Low-level Flying: Tesla Model S
Want to buy an electric car? Make it this one.
Remember when you were a little kid riding your bike and you made “vroom-vroom” sounds like a car? You probably went on to buy cars that made those same sorts of sounds.
Well, your next auto could be different. As Tesla Motors’ electrically powered Model S makes clear, there’s a new world out there, and “vroom-vroom” is no longer necessarily the sound of speed. With the Tesla, there are no ripping canvas yowls like you’d hear from a Ferrari or Lambo at high speeds. There’s just silence.
That doesn’t mean you can’t take off like an F-18 Hornet fighter during a carrier launch. Just under six seconds after you tap the shift lever on the base-model Tesla S into the forward position, the LED number on the digital dash can be painting 60 mph. And the car can continue to accelerate, up to around 125 mph, at which point software controlling the motor limits the speed. A higher-priced model decreases zero-to-60 time to 4.2 seconds and boosts top speed to 130 mph.
Keep in mind that Tesla’s Model S is 100 percent electric powered, not a hybrid that also incorporates a gas engine. It is, in fact, a golf cart on steroids and it feels like something out of a sci-fi movie. You zoom forward silently while the scenery turns into a streaked blur. “Warp speed, Mr. Sulu.”
Let’s cut to the chase. If you’re thinking about buying a luxury electric car, there is only one choice: the Tesla Model S. A lot of electric/hybrid autos are suitable for puttering around town. But the Tesla, which is produced entirely in California, is a grand touring vehicle in every way—luxuriously appointed, impeccably crafted and so slippery and sleek that it has the lowest drag coefficient (0.24) of any car on the street. It does this by having such niceties as door handles that pop out when you approach with the key fob and disappear when you’re settled into the cabin.
The five-door Tesla S, which starts at $69,900, coddles you with leather seating and trim comparable to what you’d find on cars that are twice as expensive, and the choice of five décor accents includes woods and carbon fiber. There’s seating for five, plus optional rear-face seats for two children. One surprise for many is the absolutely flat floor, thanks to a unique battery package that doesn’t intrude on the cabin.
The focal point of the interior is a 17-inch touchscreen that controls data, navigation and even communications functions. With an optional tech package, the touchscreen provides not just GPS but satellite photo/maps and a web browser. You can program up to 10 phones into the system, allowing full connectivity for business or family use. And an optional ultra-high-fidelity sound package, which includes satellite radio, is exceptional. While driving, you can control the touchscreen functions from the steering wheel. The three-passenger rear seat folds flat, providing 58 cubic feet of storage which, Tesla claims, allows you to carry a mountain bike, a surfboard and a flat-screen TV—all at once. Lift the hood and you’ll discover another five cubic feet of space for groceries or packages. Tesla enthusiasts call this front trunk the “frunk.”
The Tesla S body is aluminum-intensive, with in-house extrusions, castings and stampings combined with a rigid steel occupant cell for safety. The battery is married to the underside of the body for a lower center of gravity, increased rigidity and protection of the cabin. Liquid-cooled, the battery structure protects the cells from impact and automatically disconnects power in an impact. (Several fires were attributed to the battery pack in 2013, but Tesla has since made design changes that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration believes should reduce any risk.)
Traction control of the rear wheels provides the best adhesion for acceleration and winding roads and adapts instantly to improve the grip in rain, snow or ice. Optional Smart Air Suspension lowers the vehicle for better aerodynamics as the Tesla accelerates. You can also use the touchscreen to raise the car’s height when crossing bumps or a steep driveway.
The Tesla is wicked fun to drive. With the center of gravity at just 17 inches, or about the same as on a Ford GT race car, it begs for a winding road. The power steering provides just the right feedback without getting soft, and the optional Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires hug the highway.
The biggest question everyone asks about electric cars is, “How far will they go?” In the case of Tesla’s Model S, the answer depends on your driving style and on which of two batteries you choose: 60kwh or 85kwh. With the smaller model, EPA-certified range is up to 208 miles; the larger battery bumps the limit to 265 miles. Such limits can produce “range anxiety,” a common malaise among electric car owners, but Tesla has taken steps to minimize it. Every Model S comes with everything you need to plug into a 240- or 120-volt outlet or an 80-amp public charging station. Most Tesla owners charge overnight. Using a 240-volt wall connector, it takes one hour to add 58 miles of range. If you buy two batteries, you can swap a depleted one for a fully charged one in 90 seconds.
