A battery-electric car that accelerates quicker, drives farther and charges faster than any other on the market, the 2012 Tesla Model S is a work in progress whose capacity to evolve is more revolutionary than the fact that it's an electric car.
Our experience with the gorgeous Tesla Model S got off to a rocky start. After a couple of hours, our first loaner shut down — not because of a dead battery, but due to a dead key fob. (Unlike all other keyless-access systems, which hide a physical key in the remote and a keyhole on the car, the Model S has none.) Tesla technicians had already spent a couple hours on the car at our office when I aborted altogether and took the train home.
Our second loan, a different Model S, drove fine but wouldn't recharge due to a supplied charging cord that Tesla later determined was defective and replaced, mid-loan.
Tesla says production models allow a remote with a dead battery to unlock and start the car. We're left to take Tesla's word for it that these test cars had already been through an abusive car-reviewer mill and that typical products will perform without incident.
Chasing the DragonThere was something apart from the failures we had to get beyond before we could properly evaluate the Model S: its staggeringly quick acceleration. As the most capable, feature-packed version of the Model S, the Signature Performance version we tested does zero to 60 mph in about 4.4 seconds.
It goes beyond the impressive spec: It's the immediate rush of off-the-line acceleration that buries you in the backrest in ways gas-powered cars don't — even if their zero-to-60 times match. This isn't new to us, having experienced it in cars as modest as the Nissan Leaf; the thrill is simply doubled here.
We needed to overcome this speed-induced intoxication for two reasons: First, power distracts from a car's other characteristics, which is why automakers have been known to pack horses under hoods rather than address other failings. Second, not all versions of the Model S will be this quick. The first 1,000 Model S cars sold were Signature versions — now long sold out — and they were loaded with features and built only with the largest of the Model S' three available batteries, rated 85 kilowatt-hours. The Signature's starting price as a 2012 model was $96,570, including a $1,170 destination charge but excluding a federal tax credit of up to $7,500, for which most plug-in cars are eligible.
At that price, the zero-to-60 time is plenty quick at 5.6 seconds. There's an optional higher-capacity inverter (the device that converts the battery's direct current to alternating current for the drive motor) that knocks the sprint down to 4.4 seconds. The inverter upgrade comes with some other features in the Signature Performance, which cost $106,570 (all prices include destination charges) as a 2012 model. With a few more options, our Signature Performance test car hit $108,070.
For 2013, Tesla increased the price of all models by $2,500, as reflected in prices quoted here because any orders from this point forward will be at that level.
Acceleration rates, ranges and prices all drop with each step of battery size. Below the big daddy 85-kwh pack are 60 kwh and 40 kwh battery options, which do zero to 60 mph in a claimed 5.9 and 6.5 seconds, respectively. Prices are $81,070 ($96,070 with the Performance package), $71,070 and $61,070, respectively. The "cheapest" one is the only possible justification for a loan of nearly a half-billion dollars Tesla received from the U.S. Department of Energy. (Debate rages over how justifiable it is … .)
How Far They GoTesla's range claims for each battery, starting with the largest, are 300, 230 and 160 miles. So far, the EPA has rated only the largest battery, at 265 miles. Unfortunately, our brief loan and charging troubles prevented any reliable range tests, but we've found the EPA's estimates to be accurate on other electric cars, so we suspect the cheapest Model S will go well above 100 miles — farther than any other EV — though not necessarily the full 160 miles.
Behind the WheelSit in the driver's seat, and the car comes to life. The key fob can remain in your pocket, and rather than push a button to "start" the car, you simply step on the brake pedal. This is just one of many well-meaning innovations with unintended consequences, which I'll soon detail. Conventional controls like the Park/Reverse/Drive selector, turn-signal stalk and window switches are more familiar, supplied by Mercedes-Benz, a Tesla investor.
Once in motion, the driver feels the balanced front/rear weight distribution, courtesy of rear-wheel drive and a broad, flat battery pack under the floor. The Model S has a slight understeer bias and more body roll than I'd expect given the low center of gravity that's typically provided by low-mounted battery packs. You definitely feel the car's weight in turns, too.
The ride quality is also firmer than I expected from a sizable five-seater; however, the Signature Performance I drove has 21-inch wheels; the lineup starts with 19-inchers. There was also a troublesome low-frequency resonance — a vibration felt more than heard — that was most pronounced on grooved-concrete interstate but which was also detectable at other times. It felt a bit like the pressure buffeting that sometimes happens when you drive with a moonroof open too far, but not accompanied by the higher frequency wind turbulence. I and a passenger — and another editor driving separately — found it terribly irritating.
Our car didn't have the idle-creep behavior we take for granted in regular cars and some electric ones. Rather than inch forward or back when you let off the brake, it just sits there. Worse, this translated to no hill-hold function, either. Put the car in Drive when pointing uphill and you start to roll backward; the opposite happens in Reverse with the nose downhill. Maddening. Idle creep is one of many features Tesla said is coming. If it's like the steering and braking, its behavior will be selectable: You can already vary the power-steering assist and the amount of regenerative braking. The Standard braking setting provides so much deceleration that when you lift off the accelerator, the brake lights come on. I prefer this over the Low mode because it allows one-pedal driving in most circumstances and maximizes range.
