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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Model||2012 Tesla Model S|
|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|
|Price as tested||$91,100|