As we cover the mobile industry, where the evolution of devices and processors is relentless, we're used to being impressed. We're used to seeing a new generation of a product that instantly and irrevocably makes the previous one look tame. It's just the way this world turns. However, that's not something we're used to seeing in the automotive world, where each new model year is typically such a minor step forward that without the addition of new creases or wings to the body, bigger wheels and more boisterous badges on the trunk, you'd hardly spot the improvements.
That's not the case with the Tesla Model S. It comes not long after the retirement of the Tesla Roadster, a car we thoroughly enjoyed but found a bit too raw, a bit too rough around the edges for general consumption. The Model S is so much more refined, so much more polished that you can hardly compare the two. Yet they come from the same company and have one similar, defining characteristic: neither burns a drop of fuel. Join us after the break for an exploration of what makes Tesla's latest EV such an amazing ride -- and where the company must improve if it truly wants to compete with the BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes of the world.
Tesla Model S exteriorSee all photos
Where the Tesla Roadster was a repurposed Lotus chassis with a lot of customizations made to turn it into a battery-powered car, the Model S is a clean-sheet design, every aspect engineered with complete and utter disregard for internal combustion and all the tanks, pipes, hoses, pumps, radiators and other fittings that come along with it. As we learned when we spoke with (now former) Tesla Chief Engineer Peter Rawlinson, that provides a number of advantages.
Primary among them is the ability to put the weight of the car low. A car with a very low center of gravity will be a better corner-carver because weight up high makes a car rock from side to side as you turn from left to right. With the Model S, Tesla engineered a custom battery pack configured as a sheet that, when installed, runs the length of the car and is situated in the floor. It's the heaviest and it's also the lowest part of the car -- well, other than the bottom of the wheels and tires.
This is a heavy car, 4,600 pounds or so, but this concentration of weight so low means that it handles like a lighter, more nimble auto. But that's not the only benefit. This battery pack arrangement gives the car a flat floor to build upon, which means a wide-open interior, uncompromised by a transmission tunnel, and a relatively massive 31.6 cubic feet of cargo space spread across the front and rear trunks. (The BMW 5 Series offers less than half that, just 14 cubic feet.)
The electric motor itself is sandwiched between the rear wheels, again positioned low and out of the way, and depending on which specification you choose, you'll get a different motor with different outputs.
The car we were given to test was a top-shelf Performance model, with the 85kWh battery pack and plenty of other options: upgraded audio system ($950), the "tech package" that includes GPS nav and a very trick proximity-based key ($3,750) and some other goodies that brought the sticker price just into the six-figure mark: $101,600 to be precise. Of course, there is a $7,500 tax credit that helps to ease the sting somewhat, and the EPA rating of 89MPGe is estimated to save the average consumer $9,100 in fuel costs over five years. Depending on your driving habits, you might be able to do better.
The car detects the proximity of the key and, just as you're about to reach the door, the lights come on and the door handles extend from their normally retracted positions.
We've never felt quite so welcomed as we have when walking up to the Model S. The car detects the proximity of the key and, just as you're about to reach the door, the lights come on and the door handles extend from their normally retracted positions. We've seen plenty of cars that turn on the lights when you near, but the physical changing of the car, the handles pushing themselves out just in time to greet your arrival, certainly feels very inviting. It's almost as if the car wants you to drive it, and indeed this is a car you'll want to drive.
The displays in the interior pop on as well when you're near, meaning if you want to check the charging status, all you'll need to do is wander up to the car and peek in the window at either of the car's integrated LCD panels. When you walk away again, they go dark, the handles retract and the car enters its stealth mode. Unlike the Roadster, even the LEDs that surround the charge port go dormant when you walk away, helping to keep this machine from drawing too much attention -- though if you want to be subtle, we might recommend something other than the eye-catching red featured here.
Take a seat and your eye is immediately drawn to the 17-inch IPS LCD touch panel that dominates the interior. It's sandwiched vertically in the center of the dash, where the traditional stack of HVAC and stereo controls would normally lie. And, indeed, it replicates all that functionality and more. On the bottom, always present, are the HVAC controls, including dual-zone climate control and toggles for the seat heaters, plus a small volume control in the lower-right corner. (There's a physical volume dial on the steering wheel for the driver.)
Tesla Model S interiorSee all photos
Along the top is a sort of status bar, showing the outdoor temperature, a simple representation of the battery life for the car, the name of the currently loaded driver profile, a signal strength indicator for the integrated 3G modem and a tiny clock.
In the center is a Tesla logo. Tap that and you get a picture of the exterior of the car, not real-time mind, but it does show any changes to the car itself. Open the passenger door, for example, and the rendered version of the car displayed on the LCD does the same. Turn on the lights, pop the hood, open the sunroof -- it's all replicated on the display. A nice touch. Mostly useless, but a nice touch.