An active air suspension, included with the Performance Package, automatically adjusts ride height to maximize aerodynamics and lets you select heights to account for snow and steep driveways. Tesla will begin building a regular suspension in March 2013.
Now That's a Touch-Screen
All these adjustments are controlled through what's arguably the Model S' defining feature: a 17-inch touch-screen, mid-dash, that has the surface area of two iPads. The only mechanical buttons on the entire dashboard are for the hazard lights and the glove compartment release. With three buttons, the key fob has it beat.
There are pros and cons. The screen looks like it would wash out easily in the sunlight, but that wasn't the case. It also responds quickly to touch, sort of like an iPad or iPhone (when they're new, at least). Many car touch-screens are maddeningly slow; on the upside, though, they usually respond to pressure if you're wearing gloves. The Model S doesn't. Like mobile devices, this car will require special gloves.
You can fill the whole screen with Google-supplied maps or reduce it to half, positioned either at the top or the bottom of the screen. Though rear visibility is already decent, the true rearview camera is a nice addition, providing a real-time rear view on the display even when you're driving forward, not just while in Reverse. In practice, though, it disappoints because it's such a wide angle; the pavement whizzing past is a constant distraction. It's not the glance at reality you get from a normal rearview mirror. Put simply, objects in camera are much closer than they appear.
The screen also includes a web browser that doesn't show video but is otherwise fully functional — even when in motion. (I question how long Tesla will get away with this.) It's not super quick, but it does the job. Tesla says it currently relies on a 3G network, but faster 4G service is coming.
Physical buttons have their place in cars, and I never like to see too many features relegated to a touch-screen. However, Tesla really does it right. The menus are simple, intuitive and — most important — large. I never puzzled over a new menu even at first look. Artist, song and album artwork appear bold and bright. The trip computer, range estimation and charging screens are clear as can be.
The instrument panel, also a high-resolution screen, lets you choose what you want to monitor on the displays flanking the speedometer gauge — audio, range, trip information, etc. — by means of thumbwheels on the steering-wheel spokes. This functionality also alleviates one shortcoming in the large map, which shows only a north-up view. On the instrument panel, the small map will display direction of travel, but only when you've programmed a destination to which the Garmin-based navigation is routing you.
Room for You, Not Your StuffThe Model S' interior is comfortable and pretty roomy, with a design that makes it feel roomier still. Unfortunately, the roomy feel results in part from the lack of a center storage console; all you get is a shallow gutter that can contain small, loose items. The center armrest has two cupholders but no compartment. There are no door pockets or covered storage apart from the glove box.
The roomy backseat doesn't even have cupholders. (From an American company?!) Buyers can opt for two additional wayback seats that raise from the floor in the cargo area; they face rearward in the vintage station wagon style (see photos on the right). They're strictly for children between 35 and 77 pounds and at least 3 feet, 1 inch tall, according to Tesla. However, our child-seat training suggests children on the smaller side of this range should be in child-safety seats. The rear window doesn't open, which is a shame, because there's no tailpipe to poison the kids as our parents did us.
SafetyAs of its introduction, the Model S hadn't been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Like most cars with high-voltage components, the Model S disconnects its battery pack automatically in the event of a crash. There are eight airbags, including front occupant knee airbags and side-impact torso bags, as well as side curtains for front and rear seats. A rollover sensor can deploy these curtains.
Currently, the Model S has no high-tech active safety features beyond the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system with traction control. See all the standard safety features listed here.
CargoFor an electric car, the Model S' cargo space is generous. The volume behind the backseat is 26.3 cubic feet. Once the backseat is folded flat, it's 58.1 cubic feet. Then there's the front trunk, or "frunk," which measures 5.3 cubic feet. It's not enormous, but it's usable and it hides goods, unlike the rear hatch.
Slick Features … and Their DownsidesIn some aspects, Tesla's not doing as well. Many Model S features stray from the norm. Most are well-meaning and some are effective, but some aren't. Too often there are unintended consequences. None is worse than the butt sensor. Get out of the seat and the car turns off. Fine. Unfortunately, a couple of times when I was backing up, leaning toward the passenger seat to look over my right shoulder, I must have taken enough weight off the seat that the car shifted itself into Park with a lurch. Another editor reported the same.
One of our favorite features on other EVs is the ability to pre-heat or -cool the cabin using grid power — either by programming an onboard timer or remotely, by means of a website, a smartphone app or a key fob. The Model S doesn't have these features (yet), and you can't work around it on a cold morning by turning the heat on manually and stepping back into your home to finish your coffee; when you get out, the car shuts off. There's a button on the touch-screen for shutting off the car when seated, but not for keeping it on when you get out.
