- Sleek design, jaw-dropping performance
- Years later, still no competitors
- Expanding Supercharger network
- An electric car for the real world
- Free Supercharging on the road
- Service sites sparse in some areas
- Luxury makes beat it on features
- Options get pricey quickly
- Battery durability TBD
The 2015 Tesla Model S has no direct competition; the electric luxury hatchback is the benchmark among its kind in a market with more than 20 plug-in models. It's likely the most advanced car on the planet.
No other car in the world offers a combination of qualities and capabilities like the Tesla Model S. The U.S. automaker has now likely sold about 70,000 Model S cars since the first was delivered in June 2012. The car's rave reviews and ecstatically devoted owners have not only attracted notice from GM and Nissan, they have severely rocked the incumbent German luxury makers—Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche—all of which are now developing fast, luxurious electric cars of their own.
Tesla doesn't use conventional model years; modifications are added to production cars as soon as they're ready, and the car's various software systems are updated "over the air," using its cellular network connection (once the owner agrees). That means that a 2014 car made in January may differ significantly from one made in December, which would be identical to a 2015 car made two weeks later.
That means the Tesla lineup in April 2015 happens to differ significantly from that offered the previous September. The company added all-wheel-drive to the Model S lineup in the fall of 2014, and replaced its former base model less than six months later.
Starting at $75,000, the 2015 Model S is expensive (though Tesla has ambitious plans for a $35,000 electric car a few years hence). There are now four Model S variations, three fitted with all-wheel drive. The new base Model S is known as the 70D, for its 70-kilowatt-hour battery pack and "D" dual-motor system that powers all four wheels. The 70D has a rated range of 240 miles, much better than the 208 miles of the former base model, the rear-wheel-drive 60, which is no longer offered.
Then there are three versions with the larger 85-kWh battery, with ranges of 240 to 270 miles. Most buyers opt for the larger battery despite its $10,000 price, Tesla says, for the added range and security. There's a rear-wheel-drive "85" and the AWD "85D," and the top of the line is the high-performance P85D version, which is quickly becoming legendary for smooth, silent 0-to-60-mph runs in roughly 3 seconds.
Let's just say that kind of acceleration humiliates a great many other machines, including several that cost multiples of what a Tesla Model S does. Of the four versions, the two standard "D" models are the most efficient, with a 270-mile range--because their control software constantly adjusts power delivery to move the car using the more efficient of the two motors at any given time.
The unparalleled range of the five-passenger Model S is testament to its ground-breaking package of a light aluminum hatchback body, very low drag coefficient, and high power delivered by a choice of two battery packs, each made up of thousands of small commodity lithium-ion cells like those used in laptop computers.
Last year, Tesla added a new battery-protection shield under the car, as well as an optional parking assist system and power sunshade inside the rear hatch. But the big change, which went into production in December but will constitute the bulk of early 2015 production, was the addition of the "D" all-wheel drive option.
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. It's smoothly tapered, with a rounded nose, and many people guess that it's a Jaguar. 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 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.
Inside, a huge 17-inch color vertical display dominates the center of the dash and provides a focal point for the clean, almost stark design.The brightness, clarity, and instant response of the touchscreen put other luxury brands' systems on smaller screen to shame, making new six-figure German luxury cars feel 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. While rear-facing jump seats in the rear cargo bay nominally provide a sixth and seventh position, they're for kids only, strapped in with four-point racing harnesses.
Safety is a major feature of the 2015 Tesla Model S, which earned the highest scores on crash testing. It's won awards from both enthusiast publications and receives high marks from that bastion of sensible automotive purchasing, Consumer Reports. And there seems to have been little lasting effect from a highly-publicized pair of battery fires last year, caused by road debris piercing the underfloor battery pack. Tesla quickly developed and tested a newly designed add-on battery shield (in three segments) that was built into all new cars and retrofitted to any existing Model S whose owner desires it, at no cost to the owner.
The "D" all-wheel-drive system launched late last year came from development work done on the company's second volume vehicle, using the Model S underpinnings, which will be the Model X crossover utility vehicle. That long-delayed vehicle is now supposed to go into production during the second half of this year; meanwhile, Tesla is now selling Model S cars in North America, certain European countries, and China.
