2013 Tesla Model S Review

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John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
November 19, 2012

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.

Review continues below

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.

9

2013 Tesla Model S

Styling

The lines of the 2013 Tesla Model S get looks even from people who have no idea it's electric, and the interior is simple but classy.

The 2013 Tesla Model S is visually unchanged from the introductory year, with a sleek fastback five-door body that competes across the board with the top tier of stylish luxury sedans, most notably the Jaguar XJ and Maserati Quattroporte.

In form, the Model S is sometimes mistaken for a Jaguar XF or XJ. Its nose has the elegance of the Maserati's grille. But most important, chief designer Franz von Holzhausen has fulfilled his goal for a car that not only embodies “classic modernity” but gives essentially no hint that it's electrically powered.

The black oval "grille" at the front is actually almost entirely a blanking plate, to improve airflow around a car that doesn't need a radiator sized to cool an entire engine. (The Model S has a handful of smaller radiators to cool the battery and other electric components.) Onlookers who know the Model S was a stylish and expensive car--but had never heard of a "Tesla"--were stunned to find out that the Model S was an electric car.

The interior of the Model S is dominated by a 17-inch vertical touchscreen display that sits atop the center console, which operates most of the secondary functions: climate control, audio, navigation, and some vehicle settings like suspension tuning and charging behavior. There are also analog facsimile gauges in the cluster behind the steering wheel; they're crisp and clear, even when bright light filters through the glass roof panels.

But once the wow factor of the central touchscreen has worn off, the 2013 Tesla Model S offers an unadorned, relatively plain interior. The colors are quiet, almost muted, with available leather seats and adequately high-quality soft-touch plastics where occupants come into contact with them.

Tesla offers a handful of color choices, including black, white, brown, and our favorite, the striking deep red offered only on the first 1,000 Signature Series cars. The roof of the Model S can be ordered as two large sunroofs back to back, made almost entirely of smoke-tinted glass.

9

2013 Tesla Model S

Performance

The 2013 Tesla Model S is stunningly quick, remarkably smooth, and handles like a sports car, but holds five adults.

The 2013 Tesla Model S is nothing less than a fast, comfortable, and quiet luxury sedan. As such, it's the first time any startup automaker--one that didn't exist eight years ago--has produced and delivered a car this professional.

You can order a Model S with one of three different lithium-ion battery packs, sized to provide a spectrum of ranges. For the largest pack, you can also order a Performance option that boosts motor output and hence performance.

While last year's 2012 models almost all carried the largest 85-kilowatt-hour pack--which the EPA rates at 265 miles of range--the 2013 cars will also include the mid-level 60-kWh pack, and then a bit later the smallest 40-kWh option. Tesla had originally described the packs as offering 300, 230, and 160 miles respectively.

While the EPA hasn't yet rated the two smaller packs for electric range, applying the EPA's 265-mile formula, we get ranges of 202 and 141 miles for the two smaller packs. As always, the real-world range will vary considerably depending on how aggressively it's driven, at what speeds, the temperature outside, and other factors as well.

No matter what its capacity may be, the battery pack forms the floorpan of the 2013 Model S, powering a 270-kW (362-hp) motor that drives the rear wheels. There's no transmission; the rear-mounted motor sends it torques directly into a reduction gear that powers the differential. The top speed is restricted to 130 mph.

A more powerful 301-kW (416-hp) motor is used in the Performance edition, along with higher-spec power electronics and other modifications. The option is available only with the largest 85-kWh pack. It delivers a 4.4-second 0-to-60-mph time, according to Tesla, while the standard Model S is quoted at 5.6 seconds.

Tesla keeps Model S weight under control by using aluminum for almost every part of the body and structure. The 85-kWh Performance model weighs about 4,700 pounds, with lesser-equipped models a bit lighter. Still, from behind the wheel, the Model S felt heavier than we expected--closer to a Mercedes-Benz S Class, say, than the smaller E Class with which it nominally competes.

Like all electric cars, with maximum torque developed from 0 rpm, any Model S will surge swiftly away from stoplights. It's almost too easy to hit 50 or 60 mph on city streets because the car's rear-mounted powertrain is so smooth and quiet.

Of course, keeping your foot in the Tesla Model S and using the addictive acceleration will do a lot of damage to your range. Experienced Tesla Roadster owners say it can take up to six months before they stop driving that way--knowing that the sheer acceleration is on tap when wanted.

One display shows both a maximum potential range and a predicted range based on the last 30 miles of driving. Those can differ considerably--we saw 290 miles versus 165 miles--after using that acceleration. Owners will have to learn to trade off the sheer fun of acceleration for longer range.

The Model S corners impressively and neutrally during a short road test--helped by the very low center of gravity delivered by placing the heavy battery pack at the lowest point of the car. Tesla says the car has its weight distributed at 45 percent front, 55 percent rear.

