- Striking design, tunning performance
- Nothing else competes with it
- Fast-growing Supercharger network
- Real-world electric car
- Supercharging is free
- Only offered in certain states
- Missing some luxury features
- Pricey options boost bottom line
- Battery life unknown so far
Now in its third year, the 2014 Tesla Model S has no direct competitor. It remains the undisputed top choice in the growing world of plug-in electric cars, and there's a good case to be made that it's the most advanced car of any kind on the planet.
With its place as the ultimate battery-electric car safe from competitors for three years now, the 2014 Tesla Model S sits atop a market segment with an increasing number of plug-in vehicles emerging--but none that challenge it directly. The luxury mid-size five-door hatchback remains at the pinnacle of the electric-car pyramid, combining elegant design, stunning acceleration, and excellent safety ratings in a single package that offers the two longest rated ranges of any pure electric car on sale in the U.S. this year.
Tesla has now built and sold more than 50,000 Model S cars, not only in North America but also several European countries and, more recently, China. The company is no longer lightly dismissed by the industry as a silly idea by an unrealistic group of Silicon Valley engineers who couldn't possibly understand cars. Instead, General Motors, Toyota, Volkswagen Group, and the rest have been forced to take the company seriously, study the Model S, and figure out what they might learn from its highly unlikely success--and its ability to design and sell a genuinely good car that gets rave reviews, awards, and a string of ecstatically happy owners.
The 2014 edition of the Model S has changed in several minor ways from last year's. But the auto-industry convention of model years is meaningless to Tesla, which updates its cars as modifications are ready, and simply starts a new model year on January 2 of the calendar year. That means a 2013 Model S built in December is closer to a January 2014 car than it is to one built in January 2013.
Tesla made changes to the Model S throughout 2013, including the addition of a wide variety of available options. Those include a Cold Weather Package, an Ultra-High Fidelity Sound Package, a new top-of-the-line Performance Plus sub-model, premium leather trim, premium interior lighting, and a host of smaller changes: new wheel options, power folding mirrors, fog lamps, parking sensors, and red brake calipers (offered as part of the Performance package). The company made further changes from January through April 2014, most notably adding a new battery-protection shield under the car, as well as an optional parking assist system and power sunshade inside the rear hatch.
Seven years ago, when Tesla launched its first vehicle--the Roadster two-seat electric sports car--powered on thousands of laptop batteries, its ambitions seemed quixotic at best. Now the Model S is a Silicon Valley status symbol, it's sold around the world, and more than 100 of Tesla's unique Supercharger quick-charging stations offer 20-minute recharging to 80 percent of battery capacity, making lengthy road trips a real-world reality along an expanding network of routes.
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. (Two optional child-sized jump seats can be fitted in the load bay to turn it into a seven-person car, at a pinch.) It's smoothly tapered, with a rounded nose, and many people guess that it's a Jaguar. 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. 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 interior is clean, bordering on stark, and a huge 17-inch color vertical touchscreen display fills the center of the dash and dominates the design. Its brightness, clarity, and instant response put similar systems on smaller screen in other luxury brands to shame, making even six-figure German luxury cars feel slightly 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.
Tesla offers two battery pack sizes, 60 and 85 kilowatt-hours, with EPA-rated ranges of 208 and 265 miles respectively. Real-world range is somewhat lower, and range suffers significantly in the winter, when cabin heating is required. Most buyers opt for the larger pack (along with the performance trim levels, and many options--Tesla has says it is selling more high-spec cars than it had anticipated early on). The standard traction motor driving the rear wheels puts out up to 270 kilowatts (362 horsepower). If you order the Performance edition, though--available only with the larger battery pack--output rises to 301 kW (416 hp), which gives a 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of less than 5 seconds.
Safety is a major feature of the Model S, which earned the highest scores on crash testing. A pair of battery fires caused by road debris piercing the underfloor battery pack was addressed by the company early this year with a newly designed add-on battery shield (in three segments) that can be retrofitted at no expense to any existing Model S whose owners desires it. It's won awards from both enthusiast publications and receives high marks from that bastion of sensible automotive purchasing, Consumer Reports.
The company will continue its program of incremental refinements to the Model S throughout the 2014 model year, though its major efforts will be put toward launching its second vehicle on the same underpinnings, the Model X crossover utility vehicle. The all-wheel-drive Model X is likely to provide a further feature to the Model S next year or the year after: an all-wheel-drive option based on a second traction motor driving the front wheels, for which there is ample space under the hood now occupied by the front trunk.
