- Elegant design, stunning performance
- The electric car for use everywhere
- Growing free Supercharger network
- Highest safety ratings
- No other car competes directly
- German luxury cars offer more features
- Options add up quickly
- So-called 'Autopilot' is nothing of the kind
- Long-term battery life unknown
- Many states ban direct Tesla sales
features & specs
There's still no direct competition for the 2016 Tesla Model S, which offers elegant design, 240 miles or more of all-electric range, and jaw-dropping acceleration in the higher-end models. It's one of a kind.
After four years on the market, the 2016 Tesla Model S luxury sedan remains the highest-range electric car sold in the U.S. It's fast, elegant, and comfortable, gets the highest safety ratings, and offers rated ranges of 200 to 294 miles combined per charge. Regardless of what you may think of electric cars, the Model S can be used in real-world circumstances with surprisingly few compromises. It remains the only electric car that's both functional and also fun, sexy, and genuinely desirable.
Tesla assigns a "model year" based solely on the car's final-assembly date, so a Model S labeled "2016" means only that it was built between January 1 and December 31 that year. The car received updated frontal styling and numerous equipment changes in April 2016, meaning that at least two distinct varieties of 2016 Model S coexist.
The "new" 2016 Model S versions are instantly identifiable from the front. Rather than the glossy-black oval panel simulating a grille opening, they have a flat, blunter nose with a blank, body-colored panel relieved only by a slim horizontal opening with a small "T" logo in it. The company issued a flurry of other changes to available models from April through June, adding new battery sizes, expanding drive configurations, and offering a lower-priced version with a smaller battery as well.
The Tesla Model S was a handsome and sleek design when it launched in 2012, and it remains so today. It's now a part of the backdrop in high-dollar and tech-forward areas, and often doesn't attract the notice it would have four years ago—at least until it rockets away from whatever other cars are in the vicinity.
Every line of the long, low, five-passenger Model S hatchback has been designed to cut wind drag, which burns through battery energy, especially at high speeds. The door handles even retract flush with the body—sliding out to offer themselves to a driver who approaches with the keyfob—to smooth airflow at speed. The Tesla is smoothly tapered, though its new nose appears blunter, and many people pegged the earlier edition as a Jaguar. The Model S is also made almost entirely of aluminum, and weighs only 4,600 pounds as a result, which is quite light for a large luxury sedan.
The Model S interior borders on stark, however. There are only a few ancillary controls, and the dashboard is dominated by a huge, bright 17-inch touchscreen display from which most of the car's functions are controlled. 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. The brightness, clarity, and instant response of the touchscreen put other luxury brands' systems on smaller screen to shame, making even the newest six-figure German luxury cars feel outdated.
As of summer 2016, the Tesla Model S can be ordered with battery packs ranging from 60 to 90 kilowatt-hours. All versions have a choice of rear-wheel drive or "D" all-wheel drive, the latter being slightly more efficient in energy usage. The "D" dual-drive models can also be offered with the Performance option, or "P" prefix, which boosts rear motor power and provides startlingly fast acceleration.
The Model S has become known, especially in its top-end versions, for blinding performance. The P90D offers an optional "Ludicrous" mode cuts reported 0-to-60-mph acceleration time to 3.0 seconds or less. That's quick enough to humiliate a great many other machines, including sports cars that cost multiples of what a Tesla Model S does.
The Tesla sedan has earned the highest scores on crash testing, though its reliability ratings from owners—who still generally love their electric cars—are below average. The biggest question around Model S safety this year, in fact, is the offer of "beta version" Autopilot driver-assistance software to allow Model S cars with the necessary sensor hardware to drive themselves at highway speeds under certain conditions. Drivers are advised to stay alert and ready to take over control instantly if necessary, but YouTube videos and one death thus far in a Model S operating on "Autopilot" suggest that many will not do anything of the kind.
