New & Used Tesla Model S: In Depth
More than two years after going into production, the Tesla Model S remains the longest-range battery-electric car in the world--and perhaps the one that has received most attention from an enthralled public. The Model S, the second car sold by Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA], is the rarest of rarities: a competitive luxury sport sedan engineered, designed, tested and built by a brand-new carmaker that's only been in business 10 years ago.
The Tesla Model S offers the longest range of any plug-in electric car sold in the U.S. today: either 208 miles (for a version with a smaller 60-kilowatt-hour battery pack) or 265 miles (for the 85-kWh battery model). Unlike the limited production of Tesla's first car--it built just 2,500 two-seat Roadsters--the Model S is a volume production car. As of summer 2014, more than 50,000 Model Ses had been built and sold in North America, Europe, and China.
Competitors for the Model S include both mid-size or large sport sedans from German makers and various other plug-in electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, or BMW i3. The German sedans would include the Audi A6, A7, and A8; the BMW 5-Series and 7-Series; and the Mercedes-Benz E Class and S Class (as well as the much sleeker CLS).
Based on size, performance, prestige, and price, the Tesla Model S most directly competes with the 2014 Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, a plug-in hybrid with an electric range of about 20 miles. The Model S was initially compared to the now-defunct Fisker Karma range-extended electric car--also a large luxury sedan powered by electricity--but the Tesla is far larger inside, and far simpler mechanically. The Tesla Model S is far more competitive in the luxury sport sedan class--in a phrase, it's a "real car," not a science project or beta version.
The large, sleek Model S seats five adults and has the option for a rear-facing jump seat that can also fit two children in the rear of the car. It has roughly the same form as the Audi A7, though its rounded lines more resemble a Jaguar XJ than the crisp, linear Audi. The in-floor battery pack, electric motor, and power electronics were all developed by Tesla Motors itself, and the all-aluminum Model S (unlike the Roadster) is not based on the underpinnings of any other vehicle. Tesla also plans to launch a Model X crossover utility vehicle on the same platform--though volume production of that car has now been delayed until spring 2015.
The styling of the Model S is sleek and low. Unusually for a midsize luxury sedan, the car is actually a five-door hatchback. Because the battery pack is contained entirely within a floorpan that is just a few inches tall, the designers had unusual freedom to allocate space inside the car. This means the Model S can offer an optional pair of rear-facing seats for a sixth and seventh passenger, though they are only child-sized--and fitted with four-point safety restraints that at least some kids may find overly confining.
Inside, the most striking feature of the electric Model S is the 17-inch color display in the center stack--the largest ever fitted to an automobile--which displays output from apps specifically written for it. The sheer size of the display allows large, easily visible type sizes, and it is also offers direct Internet connectivity via the car's built-in cellular phone.
Every journalist who has driven a Model S has been surprised at its on-road performance. It offers smooth, quiet, and remarkably quick acceleration, with a slight high-pitched whine from the electronics only under maximum power. With the weight of the battery mounted in the floorpan, as low as it can go, the Model S corners flat and predictably.
The first Model S sedans built offer relatively few of the electronic systems and gadgetry offered in the large German luxury sedans. Tesla spent the bulk of its development effort on the battery management system--as well as designing the complete car. So the Model S does not offer adaptive cruise control, for instance, nor collision avoidance, lane-departure warning or correction, automatic parking, or any of the other complex electronic systems offered as pricey options among its competitors.
Tesla pretty much ignores the industry convention of model years: a "2014 Model S" is one built during that calendar year. Instead, the company updates the car in production whenever new features are ready--and retrofits all cars with improved operating software via "over-the-air updates" of the car's control systems.
One important option for buyers, however, is the choice of two different battery-pack capacities: 85 kilowatt-hours and 60 kWh (a third variant, with 40 kWh, was announced but never produced--due to extremely low demand, Tesla says). The first has been rated at 265 miles of electric range by the EPA, and the second at 208 miles. As always, effective real-world range--on a Tesla or any other plug-in electric car--will vary greatly, depending on driving speed, style, accessory use, and outside temperature.
Tesla has chosen not to use the industry-standard J-1772 charging socket used in every other plug-in car. Instead, it fits a single plug of its own design that will handle the car's built-in 10-kilowatt charging--some models come with a pair of 10-kW chargers, for a total of 20 kW--as well as fast charging delivered by the fast-growing network of Tesla-only "Supercharger" stations located along major travel routes. The lowest-range Model S cannot be equipped with the second 10-kW charger, but the company provides a J-1772 adaptor cord for all models so Model S owners can recharge at conventional public or private charging stations.
That means the Model S offers not only the smooth, quiet power of electric drive but the simplicity and zero-emissions status of a battery electric car. For the Performance edition with the largest battery pack, Tesla quotes acceleration of 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, and a top speed over 100 mph.
The 60-kWh version is $69,900 before any incentives, and the 85-kWh version is $79,900. The Performance model adds another $10,000 to the price of the 85-kWh model, and a fully-optioned Model S can easily exceed $100,000. All Model S cars qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for the purchase of a plug-in vehicle. In California, the Tesla Model S qualifies as a zero-emission vehicle for the "white sticker" permit that allows single-occupant travel in the state's carpool or High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. It also qualifies for a California purchase rebate of $2,500, a $5,000 income-tax credit in Georgia, and a large number of other regional, local, and corporate incentives.
Tesla warranties the battery pack and powertrain for eight years, with a separate three- or four-year warranty on the rest of the car. The battery warranty, however, applies to the pack continuing to function--not to maintenance of its total energy capacity, which will decline over time at a yet-to-be-determined rate that depends on temperature, usage, and other factors. The liquid thermal conditioning of the pack, electric motor, and other electric components should keep the battery safely within its best operating temperature, however, unlike other electric cars that use passive air cooling for floor-mounted packs.