The nominal competition for the Model S is large, expensive sedans from German and British luxury makers. But buyers have a variety of motivations for choosing a plug-in electric car--don't believe the conventional wisdom that it's all about green--and there is no other car on the market that competes directly with the Tesla. Perhaps the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, a plug-in hybrid with about 20 miles of electric range, comes closest. And there will soon be a Mercedes-Benz S-Class plug-in hybrid with roughly similar specifications. But they're not all-electric, and Tesla buyers have replaced everything from Toyota Prius hybrids to BMW and Mercedes sedans, even minivans and economy sedans.
Almost two years after its launch, there is no longer any question that the Model S is a "real car" that provides real-world electric travel to customers who are largely happy, almost evangelistically so. Tesla itself attracts interest all over the world, but driving in its car--for which tens of thousands of people have paid $70,000 to more than $100,000--brings home the reality that the company has built what no other carmaker in the world has yet managed: an electric car that's not only sensible, and well-built, and functional, but fun, sexy, and genuinely desirable. The automotive world is a more interesting, and more diverse, place because of it.
2014 Tesla Model S
The sleek, aerodynamic 2014 Tesla Model S gets admiring stares from people who have no idea it runs entirely on battery power.
The shape of the 2014 Tesla Model S remains unchanged from its launch almost two years ago. The fastback five-door design is smooth, sleek, and entirely at home in the company of the most stylish high-end luxury sedans, including the Jaguar XJ and the Maserati Quattroporte. The black oval on its smoothly rounded nose reads like the grille of either of those cars, although it's a shiny plastic blanking plate.
Every element of its body has been refined to cut aerodynamic drag to an absolute minimum. It's all in service of using the minimal amount of battery energy to move the car at speeds above 30 mph, where overcoming drag begins to consume more power than moving the car itself. Tesla has succeeded in its quest, too: In a test of five highly aerodynamic vehicles in the same wind tunnel by an enthusiast magazine, the Model S proved to have a lower drag coefficient than the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, and Mercedes CLA.
The array of color choices includes the conventional hues--white, silver, charcoal, and black--but also offers dark green, deep blue, an unusual brown, and a striking bright red. A Model S painted in a deeper, richer red, almost maroon, is the tipoff that it was one of the first 1,000 Signature Series cars to be produced. The sunroof option is actually a pair of back-to-back large glass panels, turning the roof into a dark, smoke-tinted glass surface.
Most importantly, the shape of the Tesla--from the side, some people mistake it for a Jaguar XF or XJ--gives no hint that it is powered entirely by electricity. Designer Franz von Holzhausen has created a luxury sedan that stands on its own as a desirable shape, even before discussions of its futuristic powertrain made up of several thousand lithium-ion cells like the ones used in laptop computers.
Inside, the vertical 17-inch color touchscreen display in the center of the dash is the dominant visual element. Virtually every secondary function--climate control, audio, navigation, and even some vehicle settings, including charging behavior and suspension tuning--are controlled via large icons, sliders, and swipe motions. Behind the steering wheel, an instrument cluster is also a display screen, showing images of analog gauges. Both displays are clear and crisp, with simple, colorful graphics.
Once the wow factor of the displays wears off, the interior of the 2014 Model S proves to be a relatively unadorned space trimmed in muted colors. Leather seats are available, and the plastic surfaces that passengers are likely to touch have soft-touch surfaces.
2014 Tesla Model S
The 2014 Tesla Model S holds five adults, but it's shockingly quick, smooth-riding, and handles like a sports car.
The 2014 Tesla Model S is fully competitive with expensive German and British luxury sedans in one of the key reasons buyers opt for large luxury sedans: performance. It's fast, comfortable, and handles well--and if you order the Performance or new Performance Plus option, it' svery fast indeed.
Tesla offers two sizes of lithium-ion battery packs, 60 and 85 kilowatt-hours, with EPA-rated ranges of 208 and 265 miles respectively. Real-world ranges may be 10 to 20 percent below that, depending on travel speed; cold weather will sap range still further. As always, a driver's range will vary considerably depending on how aggressively a Tesla is driven and at what speeds, the temperature outside, the weight being carried, and other factors too.
The battery pack is located under the floorpan of the passenger compartment, giving a slightly legs-out seating position. It's only 5 inches tall, but it stretches from one side of the car to the other, and almost from axle to axle. It powers 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. Top speed of the Model S is restricted to 130 mph.