Another unique Tesla attraction is the company's expanding network of Supercharger DC fast-charging sites. Long-distance trips in a Model S can be undertaken with a stop every 200 miles or so for 20 to 30 minutes to recharge to 80 percent of battery capacity. The Model S, along with its Model X utility vehicle sibling, is thus the sole battery-electric car in which coast-to-coast trips are possible in any kind of practical way.
Altogether, Tesla now offers 11 different variants of the Model S, with prices starting at $67,200 (including a mandatory $1,200 destination fee) for the base Model S 60. A fully-configured P90D version with all available luxury options can run as high as $130,000. That makes Model S an expensive car that competes with mid-size and full-size luxury sedans, though Tesla has ambitious plans for a $35,000 electric car it says it will start selling sometime in second half of 2017 (many observers remain skeptical).
Tesla has now delivered at least 125,000 Model S cars globally, and its unlikely success remains the best demonstration of the potential for electric cars to transform the way we travel and the energy we use to do so. And that success has severely rocked the incumbent German luxury makers—Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche—all of which now have fast, luxurious electric cars of their own under development.
2016 Tesla Model S
The 2016 Tesla Model S is becoming an accepted shape; it remains handsome, though the interior borders on stark.
On the outside, the first four months of 2016 Tesla Model S cars were identical to the version that launched in mid-2012. Then, in April 2016, Tesla launched updated "new" 2016 Model S versions—meaning not all 2016 Model S cars are alike.
The update is nstantly identifiable from the front. Rather than the glossy-black oval panel simulating a grille opening, they have a flat, blunter nose with a blank, body-colored panel relieved only by a slim horizontal opening with a small "T" logo in it. The rest of the Model S remains a classic and long-lived fastback shape, viewed as a sedan even though it's actually a five-door hatchback like the Audi A7.
The shape has been highly honed to minimize aerodynamic drag in every way. That extends to retractable door handles that automatically extend when an owner gets near, then smoothly slide back into the door, flush with the bodywork, as the car moves away. 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.
The Model S is at home in the company of the most stylish high-end luxury sedans, ranging from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz to more exotic entries like the Maserati Quattroporte. Some people see the shape of the Jaguar XJ in it; the Jaguar's low nose and large grille convey more toughness, but the Tesla's rear quarters and tail are considerably better integrated.
Importantly, the Tesla shape gives no hint from the outside that it's powered entirely by a different form of energy. Designer Franz von Holzhausen created a luxury sedan that can stand on its own as a desirable vehicle, even before any discussion of its all-electric powertrain.
Climb inside, and you'll find the Model S 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—more so now that newer interiors from Mercedes-Benz, in particular, embody more sensual curves, richer materials, and a variety of trims and colors that border on fine furniture.
Still, the Tesla's dominant feature is the vertical 17-inch touchscreen display that controls virtually every secondary control function beyond the steering, acceleration, braking, and a few stalk-mounted controls like turn signals and cruise control. The closest competing design is the Volvo Sensus display, also vertically mounted—and quick to respond as well—but still notably smaller than the Tesla touchscreen.
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. Images of analog gauges also appear on a second display within the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel. Both screens are clear and crisp, with simple, colorful graphics.
2016 Tesla Model S
The 2016 Tesla Model S P90D model offers a "Ludicrous" mode that rockets it from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds.
The 2016 Tesla Model S continues to be the bar against which any other electric car is measured. It's stylish, fast, comfortable, and likely the best and most versatile plug-in car in the world. And while its styling is unchanged, Tesla has continued to upgrade its battery packs, its drivetrains, and its performance.
As of mid-2016, Model S cars can be ordered with battery packs of 60, 70, 75, 85, or 90 kilowatt-hour capacities. Their EPA-rated ranges vary from more than 200 miles to 294 miles for the 90D version. Real-world ranges may be 10 to 25 percent lower, however; both high speed and low temperatures will sap range. The 5-inch-tall battery pack sits under the cabin floor, stretching from side to side and almost from axle to axle, producing a slightly legs-out sitting position in every seat.
