Now approaching a year-and-a-half since Tesla’s first Model S rolled off its Fremont, California assembly line, the luxury performance sedan has impacted not just the alternative-energy market, but the entire automotive world.
Industry watchers are waiting to see whether the electric car maker can continue as a singular and odds-beating American success story in a time of off-shoring and uncertainty to combat menaces like global warming, energy insecurity and what traditionalists too often decry as boring cars.
Opposite of mundane, the Model S is intended as a no-excuses affront to higher-end petrol cars and flies in the face of compliance cars tepidly offered by conservative automakers.
Actually, the Model S is more like three models in one – a 60-kwh version, an 85 and P85+ – and priced (before subsidies) from the low 70s to low 130s. While it essentially looks like just one more sleek-looking car, a closer examination shows it is groundbreaking.
Tesla’s radicalism in disguise is centered around a rear-wheel-drive gas-free powertrain on an aluminum “skateboard” chassis. Efficiency, range and speed potential varies, but even the 208-mile range of most basic model doubles that of the next-best-available electric car, and Tesla has a point to prove: That the time of the EV is now.
Presently the federal government is investigating two fires believed caused by heavy metal debris rupturing the quarter-inch aluminum cladding under the approximately 9-foot-by 5-foot battery under the floor.
Tesla preemptively issued one of its over-the-air software updates to limit cars’ ability to lower their ride height, but the jury is out, with some saying concerns are overblown and others say the Model S should be recalled for a physical update.
Meanwhile, Tesla has been expanding distribution in Canada, Europe, Asia including China, playing it cool as always, and enjoying otherwise still-continuing praise and so many awards that the company trophy shelves must be buckling under the weight.
Tesla’s relatively simple electric propulsion includes a heated and liquid-cooled battery, motor, drive inverter, and single-speed gear box.
Company CEO Elon Musk says the intent is to “accelerate the advent of electric cars,” and – taking its mission all-too seriously – the car itself accelerates through a quarter mile as briefly as 12.6 seconds – or as briskly as 14.2 seconds for the 60-kwh copy.
Steepest performance comes via the steepest-priced P85+ with high-performance drive inverter and current turned up for 416 horsepower (310 kw) from 5,000-8,600 rpm, and 443 pounds-feet of torque (600 Nm) from 0-5,100 rpm.
The mid-level 85-kwh version serves 362 horsepower (270 kwh) from 6,000-9,500 rpm, and 325 pounds-feet (440 Nm) from 0-5,800 rpm.
Lastly, the 60-kwh version delivers 302 horsepower (225 kw) from 5,000-8,000 rpm and 317 pounds-feet (430 Nm) from 0-5,000 rpm.
Tesla electronically limits top speed to 130 mph for the P85+, and 125 and 120 respectively. Zero-to-60 varies respectively from 4.2 seconds, 5.4 seconds, and 5.9 seconds.
Bear in mind also, big batteries stand to influence mass more significantly than a few gallons of gas. The 85-kwh models are listed at 4,647 pounds, but with options, have been known to push 4,750 pounds. The 60-kwh version weighs around 180-pounds less than a given same-content 85-kwh model.
Charging is via a hidden proprietary connection as maverick Tesla has shunned standards shared by other EV makers, but does sell adapters.
The standard on-board charger is 10 kw and optional 20-kw Twin Chargers can increase input to 80 amps. That amount of juice gives a fighting chance of replenishing on par with a 24-kwh Nissan Leaf that has only a 6.6-kw charger and may accept up to 30 amps.
Tesla’s public Superchargers are another option, and increase the current dump for recharging in under 30 minutes.
The Model S is a head turner, but even its designer Franz von Holzhausen has acknowledged it is not so avante garde as to send competitors packing.
Tesla’s rear clip is actually a near knock-off from the Jaguar XF, but the overall outline is unique and works. It offers a Prius-like cd of 0.24, and novelties like a glass panoramic roof, optional moonroof with the largest opening in the industry, and flush door handles help set it apart.