The Performance and Performance Plus packages, which boost the output of the electric motor that drives the rear wheels, require the larger of the two pack sizes. They use a more powerful 301-kW (416-hp) motor, paired with higher-specification power electronics and other upgrades. The result is a quoted 0-to-60-mph time of 4.4 seconds, according to Tesla, against the standard Model S spec of 5.6 seconds. Some road testers, however, have measured 0-to-60-mph times of less than 4 seconds, however, an astounding figure for a five-passenger luxury sedan weighing more than two tons.
After wind drag, weight is the main range killer, and Tesla keeps that under control by using aluminum for virtually the entire body structure--just as the Audi A8, Jaguar XJ, and various Range Rover models do. The 85-kWh Performance model weighs in at around 4,700 pounds, with the base 60-kWh version somewhat lighter.
Behind the wheel, the Model S feels heavier than you might anticipate--closer to the heft of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, say, than to the smaller mid-size luxury sedans it nominally competes with on interior volume. But with its maximum torque developed from 0 rpm (like any electric car), the Tesla Model S surges swiftly and silently away from stoplights. The relative lack of noise makes it remarkably easy to hit 50 or 60 mph on city streets without particularly intending to.
Cornering is impressively neutral and flat--helped by weight distributed 45 percent front, 55 percent rear, and an extremely low center of gravity from placing placing the heavy battery pack at the lowest point of the car. Ride is firm on the standard setting, and the air suspension can pass certain road imperfections into the cabin. But when the roads get rough, the Model S suspension shows its stuff--riding superbly, smoothing out uneven, potholed, and cobblestone streets.
Suspension settings range from very firm through the default standard to a comfort setting that one Tesla rep candidly described as "mushy." The driver can also choose from two settings for regenerative braking--Normal and Low. The more aggressive Normal regen is less aggressive than in Tesla's first car, the Roadster, or in BMW's new i3 electric car. It may be appropriate to the large luxury sedan category, but the "one-pedal driving" prized by some experienced electric-car drivers isn't really possible in a Model S. Drivers can also choose whether or not they want the sensation of idle creep, as in a car with an automatic transmission that slowly moves forward as the brake pedal is released. Tesla says half do, half don't--but adding idle creep for those who did want it was one of the very first running changes the company made.
Drivers will learn quickly that keeping your foot in the Model S--the power really is addictive--can do a great deal of damage to available range. In the vehicle information display, both a maximum potential range and a predicted range based on the last 30 miles of driving are visible. Depending on driving style, they may differ a lot--we saw 165 miles versus 290 miles--if you use all that acceleration.
So owners will have to learn to trade off the sheer fun of acceleration for longer range when it's required. Still, the company's network of Supercharger DC fast-charging stations is rolling out rapidly, meaning that long trips in the Model S are becoming realistic. Those trips will be made as a series of roughly 200-mile increments punctuated by 20-minute stops to recharge the battery to 80 percent of capacity--a charging rate that's the fastest of any charging system in any car.
2014 Tesla Model S
Comfort & Quality
The 2014 Tesla Model S is comfortable, quiet, and apparently well-built--though the 7-seat claim is a stretch.
The 2014 Tesla Model S is sometimes described as a luxury sedan, but it's actually a five-door hatchback--closer in form to the Audi A7 five-door than its four-door A6 or A8 brethren. It seats five adults in reasonable comfort, along with two further, very small passengers: Small children can be strapped into an optional pair of jump seats in the load bay, restrained with four-point safety harnesses and facing out the rear window.
The Tesla Model S makes a surprisingly practical family transport if you've only got four in the family. The large footprint and the convenience of the hatchback make it versatile, regardless of seat count. It offers notable cargo capacity, it's quiet, smooth, and comfortable on the road, and its per-mile cost running on grid electricity is just one-third to one-fifth that of a comparable gasoline-fueled luxury sedan. That calculation depends on what owners pay per kilowatt-hour, and we suspect few will buy a $70,000-plus Tesla for its economical operation, but it never hurts.
The rated interior volume of a Tesla Model S is 95 cubic feet. Cargo volume in the load bay is 26 cubic feet, which rises to 58 cubic feet with the rear seat folded down. There's also 5 cubic feet more in the front trunk under the hood--which Tesla insists on calling a "frunk."
The seating position differs from other large luxury sedans, in that the front and rear foot wells are shallower due to the 5-inch-thick battery pack sited under the floorpan. This gives more of a legs-out position, not necessarily uncomfortable, but noticeable at first--perhaps more from the rear seat, with its back cushion at a steeper, more reclined angle, than in the front bucket seats. Rear passengers will also notice that the cabin flares in above their shoulders, with the windows angling in as they rise up to the roof. A 6-foot-tall rear-seat rider will find that the headliner is just a fraction of an inch above the head if the optional panoramic sunroof is fitted.