On the standard setting, the air suspension passed small road imperfections through the tires into the car more than we'd expected. But over the rough stuff, the Model S rode superbly, smoothing uneven, potholed, and cobblestone streets. Suspension settings range from one that's even firmer to another that our Tesla minder candidly described as "mushy."

The Model S offers two settings for regenerative braking--Normal and Low--and the (highest) Normal setting felt less aggressive than in the Roadster. That may be appropriate for a higher-volume car, but the Model S offers less opportunity for the "one-pedal driving" prized by experienced electric-car drivers who plan ahead enough to use solely regenerative braking to slow down almost to a stop.

One of the first updates made last year in response to feedback from early Model S owners was to add a user-selectable "idle creep" feature, which inches the car forward if the driver lifts off the brake. That's a relic from cars with automatic transmission, but drivers now expect it--so Tesla added it, offering the choice of that or no creep at all.

8

2013 Tesla Model S

Comfort & Quality

The 2013 Tesla Model S makes a good family sedan--though we doubt the 7-seat claim--because it's comfortable, quiet, and seemingly well-built.

While the 2013 Tesla Model S is often described as a luxury sedan, it's actually a luxury five-door hatchback that seats five adults in reasonable comfort. 

It can, at least in theory, carry two more passengers as well: small children willing to be strapped into a pair of rear-facing jump seats in the load bay, restrained with four-point safety harnesses. It's nowhere near being able to hold seven adults, which makes the seven-passenger claim a little sketchy, but no other sedan this size even tries to hold seven occupants. That's been the province of large crossover utility vehicles (Tesla's planning to offer one of those, too).

Seat count aside, the car's large footprint and hatchback convenience make it surprisingly practical as a family car. It offers comfort for five and significant cargo capacity, quiet and comfortable travel, and of course operating costs one-third to one-fifth the per-mile cost of a comparable gasoline car--depending on gas price and what its owners pay their local utility for a kilowatt-hour.

The 2013 Model S has a slightly different seating position than every other luxury sedan, since it's the only one that houses a battery pack in its floorpan. Its front and rear foot wells are thus shallower than in cars without 5 inches of battery beneath passenger's feet. Rear passengers especially sit in a more knees-up, backrest-reclined position than in competitors from Audi, BMW, Jaguar, or Mercedes-Benz.

Inside, the front seats are supportive, the driving position is good, and most of the controls are well-situated. Front seat passengers have the most room to stretch out, while rear passengers will notice that the rear seat back is angled a bit more steeply than customary.

Outboard rear passengers will also find the cabin is wider at shoulder height than at their heads, with windows that slope inward as they rise toward the roof rail. If the car has the panoramic sunroof option, a six-foot person in the rear seat comes within a fraction of an inch of the headliner. The rear door openings through which they must climb are smaller than they look as well, making access to the rear seat more challenging than expected--though riders will be comfortable enough once inside.

The Model S comes into its own on the road, where it's so calm and quiet that there's essentially no mechanical noise on acceleration. A high-pitched humming whine--presumably from the power electronics--occurs only occasionally, on full acceleration. With the stereo off, tire noises becomes obvious, and then wind noise kicks in above 40 mph or so.

Sitting behind the wheel, a few quirks are obvious. Tesla chose column stalks from Mercedes-Benz (which owns part of the company), with both an upper cruise control and a lower turn signal, meaning that Model S drivers will try to signal with the cruise lever until they retrain themselves. Tesla uses an automatic electric parking brake, but it activates automatically in Park when the car senses that the driver is getting out. to the right of the tilting and telescoping steering column, a drive selector offers simply D, R, and P.

Total interior volume of the Model S is rated at 95.1 cubic feet. There's a total of 58.1 cubic feet of load space with the seat folded down, or 26.3 cubic feet of cargo space in the load bay with the rear seat up. There's also an additional 5.3 cubic feet in the surprisingly large front trunk, which Tesla insists on calling a "frunk." The total cargo space compares quite favorably to the absurdly tiny 6.9-cubic-foot trunk of the similarly large-on-the-outside Fisker Karma, which is so small inside that the EPA rates it as a subcompact.

Toward the end of the 2012 model year, Tesla's biggest challenge was to ramp up its production volume to 400 cars a week while maintaining the highest standards of build quality. The early cars we saw appeared to be well put-together, showing only a recalcitrant rear seat-belt retractor and a misaligned Velcro patch on the front-trunk liner--both fixable issues.

Tesla plans to issue regular software updates to its earlier Model S cars, which lets the company not only correct any potential safety issues but also add features retroactively--most likely, we suspect, for an additional fee in some cases.

9

2013 Tesla Model S

Safety

The 2013 Tesla Model S has earned five stars from the NHTSA, and it comes with the usual complement of airbags and safety systems.