In the standard rear-wheel-drive Model S, it powers a 270-kW (362-hp) motor that drives the rear wheels. The 'D' all-wheel-drive models have smaller 193-kw (259-hp) motors powering each set of wheels. Tesla buyers can order various combinations of pack size and rear- or all-wheel drive. The "P" performance package boosts the rear-motor power to 375 kw (503 hp) and keeps the front motor at the same output.
The salient feature of the Model S Performance versions is 0-to-60-mph acceleration of about 3 seconds, which matches the McLaren F1 supercar that Tesla CEO Elon Musk drove a decade ago. That's 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. For the ultimate performance aficionado, the P85D comes with an "Insane" mode and the P90D with an even faster "Ludicrous" mode. Videos of unsuspecting passengers reacting to the resulting, shocking, swift and silent acceleration (with a bit of whine) are a staple of YouTube.
With its maximum torque available from 0 rpm (like any electric car), the Model S surges swiftly and silently away from stoplights. The relative lack of noise makes it all too easy to hit 60 mph on city streets without 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 all-wheel-drive "D" models weigh in at close to 5,000 pounds, with the lowest-spec version roughly 500 pounds lighter.
The Model S is heavier than you might expect behind the wheel. It feels closer to the heft of a Mercedes S-Class than counterparts of the same size, perhaps again the Audi A7. Its 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.
Drivers can set the suspension from very firm, through the default standard setting, all the way to a comfort option that a Tesla rep candidly described as "mushy." Drivers can choose whether they want idle creep, mimicking a car with 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. But even the more aggressive Normal is less aggressive than that of the BMW i3, precluding the "one-pedal driving" prized by some electric-car owners.
Tesla's network of Supercharger DC fast-charging stations continues to roll out rapidly, making long trips in the Model S to more and more destinations increasingly realistic. Those trips will be made in roughly 200-mile increments, punctuated by 20- to 30-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.
2016 Tesla Model S
Comfort & Quality
The 2016 Tesla Model S is comfortable, smooth, quiet, with good roadholding and accommodations for four or five.
The 2016 Tesla Model S has more options and features than the 2012 version that launched the vehicle, but it remains pretty much the same car it's always been. It seats four adults in relative comfort, five if required, and a pair of optional rear-facing jump seats with four-point safety harnesses can hold two small children, facing backwards out the window in the rear hatch.
The door openings are smaller than the doors themselves, which can pose a challenge for taller individuals entering and existing the rear seat. They'll find the cabin comfortable once they get there, though. Those same individuals (6 feet and above, say) will find the headliner to be just a fraction of an inch above their heads if the optional panoramic sunroof is fitted. Rear passengers will also notice that the cabin narrows above their shoulders, with the windows angling in as they rise to the roof. It's all to reduce cross-sectional area to cut energy-sapping aerodynamic drag.
Compared to the Audi A7, another large luxury five-door hatchback, passengers will find the seating position subtly different. Because the 5-inch-tall battery pack is located under the cabin floor, the front and rear foot wells aren't as deep as on a gasoline car. This results in more of a legs-out position for both front and rear riders. It' not necessarily uncomfortable, but it's pretty noticeable at first--especially from the rear seat, whose back cushion is reclined at an angle to provide sufficient headroom.
The cabin of the Model S was unique when it launched, with the standard 17-inch central touchscreen display as one of the hallmarks of the car. But the rest of the interior is plain, bordering on stark. And with increasing luxury in the design, materials, and trims of cars at the same price from Mercedes-Benz and other luxury makers, the Tesla cabin is now outclassed—if those amenities are important to you. No other car has a display quite as large, but there are closer competitors than there were—in particular the excellent Volvo Sensus system.
