Tesla Motors turns our idea of an automobile on its head with the first real fruit of its labors, the 2012 Model S. The electric drivetrain takes center stage, of course, and the cabin tech takes its cues directly from the consumer electronics industry. But the Model S also challenges the way we drive.
Anticipation made it seem like the Model S was a long time coming, but Tesla took this car from development to production in record time, especially considering that the company was a startup, that the Model S was the first car built wholly by the company, and that its factory line did not exist two years ago.
The resulting sedan takes more from premium European styling than stodgy American or Japanese automotive design. The Model S looks like a modern grand tourer, its curving roofline ending up in a hatchback over the rear while rounded fenders pontoon prominently from the sides.
Through the clever use of chrome trim Tesla makes the car look like it features more of a grille on the front end than it really does. Most of the space within that trim is smooth, with only a small area devoted to an air intake, necessary for temperature control of the battery pack.
The real innovation starts with the architecture of the Model S, in which most of the car's chassis encompasses a massive, flat, lithium ion battery pack. CNET's car, in Performance trim, could hold 85 kilowatt-hours of electricity, the maximum offered by Tesla and good for 300 miles of range at 55 mph, according to Tesla. (The EPA rates the Model S' range at 265 miles.) Tesla also offers 40- and 60-kilowatt-hour versions, costing less but with less range.
The electric motor takes up very little space compared with an internal combustion engine, and nestles neatly between the rear wheels. This architecture frees up room within the car, such that there's a flat floor in the center both in front and back. A console rising up between the front seats merely serves as an armrest, storage, and a mounting spot for two USB ports. Likewise, drive components do not intrude into the hatchback area, and the hood covers extra cargo space.
Tesla keeps control surfaces in the cabin to a minimum, putting everything from navigation to climate controls on the massive, 17-inch center touch screen. Though other car companies have gotten backlash for hiding climate controls on touch screens, I believe Tesla can get away with it, partly due to good design -- the temperature controls, for example, are always visible -- and partly due to the fact that the Model S' early adopters will no doubt be tech-friendly.
No analog gauges mar the techie nature of the car, and few would be actually needed. An LCD acts as the instrument cluster, showing a central virtual gauge in modern graphical glory courtesy of an Nvidia processor. That virtual gauge indicates power usage and regeneration, while a digital speed readout occupies its center. The two other essential bits of information shown in this gauge are the remaining range and battery charge level.
Areas to either side of the center virtual gauge show driver-customizable information, such as an energy usage graph, current track playback, and route guidance. The big center touch screen shows more explicit views of infotainment and energy usage, and also controls car settings.
Get in and go
The key fob for the Model S highlights the anachronistic nature of old-style keys. Walk up to the car with the fob, and the door handles invitingly pop out from their flush positions while the LCDs in the cabin light up. Getting in the driver's seat and hitting the brake is like turning on the ignition in traditional cars. The center display assumes its driving configuration, and now you only need push the right-hand stalk into its Drive position to get on the road. Pushing the end of the stalk, activating Park, also engages a parking brake. There is no need to turn off the car; just walk away and it locks itself up.
My many years of driving experience cried out against the simplicity of driving the Model S. I was missing some of the steps required to start or stop a traditional car. While it was initially confusing, I grew to appreciate how Tesla streamlined the driving experience, taking out steps that technology has made obsolete. This car represents some real paradigm shifting.
Actually driving the Model S took me further into this new world. When I left the accelerator pedal alone, the car sat still, similar to a manual-transmission car in neutral. However, Tesla recently added a feature through a software upgrade that let me activate a creep mode. Available with a touch to the Driving Controls screen, this mode makes the Model S feel more like an automatic-transmission car, creeping forward without the driver having to touch the pedals.
On the Driving Controls screen I could also set the steering between Comfortable, Standard, and Sport; turn off traction control; and set regenerative braking between Standard and Low. The Model S has an adjustable air suspension that automatically changes ride height depending on driving conditions.
Although the Model S uses brake and accelerator pedals, these operate differently from the ones not only in traditional cars, but also in most other electric cars. As with its previous Roadster model, Tesla programs the car for heavy regeneration, which results in minimal use of the brake pedal. Most of my driving involved modulating the accelerator.
More so than a traditional car's gas pedal, the Model S' accelerator pedal served as a direct line to the car's power. The merest touch resulted in immediate response, and in this Performance-trim car, which Tesla says can hit 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds, a full push to the floor kicked me back in the seat and delivered a push like a freight train. Other cars may boast more than the Model S' 443 pound-feet of torque, but none of them bring it on at zero rpm. Accelerating the Model S is an amazing feeling.
The car's traction control system necessarily arrested the acceleration a slight bit, preventing the 21-inch high-performance Continental tires from shredding themselves all over the road. However, the car's 4,647 pounds also contribute significantly to keeping it from getting out of control under heavy acceleration.
And just as every pressure down on the accelerator results in immediate push, lifting off the pedal initiates heavy regenerative braking, slowing the Model S drastically. As I got used to how it would kick in, I could estimate pretty well when to lift off the accelerator to stop at traffic lights, letting the regenerative braking slow me down and only hitting the brake pedal at the last moment.
Tesla programmed the Model S this way to recapture the maximum amount of energy while driving, but sometimes the regenerative braking felt too heavy, for example slowing the car so much on a descent that I had to get back on the accelerator. On hilly freeways or highways, maintaining speeds over 55 mph, it worked best to turn the regenerative braking to its Low mode, which I think resulted in better energy recapturing, as I never needed to use the accelerator on a descent.
The heavy regenerative braking became very interesting when flogging the Model S along a winding mountain road. On broader turns, I could leave off the brake pedal and let the regenerative braking slow the car down. On the tighter turns the basics still applied, requiring heavy brake-pedal work before the entry. Applying power after each turn's apex took a judicious touch on the accelerator, as the incredible amount of torque on tap could make the car go all wrong at speed.
In the turns, the air suspension played only a minor role in stability, with the major contributing factor to the Model S' handling being the big battery pack in the chassis. This heavy component not only keeps the car's center of gravity low, it contributes to the overall rigidity. The Model S showed great composure through the turns. However, when I tried a little brake work to influence its handling, the car's weight caused larger reactions than I would have expected.