Below this status bar is where the real meat of the LCD's functionality is accessed. A row of icons lets you bring up the media controls, navigation, current and average energy consumption, web browser, rear-view camera and phone-dialing interface. You can choose any two of these to have open at any time, one stacked vertically above the other and taking up half the LCD. But, if you really want to monotask, most of those views can be set to run full-screen.
We've experienced lots of touch panels on lots of cars and the vast majority have been utterly terrible. We were surprised to find that we didn't mind Tesla's touch experience nearly as much as we had thought.
We've experienced lots of touch panels on lots of cars and the vast majority have been utterly terrible. We expected the same here but were surprised to find that we didn't mind Tesla's touch experience nearly as much as we had thought we might. Settings and options are, for the most part, logically scattered throughout multiple pages of toggles with a -- dare we say it -- iOS-like look and feel. You're rarely more than two taps away from tweaking anything, like whether the doors automatically lock when you walk away and whether the ambient LED lighting inside the car is on or off.
Once you get past that panel and its many charms, you'll start to perceive the rest of the interior, which is, for the most part, nice. The leather-wrapped seats offer a suite of power adjustments, including fully adjustable lumbar support, with controls that will be familiar to Mercedes owners. (In fact, much of the switchgear is borrowed from Daimler vehicles.) They're comfortable enough, but they don't offer much in the way of lateral support -- a disappointment in a car that handles this well.
Much of the dash is likewise tucked away behind leather, while the headliner is plush Alcantara (a form of durable, synthetic suede). It all looks nice at a passing glance, but as we gazed more closely, we noticed some wavy stitching in places on the dash, a loose seam on one of the sun visors and a number of pieces made from somewhat cheap-feeling plastic.
In other words, the overall impression is quite good, but Tesla has some areas to improve before it'll truly be challenging the established players in the luxury car field.
Most cars feature an ignition of some sort where you turn a key or, at a minimum, some sort of button to push to turn things on. Not the Model S. By the time you take your seat and close the door the car is fully powered up. All you need to do is put a foot on the brake, flick the gear selector lever (a stalk on the right of the steering column) down to D or up to R and away you go.
While the Model S in Performance guise offers a ridiculous amount of torque (443lb-ft) and a motor that's willing and able to give it to you instantly, the throttle curve is such that pulling away from a complete stop is gentle and smooth. Some EVs struggle to get off the line strongly without inducing whiplash and nausea, but that's not the case here. That said, a quick jolt of acceleration is never more than a twitch of the right foot away.
While the Model S is a technological marvel, it is surprisingly behind in a few key areas.
Traction control is of course standard business and you'll likely be making frequent use of it. The quick snap of torque from the electric motor is more than enough to spin the rear tires loose while cornering, quickly (and somewhat abruptly) rectified by the driver aids. In straight-line acceleration, though, the stock 19-inch tires were enough to keep the power down on brisk launches, the TC light only blipping occasionally and unobtrusively. Should you like to take a little more of your destiny in your own hands (and feet) you can disable the TC, but it'll naturally turn itself back on again the next time you get in the car.
On that note, we were surprised and honestly a bit disappointed to see a number of other driver aids absent in the Model S. There's no adaptive cruise control or lane-departure warnings, no auto-dimming headlights nor blind-spot indicators and, while you do get a big, clear look back from the rear-view camera, the car lacks the 360-degree wrap-around view that so many other cars offer these days. So, while the Model S is a technological marvel, it is surprisingly behind in a few key areas.
The torque isn't quite neck-snapping; more like a wave that gently picks you up and then very quickly carries you way, way offshore.
That's not the case when it comes to driving dynamics. You can bench race and talk about lowered centers of gravity all day long, but none of it matters until the electrons start flowing and you get moving on down the road. The Model S launches with a little wiggle of its tail and a few chirps as the rear tires struggle to maintain grip. The torque isn't quite neck-snapping; more like a wave that gently picks you up and then very quickly carries you way, way offshore.
Turn the very fat (borderline obese) steering wheel to enter a corner and while the car doesn't exactly dart the way the Roadster did, it does turn in with the sort of progressive feel that belies its impressive girth. It tracks incredibly cleanly through sweeping turns, tucking its nose in politely if you lift off the throttle, but get a little heavy-footed with the accelerator mid-turn and the rear does have a tendency to wallow, likewise on faster transitions. This is a bit disconcerting if you're intentionally trying to over-drive the car and induce some tail-happy antics. But, as mentioned above, the traction control (if not manually disabled) will quickly pull things back in line, the yellow blinking light on the dash serving as a virtual wagging finger from the nanny-like computer.
