New & Used Tesla Model S: In Depth
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As the second car sold by Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA], the Model S is the rarest of rarities: a competitive luxury sport sedan engineered, designed, tested, and built by a carmaker that's only been in business 10 years. The Model S remains the longest-range regular-production battery-electric car in the world, and that holds true more than two years since its original launch. Beyond that, the Model S has received a near-relentless level of attention from an enthralled public, and fostered a new breed of premium EV enthusiasts.
The Tesla Model S offers the longest range of any plug-in electric car sold in the U.S. today: 208 miles for a version with a 60-kilowatt-hour battery pack, 265 miles for the 85-kWh battery model, 270 miles for the dual-motor 85-kWh 85D model, and 253 miles for the high-performance P85D. Unlike Tesla's first model--it built just 2,500 two-seat Roadsters--the Model S is a volume production car. As of summer 2014, Tesla has build and sold more than 50,000 copies of the Model S in North America, Europe, and China.
Competitors for the Model S include both mid-size and large sport sedans from German makers as well as various other plug-in electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, and 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, S-Class, and 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 also more competitive in the luxury sport sedan class--it's a "real car," not a science project or beta version.
The large, sleek Model S is actually a five-door hatchback that seats five adults and has the option for rear-facing jump seats that can also fit two children in what would normally be the car's cargo area. The S 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 unlike the Roadster, the all-aluminum Model S 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 several times while Musk says they are perfecting it based on what they've learned from the Model S.
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. Inside, the most striking feature of the electric Model S is the 17-inch color display--the largest ever fitted to an automobile--in the center stack, which shows output from apps specifically written for it. The sheer size of the display allows large, easily visible type sizes, and it also offers direct Internet connectivity via the car's built-in cellular modem.
The Model S has been surprising 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. Though heavy, the Model S has one of the lowest center-of-gravity measurements in the industry.
The first Model S sedans built offer relatively few of the electronic systems and gadgetry found 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 early examples did 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. That changes with a late-2014 update, however.
One important option for buyers 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.
The Silicon Valley automaker isn't quite as tuned-in to traditional model years as some automakers, and it's rolled out some tech changes on the Model S right when they're ready. For instance in September 2014, before the 2014 model-year run was over (thus far, for Tesla they've been roughly in sync with calendar years), the automaker rolled out a major 'over-the-air' live update -- to all models built so far, even previous years -- bringing predictive traffic, remote start, location-based behavior for the air suspension, and the equivalent of a sleep mode.
Late in 2014, Tesla made a two-part announcement concerning the Model S. The first was that the company is adding autonomous features to the car, and in fact had already been building them with the necessary sensors for a little while. The second was perhaps more interesting to the enthusiast crowd, as Elon Musk unveiled that the cryptically teased D is a dual-motor version of the Model S—using an extra motor up front like the upcoming Model X crossover will—that can hit 60 mph in 2.9 seconds with the bigger motor and battery pack, that package dubbed P85D. There is also an all-wheel-drive 85D with a smaller front motor that gets the best range of any Model S variant.
The next over-the-air update for the Model S, scheduled to arrive later in 2015, will add two sets of features. One is called Range Assurance and will update the navigation system to constantly track the closest chargers and their availability, warning the river if the vehicle is about to be driven out of range and also planning the most convenient route with charging stops along the way. Later Model S cars with the appropriate equipment will also receive autonomous driving features that will work on highways and major roads. The autonomous cars will also be summonable without a driver on private property, able to park and retrieve themselves.