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FEATURES | 8 out of 10
The star of the interior is the massive touchscreen that dominates the center stack. Correction: It is the center stack. Every single function that isn't on the steering stalks and door switches is found here. And it behaves like an iPad.
The car's mammoth and marvelous multi-touch screen is a happy distraction, with the sort of brilliant resolution and cool features that might have had Steve Jobs uttering "Insane!" (Think 3G Internet access, a giant back-up camera screen, and swipe-able icons.)
While the overall design is nice, for a car that the company claims is family-oriented and everyday usable, it's missing a number of amenities that buyers take for granted.
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.
While the 2013 Tesla Model S is somewhat short on advanced electronic features, the stunning 17-inch touchscreen and full Internet access compensate.