The Car Connection Tesla Model S Overview
The Tesla Model S is a part of automotive history. While it wasn't the first battery-electric car to go on sale, it's currently the longest-range battery-electric car sold on the mass market, and has been since volume production began in mid-2012. Its upgrades and new features don't correspond to model years, however; Tesla simply unveils them in production when they're ready to launch. That means there can be significant differences within a single model year of Model S.
Still, the big Tesla sedan has been a transformative vehicle in the global auto industry—as a start-up brand, as an object of desire by car enthusiasts, and as a wedge to popularize electric vehicles in a way vehicles like the Nissan Leaf have been unable to effect. As of mid-2016, Tesla has sold more than 120,000 of them in North America, Europe, and China, far outstripping other auto startups like DeLorean and Tucker.
MORE: Read our review of the 2017 Tesla Model S
The Model S is not just a good-looking, long-range, all-electric car. It's a competitive luxury sport sedan that was designed, engineered, tested, and built by a carmaker that's been in business only 10 years—a fleeting heartbeat in the 140-year-old industry. Beyond that, the lightning-quick Model S has received a near-relentless level of attention from an enthralled public and fostered a new breed of premium EV enthusiasts.
With regular "over-the-air" updates to improve the car's control software, and occasional updates and lineup changes whenever they're ready, Tesla Motors plays by different rules than other carmakers. So far, it seems to be working. The Tesla Model S offers more range than every other plug-in car: from 218 to 315 miles for the all-wheel-drive versions with 60- and 100-kilowatt-hour battery packs as of mid-2016, respectively.
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 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 resemble a Jaguar XJ more 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 launched a Model X crossover utility vehicle on the same platform, which we cover separately.
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 its 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 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 offered relatively few of the electronic systems and gadgetry found in 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 changed with a late-2014 update, however.
One important option for buyers is the choice of multiple battery-pack capacities, which have included sizes of 60, 70, 75, 85, 90, and 100 kwh at various points. The first has been rated at more than 200 miles of electric range by the EPA, and the last at more than 300 miles depending on options. 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.
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. But direct competition won't arrive until 2018 or later, when high-end German makers launch fast, luxurious, all-electric sedans (and crossover utility vehicles) with sleek looks and 200 to 300 miles of range. For the record, that will be six years after the first Tesla Model S was delivered to its buyer in June 2012.
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 quickly-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 adapter 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 3 seconds, and a top speed of 150 mph.