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has yet crash-tested the 2013 Tesla Model S. In fact, neither group even lists Tesla as an existing carmaker yet. And given the car's relatively low production and sales volumes in its first year or two, it may take a while before one or both groups has anything official to say about the Model S.

Meanwhile, the Model S comes with eight airbags, and the usual suite of expected electronic safety systems, including traction control, anti-lock brakes, and the newly mandatory tire-pressure monitoring system. Outward visibility from the Model S driver's seat is good to the front and sides, but the steeply angled rear window glass offers little more than a slit in the rear-view mirror.

The 2013 Model S does not, however offer any of the extensive array of electronic safety monitoring, warning, and correction systems that line the options lists of its luxury competitors. Those include adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning or correction, and crash-avoidance braking systems.

There's also an unresolved concern with the optional rear-facing sixth and seventh seats, which hold only small children and come with racing-style four-point safety harnesses. Their location in the rear cargo bay--close to the rear bumper, tailgate, and roof--may make rear-impact protection a particular challenge, but we'll have to wait and see.

8

2013 Tesla Model S

Features

While the 2013 Tesla Model S is somewhat short on advanced electronic features, the stunning 17-inch touchscreen and full Internet access compensate.

The 2013 Tesla Model S has a selection of three lithium-ion battery pack sizes, along with a Performance option for the model with the largest pack. Those are by far its main options and models, though there is a short list of options as well--including a more powerful onboard charger.

When you're inside the Model S, the first and by far most noticeable feature is the giant 17-inch touchscreen display that occupies the entire center stack.

The Silicon Valley roots of Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] show in the high "surprise and delight" quotient for users, especially the driver. Switch on a turn signal, and you'll see it flashing brightly on a photo-realistic image of your car on the Lights screen. Ditto the parking lamps, headlights, and so on. Want to open the sunroof? Just swipe your finger along a plan view of the Model S, toward the rear. Or you can use a large slider to open it to any percentage you want.

The instrument cluster behind the steering wheel is entirely digital as well. But most of the car's minor controls are operated through the central touchscreen, demanding that the driver look away from the road--although the size of the screen allows really large fonts and control icons. Its response speed also means that they react instantaneously.

Initially-skeptical drivers who questioned the practicality and distraction factor of such a large display controlling most functions may become converts. Together, the Model S display's speed and size help reduce distraction compared to almost any other car with a similar system. Its brilliant graphics, easy-to-learn control screens, and lightning-fast response relegate any other car's system to second-class status. BMW's notorious iDrive, the Mercedes-Benz COMAND system, the mass-market MyFord Touch--all of them are instantly outdated and primitive.

One of the most startling features of the Model S display is full web browsing, via the built-in cellular connection. We're not sure how long that will continue--the Feds may be tempted to weigh in--and we hope drivers never do it unless the car is parked. That said, it's wicked cool.

While portable storage devices can be connected to play digital music through the Model S audio system, popular web apps like Pandora, Spotify, and Switcher haven't yet been implemented. Tesla says they're coming soon. Nor have voice commands been activated, which we feel would clearly help to reduce any distraction factor.

If the jaw-dropping display screen is the good news, the lack of power, safety, and convenience accessories may be the bad news. The Model S is remarkably short on the kinds of advanced technology that bristle from its competitors. It doesn't even have memory settings for seats and mirrors, let alone adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning or correction, parking proximity sensors, and automatic braking in case of a crash.

Tesla makes the case that these kinds of features are less important to early Model S buyers than its performance, styling, and electric propulsion. We can believe that, and clearly adding such options would sap energy from the car's primary mission: moving passengers the most miles on a charge. Tesla has also said it's listening closely to its earliest buyers, and has already made minor changes and updates based on that feedback. (One was the addition of user-selectable idle creep.)

Every 2013 Model S is equipped with an onboard 10-kilowatt charger, while cars with the 60-kWh and 85-kWh battery packs can be ordered with a second 10-kW charger as well. With a Tesla-specific charging station, the recharge time for the smallest 40-kWh battery pack (using a 240-Volt household outlet) is about four hours--assuming the circuit is robust enough to handle 10-kW charging at 240 Volts.

The Model S forgoes the J-1772 charging socket used by every other plug-in car sold today. Instead, Tesla designed its own, unique plug and socket that integrate regular and fast recharging into the same plug. At least the company provides a J-1772 adapter cable with every Model S, so that the car can be recharged at standard public and private charging stations.

The four versions of the 2012 Tesla Model S are priced as follows: A 40-kWh battery version costs $57,400 before incentives, the 60-kWh version $67,400; the 85-kWh version $77,400; and the 85-kWh Performance option runs $87,400. With options, total cost of high-end versions can approach $100,000. The first 1,000 Model S cars to be built are known as the Signature Series, in a special red paint colors that won't be offered again, and with each car individually numbered.