Another option is to employ the Supercharger stations that Tesla is building on major highways. These can replenish half your car’s range in just 20 minutes, cost nothing to use and are located close to diversions such as Starbucks and shopping malls. At press time, 103 Supercharger stations were providing full cross-country coverage in the U.S. as well as covering north-south routes on both coasts. There are also 44 stations in Europe and nine in Asia, and Tesla continues to add more regularly.
“I love my Tesla,” says Elaine Ragon, general manager of Florida’s Palm Beach Yacht Club. “I never thought I’d want a sedan, but this is more like a sports car with room for guests and luggage. The Tesla puts the fun back in my driving.” Tesla’s Model S is an engineering tour de force. It is also one of the world’s best cars—electric or gas.
Beam me up, Scotty!
About Tesla Motors
Tesla Motors is named after Nikola Tesla, an electrical inventor and contemporary of Thomas Edison. It was formed in 2003 to prove the feasibility of electric vehicles, and it launched with the Tesla Roadster in 2008, the first fully electric sports car. The company’s current CEO and product architect is Elon Musk, the billionaire former president of Paypal and cofounder and CEO of SpaceX, the first privately funded civilian rocket company to put a satellite into space.
There are no Tesla brochures: everything is on the company’s website (teslamotors.com) and you “build” your car online. No cars are for sale in Tesla showrooms (except demonstrators) and every Tesla (some 35,000 for 2014) is bespoke for each owner in about three months.
TESLA MODEL S SPECS
Base price: $69,900
Seating capacity: 5 adults
Zero to 60 mph: 5.9 sec*
Engine output: 302 hp
Range: 208 mi
Top speed: 125 mph*
Rear cargo volume (seats up/down): 26.3/58.1 cu ft
Front cargo volume: 5.3 cu ft
Curb weight: 4,647 lb
Warranty (transferable): eight years, unlimited miles on both drive unit and battery pack
Ed. Note: Information above has been revised from what appeared in our print edition to reflect the fact that Tesla recently lengthened its drive-unit warranty and eliminated mileage limits for drive-unit and battery-pack coverage.
SHOULD YOU BUY AN ELECTRIC CAR NOW?
Is this the right time to buy a Tesla—or any electric auto, for that matter? That depends on how you drive, what you need your car to do and how hungry you are for a taste of the future. Prices of electric cars are coming down while manufacturers are adding features, so the longer you wait, the more you’ll get and the less you’ll pay. Remember how prices of flat-screen TVs dropped as they gained popularity and features? Same situation here.
Here are some questions to ask when considering whether to buy an electric car now:
Is range an issue? If you plan to use the car for a daily commute to work, you should be fine. But if you fancy taking trips longer than a few hundred miles, stopping for battery recharges will become frustrating.
Is cost an issue? If you’re looking for inexpensive wheels for your teenager, an electric car isn’t the best choice. As noted above, prices are dropping but Tesla’s lowest-priced Model S costs about $70,000 and, while the Nissan Leaf starts at a relatively low $29,000, you can buy the similarly sized gas-powered Nissan Sentra for $16,000. Note, though, that government incentives offset the prices of electric cars and that they cost less to operate. Tesla figures you could save more than $2,000 a year on fuel if you drive 15,000 miles annually. Maintenance will cost less, too.
Are you willing to install a home charging station? You can charge an electric car from an ordinary household outlet, but you’ll get four to six times faster results from a docking station connected to a 240-volt circuit.
What’s your climate? Today’s electric cars remain sensitive to the upper and lower range of temperatures, both of which will reduce your driving range.
Are there charging stations where you drive? Office buildings, hotels and retailers such as Walmart, Ikea, Lowe’s and Sears are beginning to add them and, as noted in the accompanying feature, Tesla is building a nationwide network of stations.
Chris Caswell is a Florida-based freelance writer specializing in automotive and yacht coverage.