It's hard to say what cars compete directly with the Tesla Model S. Nominally, it would be large, expensive sedans from German and British luxury makers. But buyers of plug-in electric cars have a variety of motivations for choosing them—don't believe the trope that it's all about green—and no other car on the market offers the right mix of qualities to go head to head with the Tesla. Plug-in hybrid versions of large luxury sedans from Mercedes-Benz (the S-Class) and Porsche (the Panamera) are fine on their own merits, but people who buy Teslas aren't likely to be impressed by 20 miles of electric range and an engine that comes on when maximum acceleration is required.
Plus, the company's network of Supercharger DC fast-charging sites is growing quickly, meaning long-distance trips can be undertaken with a stop for 20 to 30 minutes every 200 miles or so to recharge to 80 percent of battery capacity. It makes the Model S the only electric car in which coast-to-coast trips are possible in any kind of reasonable time.
If one thing has become clear almost three years after its launch, it's that the Tesla Model S is absolutely a real car, one that can be used in real-world circumstances with very few compromises. And it delivers on the promise that driving electric cars is simply a better, quieter, nicer experience—with a huge reserve of power waiting when the driver needs it.
Tesla has built what no other carmaker in the world has yet managed to create: an electric car that's not only functional, and sensible, and well-built, but fun, sexy, cool, and genuinely desirable—one that has rocked the dozen largest global automakers to their cores. And the world is a more interesting, and more diverse, place because of it.
2015 Tesla Model S
The 2015 Tesla Model S has a little Jaguar, a little Lexus, and a lot of style--and none of it points to it battery electric powertrain.
The 2015 Tesla Model S is visually identical to the final production model unveiled almost four years ago; only slight trim differences and wheels set apart the base car from the top-of-the-line P85D hot rod version. But it's an enduring and classic shape, a large five-door sedan with a fastback profile that includes the large rear liftgate. The nose is smooth and rounded, with a black oval where a grille would be on a combustion-engined car, though it's actually just a plastic blanking plate.
The main goal for the Tesla design team was to reduce aerodynamic drag anywhere possible. The battery energy required to move a car through the air above 30 mph soars with each increase in speed, when overcoming drag begins to consume more power than moving the car itself. It worked: When five highly aerodynamic vehicles were tested by an enthusiast publication in the same wind tunnel, the drag coefficient of the Model S came in lower than those of the Chevrolet Volt, Mercedes CLA, Nissan Leaf, and Toyota Prius—all of them lauded for their own low drag.
Overall, the shape of the Tesla reminds many of the Jaguar XJ, and the car is at home in the company of the most stylish high-end luxury sedans, from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz to more exotic entries like the Maserati Quattroporte. Crucially, the car gives no hint from the outside that it is powered entirely by an entire different form of energy. Designer Franz von Holzhausen has created a luxury sedan that stands on its own as a desirable shape, even before any discussion of its all-electric powertrain.
Inside the cabin, the 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. The design is simple, clean, and borders on the severe.
But the dominant feature is the vertical 17-inch touchscreen display that is used to control virtually every secondary control function after steering, acceleration, braking, and wheel controls like the turn signals and cruise control. 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. Owners will get used to controlling cabin heating and cooling, audio, navigation, and even some vehicle settings--including charging behavior and suspension tuning--via large icons, sliders, and swipe motions.
2015 Tesla Model S
With the addition of the astounding P85D all-wheel-drive performance model, the 2015 Tesla Model S goes from fast to furious.
The 2015 Tesla Model S is likely the best and most versatile electric car in the world. Like any electric car, it is smooth, quiet, and delivers substantial torque instantly from a standstill. It's fast, comfortable, and handles well. Now, with the addition of the ultra-high-performance P85D model with two motors and all-wheel drive, Tesla has added a new high-end model that can compete with and beat the AMG and BMW M Series sedans from German luxury makers—at least within legal speeds.
The battery pack of any model S 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. In the standard Model S, it powers a 270-kW (362-hp) motor that drives the rear wheels. There's no transmission; the rear-mounted motor sends its torque directly into a reduction gear that powers the differential. Top speed of the Model S is restricted to 130 mph.
