By far the most noticeable feature inside the 2012 Tesla Model S is the giant 17-inch touchscreen display that occupies the entire center stack. (The instrument cluster behind the steering wheel is entirely digital as well.)
The company's Silicon Valley roots show through in a 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.
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. Together, those factors help reduce distraction compared to almost any other car with a similar system.
Initially-skeptical drivers who questioned the practicality and distraction factor of such a large display controlling most functions may become converts. 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 BMW's notorious iDrive, the Mercedes-Benz COMAND system, the mass-market MyFord Touch--all of them are instantly outdated and primitive.
Portable storage devices connect to play digital music through the Model S audio system, though web apps like Pandora, Spotify, and Switcher aren't yet implemented (but they're coming, Tesla says). Voice commands haven't yet been activated either, and would clearly help to reduce any distraction factor.
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.
That's the good news. But the Tesla Model S is remarkably short on the kinds of power, safety, and convenience accessories offered by competing gasoline luxury cars. There are no memory settings, no adaptive cruise control, no lane-departure warning or correction, no proximity sensors, and no automatic braking in case of a crash.
Whether those are important to Model S buyers remains to be seen, and most of them would clearly sap at least some energy from the car's primary mission: moving its passengers the maximum distance possible. Tesla has also said it's listening closely to its earliest buyers, and making a number of minor changes and updates to cars based on that feedback. The addition of user-selectable idle creep, for instance, was one.
Finally, every Model S is equipped with a 10-kilowatt onboard charger, and cars with the 60-kWh and 85-kWh battery packs can accommodate a second 10-kW charger as well. Standard charging time for the smallest 40-kWh battery pack from a 240-Volt household outlet is about four hours, assuming the circuit is suitably strong.
The Model S does not, however, use the same J-1772 charging socket as 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. The company sensibly provides a J-1772 adaptor cable with every Model S, so that owners can recharge at standard public and private charging stations.
The company plans to launch a so-called Supercharger network of fast charging stations--which would refill up to 80 percent of even the largest battery pack in less than an hour. These are to be located at luxury destinations between city pairs, meaning owners of the longer-range Model S versions could in fact drive their electric car from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with one or two stops of less than an hour--for dinner, perhaps. Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] will reveal more details of the network in late 2012.
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 the giant panoramic glass sunroof, for $1,500, and no-cost Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires on 21-in alloy wheels.
The Model S qualifies for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for buying a plug-in vehicle, and buyers also receive a $2,500 California purchase rebate. It will also qualify for the coveted "white sticker" that allows electric cars to travel in California's High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes with only a single occupant.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk stresses that total operating costs--especially for future buyers who lease a Model S, under a program that hasn't yet been announced--will be no higher than those of a large U.S. sedan with the $35,000 Ford Taurus. The comparison is based on $4-per-gallon gasoline, though local electric rates play a major role in that comparison, since they can vary from 3 cents to 25 cents per kilowatt-hour.