As the auto industry struggles to meet new fuel economy mandates, automakers are revisiting drivetrain solutions that haven’t always worked out well.
Case in point: electric cars. Battery technology limits their effectiveness as a practical solution for many motorists, since electric cars travel 100 miles at best, as opposed to 300 miles or more in a conventional car. And electric cars take as long as 12 hours to recharge, as opposed to a five-minute fill-up.
They also boast high sticker prices, since most automakers lack the economy of scale to produce them affordably. This saps any savings you’d realize by choosing an electric car over one powered by gasoline, even though electric car buyers are entitled to a $7,500 federal tax credit.
So you can only imagine the envy that the Tesla Model S Performance model must evoke in corporate suites across the automotive world.
Its AC synchronous induction motor produces 416 horsepower and a 0-60 mph time of 4.2 seconds. You can do that for 265 miles before you need to plug it in to recharge, according to the EPA. And that recharge takes as little as four hours. You have to wonder how Tesla managed to do it. After all, electric cars aren’t a new idea; the first ones were built more than a century ago.
Credit Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, with succeeding where so many have failed. He took over Tesla four years ago. At the time, the company was producing an all-electric roadster based on an existing Lotus model. It was a great way for the company to dip its toes in the water, but it was a low-volume niche product. With the introduction of the Model S, Tesla’s first model engineered and built in-house, the automaker has managed to do what other car companies haven’t: produce not just a viable electric car, but one of the finest premium sedans available.
At first glance, it looks modern and shockingly normal, with a five-door shape that recalls the Audi A7. Then you reach for the car-shaped key fob and unlock the doors. That’s when the flush-mounted door handles slide out from the side of the car. Once you’re seated, they retract into the doors. That’s way cool.
Inside, you’ll find a cabin that’s much roomier than that of the A7. There’s no lump in the floor; nor is there much of a center console. An armrest with cupholders and USB ports constitute the back half of the console. The forward end is left open, the perfect space for a purse or briefcase.
Head and leg room are very good all around, although the rear seat cushion sits a little low, and the lack of a rear seat center armrest is noticeable in a car this pricey.
This may sound like your typical five-passenger car, but the Model S can seat as many as seven. For an additional $2,500, Tesla will fit the rear cargo area with two rear-facing child seats that fold flat into the floor when not in use. There’s additional cargo space under the hood because the car doesn’t need such items as a radiator, gas tank or engine.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is the instrument panel. In an age where premium cars are cluttered with more than 50 buttons on the dashboard, the Tesla has two: one to control the hazard flashers, the other to open the glovebox.
Other functions — audio, climate, navigation and vehicle settings — are controlled by a 17-inch touch screen. Its enormous size makes hitting any on-screen button easy to do. It can display climate controls, audio system and navigation at the same time. Or, if you prefer, you can fill the screen with one function. This is particularly handy when you’re using the navigation system, which zooms in and out as you spread or pinch your fingers, just as you would on an Apple product. In fact, the screen’s interface is so easy to use, you might think that Apple designed it.
As wonderful as that is, little will prepare you for how well this car performs.
This is one fast car. How fast depends on which battery pack you buy.
The base car comes with a 60 kWh battery, a 302-horsepower motor and 208-mile range. Reaching 60 mph takes 5.9 seconds. Opt for the 85-kWh battery and horsepower jumps to 362, while range increases to 265. Reaching 60 takes a half-second less. This will set you back an extra $10,000. The top-of-the-line Model S Performance has the same battery and range, but its more powerful motor produces 416 horsepower and a 0-60 mph time of 4.2 seconds. Opting for this setup costs an extra $20,000.
What’s more remarkable is the car’s seamless power delivery. There’s a single drive gear, not six or eight, so there aren’t any shifts. You don’t have to wait for a turbocharger to spool up or more fuel to be burned. All of the motor’s torque is available at any time.
That makes the Model S Performance’s 416 horsepower feel particularly potent. Power flows effortlessly to the rear wheels from this car’s lithium-ion battery pack, which is located under the passenger compartment in the car’s floor pan. This puts most of the car’s weight at the lowest point in the car, allowing the Model S to eagerly corner with grip equal to the best sports sedans and sports cars. Steering is ideally weighted and provides some feedback. Bottom line: The S is a blast to drive.
And it’s so quiet. After all, electric motors don’t make much noise and there’s no exhaust, so there’s no tailpipe.
Braking is very effective. Like other cars with electric motors, the Tesla has regenerative braking, which captures energy generated during deceleration to recharge the battery. This gives them a touchy feel, but it’s easy to get used to. You can adjust the braking feel, but it will capture less energy and shorten your range.
In terms of safety, the car is equipped with eight air bags, electronic stability control, traction control and anti-lock disc brakes. The traction control can be switched off if you’re so inclined.
The short test drive didn’t allow for testing the Model S’s range or recharge time. The Model S comes with one on-board charger, which charges the car at a rate of 31 miles range per hour using a 240 volt outlet. You can double that range per hour by ordering a second on-board charger and Tesla’s wall-mounted high-power connector. In addition, Tesla owners can recharge their cars for free at Tesla Superchargers, which the company is opening across the country. At these stations, you can recharge your Tesla to half-charge in about 20 minutes.
The battery is warranted for 8 years / 125,000 miles on the 60 kWh battery, 8 years / unlimited miles on the 85 kWh battery.
Sound tempting? There are a couple catches. First, they are built to order. Secondly, Tesla sells its cars online directly to the public, not through franchised dealers. This is currently prohibited in many states, although Tesla has successfully opened some stores in others.
If you can afford one, it’s well worth it. It’s a wake-up call from the 21st century that reminds us all of what’s possible when you let go of preconceived notions and re-examine what’s come before.
Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.
2013 TESLA MODEL S:
Motor: Alternating current synchronous induction motor
Wheelbase: 116.5 inches
Length: 196 inches
Weight: 4,647 pounds
Front cargo space: 5.3 cubic feet
Rear cargo space: 26.3-58.1 cubic feet
EPA rating (city/highway): 94/97 mpg-e (60 kW-hr battery pack), 88/90 mpg-e (85 kWh battery pack)
Range: 208-265 miles
Fuel type: Electricity
Charging time: 10-12 hours
Base price, base model: $71,070
Base price, test model: $91,070
Prices include destination charge, but not subsidies.