2013 Tesla Model S Overview

Since its launch in June of 2012 Tesla Motors’ groundbreaking Model S sedan has received lavish praise by nearly every reviewer who has set foot in the car.

The Model S is actually available with two different batteries – one a 60-kilowatt-hour for the entry level, the other an 85-kwh available for a mid-level and Performance (P85) version. Initial plans were to stage a roll-out in descending order, and until March 2013, a 40-kwh version was also planned.

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Tesla nixed the smallest battery option saying among the thousands of pre-orders it has registered for the Model S, the 40-kwh version only represented 4 percent of them. So instead, Tesla is offering a 60-kwh version which starts $13,500 above the formerly advertised entry price of just-under $50,000 (with subsidy subtracted) that reports provided prior to the car’s July 2012 launch.

While most EV enthusiasts already know this, we’ll just mention that the battery represents a corollary to a traditional car’s gas tank, and thus its available energy. Tesla’s engineers are able to maximize performance for the cars depending on what they determine is the best compromise between range and performance from the lithium-ion pack – which is, by the way, is liquid heated and cooled for durability and reliability.

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What this means is 0-to-60 performance, all-electric range, and top speed are at their best with the premium 85-kwh Model Performance edition. This, by the way, is the version that Tesla was shrewd enough to supply all the publications that reviewed the car, many of which gushed their highest praise on how amazing it was. In cases the review of the “Model S” was not so clear, and the result was not unlike test driving a Shelby Cobra Mustang, then turning around and praising the entire Mustang lineup, V6 models and all.

In any case, the Model S has won, among other awards, Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year, Automobile magazine’s 2013 Automobile of the Tear, Yahoo! Auto’s Car of the Year.

Truly astonishing performance has been seen for the car sized close to an Audi A7. The 85-kwh Performance model has been shown to more often than not win in a 0-100 mile drag race with a 560-horsepower BMW M5 and is officially in the record books as the quickest production electric car in the quarter mile.

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The regular 85-kwh version sprints to 60 mph an estimated 1.2 seconds slower than the model winning all the awards, and the 60-kwh version hits 60 mph 1.7 seconds slower. “Slow” is a relative term however, as all these cars perform briskly in the relative scheme of things.

The 85-kwh Performance model was entered into the record books this year as the world’s quickest production electric car with a 12.371 quarter mile at 110.84 mph.

But all this speed talk is just icing on the cake for a car that uses no gasoline, is a technological marvel, and wins in other ways, including environmentally. For such a potent car, the Model S is astonishingly efficient, being rated at 88 MPGe city, 90 MPGe highway, and 89 MPGe combined for the 85-kwh version. The 60-kwh version is rated at 94 city, 97 highway, 95 combined. It may be less fast and have less range, but it is more efficient on the EPA’s test cycle.

Balanced Performance

This is no one or two-trick pony, however. The Model S is a refined, executive-class sedan capable of seating five or up to seven with optional kid-sized rear-facing back seats.

Its front/rear weight distribution is said to be 50/50, and the weight is slung low due to the “skateboard” battery configuration of thousands of lithium-ion cells placed in the car’s floor.

Batteries ride low.

Batteries ride low.

An Active Air Suspension is either available as an option, or standard on the Model S Performance. In either event, the low center of gravity let Tesla’s engineers design around that fact for relatively flat and graceful handling manners.

The heart of the car is actually its all-electric powertrain of course. It is three times more efficient than a gas car, which is good because even 85-kwh is not a lot of energy compared to a large tank of gasoline.

The electric motor-based powertrain resides between the rear wheels for the rear-wheel-drive car. It offers, as is the case for any EV, full torque from 0 rpm.

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Traction control keeps wheel spin in check and the single-speed gearbox works without needing to shift.

Top speed for the 60-kwh version is rated at 120 mph, for the standard 85-kwh version it’s 130, and for the 85-kwh Performance version, it’s 135.

These speeds are substantially below the capability of gas-powered elite sedans that often boast 155 to 186 mph capability, but no one in America will notice given the country has such low maximum speed limits.

