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.