The butt sensor also complicated attempts to open the charge-port door. When the supplied mobile charge cord is already plugged into the wall on the other end, holding it near the charge-port door pops the door open. No problem. But a Level 2 charger doesn't do this; you must release the door from the touch-screen. If you don't do so ahead of time, there's no release on the key fob, like the Chevrolet Volt has. You can't reach in and press a button on the door, or even pull a crude lever like the 2011 and 2012 Nissan Leaf have. You have to sit in the driver's seat, wait for the car to turn on and then press the appropriate button on the center touch-screen. Sometimes it opens on the first try, sometimes it doesn't. Likewise for the neat exterior door handles: They remain flush against the body but motor out when you tap them. Usually. Tesla says an option will make these handles emerge automatically, or "present," if you step close with a key fob on you. This feature, once again, is coming.
Other glitches during our loan included a moonroof that closed with an outrageously loud clatter, and a warning that a turn signal was out (it wasn't, and the warning later vanished).
More troublesome than unintended consequences are the obvious oversights, like minimal front and backseat storage and inadequate cupholders. Then there were the missing features already mentioned, plus HomeLink, front parking sensors and any other radar- or sensor-based active safety features like collision warning or lane departure or blind spot warning.
Coming Soon … to a Car In Your Driveway
My respect for Tesla soared once I realized this: Solutions for many of the quirks I've mentioned — and a good number of the features Tesla says are coming — will appear not simply on future cars but also on existing models. The Tesla Model S is the most updatable and upgradeable car of all time thanks to what are essentially firmware upgrades.
Though the Leaf and the Volt that Cars.com owned for almost two years both required a couple of software updates, they had to go to the dealership to get them. Tesla sends its upgrades wirelessly late at night, or whenever the owner wants them. We actually missed an update to our test car by a day or so. Once we returned it, it added the idle-creep feature, driver profiles, mobile phone app functionality and some interface changes.
The updates reveal the advantage of centralizing so much control to a touch-screen. Despite all the computerization, most cars remain like DVD players or stereo receivers — quickly outdated. The Model S is a computer on wheels.
Fast, Versatile ChargingThe Model S' charging rate is among its selling points. There are many potential limitations when it comes to charging plug-in cars, and one of them is the car itself. Onboard hardware, technically called the charger, determines how much current you can feed into the battery. Cars like the 2012 Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt and Mitsubishi i have chargers limited to 3.3 kilowatts. This means their charging rate tops out at roughly 10 miles of range for every hour they're fed 240 volts.
A car with a 6.6-kW charger can add around 20 miles of range per hour if fed 240 volts at high enough current. The Ford Focus Electric was the first of the mainstream EVs to do so.
The Model S' standard charger has a 10-kW capacity, meaning it can add at most around 30 miles of range for every hour of charging when fed 240 volts and 40 amperes of current. Fitted with the optional Twin Chargers, a whopping 20-kW capacity means the car can add 60-plus miles of range per hour when provided with 80 amps at 240 volts. What's best about all of this: Only the last method mentioned requires any equipment beyond the supplied mobile charge cord and a 240-volt outlet. (In Tesla parlance, the hardware is called the High Power Wall Connector.)
I charged the Model S at a rate of 30 miles every hour using a 240-volt, 40-amp outlet in my garage. Tesla offers five adapters for the wall end of the cord — four different 240-volt plugs as well as a standard household 120-volt plug for a mere 5 miles of range per hour.
All other plug-in cars require Level 2 hardware for 240-volt charging — a device I've come to view as a glorified and grossly overpriced ground-fault interrupter. My Level 2 unit ($1,000, excluding installation) sat on the wall, worthless. I could have used it with a simple converter attachment on the connector end, but that would have limited the charging rate to about 20 miles for every hour. (Level 2 units typically top out at 6 to 7 kW.)
Criticize Tesla all you want for not conforming; they're doing aspects of this better than anyone else. They do complicate things a bit by not using the standard pistol-grip connector, called J1772. Tesla's connector is smaller — and much smaller than Tesla's earlier connector used on the Roadster. The only real limitation is in public direct-current quick charging, known as Level 3. Properly equipped Model S cars will be limited to proprietary Tesla "Supercharger" stations, which add up to 300 miles per hour. Other automakers are working toward a standard system and connector for this purpose.
Model S in the Market
October was the last time Tesla provided details about distribution. All the Signature models, worldwide, had been sold, but only 250 had been delivered. We also reported in August a candid revelation from Tesla's CEO Elon Musk that the company needed to build 5,000 cars by the end of 2012 to avoid possible insolvency. Tesla revised that plan in November to between 2,500 and 3,000 units by year's end and recommitted to 20,000 deliveries in 2013. The company says it can build around 400 cars per week. The Model S with 60-kwh battery will begin production in January 2013. The smallest-battery version will begin in March 2013, as will the addition of a regular suspension along with the more expensive air suspension.
The Model S shares the challenges of electric cars from established brands and adds the struggles of a new company and its first car built from scratch. These struggles include surprising outside opposition, even from within the entrenched auto industry. This animosity is out of proportion, but so is the zealous support and investment the company continues to enjoy. The car itself reflects a similar dichotomy; though it seems unfinished in some ways, one wonders if the new push for plug-in cars would have met with more success if frontrunners like the Leaf and Volt had featured the Model S' range, updatability, and charging speed and flexibility. I can't predict if Tesla will survive another six months, much less six years. But I sure hope it does.