So it may not bring you any trophies on the autocross circuit, but the Model S is more than capable of raising eyebrows at comprehensive speeds on fast, flowing roads, and we think it'd be a hoot on the track, too. Maybe if we ask nice enough Tesla will let us find out this summer.
Overall, though, it's the quiet smoothness that will leave the most lasting impression. The car seems to effortlessly consume miles on the road, suspension (ours was of the automatically adjusting air variety) soaking up bumps and providing a very comfortable, yet firm experience. And, with countless hours spent by Tesla engineers soundproofing and whittling away at the car's aerodynamic profile, the cockpit is a serenely quiet place to be. Only under very hard acceleration do you get just a bit of whine from the transmission, which honestly we wouldn't have minded hearing more of on this Performance model.
Range and configuration options
A lowest-spec Tesla Model S, with a 40kWh battery pack, will cost you $59,900. This will, in theory, get you 160 miles on a charge if you're driving in ideal conditions at 55MPH. From there, it's an additional $10,000 to step up to the 60kWh battery pack (230 miles) and a further $10,000 for the longest-range, 85kWh model, rated by Tesla for up to 300 miles. However, if we look at the official EPA 5-Cycle Certified Range, that drops to 265 -- a fair bit less, but still comprehensively beyond most modern EVs, like the 76-mile Focus Electric or 73-mile Nissan Leaf.
Of course, driving habits and even climate can and will have a big impact on that range. If you're squirting away from every red light at maximum power you should probably halve those ratings. And, while the battery packs are liquid-cooled, temperature does still have an effect. On the 85kWh model that we tested, we made two lengthy drives in addition to a number of shorter ones, a mix of highway and backroad driving at temperatures between 10 and 40 degrees F. On the first trip, we covered about 165 miles with 40 miles of indicated range left. On the second, we stretched it to just over 200 miles and coasted in to our destination with about 10 miles left on the clock. Far short of advertised maximums, but temperatures were low and we were often traveling at 65MPH on the highway -- and we might have done a few spirited accelerations on the way, too. Maybe.
We charged the car on a standard Level 2 charger, which took between 10 and 12 hours to go from a nearly empty pack to maximum capacity. That's a long time, but Tesla offers an optional ($1,500) twin-charging system, which will let the car suck down power at twice the speed. And, of course, if you happen to be near one of Tesla's Supercharger stations, you can pull 150 miles of range in just 30 minutes. For free.
A 165-mile trip required 59.9kWh of juice to top off again. We did the math given current power rates in NY and that equates to $10.68.
Our charger wasn't free, but that 165-mile trip required 59.9kWh of juice to top off again. We did the math given current power rates in NY and that equates to $10.68. With local gas prices hovering around $3.75 per gallon, that'd be enough to get us 2.85 gallons of gasoline, so making the same trip in a car, we'd have to make 58MPG to cover that same distance at the same cost. Something like a BMW ActiveHybrid 7 Series, which starts at $84,300 and goes way up from there, is a comparably sized car using a hybrid powertrain. It gets a relatively meager 30MPG highway. The diesel-powered 730d model manages 42MPG -- but isn't available in the US.
Other add-ons in our car included the all-glass panoramic roof, a $1,500 option that makes the car incredibly open and bright feeling. But, with no shade available, it also made the cockpit rather blinding at times, with sun reflecting off that 17-inch LCD. Still we'd consider checking that box, as retracting the full-width panel gives a great, convertible-like feel.
So, then, the Model S is an amazing machine. Not perfect by any stretch of the word, but such a massive leap beyond the Roadster in almost every regard that it's tempting to call it so. That leaves us wondering: have we entered a time where cars have truly caught on to the digital revolution? Where major automotive advancements will finally start to come with the sort of regularity we see on the mobile device front? Is it time to draft an automotive equivalent of Moore's Law? How about this: the available range of an electric vehicle at a given cost will double every five years.
Maybe that's a bit optimistic, but moving past the hypothetical to this very real car in production today, we are left mightily impressed. For a car at this price point, the interior disappoints in a few areas, and some features are missing that we'd like to see in future releases, but all that fades away when you drive the thing. The Model S is a comfortable, silky-smooth rocket ship. It offers handling abilities that, given its size, are very good indeed. And, while its battery packs don't completely obviate range anxiety, it's about as good as you're going to get from a modern EV.
It is a fantastic car, though not a car for everyone. While the $60,000 starting price is fair enough, the smart buy is the maximum-range model, which starts at a rather more dear $80,000. From there it's all too easy to get into the six figures. That is a dealbreaker for many, and the limited range will take this car out of contention for many more. But, for those lucky enough to have a suitable budget and compatible driving routine, we salute you.
[Exterior photos of the silver car by Will Lipman]