Published July 20, 2012
You collectively paid $465 million dollars to make this report possible so please read it to the end.
(OK, I’ll admit, that’s a cheap shot, but you know you wanted it. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s begin.)
The battery-powered Tesla Model S is officially on the road, thanks in part to the aforementioned Department of Energy loan, but also the backing of many private investors – some of whom are named Brin and Page. Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
The first customer cars are in the hands of their very patient depositors, and one or two cars are being built and shipped each day, a rate that will accelerate as production ramps up through the end of the year. By then, Tesla expects to have delivered 5,000 vehicles, which won’t even fill half of the 11,000 orders currently on its books. In other words, it’s off to a pretty good start.
In the meantime, the California-based automaker is taking a small fleet of cars around the country to give their future owners a taste of what’s in store while they wait. I don’t count myself among them, but did take one out for a quick spin in New York City.
The Model S is a midsize five-door hatchback with a style that falls somewhere between Jaguar and Audi on the sleek and sexy scale. If it doesn’t look like a futuristic electric car, that’s intentional. Tesla says that it wanted the technology to be disruptive, not the design. Think of it like one of those movie robots that disguises itself as a human so it doesn’t scare the locals, then destroys them and takes over the planet.
That’s the outside. Under the skin, things get a bit more technical.
Flush mounted door handles pop out when you unlock the car, which starts by merely sitting in the driver’s seat. From there you are confronted with a hexagonal LCD instrument cluster and 17-inch tablet-style display in the center of the dashboard that is used to control pretty much everything on the car. The only buttons in sight turn on the hazard lights and open the glove compartment. Notable, particularly in the pre-production car that I drove, is that the build quality throughout the cabin is competitive with that of established players in the luxury segment.
Tesla had the infotainment system custom designed and the layout on the screen is highly functional, with large icons, a configurable split screen and a wireless web browser that -- passengers will be happy to hear -- works when the car is in motion. Missing are any advanced voice controls, but Tesla says an upgrade is in the works.
The cabin otherwise presents a conventional five-seat layout, but with a perfectly flat floor and a clear space between the dash and armrest it has a very airy feel up front. Rear seat passengers could use a bit more leg and headroom, but not as much as the two seated in the optional rear-facing child seats located in the cargo area. If they are filled, and you need to put your golf clubs somewhere, what Tesla calls a “frunk” is located under the front hood, a 5.3 cubic foot compartment similar to what you find in a mid-engine sports car.
The Model S is technically a rear-motor car, with its electric propulsion system located between and just behind the driven rear wheels. The liquid cooled and heated battery pack that powers it makes up the floorpan of the car and is encased in steel and further protected by a plastic cover that also helps give the Model S the lowest aerodynamic drag of any production vehicle.
Three battery sizes are on offer: 40 kilowatt-hour, 60 kWh and 85 kWh, with base prices for the models equipped with each ranging from $57,400-$77,400. A top of the line Model S goes for $97,900, and a $7,500 federal tax credit applies to all versions.
The largest of the three, and the only one available until fall, has an EPA rated range of 265 miles per charge, which takes anywhere from four to 57 hours depending on what type of outlet or charging station it’s plugged in to. The others are yet to be rated, but based on Tesla’s original estimate of 300 miles for the 85 kWh pack, the 160-mile claim for the 40 kWh version could end up closer to 132 miles.
In the less than half-hour trip I took through busy midtown Manhattan, I didn’t have the opportunity to challenge the range, but did get a feel for how a juiced up Model S drives.
Despite its portly 4,600-pound weight, the Model S steps off smartly with a smooth and linear power delivery from its potent motor, rated at 362 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque or 416 hp and 443 lb-ft if you opt for the performance upgrade. Equipped with the latter, it will keep up with a Ford Mustang GT on a drag strip.
And the muscle car won’t hear it coming. The Model S is nearly silent, which I personally found a little disappointing as I enjoy a good Tron-style soundtrack from my electric cars. Luxury sedan buyers will likely disagree.
Top level models are fitted with an active air suspension that can be adjusted for ride height -- helpful for driving up steep driveways and down snow covered roads. It demonstrated the ability to turn New York City’s cobblestone streets into smooth pavement, and conspired with the ultra-low center of gravity provided by the weight of the battery pack's 7,000 cells to make the Model S an able handler.
Flooring it through a U-turn during a light rain shower, the Model S responded well and the stability system kept the tires perfectly under control – one of the advantages electric drive has over internal combustion.
But simply cruising around town is where the Model S makes its strongest case. Even those not inclined towards battery powered propulsion would have a hard time finding fault with the ride, and I suppose that if I were the type of person who had put $5,000 down sight unseen to reserve one I’d take the leap and convert that to a real car -- at least one with the big battery.
Up until now the argument against electric cars is that they are too expensive. Who would spend $35,200 on an econobox like the Nissan Leaf that can go just 73 miles per charge and requires that you own a second vehicle? Not many people, it turns out. Nissan only sold 535 Leafs in June.
But what if you can get a very ritzy set of wheels that goes nearly four times as far and costs less than twice as much? Now, you might be talking.
Or not. Tesla moved less than 2,500 of its $109,000 Roadster sports cars over four years, despite the fact that it was a blast to drive and had a 244-mile range. Granted, it was quite small and bare bones, but the market for electric luxury sedans remains untested and there are no guarantees that the Model S will pass the muster of the well-to-do masses either.
Still, while I’ll reserve final judgment on the Model S until I have the opportunity to take one through a few charge cycles, I am feeling better about the solvency of the company that I am involuntarily invested in. Enthusiasm for the car remains high, and on the surface it is an attractive package that, at least initially, does not disappoint.
Then again, how many times have we heard that said about those robots?