One other surprise: The door openings of the Model S are smaller inside than they appear from the door panels, adding to structural safety but making climbing in and out of the rear more challenging for tall individuals than in some of the more capacious German competitors. Once inside, though, they'll find the rear cabin comfortable enough.
All seats are supportive, the primary operating controls are mostly well-situated, and the driving position is good. The drive selector on a stalk at the right of the steering column offers simply D, R, and N, with an automatic parking brake that activates when the car is stopped and the car senses the driver is getting out. Anyone who's driven a Mercedes-Benz will recognize its column stalks, which Tesla uses unchanged--with both an upper cruise control and a lower turn signal. As a result, just as in a Mercedes, many Model S drivers will likely find themselves trying to signal with the cruise lever until they retrain themselves.
On the road, the car is so calm and quiet that it might well be standing still if it weren't for scenery flashing by outside. It's not entirely noiseless--there's an occasional high-pitched whine under full power--and tire noise is obvious with the stereo off. Wind noise begins to be noticeable above 40 mph or so. Mechanical noises, though? None. Whatsoever.
The Tesla Model S cars we've seen have been put together well, with no audible squeaks, creaks, or groans, and properly aligned trim and fittings. And owners report that minor issues are swiftly dealt with by the company's service program, which is considered to be top-notch by owners. Tesla sends a flat-bed truck to pick up cars for service when necessary, and provides a loaner that's the latest, most powerful, and most options-laden model for its customers to drive. The serviced car is then delivered back to the owner at any desired location.
The early cars we saw appeared to be well put-together, showing only a recalcitrant rear seat-belt retractor and a misaligned Velcro patch on the front-trunk liner--both fixable issues.
2014 Tesla Model S
The 2014 Tesla Model S aced every NHTSA safety test, and it offers the usual safety systems and airbags.
The 2014 Tesla Model S has received the highest possible ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): five stars overall, and five stars for frontal crash, side crash, and rollover safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), however, has not yet rated the Tesla.
The Model S includes both the expected suite of electronic safety systems, including anti-lock brakes, traction control, and the mandatory tire-pressure monitoring system. It also has eight airbags as standard. The safety of the optional rear-facing sixth and seventh seats located in the cargo bay, which hold only small children and come with racing-style four-point safety harnesses, is less clear--but very few of the Teslas we've seen have those seats installed, so the question may be all but academic.
If the Tesla falls short in any area of safety, it's in the more advanced types of electronic safety monitoring, warning, and correction systems offered by the majority of top-end luxury competitors as standard or optional features. Those include adaptive cruise control, crash-avoidance braking systems, and lane-departure warning or correction.Tesla has been adding new features as running changes--parking sensors were added during 2013, and parking assist in early 2014--so those additional features may come over time.
Visibility from the driver's seat is good out the windshield and to the sides of the car, but rear three-quarter vision and the view directly behind are compromised by thick pillars and the steeply angled window in the rear hatch--which provides no more than a slit in the rear-view mirror. Otherwise, the Tesla has to be deemed one of the safest cars of any type on the market.
2014 Tesla Model S
The 2014 Tesla Model S offers some unique features, but is missing a few usually found in luxury sedans.
The 2014 Tesla Model S offers two battery-pack sizes, two Performance options, and a growing list of optional equipment.
Inside the Model S, the central touchscreen display is not only standard, it's one of the hallmarks of the car. The 17-inch screen and the smaller display forming the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel are both crisp, clear, and bright. For someone who's never been in a Tesla, it's totally a "surprise and delight" feature--switch on a turn signal, or parking lamps, headlamps, and so on, and you'll see the lights shining or flashing in the Lights screen on a photo-realistic image of the car. Opening the sunroof requires no more than the swipe of a finger along a plan view of the car. Want to open it partway? A large slider lets you choose any degree of opening you want.
Most of the car's minor controls are operated through the central touchscreen, though, requiring the driver to look away from the road--although the fonts and icons are as large and clear as any we've seen, and the response speed is instantaneous. Together, the display's speed and size cut distraction compared to almost any other car with a similar system. The brilliant graphics, easy-to-learn control screens, and lightning-fast response effectively relegate similar systems from Audi, BMW, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz to last year's technology.