Options include no-cost Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires on 21-in alloy wheels and the giant panoramic glass sunroof, priced at $1,500.

Qualifying buyers can receive a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for buying any version of the Tesla Model S. The Californians among them can also receive a $2,500 purchase rebate, and obtain the coveted "white sticker" that allows electric cars to travel in California's High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes with only a single occupant.

Beyond the cost of the car itself, it's worth noting that in late 2012, Tesla launched the first city pairs in its Supercharger network of fast charging stations. They let Model S drivers with the Supercharger option refill up to 80 percent of even the largest battery pack in less than an hour. Owners of the longer-range Model S versions could drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with one or two stops of less than an hour--for dinner, perhaps. Best of all, the recharging is free to Tesla owners. The company hopes to have much of the U.S. highway system equipped with suitably placed Superchargers by the end of 2013.

10

2013 Tesla Model S

Fuel Economy

The 2013 Tesla Model S is the longest-range zero-emission vehicle offered for sale in the U.S. this year.

The 2013 Tesla Model S is quite clearly the most audacious electric car sold in the U.S. this year. In its few months of existence, it has awed journalists, lured more than 13,000 buyers to put down deposits, and won several prestigious industry awards.

Tesla Motors, unknown to the world until five years ago, has created from a clean sheet of paper an all-electric platform that will hold not only a mid-size sport sedan but also an all-wheel drive sport-utility vehicle (the Model X) to be launched next year. And it's good.

No other maker offers the choice of three different ranges, based on battery packs of different capacities. And the high-end Performance version of the Model S with the 85-kWh battery pack is all but silent--and stunningly quick.

Despite its size and capaciousness for passengers and cargo, the EPA has rated the 85-kWh 2013 Model S at 89 MPGe, or "miles per gallon equivalent," a measure of the distance a car can travel electrically on the same amount of battery energy as is contained in 1 gallon of gasoline. While that efficiency rating is slightly lower than those of the Nissan Leaf (99 MPGe) and Ford Focus Electric (105 MPGe), it's nonetheless quite impressive for a larger, heavier, and much faster five-seat luxury vehicle.

As do all zero-emission battery electric vehicles, the 2013 Tesla Model S earns our highest Green rating of 10 out of 10 on the scale.

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January 1, 2016
For 2013 Tesla Model S

As a former repair shop owner, I did not think it would be possible to get excited about something with four wheels.

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Current vehicle was purchased gently used, I'm planning my next Tesla just the way I want it.
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October 6, 2015
2013 Tesla Model S 4-Door Sedan

Awesome Tesla Model S

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I love it! The car is very efficient with it's batteries and it handles like a dream. The lines of the car are very sporty.
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August 13, 2015
2013 Tesla Model S 4-Door Sedan

My Tesla Model S is an outstanding vehicle!

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The Model S is the best car I have ever owned because it exceeds all expectations for beauty, comfort, performance, reliability and safety. The Tesla service is extraordinary and the on-line software updates... + More »
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July 25, 2015
2013 Tesla Model S 4-Door Sedan Performance

The most incredible car ever built.

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Five Star all around except for interior. You get an updated car every 6 weeks or so with the over the air downloads. No problems with the Tesla. The best service I have ever received from a car company. The... + More »
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July 3, 2015
2013 Tesla Model S 4-Door Sedan

Absolutely Amazing Car

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I bought it new in June of 2013 and it is still brand new and gets more fantastic with every update!
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June 23, 2015
2013 Tesla Model S 4-Door Sedan

This is my Magic Carpet Ride.

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I bought this car after general disgust with a fuel efficient diesel and its larcenous repair bills. I never expected too love it so much. People always ask me what happens when the batteries die and I ask... + More »
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June 15, 2015
2013 Tesla Model S 4-Door Sedan

I will never buy another ICE car - this IS the future.

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The Model S is the future of driving. It is fast, reliable, easy to buy/use and environmentally superior to anything else on the road. I have driven thousands of miles with no issues, no fuel, no oil, no spark... + More »
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April 21, 2015
For 2013 Tesla Model S

The Tesla...what is there not to like?

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Safety? As for me, the Tesla has as many, if not more, safety features as those of any car on the road irregardless of the very few battery mishaps. I place my trust in the finest auto I've ever owned... + More »
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April 21, 2015
For 2013 Tesla Model S

An awesome ride into the future of cars!

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Elon Musk's vision of the future of automotive transportation is beautifully executed in this truly awesome vehicle! I have driven it over 10K miles in less than a year...and I still "find reasons to go... + More »
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April 21, 2015
For 2013 Tesla Model S

The most fun you can have with your pants on

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This car and company breaks all the rules of a start up auto manufacturer. not one part of the business model makes sense but not only is this car successful, it does everything that's asked of it and does it... + More »
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