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 new P85D has quickly become a must-have for early Tesla owners and performance-car addicts alike, and it handily outguns the previous Performance Plus model. The salient feature is 0-to-60-mph acceleration to match the McLaren F1 that Tesla CEO Elon Musk drove a decade ago. Software updates are promised to bring that time below 3 seconds, truly a stunning number for a large five-passenger luxury sedan—and not something that BMW's M Series or Mercedes-Benz AMG models can match, at the moment.
Behind the wheel, the Model S feels heavier than you might anticipate--closer to the heft of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. 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.
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. 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 P85D with its two motors weighs in at close to 5,000 pounds, with the base 60-kWh version roughly 500 pounds lighter.
Suspension settings range from very firm through the default standard to a comfort setting that one Tesla rep candidly described as "mushy." Drivers can 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. The driver can also choose from two regenerative braking modes--Normal and Low. The more aggressive Normal is still less aggressive than in BMW's new i3 electric car, meaning the "one-pedal driving" prized by some electric-car drivers isn't possible.
The vehicle information display shows 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. 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
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.
2015 Tesla Model S
Comfort & Quality
The 2015 Tesla Model S is smooth, quiet, and well put together, though you can ignore the seven-seat claim--the last two are only for kids.
The 2015 Tesla Model S has a few more features and options than the first 2012 model, but it's largely the same car. While it's often called a luxury sedan, it's actually a five-door hatchback, quite similar to the Audi A7. It seats four adults comfortably, five reasonably, and small children can be strapped into an optional pair of rear-facing jump seats in the load bay, facing out the rear window and restrained with four-point safety harnesses.
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.
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 more capacious German competitors. Once inside, though, they'll find the rear cabin comfortable enough. 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 six-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
From any seat, the 17-inch central touchscreen display is not only standard, it's one of the hallmarks of the car. It and the smaller display forming the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel are 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--is built in, using the car's cellular connection. Portable audio devices can be connected, and mobile apps are available as are voice commands.
For four people, the Model S is practical and comfortable transportation. The hatchback makes it versatile, its cargo capacity is substantial, and it's comfortable, smooth, and quiet on the road. The 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--at least in rear-wheel-drive versions, slightly less in the "D" all-wheel-drive models--which Tesla regrettably insists on calling a "frunk."
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. Owners largely report that minor issues are swiftly dealt with by the company's service program, which is considered to be top-notch and was rated best of all makers by Consumer Reports as well. Tesla sends a flat-bed truck to pick up cars for service when necessary, and provides a loaner that's the latest, most powerful, highest-end model for owners to drive meanwhile. The serviced car is then delivered back to any desired location.
2015 Tesla Model S
The 2015 Tesla Model S gets top safety ratings, and Tesla is adding electronic safety systems to compete better with luxury brands.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the Tesla Model S five stars overall, its highest rating, and five stars for frontal crash, side crash, and rollover safety as well. While those ratings applied to the 2013 and 2014 Model S, there's no reason they should change for 2015. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), however, has not yet rated the Tesla.
To address a pair of fires in late 2013 resulting from road debris that penetrated the low-mounted battery pack, Tesla now fits a stronger battery-protection shield under the car. The three-element system protects the pack against virtually all such damage, and includes aluminum and titanium components.
Over the last year, Tesla has added a number of the more advanced electronic safety monitoring, warning, and correction systems offered by most of the top-end luxury competitors, which were lacking on earlier Model S cars. These include adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and forward-collision warning. Parking sensors and parking assist had previously been added, and a backup camera is standard.
Anti-lock brakes, traction control, and the mandatory tire-pressure monitoring system are standard on the Model S, along with eight airbags. The safety of the optional rear-facing sixth and seventh seats located in the cargo bay, which hold only small children in racing-style four-point safety harnesses, is less clear--but very few Teslas have those seats installed, so it may be largely an academic question.
Frontal and side vision from the driver's seat is good, but the raked roofline and thick rear pillars hurt three-quarter vision. And the steeply angled window in the rear hatch offers no more than a slit in the rear-view mirror. But that's about the only quibbble, and clearly the Tesla has to be deemed one of the safest cars of any type on the market.
2015 Tesla Model S
The 2015 Tesla Model S has few lavish luxury features, but the models and options are well thought-out.
