Tesla RoadsterFive months ago, Tesla Motors appeared to be following in the footsteps of other American automakers. Lay-offs, a dearth of financing, and a spring recall of 70 percent of delivered Roadsters prompted speculation that Tesla might soon be the next casualty of the economic downturn.

But Tesla proved just too cool to fail. In May, German automaker Daimler injected $50 million in the “we’re this close to profitability we promise” EV maker for a 10 percent stake and a deal for Tesla to supply the batteries for the test series of Daimler’s smart electric drive. And then in June, Uncle Sam followed suit with $465 million in Department of Energy loans to Tesla to produce and manufacture the new Model S sedan. The loans will also finance the construction of a LEED-certified assembly plant in California, which will manufacture components for the Model S as well as the smart ed.

Rolling in cash and brimming with plans, Tesla turned this newfound financial confidence into a string of retail stores — don’t call them dealerships — that have more in common with Prada boutiques than your local used-car lots. The red Tesla marquee graces exposed brick in New York, Los Angeles, Menlo Park, London, and Seattle with stores coming soon to Chicago, Miami, D.C., Toronto, Munich, and Monaco.

And as the Washington wine flowed and trays of tiny hors d’oeuvres were passed among the Polo-clad attendants at the Seattle opening, I couldn’t help but ask, Seattle? Really?

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“Good question,” laughed Colette Niazmand, senior manager of marketing at Tesla. “Seattle is certainly not a traditional sports-car market, but when we were marketing the Roadster a couple of years ago, we saw a high concentration of reservations for the vehicle in the Seattle area. There are a lot of early adopters and entrepreneurs in Seattle who understand tech and saw the appeal of the Roadster.”

Apparently that’s an understatement. With more than 30 of the $101,500 Roadsters zooming around Lake Washington and more on the way, the Seattle area boasts one of the highest concentrations of Roadsters outside California. Though it may be untraditional, Seattle has provided a burgeoning market for luxury EVs.

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However, the Roadster’s clean lines and flashy colors can’t take all the credit for the spread of EVs in the Seattle area. Effective July 26 (coincidentally the public opening of the Seattle Tesla store), Washington state now joins New Jersey, Connecticut, and Arizona in waiving 100 percent of sales, luxury, and use taxes on EVs as well as on infrastructure to support electric vehicles like home charging stations [PDF]. Including the federal tax incentive of $7,500 on electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles, Tesla hastens to point out that for Washington buyers, the purchase of a Roadster represents a significant savings over an internal combustion vehicle with a similar sticker price.

For those in the market now for a $100,000 “car with a conscience,” Tesla is literally the only game in town. Rivals Fisker and Dodge have announced plans to launch the Karma and the Circuit as early as 2010, but neither has a production model on the road. However, Tesla’s presence in Seattle doesn’t mean that prospective buyers can stop by the showroom on Westlake Ave. and drive out with their very own Roadster: “The wait-list is four months,” said Niazmand.

Want a peek at driving in a Roadster? Check out Grist’s video: “Three minutes in a Tesla.” The car boasts acceleration of 0-60 in 3.9 seconds, torque of over 13,000 rpms, and minimum charging time of 3.5 hours plugged into a 220 V/70 amp outlet. Tesla also claims that the car can go 244 miles per charge, but owners have reported distances of closer to 200 miles between charges.

The Seattle Tesla store is open by appointment only; check the website for details.