Tesla's been teasing us with the Model S electric car for what seems like a cruelly long time. But, we gadget fans need to remember that designing and releasing a car is a rather different prospect than something like a phone. If your new iDevice crashes you might lose your patience, but if your new car crashes, well, the results could be rather more disastrous.
Tesla is keeping up the teasing act with the Model S Beta launch, an opportunity for a lucky few to come and check out the company's factory (once the NUMMI facility in Fremont, CA) and to take a quick ride around the company's test track -- and we do mean quick. How do we know? Well, we got to come along. Join us for our impressions after the break.
Suffice to say the Model S is a nice looking car, having a shape that's not altogether dissimilar from an Aston Martin DBS but softened a bit. The S is a fully electric car, and unlike the Tesla Roadster it was designed as such from the ground up -- starting with the battery pack. That slab makes up the floor of the car, meaning the heaviest part of the car sits lowest.
It supports DC fast charging, enabling the addition of up to 300 miles of range in just an hour. But, if you're not lucky enough to have access to one of those, the Model S will be quite happy to pull juice from a standard Level 2 charger -- and, should you opt for a second, the car can top up again in half the time.
But we already knew all that. What we didn't know was how it drives. Sadly we still don't, as Tesla wasn't letting anybody behind the wheel, but we did get to ride shotgun for a few quick exhibitions of speed. There was a relaxed slalom run, a 0 - 80MPH blast, and then a run around the company's heavily banked test track at triple-digit speeds.
How did it feel? Incredibly smooth. While there's nothing like screaming around a track at high speed, doing so in a whisper-quiet car is a new experience altogether. Not only is the motor quiet but the car has been meticulously designed to minimize wind and tire noise as well. It's smooth and peaceful... even when you're hurtling along at speeds high enough to put you in jail.
The interior carries that theme, a very calming and comfortable place to be. There's a lot of leather to be found and high-quality materials abound, but the focal point of the whole thing is the 17-inch touchscreen wedged in vertically where you'd expect a car stereo and climate controls to be. That's all handled on this display, an IPS unit that Tesla engineers mentioned was as good as that in the 17-inch MacBook Pro.
Right now it's using an IR system to detect touch, but we're told capacitive touch is on the way -- something of a disappointment to us, as that might make operating things with gloves a bit tricky. (Drivers are said to be able to control everything using wheel-mounted buttons, too.) And through here you'll operate just about everything, starting at the bottom with a row of buttons and a display for current temperature.
The rest of the display can be repurposed to do a number of things, running a number of different apps that come pre-loaded on there. You can use GPS navigation and get a big, beautiful overhead view of the world. Launch another app and that will be cut in half, with the two apps sharing that mondo display. Media playback was a big thing on display, with the car able to aggregate music from multiple sources, like a generously sized internal HDD and Slacker Radio. Other sources are coming soon.
Play music and you'll get full album art on display in the center stack, but you'll also get a smaller version right up on the driver's display behind the wheel, where it'll sit next to more important information like speed and fuel level.
Most interesting feature of the Dash? A full Webkit browser. As of now it's fully available, even while driving -- the assumption that drivers are smart enough to leave it alone and let passengers fingers do the typing. But, if legislative bodies demand it, the company may look into disabling that while moving, or perhaps only enable it while driving when there's a passenger present. That the company can already detect thanks to the airbag sensor built into the second seat, leading us to wonder how many web-addicts will be driving around with cinderblocks riding shotgun.
In case you're wondering, yes, the car has an active connection all to itself, a 3G modem built in there somewhere. Nobody would comment on just which carrier the car is using, nor on how much data plans will cost for the thing. But, we did confirm that the car can connect to a WiFi hotspot, so hopefully those of you with tethering on your mobiles will be able to take a bye on yet another monthly bill.
Finally, there's the iPhone app -- which Tesla promises is also coming to at least Android at launch and will also be usable via an HTML5 interface for other devices. Through this you can monitor current charge, pre-condition your car (heat it up or cool it down while it's still plugged in) and even get a real-time view of where your car is on a map, and how fast it's going. Tesla promised it won't be storing this data, so you don't need to worry about Big Brother. But, if dad lets you borrow the keys to his Model S, you might just have to worry about him watching what you do.
Suffice it to say the Model S is shaping up to be a very different kind of ride, and while Tesla's production facility is still a long way from being ready to roll, what we saw in our run through the factory looked promising. Will the car be ready to roll into full production in 2012, and will it release at the promised $49,900 base price? This remains to be seen, but we can't wait to find out.