Tesla Model S first drive: the sports sedan goes electric (update: video)

DNP EMBARGO  Tesla Model S first drive the sports sedan goes electric video

It's no secret that we have a few automobile enthusiasts in our midst here at Engadget, and we're pretty sure there are some in the audience as well -- you know who you are. Still, you don't have to be a car nut to appreciate all the innovation and technology that's gone into Tesla's sophomore vehicle -- the Model S electric sedan. So strap yourselves in and hold on to your kneecaps: you're about to ride along with us as we drive the Model S for the very first time. Excited? We are too -- hit the break for our first drive video and impressions.

It's been a long journey for the Model S -- from the early teasers all the way to today's press event at the Tesla factory here in Fremont, California. We're no strangers to the electric sedan, having spent some quality time with it along the way, but never behind the wheel -- until now.

As a refresher, the Model S is a full-sized five-passenger four-door sportback with a lightweight aluminum body. It's available in four trim levels with three battery capacities -- 40, 60 and 85kWh for a range of 160, 230 and 320 miles, respectively. A 350hp AC induction motor drives the rear wheels with a 130mph top speed and 4.4-second 0-60mph time (on the performance model). The lithium-ion batteries are liquid cooled and packaged in a 4-inch thick slab that covers the entire floor pan of the car for a low center of gravity and a near 50-50 weight distribution. A 10kW on-board charger is standard, with a second 10kW charger available as an option. Unlike most electric vehicles sold in the US, the Model S lacks the standard J1772 power connector and uses Tesla's Universal Mobile Connector instead to enable faster charging (up to 62 miles of range per hour of charge). An active air suspension is available as an option -- wheels choices are 19 or 21-inches.

Inside the Model S you're treated to all the luxury amenities and safety features (eight airbags) that you'd expect from a premium automobile -- there's even an optional panoramic sunroof and twin rear-facing jump seats for children (complete with 5-point harnesses). Still, the interior's centerpiece is the 17-inch capacitive touchscreen that controls every aspect of the car, from the infotainment system to the climate control. A second LCD is used as the instrument panel. Each display is powered by Tesla's own OS running on a Tegra 3 SoC -- both computers communicate via Ethernet and a gateway provides an interface with the vehicle's ECU.

So what's it like to drive the Model S? In a word: amazing. There's absolutely no doubt that this is a driver's car. It inherits most of the Roadster's performance DNA but wraps it in a significantly more practical and comfortable package. We drove the performance model with the panoramic sunroof. Handling is impressive for a vehicle that weighs in a bit over 4600lbs -- thanks in great part to the low center of gravity, near 50-50 weight distribution and active air suspension. Body roll is kept well under control and there's a phenomenal amount of grip from the 21-inch summer tires. The Model S is surprisingly nimble for such a large and heavy automobile, and it doesn't sacrifice ride quality for the sake of dynamics -- it handled rough roads with composure and just the right amount of stiffness.

Acceleration is where the Model S shines. The electric motor dishes out gobs of linear, head-snapping torque, quickly propelling you past the speed limit -- you've been warned. A pleasant, muted whine accompanies the experience and serves as a reminder that you're driving the future. Unlike cars like the Ford Focus Electric and the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, the Model S follows a similar strategy to BMW's ActiveE when it comes to regenerative braking. Instead of being triggered by the brake pedal, it only kicks in when you lift off the accelerator. As such, it's a lot like driving a manual transmission stuck in second gear and using engine braking to slow down. Where the ActiveE will turn the brake lights on as soon as you let go of the accelerator, the Model S relies on accelerometer readings to warn the vehicles behind you -- clever.

Behind the wheel, The Model S feels much smaller than it is. Driving position and visibility are good, although once everything was tweaked to our liking we found that the steering wheel was interfering with our ingress and egress a little -- then again, there wasn't much time to adjust everything just right. Speaking of which, the steering wheel is nice and meaty. It provides just the right amount of resistance and effort for spirited driving, but falls a bit short in terms of feedback, like many other modern electric steering systems. The brakes are powerful and linear, with decent pedal feel -- we were able to modulate them and avoid triggering the ABS during hard braking. The cabin is pretty quiet although we did notice a little bit of wind noise coming from the driver-side frameless window in our test car. Road noise was not an issue.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much time to play with the Tegra 3-powered infotainment system and its massive 17-inch capacitive display. We're happy to report that it's easy to read in direct sunlight and isn't too distracting -- ditto the instrument panel. While we appreciate that having a touchscreen allows Tesla to tweak the user interface in software, there's no haptic feedback, and we'd still much prefer having good ole hardware knobs and switches for the main controls. At least the Model S also features standard steering wheel-mounted controls. We managed to load Engadget in the web browser of one of the display cars using the built-in 3G connection -- it took a bit of time to load but looked nice once it was done.

If the Model S represents the future of the automobile, sign us up. Sure, with prices starting at $49,900 in base trim and reaching upwards of $97,900 fully loaded, it's beyond the means of many. That being said, it's only a matter of time until Tesla brings the technology found in the Model S into the mainstream. Hopefully the infrastructure will have grown by then as well -- Tesla's already working on DC "superchargers" compatible with the Model S and capable of recharging its batteries at a rate of 300 miles of range per hour of charge. For now this vehicle proves that when it comes to electric cars, it's possible to have your cake and eat it too.