Tesla Model S first drive: Quiet satisfaction

Tesla gave CNET a chance to get behind the wheel of the Model S on the same day it began customer deliveries of the new electric car.

Tesla Model S
Tesla hosted drives of the Model S at its Fremont manufacturing plant to coincide with its first customer deliveries. James Martin/CNET

FREMONT, Calif.--Lined up before me were 10 examples of the Model S, newly off the production line, the result of years of investment and development. This silent herd awaited a group of journalists eager to finally get their hands on the wheel and foot on the accelerator. We were here to see if Tesla had fulfilled its promise of building an electric car that could compete with those from likes of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.

Certainly from the exterior, the car looked desirable. Although it's billed as a sedan, a hatch sat between the Model S' big rear fenders, opening up a large cargo space with optional rear-facing seats. Its smooth, sensuous lines and minimal exterior adornment spoke of expensive design.

Body-flush door handles might seems like a styling gimmick, but they actually served the purpose of improving the car's aerodynamics. Tesla says the Model S makes an astoundingly good .24 coefficient of drag, better than even the Toyota Prius .

The cabin also showed a minimalist luxury, emphasizing smooth surfaces. Necessary pieces, such as interior door handles, had unique shapes to give the car its own character.

The dashboard was left very bare, the single 17-inch touch screen dominating the middle, with just one solid button for the emergency flashers. Other automakers have tried putting all cabin controls on a screen, but relented with things such as climate control and volume knobs. Tesla is sticking to the touch-screen paradigm, albeit with a row of climate controls always docked at the bottom of the LCD. And there is volume control on the steering wheel.

Tesla Model S
The charging port sits just back of the side windows, and uses a light ring to indicate status. James Martin/CNET

I sat in the car with a Tesla minder in the passenger seat and CNET photographer James Martin in the rear. Getting myself situated, I expected the power seat controls just because of the general sense of luxury in the cabin. I was pleased to find a stubby stalk on the steering wheel column that let me adjust its position. Unlike the Nissan Leaf , which minimizes creature comforts to maximize range, Tesla offers the accoutrements one would expect from a premium car.

I happened to be sitting in a Model S with the Signature Performance trim, which meant a larger inverter than the standard model, giving it 0-to-60 mph acceleration of 4.4 seconds. It also had the 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack, which is good for an EPA-rated range of 265 miles.

Put in Drive with the selector stalk, the car began to creep forward, at a slow pace fine for stop-and-go traffic or seeking a space in a crowded parking lot. Then I touched the accelerator. The response was instantaneous. A push of my foot, and the car surged forward. It took very little to make the car move, and in my initial flirtation with the Model S, I felt the accelerator might even be too sensitive, at least for crawling around residential streets at the posted limits.

Tesla Model S
Tesla built a hatch into the rear of the Model S, enhancing practicality. James Martin/CNET

Following Tesla's prescribed route, I took a turn out to a private road near the factory, giving it more pedal to see how it would feel. From the back seat came a shout and the sounds of things tumbling around. I had dislodged James the photographer.

But seeing a straight road ahead I ignored any more backseat noise and let the pedal meet the floor. The Model S felt like a freight train, with inexorable acceleration pushing forward without a break. There were no power peaks -- it was all torque all the time.

Tesla Vice President George Blankenship had suggested I could get the car up to 75 mph on this straight. I was passing 85 mph when it came time to start slowing for the next turn. But I did not have to slow too much. When I took my foot off the accelerator, brake regen kicked in, dragging the speed down a bit, but I added some braking to hit this broad sweeper at around 65 mph.

The Model S was completely unruffled. I could have gone faster, but was feeling merciful toward James, especially as he had his camera out, snapping shots of the drive. The steering wheel had a good, solid feel, making the car go where I pointed it. This is, necessarily, an electric power-steering rig, so it doesn't offer the road feel of a hydraulic system, but it felt fine for the premium sedan class in which the Model S belongs.

The car's composure was partly due to its weight, at 4,642 pounds definitely on the heavy side. But Tesla's placement of the battery pack, in a 4-inch slab at the base of the car, keeps the center of gravity extremely low. That weight gave the Model S a unique feeling in the turn, very different from cars in a similar class, which are usually battling with a big, front-mounted engine.

At the same time, the Model S moved along quietly and with little apparent effort. It being electric, there is no internal combustion roar, and the wind noise is also kept to a minimum. Tesla did not skimp on the noise insulation. There is, at low speed, a very slight whine from the power train, but nothing near what the Tesla Roadster produced. An air suspension assisted in the ride quality, although Tesla tuned it to be more rigid than soft. The suspension competently handles rough patches, but doesn't completely isolate the driver from them. This suspension can be set to different ride heights, and automatically lowers at speed to improve aero performance.

Over a section of quick turns, I was able to throw James around a bit more. Throwing in a little trail-braking for fun, I found the car shows excellent manners, even giving a little rotation in the tight turns. A little tire squealing overcame the wind noise as the car shot through these maneuvers.

Running down a last little section of freeway driving, I settled back into the driver's seat, and could easily imagine the Model S as a daily driver. It offered an extremely nice, comfortable ride in a cabin with the kind of refinement seen from car companies with a lot more history. And although I, and many journalists before me this day, had been mashing the accelerator and generally driving it hard, the range gauge still said 150 miles.

In this top-trim car, Tesla certainly succeeded at what it set out to do. The Model S is a car that can easily compete with the premium sedans of the world. Sure, it will take a lot longer to charge than it would take to fill up the tank of a gas-engined car, but it will also cost a lot less to run.

 

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