Test Drive

Plugged in: Astonishing Tesla Model S electric car delivers performance and beauty

Astonishing Tesla Model S electric car delivers performance and beauty

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The Telsa Model S is an all-aluminum electric car designed in California. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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After building the Tesla Roadster as proof-of-concept a few years ago based on the Lotus Elise, Tesla has completed its first sedan, the Model S, which it designed from the ground up. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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The driver's seat has a detection sensor for start/stop functionality. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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This vehicle was signed by Tesla Founder Elon Musk, at the owner's request. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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The first 1,000 production Model S sedans were Signature editions. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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The fascia is aerodynamic, restrained and eye-catching.  Photo by Kevin McCauley
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At the center is a 17-inch touch screen. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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The battery in the Model S is 'most comfortable' and performs best at the same temperature range when people are generally most comfortable — around 70 °F. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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The Signature Red color is only offered on the Signature edition. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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The Model S has flush-mounted door handles that pop out when you approach with the key. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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A spacious hatch can accommodate surprisingly large payloads. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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Additional storage in front. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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Rear seats look stiff and uncomfortable, but aren't bad. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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An additional screen runs off a separate computer and shows the car's vital operations. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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Charging with the 10 kW capable on-board charger. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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This Model S is equipped with 19-inch wheels. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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The Model S has massive brakes: 355 mm x 32 mm; rear: 365 mm x 28 mm. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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The Tesla Motors showroom in the Houston Galleria offers free charging for Tesla owners in the parking garage. Photo by Kevin McCauley
Tesla Model S electric car
The Model S has LED rear lights. Courtesy photo
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Tesla Model S electric car

We've driven a number of electric cars before. Some are good, some are bad, but all of them are compromised in some way. All of them share platforms, in some way or another, with internal combustion engined cars. They are saddled with legacy deficiencies, because platforms are expensive and electric vehicles aren't a priority for most manufacturers.

Tesla Motors isn't most manufacturers. Tesla's much anticipated sedan, the Model S, isn't like most cars. It's been designed, from the start, to be a fantastic car, from a company that was founded solely to develop viable electric cars. The result is an electric car without compromise, and one that is not just a brilliant electric car, but a brilliant car. And it happens to be the first electric that makes gas-burning cars feel crude. 
 
Driving Observations 
Predictably, yes, it's smooth. It has loads of low-end torque without hesitation. But the revelation is the connection — the directness between your inputs and the action. There's a level of precision that isn't talked about very much.
 
People like me often equate a great "driver's car" with analog and mechanical. But think about the chain of events that has to happen when you hit the accelerator in a normal internal combustion car: usually, the throttle controls a cable, which controls a valve, which lets in air, which adds fuel, and controls a series of explosions which turn a crank which turns a transaxle, which turns some ratios and then rotates, finally, the drive wheels. It is said that in an internal combustion engine, 62 percent of the fuel's energy is wasted. Friction, heat and idling are all factors. When you stop and think about it, despite the countless advances made in the past century, it's a horrifyingly complex process.
 
The Tesla is as far removed as possible from that. When you accelerate, electric signals are sent instantly to a battery, which delivers the juice to the inverter and the wheels. You make an input, and you can feel it respond instantaneously. Release the pedal, and it decelerates, collecting coasting energy to recharge the battery. Press the pedal harder and it surges forward, with a speed and silence that is best described as pure velocity.
 
It never shifts gears so there's no hesitation and no lag — it makes any other car feel, to be honest, a bit clunky. At 4,600+ lbs, it's not lightweight (despite all the aluminum), but the weight, which comes mostly from batteries, is mounted as low as possible in the chassis, so the balance is near-perfect and the center of gravity is low enough to help keep it planted when cornering. The steering is relaxed — it's definitely more of a luxury-oriented handling setup — but confidence-inspiring, and offers loads of grip.
 
What's under the hood?
The Model S is powered by a 85 kWh lithium ion battery (a 60 kWh battery is also available) with microprocessor-controlled battery management. The battery is connected to the motor, drive inverter and gearbox (single fixed gear). The inverter is a watermelon-sized unit between the rear wheels that converts electricity into mechanical energy. Because they motor is so small and the batteries are mounted on the bottom of the chassis, the actual space under the hood and beneath the rear hatchback are free for cargo.
 
