The 2013 Tesla Model S is nothing less than a fast, comfortable, and quiet luxury sedan. As such, it's the first time any startup automaker--one that didn't exist eight years ago--has produced and delivered a car this professional.
You can order a Model S with one of three different lithium-ion battery packs, sized to provide a spectrum of ranges. For the largest pack, you can also order a Performance option that boosts motor output and hence performance.
While last year's 2012 models almost all carried the largest 85-kilowatt-hour pack--which the EPA rates at 265 miles of range--the 2013 cars will also include the mid-level 60-kWh pack, and then a bit later the smallest 40-kWh option. Tesla had originally described the packs as offering 300, 230, and 160 miles respectively.
While the EPA hasn't yet rated the two smaller packs for electric range, applying the EPA's 265-mile formula, we get ranges of 202 and 141 miles for the two smaller packs. 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.
No matter what its capacity may be, the battery pack forms the floorpan of the 2013 Model S, powering a 270-kW (362-hp) motor that drives the rear wheels. 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.
A more powerful 301-kW (416-hp) motor is used in the Performance edition, along with higher-spec power electronics and other modifications. The option is available only with the largest 85-kWh pack. It delivers a 4.4-second 0-to-60-mph time, according to Tesla, while the standard Model S is quoted at 5.6 seconds.
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.
Like all electric cars, with maximum torque developed from 0 rpm, any 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.
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 corners impressively and neutrally during a short road test--helped by the very low center of gravity delivered by placing the heavy battery pack at the lowest point of the car. Tesla says the car has its weight distributed at 45 percent front, 55 percent rear.
On the standard setting, the air suspension passed small road imperfections through the tires into the car more than we'd expected. But over the rough stuff, the Model S rode superbly, smoothing uneven, potholed, and cobblestone streets. Suspension settings range from one that's even firmer to another that our Tesla minder candidly described as "mushy."
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.
One of the first updates made last year in response to feedback from early Model S owners was to add a user-selectable "idle creep" feature, which inches the car forward if the driver lifts off the brake. That's a relic from cars with automatic transmission, but drivers now expect it--so Tesla added it, offering the choice of that or no creep at all.