Tesla’s engineers did limit the car’s capability however to preserve energy, and due to limitations of a single-speed transmission that cannot shift to a higher gear for high-speed running.

Interior

Tesla built the car around the driver, and instruments are positioned for convenience and control. Central is the 17-inch touchscreen, a massive infotainment system that controls many aspects of the car.

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The cabin is quiet, a given from an all-electric powertrain, and Tesla has taken pains to quell unwanted noises that might have gone un-noticed in a regular gas powered car.

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The body is rigid and sound deadening is effective.

Styling

Tesla has created a purposeful, sleek car that is even more aerodynamically efficient than it looks. An astonishingly low 0.24 coefficient of drag is claimed.

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Without an open front grille, and care taken in design above and below the car to channel airflow, the electric car shows another inherent advantage.

Safety

The body is lightweight aluminum, rigid and strong. It is paired with the battery which acts like a stressed member of the chassis.

The Model S has eight airbags and up front beyond this, the crumple zone has no engine to interfere, and only a storage space is there, called the frunk.

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Tesla has been able to build in perfectly straight double-octagonal rails along the bottom of the car’s structure, and high-tensile steel is used in critical zones to maximize crash-worthiness.

Unique Retail Strategy

Tesla operates retail stores modeled on Apple stores, and located in selected high-traffic areas including shopping malls with the right demographic cross mix.

Tesla’s site has a base price (adding the $7,500 back in that Tesla automatically subtracts): 60-kwh base model: $71,070 (formerly it was $69,900); 85-kwh middle-level model: $81,070; 85-kwh P85 Performance: $91,070.

Tesla likes to quote prices assuming the full $7,500 federal tax credit already deducted. Even if you are eligible to claim this full amount – and potential state subsidies – the federal credit is a credit, not a rebate, so you must front the sales price plus taxes and other fees.

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We have seen packed versions going for $119,640 out the door, once all of the extra costs are included. Delivery includes a $1,000 delivery fee that one must pay even if he or she shows up at Tesla’s Fremont, Calif. factory to avoid the personalized delivery Tesla normally offers.

On the flip side, the fee is the same anywhere in the U.S. market one buys the car, so Tesla wins some and loses some on this delivery fee arrangement.

Buying a Model S means ordering online and at this point getting in line. Tesla does not follow the traditional car dealership model.

A waiting list of over 10,000 people are there ahead of you, and estimates have been about 2-3 months from time of placing an order to purchasing.

The car, built at Tesla’s state-of-the art factory is highly configurable via Tesla’s unique interactive Web site.

Bottom Line

If your personal finances allow, the Model S is a superlative car unlike any other. We could compare it to other luxury gas sedans, and people have done so, but it really is in a category of one.

Since it has only been on the market for less than one full year, long-term durability and resale issues have yet to present themselves, assuming any do. If Tesla’s previous Roadster is any indicator, that car has proven reliable, although stories of needing to keep these Tesla batteries plugged in did arise.

The lithium-ion battery pack must be charged and not allowed to sit for overly long. After a few weeks of sitting, the batteries may degrade, and worst case is unrepairable damage meaning a degradation up to catastrophic failure, necessitating expensive replacement.

These are unique cars, and a buyer is well advised to study further what their ownership entails.

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That said, the company has earned a huge fan base. Tesla Motors is as much a social movement as a car company, and aims to recreate automotive transportation. The Model S is expected to be followed by a similarly priced Model X crossover, and down market versions are expected to follow by 2016.

The company in March announced a unique financing scheme that takes some of the risk out of betting on the new technology, for those who may have qualms.

In all, Tesla is playing a high-stakes gambit, and at this point appears to be winning with aloof and cool strides as it confounds the naysayers. It became profitable in the first quarter of 2013 and is setting new benchmarks on what others said is possible.

For more information, be sure to check out Tesla’s very informative Web site.


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2013 Tesla Model S Overview
Base MSRP: $69,900
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