Model S also maximizes interior space, seating five, with optional rear-facing seats for two more from the sub-5-foot crowd (such as children).
Accommodations are open and more airy than say, a Porsche Plug-In S E-Hybrid, if not also Spartan with nary a cubby to detract from a minimalist interior tastefully decorated with exotic woods, leather, metal, fabrics, alcantara and nothing cheap, or poorly assembled.
Rear legroom is decent, but rear headroom is less than would be wanted by someone taller than 5-foot-10.
The center jewel is the 17-inch, Internet-capable, Gorilla-glass covered touchscreen that eliminates buttons and controls for just about every function.
To save space ourselves, we’ll drop in Tesla’s glowing, dramatic, but essentially accurate video explanation of the touchscreen’s functions.
It’s true there is no such thing as 5.4 stars, but it’s also true the burley roof structure of the mostly aluminum car broke the crushing machine in federal tests, and so far its actual safety record appears good with over 21,000 units on the road.
Driving Model S
Rolling along in the hushed EV, it soon becomes apparent this is a car that could become very easy to live with.
The one we sampled sells for $123,770 – a healthy premium over the $71,070 60-kwh base, $81,070 for the 85, and $94,570 for the P85+ we tested.
It handles any driving duties with aplomb, from tooling along in slow traffic to highway stretches, to back-road burning. It’s even practical with gads of storage space in the rear hatch and front “frunk.”
It’s not the absolute quickest thing on wheels but more than somewhat respectable with front/rear weight balance of 48/52 percent and the bulk is carried impossibly low compared to a petrol car.
As its rounded lines do a good job concealing its essentially full-sized 196-inch length, and extra-wide 77.3-inch girth, so does its low-slung weight conceal that there is really quite a lot of it to manage – about 600 pounds more than a 4,167-pound Audi A7, a similarly sized, stellar example of the conventional carmaker’s art.
The Model S has traction control but can allow a little bit of slippage when deliberately attempting power oversteer, and audible brake intervention stops the would-be drift mid-corner, even at speeds between 25 and 50-plus mph.
We got to sample it on clean and dry as well as wet and snowy roads, and unlike some perfect weather tests, found its launch control does allow tire chirping in a straight line on cold roads during full-powered 0-to-whatever runs.
Our car was equipped with Pirelli winter performance radials on 19-inch wheels, and temperatures were in the mid 20s.
These offer good grip – this car is too powerful for compromised low rolling resistance compounds – but are not as gummy as fully warmed 21-inch Michelin Primacy normal weather tires.
The snow also made us think Model S could stand for “Snow Car,” and it’s a hoot assuming you know what you’re doing. Traction control offers a heavy hand and 0-60 times about match a Kenworth’s as the EV’s roughly 4,925 pounds with driver would have it slithering all over if more than a few ponies were let loose from its herd.
Cornering in snow is also do-able, and it does admirably as a rear-wheel-drive large heavy car – AWD would be an improvement. Hit a slick of ice though, and wham, you slide sideways alarmingly quick and don’t we wish studded snow tires were legal in Pennsylvania?
It’s manageable though and the low-placed weight is exceptionally well controlled under negligible traction just like it is with Velcro grip in its natural sunny habitats.
Over bumps, the optional air suspension soaks irregularities quite well. Noise, vibration and harshness are nothing to write home about – components including the A/C compressor, power steering, etc. are rubber mounted. The 5-inch-thick under-floor battery also insulates road noises.
Jamming the brakes – on dry pavement – scrubs speed at an astonishing rate, and the car has been measured at 60-0 in 110 feet. Slippery roads require more footage, and here is where weight is a penalty.
Under hard acceleration, the sound is an appropriate electrical whine. Standing on the accelerator becomes addictive, but beware, as your drivers’ license could easily become forfeit.
