Three years after it shipped its first production Roadsters, Tesla Motors is on the brink of launching its 2012 Model S luxury sedan. In preparation, it has announced a nationwide tour, giving eager fans and reservation holders a chance to get up close and personal with the car everyone has been waiting for since 2008. 

But the Model S Tesla is eagerly sending to cities throughout the U.S. isn’t a production intent vehicle, a nearly-finished beta test model or even one of its alpha testing cars: it is the hand-built 2009 drivable prototype we saw at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show.

As the car on tour isn’t even the same shape as the final vehicle we have to ask: What is the point of the exercise?

Let’s get one thing straight. Tesla aren’t alone. In the past few years we’ve seen prototype tours from both Nissan and Chevrolet, with test mules paraded in front of the media and the public in an attempt to prove viability of both the 2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevrolet Volt.

But taking a hand-built two-year old prototype on tour when newer prototypes more representative of a finished product exist?  It just doesn’t make sense, especially when Tesla admits the car on tour has physical differences in everything from seat placements, interior layout and even body panels to the finished design. 

On one hand, Tesla’s open attitude to sharing its early engineering prototype is refreshing, further moving it away from the traditional clandestine development cycles of larger automakers.   

On the other, it doesn’t speak well of an automaker increasingly close to launch. 

If like us you’re curious to see just what the repainted 2009 prototype looks like in the flesh, you can find the local tour locations on Tesla’s website. Tesla is offering public open house events at every location listed along with private ‘customer only’ events as well.

Desperation or a desire to share with the class? You decide.