The 2015 Tesla Model S benefits from last year's addition of various electronic safety systems and optional features that start to bring the Model S closer to the equipment levels of the German luxury cars whose prices it matches. As always, two battery pack sizes (60-kWh and 85-kWh) are available, as is a higher-performance "P" package. For 2015, though there's now also the option of "D" all-wheel drive--again, matching the Model S more closely against large luxury sedans from the Germans and also Jaguar.
Four basic models are available, starting with the basic 60-kilowatt-hour Model S priced at $69,900 before any incentives. Relatively few of these are sold, in part because the 208-mile range means the car is cutting it close from Supercharger to Supercharger if the weather is cold. Next in line is the 85-kWh Model S, for $10,000 more. Both vehicles feature rear-wheel drive. Above them are the two AWD models: the 85D--with the longest range, 270 miles--and the ultra-hot-rod P85D. The top-of-the-line P85D model features all-wheel drive and revised hardware, software, and suspension that together give it truly breathtaking performance at speeds up to legal limits and slightly above.
Feature and equipment updates added over the last year and a half include options like an Ultra-High Fidelity Sound Package, a cold-weather package, a parking assist system, premium leather upholstery, premium interior lighting, fog lamps, power folding exterior mirrors, and a power sunshade inside the rear hatch. Optional wheels include a 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. The sunroof option is actually a pair of back-to-back large glass panels, turning the roof into a dark, smoke-tinted glass surface.
The base 2015 Tesla Model S with the 60-kWh battery pack is priced at $69,900 before any incentives. All Tesla vehicles qualify in California for the coveted "white sticker" that allows zero-emission cars to travel in California's High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes with just a single occupant. Any Model S 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.
The larger 85-kWh battery pack adds $10,000, and the P85D model jumps to a base price of $104,500. 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 P85D with multiple options will approach $130,000. The price doesn't seem to have been a drawback; the P85D was a smash hit since it was unveiled late in 2014. Tesla has long said that more customers than it anticipated are ordering high-spec cars, and certainly the arrival of the P85D will continue that trend.
The base Model S includes a standard onboard 10-kilowatt charger. A second charger can be ordered to bring the rate up to 20 kW, as can Supercharging capability (standard on higher trim levels), which operates at levels approaching 150 kW and enables the battery to be recharged to 80 percent of its capacity in 20 to 40 minutes. The Model S forgoes the standard J-1772 charging socket used by every other electric car sold in the U.S., but every car also comes with a J-1772 adapter cable, enabling Teslas to recharge at standard public and private charging stations.
2015 Tesla Model S
Running solely on electricity, the 2015 Tesla Model S and its Supercharger network bring the zero-emission future to your driveway.
The 2015 Tesla Model S remains the longest-range electric car sold in the U.S., as it has been since mid-2012. With the addition of the all-wheel-drive "D" models, there are now four different Model S versions, each differently rated for range and efficiency.
The low-end Model S with the 60-kilowatt-hour battery is rated at 208 miles of range and 95 MPGe, 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 one gallon of gasoline. In cold weather and at high speed, that range likely falls to a real-world number more like 150 to 175 miles.
Tesla says most buyers choose the larger 85-kWh battery. Owners say that's because it gives a margin of safety traveling from one Supercharger DC quick-charging site to the next, even in cold winter weather. The 60-kWh version, on the other hand, may require serious compromises to driving style or comfort on those longer trips.
The three 85-kWh versions vary , with the most efficient and longest-range version--surprisingly--being the 85D, or all-wheel-drive model. That's because Tesla has put a lot of effort into the control software that shifts current among the two motors--letting the car use the more efficient motor or combination of both in different circumstances. It's rated at 270 miles of range and 100 MPGe, a notable figure for such a large, fast five-passenger luxury car. The base 85-kWh model with rear-wheel drive comes in a little lower, at 265 miles and 89 MPGe.
Finally, there's the hot-rod P85D all-wheel-drive high-performance model. Its range is 251 miles and its efficiency is 93 MPGe. We suspect real-world drivers will make use of the car's astounding "Insane" mode to rip off 0-to-60-mph runs in about three seconds, which will reduce range a lot.
As with all electric cars, the per-mile cost of running a Tesla 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.
As do all zero-emission battery electric vehicles, the 2015 Tesla Model S earns our highest Green rating of 10 out of 10 on the scale.