- Sleek design, jaw-dropping performance
- Years later, still no competitors
- Expanding Supercharger network
- Service sites sparse in some areas
- Luxury makes beat it on features
- Options get pricey quickly
The 2015 Tesla Model S has no direct competition; the electric luxury hatchback is the benchmark among its kind in a market with more than 20 plug-in models. It's likely the most advanced car on the planet.
No other car in the world offers a combination of qualities and capabilities like the Tesla Model S. The U.S. automaker has now likely sold about 70,000 Model S cars since the first was delivered in June 2012. The car's rave reviews and ecstatically devoted owners have not only attracted notice from GM and Nissan, they have severely rocked the incumbent German luxury makers—Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche—all of which are now developing fast, luxurious electric cars of their own.
Tesla doesn't use conventional model years; modifications are added to production cars as soon as they're ready, and the car's various software systems are updated "over the air," using its cellular network connection (once the owner agrees). That means that a 2014 car made in January may differ significantly from one made in December, which would be identical to a 2015 car made two weeks later.
That means the Tesla lineup in April 2015 happens to differ significantly from that offered the previous September. The company added all-wheel-drive to the Model S lineup in the fall of 2014, and replaced its former base model less than six months later.
Starting at $75,000, the 2015 Model S is expensive (though Tesla has ambitious plans for a $35,000 electric car a few years hence). There are now four Model S variations, three fitted with all-wheel drive. The new base Model S is known as the 70D, for its 70-kilowatt-hour battery pack and "D" dual-motor system that powers all four wheels. The 70D has a rated range of 240 miles, much better than the 208 miles of the former base model, the rear-wheel-drive 60, which is no longer offered.
Then there are three versions with the larger 85-kWh battery, with ranges of 240 to 270 miles. Most buyers opt for the larger battery despite its $10,000 price, Tesla says, for the added range and security. There's a rear-wheel-drive "85" and the AWD "85D," and the top of the line is the high-performance P85D version, which is quickly becoming legendary for smooth, silent 0-to-60-mph runs in roughly 3 seconds.
Let's just say that kind of acceleration humiliates a great many other machines, including several that cost multiples of what a Tesla Model S does. Of the four versions, the two standard "D" models are the most efficient, with a 270-mile range--because their control software constantly adjusts power delivery to move the car using the more efficient of the two motors at any given time.
The unparalleled range of the five-passenger Model S is testament to its ground-breaking package of a light aluminum hatchback body, very low drag coefficient, and high power delivered by a choice of two battery packs, each made up of thousands of small commodity lithium-ion cells like those used in laptop computers.
Last year, Tesla added a new battery-protection shield under the car, as well as an optional parking assist system and power sunshade inside the rear hatch. But the big change, which went into production in December but will constitute the bulk of early 2015 production, was the addition of the "D" all-wheel drive option.
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. It's smoothly tapered, with a rounded nose, and many people guess that it's a Jaguar. 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 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.
Inside, a huge 17-inch color vertical display dominates the center of the dash and provides a focal point for the clean, almost stark design.The brightness, clarity, and instant response of the touchscreen put other luxury brands' systems on smaller screen to shame, making new six-figure German luxury cars feel 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. While rear-facing jump seats in the rear cargo bay nominally provide a sixth and seventh position, they're for kids only, strapped in with four-point racing harnesses.
Safety is a major feature of the 2015 Tesla Model S, which earned the highest scores on crash testing. It's won awards from both enthusiast publications and receives high marks from that bastion of sensible automotive purchasing, Consumer Reports. And there seems to have been little lasting effect from a highly-publicized pair of battery fires last year, caused by road debris piercing the underfloor battery pack. Tesla quickly developed and tested a newly designed add-on battery shield (in three segments) that was built into all new cars and retrofitted to any existing Model S whose owner desires it, at no cost to the owner.
The "D" all-wheel-drive system launched late last year came from development work done on the company's second volume vehicle, using the Model S underpinnings, which will be the Model X crossover utility vehicle. That long-delayed vehicle is now supposed to go into production during the second half of this year; meanwhile, Tesla is now selling Model S cars in North America, certain European countries, and China.
It's hard to say what cars compete directly with the Tesla Model S. Nominally, it would be large, expensive sedans from German and British luxury makers. But buyers of plug-in electric cars have a variety of motivations for choosing them—don't believe the trope that it's all about green—and no other car on the market offers the right mix of qualities to go head to head with the Tesla. Plug-in hybrid versions of large luxury sedans from Mercedes-Benz (the S-Class) and Porsche (the Panamera) are fine on their own merits, but people who buy Teslas aren't likely to be impressed by 20 miles of electric range and an engine that comes on when maximum acceleration is required.
Plus, the company's network of Supercharger DC fast-charging sites is growing quickly, meaning long-distance trips can be undertaken with a stop for 20 to 30 minutes every 200 miles or so to recharge to 80 percent of battery capacity. It makes the Model S the only electric car in which coast-to-coast trips are possible in any kind of reasonable time.
If one thing has become clear almost three years after its launch, it's that the Tesla Model S is absolutely a real car, one that can be used in real-world circumstances with very few compromises. And it delivers on the promise that driving electric cars is simply a better, quieter, nicer experience—with a huge reserve of power waiting when the driver needs it.
Tesla has built what no other carmaker in the world has yet managed to create: an electric car that's not only functional, and sensible, and well-built, but fun, sexy, cool, and genuinely desirable—one that has rocked the dozen largest global automakers to their cores. And the world is a more interesting, and more diverse, place because of it.