- Striking design, tunning performance
- Nothing else competes with it
- Fast-growing Supercharger network
- Real-world electric car
- Supercharging is free
- Only offered in certain states
- Missing some luxury features
- Pricey options boost bottom line
- Battery life unknown so far
Now in its third year, the 2014 Tesla Model S has no direct competitor. It remains the undisputed top choice in the growing world of plug-in electric cars, and there's a good case to be made that it's the most advanced car of any kind on the planet.
With its place as the ultimate battery-electric car safe from competitors for three years now, the 2014 Tesla Model S sits atop a market segment with an increasing number of plug-in vehicles emerging--but none that challenge it directly. The luxury mid-size five-door hatchback remains at the pinnacle of the electric-car pyramid, combining elegant design, stunning acceleration, and excellent safety ratings in a single package that offers the two longest rated ranges of any pure electric car on sale in the U.S. this year.
Tesla has now built and sold more than 50,000 Model S cars, not only in North America but also several European countries and, more recently, China. The company is no longer lightly dismissed by the industry as a silly idea by an unrealistic group of Silicon Valley engineers who couldn't possibly understand cars. Instead, General Motors, Toyota, Volkswagen Group, and the rest have been forced to take the company seriously, study the Model S, and figure out what they might learn from its highly unlikely success--and its ability to design and sell a genuinely good car that gets rave reviews, awards, and a string of ecstatically happy owners.
The 2014 edition of the Model S has changed in several minor ways from last year's. But the auto-industry convention of model years is meaningless to Tesla, which updates its cars as modifications are ready, and simply starts a new model year on January 2 of the calendar year. That means a 2013 Model S built in December is closer to a January 2014 car than it is to one built in January 2013.
Tesla made changes to the Model S throughout 2013, including the addition of a wide variety of available options. Those include a Cold Weather Package, an Ultra-High Fidelity Sound Package, a new top-of-the-line Performance Plus sub-model, premium leather trim, premium interior lighting, and a host of smaller changes: new wheel options, power folding mirrors, fog lamps, parking sensors, and red brake calipers (offered as part of the Performance package). The company made further changes from January through April 2014, most notably adding a new battery-protection shield under the car, as well as an optional parking assist system and power sunshade inside the rear hatch.
Seven years ago, when Tesla launched its first vehicle--the Roadster two-seat electric sports car--powered on thousands of laptop batteries, its ambitions seemed quixotic at best. Now the Model S is a Silicon Valley status symbol, it's sold around the world, and more than 100 of Tesla's unique Supercharger quick-charging stations offer 20-minute recharging to 80 percent of battery capacity, making lengthy road trips a real-world reality along an expanding network of routes.
Every line of the long, low, five-passenger Model S hatchback has been designed to cut wind drag, which burns through precious battery energy at high speeds. (Two optional child-sized jump seats can be fitted in the load bay to turn it into a seven-person car, at a pinch.) It's smoothly tapered, with a rounded nose, and many people guess that it's a Jaguar. The focus on wind resistance is underscored by the door handles, which retract flush with the body--sliding out to offer themselves to a driver who approaches with the keyfob. The Model S is also made almost entirely of aluminum, and weighs only 4600 pounds as a result, light for a mid- to full-size luxury sedan.
The interior is clean, bordering on stark, and a huge 17-inch color vertical touchscreen display fills the center of the dash and dominates the design. Its brightness, clarity, and instant response put similar systems on smaller screen in other luxury brands to shame, making even six-figure German luxury cars feel slightly outdated. The seats are comfortable, though the seating position is more "legs-out" over a higher floorpan than other competing luxury sedans, because the thin battery pack--about 5 inches high--sits underneath the entire passenger compartment.
Tesla offers two battery pack sizes, 60 and 85 kilowatt-hours, with EPA-rated ranges of 208 and 265 miles respectively. Real-world range is somewhat lower, and range suffers significantly in the winter, when cabin heating is required. Most buyers opt for the larger pack (along with the performance trim levels, and many options--Tesla has says it is selling more high-spec cars than it had anticipated early on). The standard traction motor driving the rear wheels puts out up to 270 kilowatts (362 horsepower). If you order the Performance edition, though--available only with the larger battery pack--output rises to 301 kW (416 hp), which gives a 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of less than 5 seconds.
Safety is a major feature of the Model S, which earned the highest scores on crash testing. A pair of battery fires caused by road debris piercing the underfloor battery pack was addressed by the company early this year with a newly designed add-on battery shield (in three segments) that can be retrofitted at no expense to any existing Model S whose owners desires it. It's won awards from both enthusiast publications and receives high marks from that bastion of sensible automotive purchasing, Consumer Reports.
The company will continue its program of incremental refinements to the Model S throughout the 2014 model year, though its major efforts will be put toward launching its second vehicle on the same underpinnings, the Model X crossover utility vehicle. The all-wheel-drive Model X is likely to provide a further feature to the Model S next year or the year after: an all-wheel-drive option based on a second traction motor driving the front wheels, for which there is ample space under the hood now occupied by the front trunk.
The nominal competition for the Model S is large, expensive sedans from German and British luxury makers. But buyers have a variety of motivations for choosing a plug-in electric car--don't believe the conventional wisdom that it's all about green--and there is no other car on the market that competes directly with the Tesla. Perhaps the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, a plug-in hybrid with about 20 miles of electric range, comes closest. And there will soon be a Mercedes-Benz S-Class plug-in hybrid with roughly similar specifications. But they're not all-electric, and Tesla buyers have replaced everything from Toyota Prius hybrids to BMW and Mercedes sedans, even minivans and economy sedans.
Almost two years after its launch, there is no longer any question that the Model S is a "real car" that provides real-world electric travel to customers who are largely happy, almost evangelistically so. Tesla itself attracts interest all over the world, but driving in its car--for which tens of thousands of people have paid $70,000 to more than $100,000--brings home the reality that the company has built what no other carmaker in the world has yet managed: an electric car that's not only sensible, and well-built, and functional, but fun, sexy, and genuinely desirable. The automotive world is a more interesting, and more diverse, place because of it.