This week, I seized the opportunity to test-drive a shiny new 2013 Tesla Model S while I was traveling in California. If you are presented with that opportunity – it’s a VERY low pressure activity – you should take advantage of it. You’ll be a better automobile enthusiast for it. Be warned that you might like it a lot. I did.
[Full Disclosure: Tesla wanted me to drive the Tesla Model S so badly that they built a Service/Showroom center in Burlingame, CA that is easily seen from HWY 101. Then, they lured me to visit this location with a temporary banner tacked to the side of the building saying “NOW OPEN”. When I walked into the showroom to look around, a nice person greeted me, thanked me for visiting, and asked what he could do for me. I identified myself as a car nerd, and that I came in solely to look around out of curiosity for the car and its technology – not to buy one. He acknowledged that and STILL spent 30 minutes chatting about nerdy details of the Model S with me, and at the end he said something like, “How long are you in town for? You should really drive one.” The rest, as they say, is history.]
(Please pardon the potato camera (Samsung G-CG) photos – I am not in the habit of traveling with photo-gear on work trips. Tesla has several great shots of the Model S on their website. In fact, the lead image is from their gallery because it was difficult to try to coordinate a photoshoot in a scenic place during a test drive.)
The Tesla design team has achieved a difficult feat: Design a large, aerodynamic, 5-person (plus two children, with optional equipment), attractive, and elegant sedan – oh yeah, and it’s fully electric. The overall styling is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is hard to argue with the incredible attention to detail that manifests itself in the exterior design elements like the jewel-like side marker/turn lights.
The one nit I have is the front fascia styling. The front impact bumper and cross-car structure is hidden behind a large glossy plastic trim piece within the large black catfish mouth.
Outside of this unfortunate design element, the exterior is _very_ attractive in real life. The rear ¾ is the best view of the Model S IMHO. I asked John if he knew about any plans for a refresh. He said that at the last large owner’s meet, Elon described a refresh cadence similar to the auto-industry, so we can expect a 2-3 year wait between new plastic bits and a few years longer for aluminum class-A surfaces to change. John did mention that the design team is on full afterburner working on the Model X – then he stopped himself before divulging anything that could get him in trouble. Shucks.
The sunroof is a two panel design – one moveable panel up front and a fixed panel at the rear. There is no sun shade underneath, but the glass has a very dark tint. Owners apparently haven’t been clamoring for a shade, and I would agree – even in the bright California sun, we were cool as cucumbers in there. The controls (on the 17” touch screen) are intuitive and the operation is smooth. The controls let you vent or open the panel from 0% to 100% open or anywhere between with a flick of your finger. Like most late model automobile sunroofs, a tall mesh screen deploys on the leading edge of the sunroof to eliminating buffeting.
While we’re talking about the roof, there is a nice hidden detail for the active folks that like to toss their bikes and/or kayaks up on the roof. Four mounting points are hidden under hinged doors and Yakima sells the base mounts, bars, and accessories to carry all of your gear.
The Frunk is ample, but I think that more owners will use the auto-open trunk (with the Tech Package) which is very large. I imagine the Frunk being used for items that you might not access often like a blanket and chairs for impromptu picnics along your favorite cruising route through the mountians. There is a recessed well in the Frunk in which you can store items more discretely such as a large magnet or cases of out-of-state beer for which you haven’t paid taxes.
The interior is comfortable, inviting, and well appointed. I was so engaged with the experience and drive that I didn’t snap any pics of the interior (oops!), but I’ll insert a Tesla stock photo to give you an idea of the ‘glass cockpit’ layout and surface treatments.
Note the #Thicke steering wheel. It is a joy to hold. Whether you are cruising with one hand at 9 o’clock (or 12 noon in da hood), two hands at ‘9 & 3’, or highway loafing with hands at ‘430 & 730’ the subtly-flat bottom steering wheel has just the right shape, size, and contour for your hands to rest comfortably. It’s a great driver interface.
A BMW or Mercedes snob (which I am not, BTW) might think the Model S interior is down a tick from a 7 series or S-class interior. I’ll gladly accept a slightly less luxurious interior if it means that Tesla can put more goodness into the powertrain and chassis. The power adjustable seats are firm yet comfortable, but truth be told, I was only in it for 40 minutes or so. I guess I’ll just need to go for a longer drive next time… :-)
The interior is surprisingly quiet considering there isn’t any powertrain noise to mask wind and road noise. I drove on a mix of surface streets and interstate highway, and I never once thought that the noise was intrusive. FYI, I did evaluate the radio, but while I was parked because I purposely wanted to hear the eerie quiet drive. There was some very minimal motor whine noticeable on the surface streets between 30-45 mph, but remember, I have an ear tuned to these things. Nothing out of the ordinary – certainly less noise than the pinion whine from a RWD truck/SUV (like the Grand Cherokee rental I was driving).
