There isn’t much that hasn’t been said about the Tesla Model S. It’s Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year, it tied the highest rankings ever bestowed on a vehicle by stingy Consumer Reports, and its success has enabled Tesla and CEO Elon Musk to act out so many of its once improbable dreams.
So when I had the opportunity to try out something that exists more in dreams than in garages, I had to temper my enthusiasm with some journalistic cynicism. It didn’t work.
The Model S is as much an electric luxury sedan as it is the synthesis of high-tech engineering. “We are by far one of the most hard-core technology companies in the world,” said Dustin Krause, the regional sales manager for Tesla in the Chicago area.
He was speaking at a press conference at the Museum of Science and Industry on Wednesday in Chicago. Tesla unveiled its first supercharging station in the Midwest, in Normal, Ill., as part of a national rollout to connect every city and every Model S driver to its grid of superchargers.
So I got to drive the Model S on Lake Shore Drive, an urban microcosm of Pacific Coast Highway 1 in Tesla’s home state. The Model S is the range leader for electric vehicles, and the leader for nearly every other category including price, but I didn’t have enough time to try out all of its lovely features. My ride was an impression more than an experience but it endures.
The Model S, built on the comparatively minor success of the Roadster, an electrified Lotus that was Tesla’s first car, comes in three trim levels based on battery size.
The Model S 60 kWh ($62,400) has an estimated EPA range of 208 miles; the Model S 85 kWh ($72,400) has an estimated range of 265 miles. (All prices listed include the $7,500 federal tax credit; the battery warranty is eight years for all three.) I got to drive the Model S Performance ($87,400), where the power of the 85 kWh battery is supplemented with a high-performance drive inverter. It’s all about energy optimization and torque with the Model S Performance, and though it has the same range as the 85 kWh, it can go 0-60 mph in 4.2 seconds.
This was hard for me to ascertain on South Lake Shore Drive at midday, but there was no doubt to this beast’s sensitivity. The car weighs 4,300 pounds, including the 1,300-pound battery, but the only reason I’d even consider it was because of the Tesla man riding shotgun.
It is a luxury sport sedan and it moves. There’s no shifting of gears so the acceleration, even if you slam the narrow racing pedal down, is smooth, responsive and instantaneous. It didn’t jostle me or slam me back in the deep, low-riding seat. The handling is as smooth as the acceleration; hitting the accelerator on turns and curves didn’t make much of a difference on the interior comfort. The centripetal force was negligible.
Most impressive was how responsive it was at cruising speeds. Going from 40 to 70 mph, ostensibly to pass a slower-moving car, happened so unnoticeably, silent and smooth, that it made me lay off. If you’re not used to regenerative braking, a feature on most electrics that takes kinetic energy back to the battery so the pull from letting off the accelerator is much greater than it is when you’re coasting with a gas engine, it takes some getting used to.
Evidently the smoothness I keep referencing comes from the sole moving part of the powertrain, the rotor. Also, the weight is evenly distributed, with the 1,300-pound battery bolted to the chassis.
The interior is the future of travel by any means. The centerpiece is the 17-inch touch screen instrument panel. I regret not having more time to play with it, other than to slide the double sunroof back by sliding my finger on the screen. I was too busy driving. Tesla figured you’d be marveling at it so nearly everything is voice activated.
The spacious and comfy cockpit is complemented by a wide backseat that can fit three adults, and it has a rear-facing flip seat for two children that folds out of the bed of the trunk. If that’s being used, you can stow your gear in the frunk, the trunk in the front.
Driving the Model S is more like indulging than operating. As so many owners, drivers and reviewers have said before, if this is the future of driving count me in. Getting back into my other car, whose reputation I do not wish to sully, was like stepping off the people mover at the airport and having to walk again.