- Sleek, attractive design
- Lots of space for people, cargo
- Hatchback offers versatility
- Tesla still has to survive
- Touchscreen-only minor controls
- Kids only as rearmost passengers
The Tesla Model S is a revolutionary electric car that blends sporty handling and lots of space, with a range of battery sizes so buyers can choose (and pay for) only the range they need.
The 2013 Tesla Model S is the second year for the first high-volume car from Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA]. It went into production in June 2012, and by late 2012, the company was building a few hundred each week, to work down its backlog of more than 10,000 orders for the all-electric luxury sport sedan.
The long, sleek shape of the 2013 Model S seems to remind onlookers most of the Jaguar XJ and XF sedans--good company to keep if you're a startup luxury carmaker. The interior is well made, but fairly simple, dominated by the stunning 17-inch touchscreen display mounted vertically in the center of the dashboard. Its sheer size, graphic design, bright display, and lightning-quick response really make any other car's touchscreen interface feel 10 years old. There's also a smaller instrument display for the driver in the usual position behind the steering wheel. While we wonder about the distraction that comes from relegating all the minor controls to the center display, it has large icons and clear, easy-to-read fonts, so it's more usable than any we've seen.
While the Model S competes in the sport-sedan segment, it's actually a five-door hatchback with a pair of optional child-sized jump seats facing rearward in the cargo bay. They're only suitable for kids willing to wear the four-point safety harness, but they let Tesla claim that the Model S holds seven passengers. Still, short of large crossover utility vehicles, no other sedan even tries to hold seven occupants. We're more than a little curious about the safety provisions, though--those kids sit very close to the liftgate.
The floor-mounted lithium-ion battery pack of the Model S gives it a very low center of gravity, and the rear-mounted electric drive motor frees up the compartment up front under the hood--which contains a storage compartment that Tesla insists on calling the "frunk," or front trunk.
Three battery-pack capacities are offered--85 kilowatt-hours, 60 kWh, or 40 kWh--with production focusing first on the largest packs. The medium-size pack was set to start deliveries very early in 2013, with the smallest battery following a few months later. All packs are thermally conditioned with liquid cooling or heating, for better energy retention and more predictable performance. The EPA rates the largest battery at 265 miles of range; ratings aren't yet out for the other two. Remember, though, that like all electric cars, real-world range will vary considerably with speed, acceleration, driving style, temperature, and other factors.
The standard motor is a 270-kilowatt (362-hp) unit that powers the rear wheels. The more powerful Model S Performance version upgrades to a 301-kW (416-hp) motor, letting it rocket from 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds. Standard versions reach that speed in 6 to 7 seconds. The Tesla Model S handles and holds the road like a sports car, due to a center of gravity that's lower than any other sedan. It rides firmly over pavement imperfections--you'll know it's not a soft luxury sedan that floats over anything on the road--but the air suspension keeps the ride remarkably good over bigger bumps, lumps, and even the deepest potholes and most uneven surfaces.
With such large battery packs, fast recharging is a must. The Tesla-specific charging station delivers power to one or two 10-kilowatt onboard chargers--the second is optional on some models--with the 20-kW charging about three times as fast as any other plug-in car.
Tesla is also rolling out its own, unique Supercharger network of fast chargers sited between city pairs. These will largely (but not completely) recharge a Model S pack in roughly half an hour. Stop and plug in, Tesla says, use the rest rooms, get a coffee, check your mobile device, and then you can be on your way with another 150 or 200 miles available. If the network can cover enough routes--Tesla says it'll offer national coverage by the end of 2013--it will make intercity travel possible in a zero-emission car for the first time ever. And as a bonus for Tesla drivers, the electricity provided by the Supercharger network is free.
The 2013 Tesla Model S isn't perfect (though it's a lot better than virtually any auto journalist or industry analyst expected). Tesla is still updating its software to add features that it didn't realize owners wanted, including idle creep to simulate the behavior of an automatic transmission, and personalized settings for the seats, mirrors, and so forth. Moreover, it's missing most of the electronic equipment and safety systems found in other luxury cars against which it competes. That omission may not make a difference to early adopters, but functions like adaptive cruise control--now found on virtually all German and Japanese luxury sedans--is something Tesla should add.
For 2013, the various Model S versions are priced from $57,400 to $87,400 before incentives and options. Top-end models can touch $100,000, though of course the running costs of grid electricity are just a fraction of the gasoline used by competing luxury sedans. The Tesla Model S qualifies for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit, along with a wide array of state, local, and corporate incentives--including, in California, single-occupant access to the carpool lane on the state's crowded freeways.
In its first year, the Tesla Model S won a number of prestigious awards that had never been awarded to a fully electric car. It's handsome, very strong on the digital side, and so far, seems to be well built. More than that, it can be used without compromise under most circumstances. If Tesla succeeds in rolling out its Supercharger network, the last major gripe against battery electric cars--that they can't be used for long road trips--will fall away for Model S drivers, and Tesla will have done something truly remarkable.
Assuming no major quality or safety glitches--and it's early days yet--the major worries for potential Model S buyers will most likely be the life of the battery pack and the future prospects of Tesla as a company. On those issues, we'll have to wait awhile longer.