."

The thing is, O'Neill says, Broder admitted in his original article that he left the car unplugged overnight and didn't fully charge it.

O'Neill says the cold hard truth about electric cars is, to get them to work right, you can't treat them exactly like a gas car.

"I'm an electrical engineer. I understand physics. The batteries only have a certain amount of juice in them, and I understand that," O'Neill says. "That juice can be used either to heat the cabin or move the car. And if you try to do both, you're going to seriously impair the range."

O'Neill says Tesla needs to do a much better job getting that message across — but it's not one that makes selling cars any easier.

The company still hasn't published data about Broder's test drive, but Tuesday afternoon, Broder responded to Musk's criticism on the Times' Wheels blog.

"Virtually everyone says that I should have plugged in the car overnight in Connecticut, particularly given the cold temperature," he writes. "But the test that Tesla offered was of the Supercharger, not a Model S, which we already know is a much-praised car. This evaluation was intended to demonstrate its practicality as a 'normal use,' no-compromise car, the way Tesla markets it."

Broder says he would have treated the test differently had he known then what he knows now "about the car, its sensitivity to cold and additional ways to maximize range."

But his conclusion, he says, "might not have been any better for Tesla."

Tesla is under tremendous pressure to boost sales. Its stock has been soaring, but it has yet to make a profit. O'Neill believes that it's probably not on track to deliver as many cars in the coming year as Wall Street expects.

After speaking to Tesla's customers, he says he believes that the company has worked through most of the back orders for the Model S. That means if Tesla is going to sell 20,000 cars in 2013, it has to make a lot of new sales. Bad press in The New York Times probably doesn't help.

Broder has offered Tesla a crack at redemption. On the Wheels blog, he notes that, before his review was published, Musk offered him a second chance at a test drive a few months from now, after more Supercharger stations are operational.

I asked Tesla if the company is willing to put Broder back in a car for another drive. Tesla hasn't responded yet — although the company has promised that it will publish a blog post and data from Broder's test drive.

Updated 12:38 p.m. ET Feb. 14:

Read Elon Musk's blog post responding to John Broder's New York Times review.

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Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.