Rear-seat passengers will be comfortable as well, and (gasp) there is no dreaded center tunnel hump ! Of course, there is no driveshaft or exhaust to route through the tunnel, nor is the tunnel necessary for structure as the extruded/cast aluminum frame underneath is plenty strong without a tunnel. Three average adults can sit in the back seat for a short ride out to dinner or to a friends’ house. I wouldn’t go on a long distance road trip with three adults back there.
A unique aspect of the interior is the optional 5+2 rear-facing child-jump-seat. It is stored in the subfloor below the trunk and can be deployed and stowed in seconds as shown in the video below.
Now for the fun stuff – Vehicle Dynamics. This is really where I was most pleasantly surprised with the Model S.
I had to choose between the 60kWh, 85kWh, and P85kWh models, so I chose the 85kWh non-performance version. This is the configuration with the highest take-rate, and probably what I would get if I bought a Model S. The P85 provides nutty acceleration, but in reality it would be difficult to take advantage of that performance on the street often without collecting several ‘awards’ from the local LEO’s. It’s also a $10,000 premium over the 85kWh model which is already $10,000 over the 60kWh model. All of the batteries have an 8 year warranty, however the warranty mileage limit varies by battery size. The 60kWh battery only has a 125,000 mile warranty, the 85kWh batteries have unlimited mileage warranty.
I can tell you that the rush of torque from the motor and resulting acceleration is brilliant. The response is instant. No downshifting, turbo lag, or ETC nannies to dampen the fun… Just a circus of electrons blasting through high voltage wires to the motor controller and into that monster motor. 0-30 ? Quick. 30-60 ? QUICK. 60-80 passing ? Effortless. I had to behave on this drive, but was able to step on the FUN pedal for a few quick sprints. MAN, this thing has legs…
I inquired about ABS/ESP/TCS defeat mode for burnouts and John said that there was no way to do a burnout. Smart answer – I might have tried. The real answer is that you need to remove some fuses to make a smoke show, but it disables most of the 12V powered equipment including the brake vacuum pump, steering, and air suspension compressor (if equipped). Not such a good idea. Rest assured that with 325ft-lb/362HP in the 85kWh model, you have plenty of torque on hand to roast the tires to the cords if that’s the way you like to spend your Sunday morning. The P85 Model S has 443 ft-lb/416HP which is just overdoing it IMHO. Go here and click on Battery to compare output specs.
I had asked about record mileage accumulation and John thought he heard stories of someone 'hypermiling' their Model S to well over 300 miles. I am sure there are some posts in the TeslaOwnersForums that address this.
HURRAY ! Finally, an American-made car that has perfect brake pedal travel, effort, bite, and modulation. What a refreshing driving experience to have – especially in a large luxury car ! 4650lbs of car with just shy of 400 lbs of passenger weight were no problem for the brakes. The foundation brakes are vacuum assisted from a small pump located low in the front of the car.
One thing that caught me by surprise (because I wasn’t ready for it) was the regenerative braking. Once you lift your foot off of the accelerator at speed, the regen braking begins and it is aggressive at surface street speeds. Think about at least one downshift and engine braking in an MTX-equipped car. It took some getting used to, and I sampled ‘low’ regen braking mode which felt exactly like a typical ATX-equipped car might while coasting.
The Model S I test-drove had the standard (read: non-Air Adjustable) suspension and 245/45R19 GoodYear Eagle RS-A2 All Season Tires. Again – probably not too different from how I might spec a Model S. There are two optional sport tires (to go with the sport adjustable suspension): 1) 245/35R21 Continental ExtremeContact DW (as seen above) or 2) a staggered 245/35R21 FRT / 265/35R21 Michelin Pilot Sport PS2.
The Eagle RS-A2 tires and conventional spring/damper/swaybar suspension handled the scarred surface streets without drama. When we transitioned onto the highway, the suspension kept the 5000lbs of mass well in control and comfortably stable. The damper calibration is definitely on the sporty-side of the large sedan class, but the impact harshness is nicely isolated, and primary ride motion of the body (unsprung mass) is controlled well, if not overdamped a bit. The Car only had 435 miles on it, so I imagine things are still a little tight. Still, having a 4650lb car plus passengers ride this well is an achievement. It wasn’t until after the drive that I spied their secret ingredient – Bilstein dampers ! Bravo.
The left-rear Air-Suspension unit is shown on the chassis buck below:
The good times keep on rollin’ here. The Model S does not handle like a 4650lb car. It handles like a 3800lb car – maybe better. With much of the vehicle mass (the modular battery) located low in the vehicle, a 48/52 weight distribution, and a simple powertrain configuration, handling the Model S was a joy. The GY Eagle RS-A2 tires had great grip and felt linear up through the sub-limit handling I did – remember, I wasn’t trying to buy a Tesla… Yet… There was at least one clover leaf on-ramp that I could progressively squeeze the accelerator down and whip out onto the expressway. Man, this thing has chops.
The variable rate and assist Electric Power Steering is nearly perfectly calibrated to provide extra assist in parking lots, but provide you with great road feel and resistance on the highway. The car does not wander around the lane(s) like the 2014 Impala does. Taut and communicative steering in a large luxury car – very refreshing.
