The 2012 Tesla Model S drives like a real car: a quiet, fast, and comfortable luxury sedan. Plenty of cars do that, of course, but this is the first car from a startup automaker--one that didn't exist eight years ago--to deliver a car this professional.
There are essentially four different models of Model S, with three battery pack sizes--which translate directly to range--and then a Performance option that can be ordered only with the largest battery pack. The first cars all come with the largest pack, of 85 kilowatt-hours; the two lesser models, with 60-kWh and 40-kWh packs will follow a few months later.
Those three battery sizes were equated by Tesla to ranges of 300, 230, and 160 miles respectively. Thus far, the EPA has rated only the largest 85-kWh pack, which it says has a range of 265 miles. 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.
The 2012 Tesla Model S battery pack forms the floorpan of its all-new design, with a 270-kW (362-hp) motor powering the rear wheels. The high-end Performance model has a more powerful 301-kW (416-hp) motor. 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.
We drove the Performance model, which is fitted with not only the more powerful motor but also higher-spec power electronics and other modifications. It delivers a 4.4-second 0-to-60-mph time, according to Tesla, whiel the standard Model S is quoted at 5.6 seconds. Like all electric cars, with maximum torque developed from 0 rpm, the 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.
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.
Tesla says the car has its weight distributed at 45 percent front, 55 percent rear, and certainly the car cornered impressively and neutrally in our short time behind the wheel--helped by the very low center of gravity produced by the heavy battery pack being the lowest point of the car.
The air suspension on its standard setting transmitted small road imperfections into the car more than we'd expected, but the Model S rode superbly over the bad stuff, including uneven, potholed, and cobblestone streets. The suspension can be set from even firmer to a setting that one Tesla minder candidly described as "mushy."
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 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.
There's currently no idle-creep in the Model S, to simulate the behavior of an automatic transmission, but Tesla says it plans to add the feature soon as a user-selectable option.