In discrete tests however, speed develops alarmingly and stealthily – the opposite visceral impression to a mildly muffled BMW M car or Porsche equipped with garishly loud sport exhaust to satisfy expectations of a different kind of profiler.
Too quietly, you watch the digital speedo zinging past 20-30-40-50-60 … about as quickly as you read these figures.
Of course, this is the high-zoot model we’re talking about. The midline 85-kwh version loses 1.2 seconds to 60 mph and the 60-kwh version loses 1.7 seconds to 60.
Compared to a Porsche Plug-In S E-Hybrid, some specs are remarkably similar, but the Model S is a different animal altogether.
Elon Musk would likely scoff at the comparison, as he calls hybrids “amphibians,” but the Porsche does hold its own.
It weighs a claimed 4,613 pounds compared to over 4,700 for the P85+, and has the exact same 416 horsepower and very similar 435 pounds-feet torque.
The Porsche’s 5.2 seconds to 60 is a full second slower however, undoubtedly because its twin turbos must spool up, whereas the Tesla serves 100-percent torque from a standstill.
Cornering prowess is a bit closer. With tire specs nearly the same as the Tesla, the Porsche does well with grippy 245-mm-wide front and 275-mm-wide tires rear and optional 19 or 20-inch diameters balanced on a Stuttgart-tuned suspension.
Naturally, the Porsche’s weight rides higher, and the cockpit is decidedly less open, and entirely more busy with a sea of buttons compared to the Model S.
Truth be told, Model S has no direct competitors, only loose comparisons can be made. Reviewers have even attempted to compare it to a Chevy Volt because both plug in. The Volt is great for what it is, but not nearly as road-capable, and costs $35,000 before subsidies, so how do we justify that comparison again?
No, the Model S is in a class of one. The $99,000-plus Porsche is priced and powered closely, and is pretty fun also, if you don’t mind it drinking premium gas like a V8 when on the boil.
Then again, the Model S can go from tame kitty cat to thirsty tiger too. Sure it will match EPA ratings from 88-97 MPGe when driven like a Prius, and this month Model S Signature owner David Metcalf and his son, Adam, saw a record 423.5 miles on a single charge in sunny Florida.
Or, at closer to the opposite extreme, without having pre-warmed the battery in 22 degree F weather, testing quickness, and taking zero care, we sapped 87 miles indicated range inside of 35 miles of actual driving.
But undoubtedly this is a great car. Could it be made better? Sure. A rear wiper would help as would an off switch for the car that automatically turns on when the key is present, and brake pedal touched. And we could only imagine how much more amazing it would be if it was 600-plus pounds lighter as are other similarly sized upper crust cars, but we don’t see how this could be given a 1,200-pound battery.
Worth Going For?
Priced as it is, the Model S is not only about saving emissions, fuel, and being tremendously cost effective. It’s actually about high-tech art, scintillation, fetching style, bragging rights, uniqueness, high-quality design and build that Tesla summarizes into one word: “experience.”
Tesla actually offers a purchase option with elements of a lease that guarantees resale value within a 36-39 month window should you wish to exit ownership in exchange for value equal to or greater than a Mercedes S-Class.
That plus free Supercharger public charging access, helps mitigate risk for the new car company that only has one model, and otherwise has high-risk/high-reward written all over it, as Wall Street contrarians continually observe.
Bottom line is the Model S competes head-to-head not so much with the “green cars” of the world, but higher-end gas and diesel cars, and it’s astonishing this is a start-up’s first bespoke design.
So, if you can spare the money, arrange a test drive at one of Tesla’s comparatively few retail stores – where the company is able to fully and legally operate, Texas being a notable exception – and see for yourself.
As Musk has said, the Model S is here to pave the way for more down-market cars to follow in the next several years.
For now, there is nothing else like it, and Tesla has amassed fans ready to zealously defend it, as the upside outweighs any minor perceived drawbacks by a large margin, and the company promises so much yet to come.