There _is_ a gearbox in the Model S, but it’s not like any other gearbox in an automobile besides another Tesla. The 9.73:1 fixed gear ratio matches the electric motor’s sweet spot for torque delivery and efficiency. The gearbox/motor in this car had a slight trace of whine, but I was really listening hard for it. If the radio were on, or the sunroof were open, I wouldn’t have heard it.
The driver controls in the cockpit include a shifter stalk on the steering column that has R/N/P/N/D positions which is a little different from the PRNDL configuration on conventional ATX-equipped vehicles. In the case of the Model S, Reverse is two detents up (CCW) and Drive is two detents down (CW) from Park which is in the center. The two intermediate detents are neutrals – one on the way to Reverse and one on the way to Drive.
Oooooh, boy. Toys. The Model S has got them in scads. From the sexy keyless entry FOB, to the preset driver profile settings, and all of the goodness that is the glass cockpit. Let’s talk about the reconfigurable instrument cluster first.
There are three areas of interest. First, in the middle, is the speedo & power cluster. The speed is indicated in analogue style on the left half of the gauge and displayed digitally on the top. The power consumption (or regen) is indicated in analogue style on the right half of the gauge. The range and ‘battery meter’ is shown in the bottom center of the gauge and the PRND indicator at the very bottom. There is a lot of data displayed there, but it is intuitive to read any of those bits of data on the fly. To the left of the speedo & power cluster, is a programmable space to show audio, detailed power stats, and other customizable content. When a destination is entered into the NAV screen, then a 3D perspective view of your immediate route is displayed here by default. To the right of thespeedo & power cluster is another re-configurable screen space. The re-configurable screens are simply accessed/changed with the thumbwheels on the steering wheel.
Now for the 17” center screen. This thing is the data center of the Model S. It’s a beautiful HD reconfigurable screen that displays the Tesla-developed GUI running on a LINUX kernel. The navigation of this screen will be second nature to anyone with a smartphone or tablet device already. Pinch, swipe, slide, and tap/click your way through. The clickology is very similar – on purpose. Nearly EVERYTHING about the car can be viewed and/or configured through this screen. Audio, NAV, driving preferences, lights, rear view camera, vehicle configuration, sunroof position, HVAC, phone, etc. etc. etc. It does it all. All. Of. It. The car has the ability to update itself over the air (OTA) and when it does, you are presented with a message when you get in the car, and the screen displays the release notes and new features. BRILLIANT ! The sky is the limit for this interface design. I think the rest of the auto industry will get there in a few more years. There is no need for a gaudy plastic center-stack with knobs and switches, and buttons. It’s all in the easily navigated and intuitive GUI. The screen can be configured to show two mini screens at once such as audio and NAV, or rear camera and audio, etc. etc. The possibilities are many.
Since the Steering Column is a Mercedes-sourced part, the cruise control and turn signal stalks as well as the tilt/telescope adjustments work in exactly the same way. As mentioned previously, the gear selector stalk is a little different.
The audio system is awesome. You can purchase the car with 3G broadband data service and stream Pandora, Slacker, and other media. You can of course pair your smartphone and place calls and/or stream media from your smartphone through the vehicle entertainment system. I evaluated the audio in the parking lot before rolling out for the drive, and the sound quality was superb. High Frequency response was crisp and clear, and low frequency bass was clear and well defined – not terribly muffled. There is a $2500 Ultra High Fidelity Bose Sound system available, but the car I drove was not equipped with it. I thought the standard system sounded more than adequate. Besides, most owner will want to creep around in their silent luxury cruiser in eerie silence – at least for the first week.
Well, this is where the Tesla falls victim to its expensive technology. Sure, if you appreciate the technology and early adoption of such technology, then the price of the Tesla is not half bad. The 60kWh model starts @ $63,570 (including the $7500 Federal Tax Credit). Add $10,000 for the 85kWh model or add $20,000 for the P85kWh model. Then come the options… (Cha-Ching !) Check every box on the option sheet and the Tesla Model S price tickles $120,000. That is a lot of clams. In time, I imagine prices will come down some, but I don't expect them to plummet very far. You do get a lot for your money:
So, let’s take stock of what you get here. One of the most well synthesized large luxury cars on the market with a zero emission powertrain, incredible straight-line _and_ handling performance, and EPA equivalent 88 city/90 hwy MPG. I am actually less interested in the ‘save the world with electric cars’ idea (partly because I know electric cars have to get power from somewhere, and that’s usually/mostly an HC-fueled powerplant), and more interested in the Tesla Model S as just a great example of American automotive engineering prowess breaking into a new market paradigm. For such a small and young company to get so many things right from a vehicle development and synthesis point of view is energizing and exciting. The big OEM's fight within their ranks about customer experience and get no where, while a small company like Tesla sets a target, goes out and nails it the first time out.
I went into the Tesla Service/Showroom Center just to browse around and look at car-nerd things. I left having driven an impressive vehicle that I would strongly consider owning.