Still, to someone who's never been in a Tesla, the huge display is clearly a "surprise and delight" feature. Switch on a turn signal, or any of the exterior lamps, and you'll see the lights shining or flashing on a photo-realistic image of the car on the Lights screen. Opening the sunroof requires just the swipe of a finger along a view of the car. Want to open it partway? A large slider lets you choose any degree of opening you want. 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.
The central touchscreen and the smaller display in the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel are crisp, clear, and bright. That's good, because virtually all minor controls in a Model S are operated through the touchscreen, 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 is instantaneous. Together, the display's speed and size minimize distraction against any other car with a similar system. And the brilliant graphics, easy-to-learn control screens, and lightning-fast response still set a bar no other car meets, yet.
On the road, the Model S is superbly calm and quiet. It's not entirely noise-free—there's an occasional high-pitched whine under full power—and with the stereo off, tire noise is obvious. Wind noise is noticeable too above 40 mph or so. The various cars we've seen were 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. The company says that powertrain problems in the earliest cars from 2012 and 2013 have been dealt with and are not found in today's production.
For four people, the 2016 Model S remains practical and comfortable transportation. The hatchback makes it versatile, with 26 cubic feet of cargo volume in the load bay. That rises to 58 cubic feet with the rear seat folded down. There's also an additional 5 cubic feet in the front trunk under the hood—slightly less in the "D" all-wheel-drive models—which Tesla regrettably insists on calling a "frunk."
2016 Tesla Model S
The 2016 Tesla Model S continues to earn the highest safety ratings, though it doesn't offer every bell and whistle of some competitors.
Rear-wheel-drive versions of the 2016 Tesla Model S earn the highest possible ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It gave those models five stars overall, its highest rating, along with five stars for frontal crash, side crash, and rollover safety as well--a clean sweep.
The all-wheel-drive "D" versions added over the last couple of years, however, have not yet been rated by the NHTSA. They still get five stars for rollover and side-crash safety, but because there's now a second drive motor between the front wheels, there's not presently an overall or frontal-crash rating for those cars.
The IIHS has not yet rated the Tesla.
Over the last two years, Tesla has added several of the more advanced electronic safety monitoring, warning, and correction systems that it initially lacked. Offered by most of the top-end luxury competitors, they include adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings, and forward-collision warnings. Parking sensors and parking assist are also present, and a rearview camera is standard, 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. And a three-element protection shield under the car that blends aluminum and titanium components protects the battery pack against damage from road debris.
Frontal and side vision from the driver's seat is good, but thick roof pillars and the raked roofline hurt rear three-quarter vision. And the steeply angled window in the rear hatch offers no more than a slit in the rear-view mirror. Nevertheless, the Tesla may be one of the safest cars of any type on the market.
Its biggest open safety question this year is the Autopilot software, which lets the car drive itself under certain circumstances, based on data from sensors showing what's around the car and a huge database of positioning data showing the precise trajectories followed previously by Teslas in the same location. Tesla calls the function, switched on late last year for owners who pay the $2,500 fee, a beta release—but it's safe to say much of the rest of auto industry is waiting in a state of high anxiety to see how it works, and whether it can deal with unexpected cases that could confuse it, potentially putting the driver and passengers in danger. Only time will tell on that front.
2016 Tesla Model S
For 2016, the big question will be whether the Model S gets the promised autonomous driving features.
While the 2016 Tesla Model S competes in price with larger luxury sedans, it's not features and options that put it into that category. It's the all-electric drivetrain, the free network of Supercharger DC fast-charging sites, and the astounding performance of higher-end models. It has many of the standard electronic safety systems offered by the Germans, but fewer of their comfort options—no massaging heated and cooled seats, for example.
For 2016, three battery sizes are available—70, 85, and 90 kilowatt-hours—although we expect the 85-kwh option will ultimately be replaced altogether by the 90. There are various combinations of battery size with rear- or all-wheel drive (the latter denoted by "D" for dual drive), and the two larger packs also offer "P" performance options that come with a larger rear electric motor.
