Last week, ConsumerSearch was among a handful of media outlets to take the new 2013 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan for a 25 minute spin around Manhattan. I drove the short, pre-planned loop, which started in the West Village, shot up the West Side Highway for about a mile and a half or so, and then doubled back; and then, repeated it in as the front passenger seat.
Based on this limited sample time,the Tesla Model S makes a great first impression.
Unlike the rolling erotic sculpture that is the Fisker Karma plug-in sedan, the Tesla Model S is attractive without being overly showy. There's a Jaguar feel to the overall look (especially from the rear, where it resembles the British automaker's XF sedan), mixed with a hint of Maserati up front. Dimensionally, it's a little longer than a Mercedes-Benz E-Class and about as wide as a BMW 7 Series. This premium-car Bingo approach pays off: the Model S has great style, stance and curb appeal.
Inside, you'll find a quiet, spacious cabin with room for five adults in its standard configuration. The test car had the optional glass roof and was trimmed in leather, Alcantara (a microsuede material) and real carbon fiber trim on the dashboard and center console. In back, there's plenty of legroom and LATCH anchors for all three rear seats. Up front, you get comfortable, supportive seating and the bare minimum of physical controls (more on that later). As an option, you can specify the addition of two more kid-sized, rear-facing jump seats in the cargo bay, raising total capacity to seven passengers if you need it.
Sans the jump seats (the tester I drive didn't have them), there's lots of cargo space in back: 26 cubic feet with the rear seats in use, or an SUV-like 56 cubic feet with the second row folded. (For comparison's sake, that's around 10 cubic feet better than the Porsche Panamera, which only has room for four passengers.) Tack on another five cubic feet in the forward luggage compartment (or "frunk," as Tesla calls it), and it's evident that you can lug a lot of gear in the Model S.
And that's not all it hauls. The car I drove was the Model S Performance trim, with the highest-capacity battery (85 kWh) and the most powerful electric drive system. Its motor delivers 416 horsepower and 446 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels. Real-world acceleration rivals that of a big-name high-performance sedan, such as the monstrous Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG. Tesla says the 0-60 time of the Model S is around 4.4 seconds, with 0-80 taking around 6 seconds.
The full-charge driving range with the 85 kWh battery is estimated to be around 300 miles at 55 mph. As with any traditionally powered car, your experience with range may vary, according to Michael J Sexton, the manager of Tesla's New York showroom, who accompanied us on our drive. He joked that new owners are likely to see less as they explore the car's tantalizing performance capabilities. "It takes around six months for them to get that out of their system before they start treating it like any other car," he said with a laugh.The Model S recalculates its available battery range every 30 minutes based on how you're driving the car and presents this updated info on one of the many status displays you can call up.
Faced with open space on the West Side Highway (a happy circumstance to say the least), the seat-of-the-pants feel you get from the driver's seat would appear to back up Tesla's gaudy performance numbers. The car's just plain fast, and even more impressive than its ability to accelerate from a dead stop is the instant, relentless onslaught of power on tap when you're already underway. Thanks to all of the available torque being available from zero RPM. If you're driving along at 60 or 70 miles per hour and need to pass a clump of traffic, hitting the accelerator is akin to putting a jet fighter on afterburner. The rush of power is intense, and the slowpokes are distant memories in short order.
The Performance model's air suspension translates into a comfortable ride, capably dulling uneven surfaces like the old cobblestone streets you come across in Greenwich Village. It's hard to give feedback on overall handling based on this drive, as tight low-speed urban streets and a straight highway shot hardly challenge the car in that regard. Given that Tesla obviously benchmarked Europe's heavy hitters when developing the Model S's dynamics, and already has a pure sports car under its belt, one would assume the sedan lives up to whatever lofty expectations its buyers may have.
The only real concern I had going into the drive was how easy it would be to use the controls. The Tesla Model S does away with the traditional instrument panel entirely and replaces the center stack of controls with a single 17-inch capacitive-touch display. Think giant iPad.
The lack of tactile controls seems like a mistake on the surface - there's not even a volume knob for the radio, or dials to adjust the climate-control temp. Instead, everything is presented app style on the screen. More surprisingly, it works well. While many automakers look to find a happy medium that balances screens, capacitive-touch surfaces, and traditional inputs (i.e. buttons and dials), those efforts generally fall short in some respect. See Ford's widely-criticized initial implementation of its MyTouch interface or the maddeningly-labeled capacitive touch panel in the Chevy Volt.
