2012 Tesla Model S review: Tesla rethinks the automobile

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.

2012 Tesla Model S
21-inch wheels come standard on the Performance-trim Model S. Josh Miller/CNET

My one disappointment in the sport handling came from the amount of understeer, which forced a little extra wheel work in the turns. Most production cars understeer a bit, making for a more relaxing drive, but the Model S offers a Sport steering mode. I would like to see the Sport mode programmed with a little more precision, a little oversteer, while leaving the Standard and Comfort modes for normal driving.

Cruising the city or freeway, the air suspension made for a ride that came up to the premium standards suggested by the Model S' price. Although it may not waft over the road like a Rolls-Royce, it handles the rough patches as well as any Mercedes-Benz or Lexus. The cabin appointments and materials look very good for something from a startup company that lacks a hundred-year tradition of coachwork. However, Tesla is about the future, and nothing evidences that more than the giant touch screen in the cabin.

Driving the Model S along a set of mountain roads, taking corners at speed, I used up 100 miles of the stated range in about 60 miles. However, when cruising the freeway at speeds of 70 mph, the real-world range almost exactly matched the stated range. I also found that the car only gained 10 miles of range after almost 3 hours plugged into a 110-volt outlet. Buyers of the Model S absolutely need to get a 240-volt charging station for their garages. However, with almost 300 miles of range, the Model S should handle a week's worth of commutes for most people on a single charge.

Linux inside
During earlier previews of the car, I had my doubts about the cabin tech. Based on Linux, the screens looked too much like application windows on a PC. But after using the interface extensively, I can say Tesla was very successful.

One of the most important aspects is how well the onscreen controls react to touch input. Despite the screen being bigger than two iPads, touching any control engenders an immediate response. Equally important is access, how Tesla leaves the climate controls always available along the bottom of the screen, while icons for navigation, phone, and stereo always occupy a ribbon at the top of the screen. A button on the lower right to bring up the car settings is also always visible.

2012 Tesla Model S
The 17-inch screen easily accommodates two windows, with content configurable by the driver. Josh Miller/CNET

The size of the screen allows two windows, configurable by the driver, to be open, or just one big window. Typically, I drove with a map open at the top and the audio screen at the bottom. Tesla made it easy to swap the windows' positions or expand a window to full-screen. Touching an icon at the top of the screen opened its corresponding application in the top window position, so I occasionally had to do a little screen rearrangement on the fly, but it was easily accomplished.

The Model S comes fully connected, with a 3G data pipe feeding Google Maps and the Slacker and TuneIn Internet radio apps into the car. I imagine this data pipe also gives Tesla operating data about the drivetrain electronics, which the company can use to detect faults and further refine the software.

The Google Maps integration gives the Model S the same type of satellite view navigation Audi gets in its cars through Google Earth, but with the Tesla system I could also switch to the graphical Google Maps, complete with traffic data. One drawback I found was the maps could only display in north-up orientation, rather than by direction of travel, which I prefer, or in 3D. As Tesla continues to roll out software updates for the Model S, it may address this limitation.

The search box on the Google Maps screen works as well as it does on Google's Web site, making it easy to punch in an address or business name and come up with an accurate result. However, while there is a list of past destinations, there is no feature for saving destinations, or porting a destination from a phone's contact list into navigation. Again, I hope to see Tesla fill in these gaps in a future update.

2012 Tesla Model S
As with Google Maps on the Web, you can switch the view to satellite imagery in the car. Josh Miller/CNET

Turn-by-turn navigation, along with a set of stored maps, comes into the Model S with its $3,750 Tech Package. This feature brought up a route guidance screen on the main map and a smaller version on the instrument cluster when I entered a destination. The route guidance worked very well, using voice prompts and clear, color graphics with lane guidance to help get me to destinations.

Intriguingly, voice command was not available just a few months ago in the Model S, but Tesla added it through a recent software update, showing to what extent the company can upgrade existing cars. Voice command let me not only initiate calls by saying the name of a contact from my phone, but also enter destinations for navigation and control the Slacker Internet radio app.

The stereo supported Bluetooth audio streaming, and showed album artwork as well as track data on its screen. Although via the USB ports it could read a USB drive full of MP3 tracks, organizing the music by album, artist, genre, and song categories, it didn't support integration with iOS devices. I was told this is another feature the folks at Tesla are still working on, so it should arrive in a future software update.

It was good to see the Internet radio apps racked up among the audio sources, making them easy to access. Tesla will likely add more music apps in addition to Slacker and TuneIn. Other radio sources included HD Radio and satellite, all in a very responsive and easy-to-use interface.

2012 Tesla Model S
Slacker Internet radio integration delivers standard and customized stations to the car. Josh Miller/CNET

This car came with an upgraded audio system, which sounded excellent and seems worth the $950 option price. With 12 speakers and a 550-watt amp, this system served up clear, well-balanced musical reproduction. Cranking the volume, I heard minimal distortion, and it got loud enough to be painful. Listening to a Muddy Waters track from "Folk Singer," I found the acoustic guitar came through with bell-like clarity and the vocals were very rich. Even with the bass turned up, I never really felt the lower frequencies from some modern tracks, but the sound quality was nice.

After creeping along behind oblivious pedestrians in the middle of parking lots, I concluded that Model S drivers should be playing bass-heavy tracks most of the time, with a palpable exterior thump.

A car for the century
The 2012 Tesla Model S offers a phenomenal driving experience, and its long range means much less range anxiety. Tesla really hit it out of the park when it comes to making a practical and comfortable car that can be driven daily. The incredible acceleration is a nice side benefit. For really cranking through a set of mountain turns, I would prefer something like a Porsche 911 , but the Model S can hold its own among cars from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and even BMW.

As for cabin tech, the Model S lacks some features common in the competition, but it trumps them with its always-on data pipe. There is a list of features I would like to submit to Tesla for the navigation system, but the company's engineers are probably readying them for a future software update. The updatable dashboard will help future-proof the car, and other automakers should follow this example. Ford is already on board with its MyFord Touch updates.

Driver assistance features are one area where the competition leaves Tesla far behind, and radar or camera systems can't be added through a software update. The car has a rearview camera, but owners will have to do without adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and lane monitoring. Tesla would be wise to explore this kind of technology, and offer a driver assistance package in the future.

The Model S starts at a price of $49,900, equipped with a 40-kilowatt-hour, 160-mile battery. Another $10,000 buys a larger battery with a 230-mile range, and another bump, to $69,900, gives the Model S the 85-kilowatt-hour battery, which Tesla estimates at 300 miles of range. Our Performance-trim car, with increased power, starts at $84,900. This pricing puts the Model S in the same class as large luxury sedans from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, and Lexus, although it undercuts the top-end flagship sedans from those companies, making the Model S extremely competitive, especially considering its very advanced tech.

Tech specs
Model 2012 Tesla Model S
Trim Performance
Power train 85 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack, 310-kilowatt electric motor, single gear-reduction transmission
EPA fuel economy 89 mpg equivalent
Observed fuel economy Not recorded
Navigation Standard Google maps-based system with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet radio, Bluetooth streaming, onboard hard drive, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system 580 watt 12-speaker system
Driver aids Rearview camera
Base price $84,900
Price as tested $91,100

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About The Author

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET. Prior to the Car Tech beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine. He's also the author of "Vaporware," a novel that's available as a Nook e-book.