Full web browsing--not to be used while underway, please (although you can)!--is also built in, using the car's cellular connection. We hope no driver ever uses it unless the car is parked. That said, it's wicked cool. Portable audio devices can be connected, and Tesla made mobile apps available as a running change last year. Voice commands were implemented late in 2012, bringing the Model S in line with its competitors.
Other equipment and feature updates made through the course of 2013 (and into early 2014) included the addition of several new options: an Ultra-High Fidelity Sound Package, a cold-weather package, first parking sensors and then (early this year) a parking assist system, premium leather upholstery, premium interior lighting, fog lamps, power folding exterior mirrors, a power sunshade inside the rear hatch, and new wheel options.
Optional wheels now include a new 19-inch cyclone "turbine" wheel, as well as the existing 19-inch aerodynamic wheel (which reduces drag and hence increases highway range) and 21-inch cycle "turbine" wheel
Also added was a new top-of-the-line Performance Plus model that sits just above the existing Performance model, which boosts maximum motor output from 270 kilowatts (362 horsepower) to 301 kW (416 hp), as well as upgrading the power electronics, suspension, and other drivetrain elements. Red brake calipers were also added to the Performance package.
To address a pair of fires in late 2013 resulting from road debris that penetrated the low-mounted battery pack, Tesla rolled out a a new battery-protection shield under the car. The three-element system protects the pack against virtually all such damage, and includes alumninum and titanium components. It can also be retrofitted to any existing Model S, free.
Still, the Model S remains very short on the advanced safety and technology systems offered as standard or optional equipment by the majority of competitors at its price range. On the missing list: adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning or correction, automatic braking in case of a crash, even memory settings for seats and mirrors. Tesla says it listens closely to its customers, and adds those features in which they're most interested--including, very early in the car's life, user-selectable idle creep to mimic the behavior of a conventional automatic transmission.
All Tesla Model S cars come with a standard onboard 10-kilowatt charger. A second 20-kW charger can be ordered, as can Supercharging capability, which now operates at levels above 100 kW. Unlike every other electric car sold in the U.S. today, the Model S forgoes the standard J-1772 charging socket. It uses a smaller, in-house design that provides unique plug and socket that provide both regular and fast charging within the same plug. Still, Tesla equips every Model S with a J-1772 adapter cable to let it recharge at standard public and private charging stations.
The base 2014 Tesla Model S with the 60-kWh battery pack is priced at $69,900 before any incentives. It is eligible for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit, a California state purchase rebate of $2,500, and many other state and local incentives. Californians can also obtain the coveted "white sticker" that allows electric cars to travel in California's High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes with just a single occupant.
The larger 85-kWh battery pack adds $10,000, and the Performance model adds another $10,000 on top of that. The top of the line is the Performance Plus model--and then there's the fast-growing list of options. Buyers can configure their Model S cars as desired as they place their orders directly with Tesla via the Internet, but the final number may be a shock. Pricing and options combinations are too numerous to list here, but a top-of-the-line Tesla Model S Performance Plus with multiple options will easily clear $100,000--and Tesla says more customers than it originally anticipated are ordering high-spec cars.
2014 Tesla Model S
The 2014 Tesla Model S runs entirely on electricity, and for its size and speed, uses it quite efficiently too.
The 2014 Tesla Model S remains the standard by which any other battery-electric car is judged. With more than 40,000 and counting on the world's roads, its unparalleled range and relatively high efficiency for a five-passenger luxury car are testament to its ground-breaking package of a light structure, very low drag coefficient, and high power delivered by a battery pack made up of thousands of small commodity lithium-ion cells like those used in laptop computers.
To date, no other maker offers a choice of battery packs: 60 or 85 kilowatt-hours, with rated ranges of 208 or 265 miles respectively. Tesla says most buyers choose the larger size, and indeed real-world experience shows it provides enough margin to move from one Supercharger DC quick-charging site to the next even in cold winter weather--whereas the 60-kWh version may require serious compromises to driving style or comfort.
The EPA rates the 85-kWh version of the Model S at 89 MPGe (combined), or "miles per gallon equivalent," a measure of the distance a car can travel electrically on the same amount of battery energy as is contained in 1 gallon of gasoline. The lighter 60-kWh version earns a slightly higher 95-MPGe rating.
While that efficiency rating is slightly lower than those of the Nissan Leaf (114 MPGe) and the most efficient electric car on the market, the new BMW i3 (124 MPGe), it remains impressive for a five-seat luxury vehicle that's larger, heavier, and much faster than either of those other cars.
As do all zero-emission battery electric vehicles, the 2013 Tesla Model S earns our highest Green rating of 10 out of 10 on the scale.