Styling
The Model S was styled by Franz von Holzhausen and first shown to the world in 2009. It's a handsome, well-proportioned shape, without being overly flashy. It's presence is huge — partly due to its 196-inch overall length, but also because it doesn't look quite like anything else. A large sedan that's sleek like a coupe. A hatchback sedan that succeeds visually where more bulbous examples fail.
 
Then, the details draw you in. All four windows are frameless. The charging port is hidden under a cover in a segment of the taillight, so the body is unbroken by cover doors and symmetrical. The chrome window frame surround is a single, unbroken piece of metal that scales the full length of the greenhouse and was a nightmare for suppliers.
 
Interior
The interior is dominated by a 17-inch touchscreen that looks as polished and responsive as any iPad. The software is, by miles, the most pleasing that's ever appeared in a car. There's full-time 3G, a giant web browser, real-time data and graphics that display the car's functions, and the ability to play any song — any song — instantly through voice command, via the Internet. 
 
There are preferences screens where functions such as regenerative braking sensitivity and "creep" (which simulates automatic transmissions that coast when you release the brake) can be switched on and off through sliders on the touchscreen, like on a smartphone. These features, impressive as they are, are still largely overshadowed by how sensational the car is to drive. They're like icing on the cake... but it's good icing. 
 
Efficiency?
The Model S with 85 kWh battery is EPA rated at 265 miles, but owners often report getting around 300 miles on a charge, which can charge overnight on a standard 240V plug or faster if you order Tesla's 20W-capable Twin Charger for your garage. A handful of owners who have hypermiled their Model S have gone 400 miles on a single charge.
 
It drives slightly more efficiently around town, where it can make up energy with brake regeneration, than at freeway speeds, where there's more air resistance. Owners who live with the car day-to-day say the total impact on the electricity bill is around $25-$30 a month, depending on how much you drive and your rate with the power provider. 
 
How much does it cost?
The Model S starts at $63,570 after the $7,500 Federal Tax Credit is applied. This gets you a Model S with the 60 kWh battery and an EPA range of 208 miles. The 85 kWh battery upgrade is an additional $10,000, and the Performance version is a further $10,000, before options.
 
What's Good?
I've mentioned the things that are great: The way it drives, the way it looks, all of those automotive things. What's truly good about the Model S is the way it shows how an electric car is *superior* to a gas-burning vehicle. Electric cars have traditionally been compromised, and the people who owned them lived with compromise. The perks — zero emissions, zero gas, easy maintenance — were always in a constant battle with the obvious drawbacks: limited range, weighty handling, sluggish acceleration and sometimes dopey looks. They were like wearing those weighted training shoes. 
 

The Model S has changed things. I'm a lifelong performance car junkie, and yet I'm finding traditional gas-powered cars to be unnecessarily harsh and primitive. The vibrations, the smells, the sounds. It's cool when it comes from a Porsche or a Plymouth Barracuda. But for everyday cars, the process seems circuitous and backwards. Electric isn't perfect, but driving the Model S leaves you struggling to see any downside.

  
What's Not?
With any electric vehicle, the range is a concern. Most people don't drive 300 miles a day, but sometimes you have to. Tesla Motors is working hard to overcome these obstacles, by offering Supercharger stations, which are currently rolling out across the US. These chargers deliver 200 miles worth of charge in 30 minutes (for free), and soon will be equipped to offer battery swaps.
 
Parking sensors, which weren't available originally, but are available now, seem to be essential on a car of this size. Visually, the center touchscreen could be better integrated into the dash, as opposed to just stuck there, where it juts out from some angles. 
 
Our Verdict
The Model S is an all-new car from the ground up designed to be electric and built in California. A lightweight aluminum body, advanced battery management, unparalleled smoothness and precision, and performance, all set it apart from any car on the road. It's the meticulous execution of a passionate vision. It's also major a disruption in the automotive space, which is rare and long overdue. And above all, it's an astonishing car.
 
How We'd Buy It:
We would go for the 85kWh battery and skip the Performance variant because the normal Model S is still very quick. It's personal preference, but we'd take the Solid White exterior, dark-colored 21-inch Turbine wheels ($4,500) and black leather interior with Obeche matte wood trim. Opt for parking sensors (a $500 option added to the $3,500 Tech Package) and Air Suspension ($2,500) as well.
 
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