Tesla takes a big risk that seems to pay off, based on my brief stint in the car, at least. The screen is huge, bright, and highly responsive to the touch. Its sheer size means that the various control interfaces you call up are large and well labeled, and everything is beautifully rendered, from the nav display to the controls for the sunroof (just swipe your finger across a picture of it to open and close accordingly). The screen also gives you a high-definition view from the car's backup camera, which you can also turn on while driving. I thought I'd hate the mandatory touchscreen-everything approach, but wound up thinking it was the car's neatest party trick with one caveat: It was overcast the day I drove, so I can't speak to how well it handles glare on sunny days.
And in truth, there are some physical controls on the steering wheel. These allow you to control the radio and reconfigure the digital gauge cluster to show smaller versions of key info right in front of you, such as the nav map, audio system info, or available driving range (to name a few). The Model S will also offer voice commands to handle different tasks, but they weren't yet enabled on the tester I drove. Tesla is still finalizing them, according to the rep we spoke to. Additionally, the cars have built-in web connectivity over commercial wireless providers. The center display showed that we were on a 3G connection. This allows the car to use Google Maps, play Internet radio (we were listenign to jazz via Slacker), and even surf the web via the built-in web browser you can call up onscreen.
So, what's it all cost? The 85 kWh Model S Signature Performance model I drove starts at $97,900. The panoramic roof adds another $1,500. There are some other available add-ons (not many, though, as the Signature Performance is pretty much loaded to begin with) but I don't know if they were applied to the tester. Regardless, figure on at least $100,000 for a completely loaded top-of-the-line Model S Signature Performance. The regular 85 kWh Signature model (362 hp) starts at $87,900. After the first 1,000 cars are produced, the Signature trim goes away and prices drop to $84,900 for the Model S Performance and $69,900 for the standard 85 kWh car.
Only the 85 kWh models are being produced at the moment. Tesla will add a 60 kWh model this fall ($59,900 and a 230 mile range) and a 40 kWh model in the winter ($49,900 and a 160-mile range). The reps we spoke to said all three battery levels will be in production before the end of 2012. Note: We didn't spend any time charging the car and cannot speak to the amount of time it takes to do so. That'll vary depending on the voltage you're using (240, 120 or a commercial charging station) and whether your Model S is equipped with single or dual onboard chargers.
The most lasting impression left by the Tesla Model S is perhaps the most important. The element that has people interested and excited is that it's an electric car, and that's understandable. But after a few minutes driving it, you forget about the green angle entirely and realize that the Model S is a good car, period. Maybe it's even a great car; that much will be determined over time. But I know that after getting a taste of what it has to offer, I feel a little jealous of the owners waiting to take delivery. It's an enviable ride.
One thing you can't call the Tesla Model S is ugly. It's one of the better-looking sedans you'll come across from any manufacturer.
Hatchback opening is more evident from this view (you can see the cutlines). We also weren't alone in saying that the car reminded us a lot of the Jaguar XF from the rear. It's better looking than the Porsche Panamera, another performance/luxury hatchback that the Model S is priced to fight.
Instrument panels don't get more simplified than this. Fancy materials and a gigantic rouchscreen. No dials and buttons to fuss with, which can be good or bad.
The back seat is set up for three adults, offers good legroom, and can accomodate up to three child seats, too.
You get over 26 cubic feet of storage space in back with the rear seats in use, which is a lot of room. This car doesn't have them, but you can order optional kid-sized jumpseats (with built-in harnesses) that live in this space, too. You know, like the station wagons you grew up rifding in, only with no gasoline and 400+ horsepower. Progress.
I was as shocked as anyone to learn that that big touchscreen interface is actually straightforward to use. Then I thought about the fact that one of my kids was operating an iPhone at age three, and it's less surprising. The interface apes what you experience with smartphone and tablet apps.
Junk in the trunk? How about junk in the "frunk" instead? There's genuinely useful storage in the Model S's forward compartment.
This is the keyfob for the Model S. It's shaped like the car (something Porsche has been doing for a while), but in a neat twist, there are no buttons on it. Touch the middle to unlock the doors, the front to open the frunk, and the rear to open the hatchback. Gimmicky? Yes. Cool? Yes again.
This is the gauge cluster screen you're greeted with when you first enter the car and it powers up.
Pressing the brake effectively wakes the car up all the way, and presents you with the speedometer, charge/regeneration indicators, and whatever supplemtal displays you've shosen to see. Here, it's nav and power usage. You can cycle through a variety of options on either side of the primary instrument, which remains constant.
The huge touchscreen interface means you get big, app-style interfaces. As you might expect, you can customize what you're looking at, change the order in which the features appear (fullscreen, split-screen, shuffle between top and bottom, etc). The climate controls remain anchored at the bottom, as seen here.
Big buttons and clear images make operating different features easier than you'd imagine, even with the touchscreen user interface.