Test Drive: Tesla Model S P85

The Tesla Model S has been an undeniable success since it went on sale in 2012. With over 22,000 sold last year, it’s quickly become one of the most popular battery-powered cars in the U.S. and the world.

This despite prices that range from $72,240 to over $100,000, and the fact that in many states the company’s brick and mortar showrooms aren’t allowed even to tell you how to purchase one, let alone sell you one, due to laws that prohibit company-owned dealerships.

Tesla doesn’t do franchises; you buy its cars directly from the mother ship.

But clearly, its slinky looks, lightning speed and a range of up to 265 miles per charge have overcome these hurdles by addressing many of the issues that have stalled the widespread adoption of electric cars, while raising a few of its own.

Five fires – three caused by accidents damaging the floor-mounted battery pack, one due to a faulty home charger and one that remains a mystery – have garnered plenty of media coverage, but have done little to stop the company’s momentum.

And there’s good reason for that.

I recently spent a couple of days in a top-of-the-line P85 – the performance model, with 416 hp, some handling tweaks, a jumbo 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack rated at 265 miles of range per charge, and a starting price $95,740. There are several videos on YouTube of these cars beating Corvette Stingrays and other speed machines on drag strips, and they are no joke.

The Model S is hilariously quick and a very convincing proposition, even if it comes with a few caveats.

A 362 hp version is also available, as is the bargain basement Model S 60, which has 302 hp and a smaller 60 kWh battery pack with a range of 208 miles. Tesla says the vast majority of its customers are opting for cars with the larger juice box, as it’s the main feature that sets the Model S apart from other electric cars.

A full charge takes as little as four hours at home, but Tesla is installing a network of “superchargers” at rest stops around the country that can do much faster than that and are compatible only with its cars. You can get about 150 miles worth of electricity in half an hour at one of these, or a full charge in 75 minutes, free of charge. The idea is that on those occasions that you need to drive more than 265 miles in a day, you’re going to need to fill your stomach and empty your bladder at some point, and three or more extra hours of driving are your reward.

Don’t eat too much, though, or you may doze off behind the wheel. Even with your foot to the floor, the Tesla’s rear-mounted motor barely makes a whimper, its body cuts through the air like a ghost and hardly any road noise makes its way through the air suspension that comes standard on the P85.

The cabin itself is ultramodern in style, airy and comfortable, though the materials trimming it don’t seem quite as plush as those found in most cars in this price range. There’s plenty of room up front for the sort of professional sport giants and literal fat cats who will be attracted to a Model S, but that sloping roof makes the rear seat a tight fit for anyone approaching 6-feet tall. The door openings back there, too, are equally snug and somewhat awkward to get through.

It may look long and lean, but the Model S is more of a midsize car priced for full-size bank accounts.

For such a high-tech vehicle, it’s also a bit short on g  gizmos and gadgets; there’s no blind spot warning system, radar cruise control, self-parking feature or anything neat like that. But you can be sure the next generation model will be chock full of this stuff, as Tesla recently advertised for an Advanced Driver Assistance Systems Controls Engineer.

The marquee feature today is a 17-inch tablet-style touchscreen that replaces every button normally found on a dashboard, save for the one that operates the hazard lights – certainly a legal requirement. As these sorts of interfaces go, it’s among the best, with easy-to-read graphics and large icons.

The problem is that it is takes up nearly the entire center stack, and there is practically nowhere to rest your hand while you’re using it. Hitting those virtual buttons with an outstretched arm as the car pitches and rolls can be like directing a 10-foot long piece of string into a shot glass on the deck of a party boat at sea. Not easy, even if you weren’t the one who emptied the glass.

The gigantic Google Maps displayed by the navigation system are hypnotic, however, especially in satellite view. Front-seat passengers will appreciate that the mobile web-enabled Internet browser isn’t locked out when the vehicle is in motion, but it is a little too tempting for the person behind the wheel.

As is the accelerator.

The Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive? By the time it engages, the Model S has already gone to plaid. Whether you’re pulling away from a stop or out to pass, the thrust is immediate, plentiful and enough to make anyone a believer in the power of electricity, as if that 9-Volt battery you licked as a kid didn’t already do that.

The Model S can do wonders in an S-turn, as well. Its chassis is stiff, surefooted and delivers precise handling with tons of grip that’s firmly in the spirit of Tesla’s first car, the low-slung Roadster.

As far as range is concerned, even though temperatures were touching the single digits on the days I had the car -- far from ideal conditions for lithium-ion battery performance -- the supercharger in Darien, Conn., worked as advertised and the car went the distance.

That said, I was instructed by Tesla to keep it plugged in overnight to keep the battery pack warm. If not, it might have used so much energy just to get up to operating temperature that the range would’ve taken a big hit. Better safe than sorry, I suppose, and really, it’s the only annoying quirk of ownership the Model S seems to present. With an average annual cost of electricity of just $700, a few extra bucks during the winter aren’t exactly a dealbreaker, and for those who live in mild climates, they’re a non-issue.

As for those fires … while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration looks into things, Tesla has uploaded a couple of software fixes through the cloud to address the issues. The first raises the ride height of the cars so they’ll hit less stuff that can poke holes in the batteries; the second gives them the ability to automatically adjust their charge rate if they detect a problem with the electricity source they’re plugged into. New wall adapters equipped with thermal fuses were also sent to owners, for good measure.

But while the Model S is still something of a work in progress, it’s owners don’t seem to care. The used car market certainly hasn’t been flooded with them yet, and the company’s stock continues its tech-bubble-style climb.

That’s largely because Tesla finds itself in the enviable position of having no direct competition. The Model S is still the only all-electric luxury car on the market and the only zero-emissions vehicle that offers anything approaching this kind of range, and there aren’t any alternatives of either type on the near horizon. So, while it’s not perfect, it’s the only game in town.

Good thing for Tesla and its customers, it’s also a fun one.