Feature and equipment include options like a cold-weather package, a parking assist system, an Ultra-High Fidelity Sound Package, 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 most notable 2016 option, in fact, may be the Autopilot self-driving software—which Tesla stresses is only in "beta" release form, but is offering for $2,500 anyway to owners of Model S cars fitted with the appropriate sensor hardware (those built since late summer 2013). Other automakers are largely aghast at Tesla using its paying customers to test imperfect software that pilots the car alone at highway speeds, but that's Tesla for you. Whether it will end in tragedy or in Tesla taking a commanding lead in autonomous driving software remains to be seen.
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, and Supercharging capability is now standard on all trim levels. That 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 does not use the standard J-1772 charging socket found on every other electric car, but the Model S comes with a J-1772 adapter cable, enabling Teslas to recharge at standard public and private charging stations.
Prices start at $75,000 before incentives for the base "70D" model with 240 miles of range. 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 P90D with multiple options will reach $130,000. Still, Tesla has long said that more buyers than it expected are ordering high-spec cars, which has likely led it to boost the performance options at the top end of its range.
All Tesla vehicles qualify in California for the coveted "white sticker" that allows zero-emission cars to travel in California's High-Occupancy Vehicle 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.
2016 Tesla Model S
The 2016 Tesla Model S is entirely zero-emission, and energy-efficient for its size to boot.
The 2016 Tesla Model S continues to have the longest range of any electric car on sale, just as it has for four years now. A growing array of 11 possible versions, however offers rated ranges of roughly 200 to 294 miles combined, with the 90D version rated at just over 300 miles on the EPA's highway cycle. Note that these differ from the ranges shown on the Tesla Motors website, which can be varied using sliders to set different parameters, but default to steady-state speeds of 65 mph.
As of June 2016, the new low-end Model S car has a 60-kilowatt-hour battery pack (other pack options include 70, 75, 85, and 90 kwh). EPA ratings aren't yet published for that battery, which will come standard with rear-wheel drive and offer a "D" all-wheel-drive version as well. But they will both be "over 200 miles," according to Tesla.
Similarly, efficiencies vary by version, from 89 to 103 MPGe combined. (Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, or MPGe, is an efficiency measure that gives the distance an electric car can travel on the energy contained in 1 gallon of gasoline.) In cold weather and at high speeds, the quoted range and efficiency ratings will likely fall to a real-world number 10 to 25 percent lower.
The "P" model offered with the 85- and 90-kwh batteries denotes the performance model, with owners of those hot-rod versions likely to make frequent use of the car's "Insane" or "Ludricrous" modes to rip off 0-to-60-mph runs in about 3 seconds. Needless to say, that will reduce range substantially, although maximum battery charge is required to get the lowest acceleration numbers.
Tesla says most buyers choose the larger battery. Owners say it gives a greater margin of safety traveling from one Supercharger DC quick-charging site to the next, even in cold winter weather. While the smaller battery may require some compromises to driving style or comfort on longer trips, the switch from a rear-wheel-drive 60-kwh base car to an all-wheel drive 70D has boosted the range of the low-end Tesla from 208 to 240 miles.
The all-wheel-drive "D" models are more efficient and longer-range than equivalent rear-drive versions with the same battery pack. That's because Tesla has put a lot of effort into the control software that shifts current between and among the two motors—letting the car use the more efficient motor or combination of both in different circumstances.
As with all electric cars, the per-mile cost of running a Tesla on grid electricity is usually one-third to one-fifth that of a comparable gasoline-fueled luxury sedan. That equation depends on what buyers pay locally for a kilowatt-hour of electricity. Frankly, we doubt that many will buy a $70,000 to $130,000 Tesla Model S to save money on running costs—but it never hurts.
The 2016 Tesla Model S earns our highest Green rating of 10 out of 10, as do all zero-emission battery electric vehicles.