Update: All Tesla Model S cars produced after September 29, 2014, come equipped with new driver assistance hardware and software, allowing lane keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control.
An unearthly amount of grip held the car through the twisty strip of asphalt running along the side of a forested mountain, and when I got on the accelerator for the turn exits, I was rewarded with instantaneous power, as much as the car and my own instincts could handle. If this were a typical car, I might have gotten good response on the throttle if I had the proper gear, but the power delivery would fluctuate as the engine speed changed.
But this wasn't any typical car: it was the 2014 Tesla Model S in Performance Plus trim. Pushing the accelerator at any speed led to instant twist at the wheels, all the energy that could be released from the 85-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack to the 310-kilowatt motor, turned to kinetic force at the rear wheels.
Gasoline-engine cars, with their complicated dance of fuel-air mixing and ignition to push pistons and turn a crankshaft, can't achieve the kind of direct power response afforded by the Model S' drivetrain. And it all comes down to simplicity. With fewer processes between stored power and putting rubber to the road, the electric drivetrain is naturally more efficient than the internal-combustion engine, about 90 percent versus 35 percent.
Beyond the merely theoretical, you can actually feel that superior power conversion at the accelerator. The fact that the Model S needs only a single ratio reduction gearbox, as opposed to a transmission with multiple gears, demonstrates the more direct conversion of energy afforded by the electric drivetrain.
Vive la différence!
The difference between electric and internal combustion engine wasn't lost on Tesla's engineers. They used the drivetrain's unique characteristics to rethink the whole concept of the automobile for the Model S, significantly changing how you interact with the car.
As one example, there is no key for the Model S. Neither is there a start button or a parking brake. All these things are legacies from the last century of motoring, made unnecessary by today's technology. Walk up to the car with its Model S-shaped fob in your pocket, and it unlocks, the door handles automatically extending.
Getting into the Model S makes the instrument panel and the massive, 17-inch center touchscreen light up. Set the steering column-mounted drive selector to D, push the accelerator, and you're off. Similarly, putting the car in Park and getting out effectively turns it off. Walk away or push a button on the fob, and the doors lock.
It takes a little getting used to, but the Tesla Model demonstrates 21st century driving.
While pushing the accelerator gives direct access to the stored power, lifting off makes the car slow as if you were pushing the brake pedal. That's regenerative braking taking hold in a style other automakers now call one-pedal driving. On freeways, I never actually had to touch the Model S' brake pedal, as lifting off the accelerator slowed it enough to cope with slower traffic ahead. On city streets, I didn't have to touch the brake pedal until the Model S was down to about 3 mph, if I judged the distance to stopped traffic ahead well.
As I drove the Model S over a variety of roads and at differing speeds, it occurred to me that Tesla engineers also did a remarkable job of tuning the accelerator modulation. Backing into a parking space, just a little pressure on the pedal gave me excellent control during low-speed maneuvering, the drive systems letting only a bare trickle of the electrons flow to the motor.
Holding suburban speeds, 35 to 45 mph, proved easy enough, but my favorite part of the throttle cycle involved tipping it in beyond 75 percent. Like a rocket on electric rails, the Model S bolted forward, the juice flowing to a point where I could feel the tremendous momentum taking over, a visceral example of Newton's first law of motion.
And if I had the guts -- or enough open road ahead of me -- holding that throttle position kept up the acceleration. Tesla notes that the Model S, in Performance Plus trim, hits 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, a time even more impressive when you consider the car's 4,647-pound (2,108kg) curb weight.
Those people not ready for this new driving paradigm can make the Model S perform a little more like a traditional car. Pull up the drive settings on the center LCD, then switch Regenerative Braking to Low and turn Creep to On. These settings let the Model S coast more easily and make it crawl forward as soon as you lift off the brake, just like a gasoline engine car with an automatic transmission.
Considering other more traditional automotive attributes, the Model S rides as it looks: solid and elegant. Air-cushioned dampers help soak up the road, but that doesn't mean a soft ride. There is no excessive bounce in the suspension, just the dampers and springs maintaining the car's composure. To enhance aerodynamics, the Model S automatically lowers at freeway speeds, and you can set the suspension to a high position when negotiating speed bumps or other obstructions.
The drive settings let me choose from Sport, Standard, or Comfort for the electric power-steering program, going from a good amount of heft to easy, one-handed turning. In each setting, the response was precise but also a little numb, the sort of point-and-shoot feeling that often comes from electric power-steering programs.
The Performance Plus package includes heavy duty dampers and sway bars, which I enjoyed as much as possible on twisty back roads. The Model S feels heavy from behind the wheel, and I expected that to make for clumsy handling when really pushed. Instead, the car held its own extremely well, its 48/52-percent weight balance between front and rear wheels taming understeer while the big, Michelin PS2s on 21-inch wheels gripped the asphalt. The Model S could not so defy physics as to rule out load shift in the turns, and it wasn't light enough that I would call it nimble, but I couldn't get it to break grip.
The Performance Plus trim adds more to the Model S than suspensions upgrades, not the least of which is price. The example I drove, fully loaded out, came in at above $120,000, almost twice that of the base Model S with a 60-kilowatt-hour battery pack.
Tesla upgrades the electric motor in Performance Plus to 310 kilowatts, producing 443 pound-feet of torque, from the base model's 225-kilowatt motor and the 270-kilowatt motor in the middle-ground 85 kilowatt-hour Model S.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts the range for both the Performance Plus trim and standard 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack at 265 miles, and 208 miles with the 60 kilowatt-hour battery pack. The EPA gives an mpg equivalent figure of 89 for the Model S, which serves to show how efficient the car is compared to gasoline-engine cars, but little else.
Another number that might prove more useful is the EPA energy usage of 38 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles. The Model S' trip computer showed I handily beat that rate, even with a fair amount of fast starts and mountain driving, turning in 33 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles over a few days' driving.
In comparison to other electric cars and current technology, 85 kilowatt-hours is a massive amount of juice. Plugging into a 110-volt outlet using one of the Model S' adapter cables only added 4 miles of range per hour. At a 240-volt charging station, Tesla says the car will gain 29 miles of range per hour, what most owners will get in their own garages. An associated mobile app lets you view charging progress and schedule charging remotely.
The more recent innovation from Tesla for charging the Model S are the Supercharger stations the company is setting up around the world. I took the Model S out to Vacaville, Calif., to give this fast-charging solution a try. With eight chargers set up in an outlet mall parking lot, I had no trouble finding an open space. Plugging into the Model S' unique two-prong port, the car showed a charging source of 355 volts and 111 amps, enough to add 100 miles of range to the car in about 15 minutes.
Model S owners get the additional perk of completely free charging at these Supercharger stations.
Hero of the cabin
The Model S showed me the trip-computer information, vehicle speed, and, most importantly, the remaining range via its LCD instrument panel, with a virtual gauge completely in keeping with the car's high-tech nature. The virtual gauge showed me speed in analog form and included a measurement of energy usage or regeneration, this latter information useful as a coach to maximize efficient driving.
This instrument panel screen is well designed and let me see the car's infotainment functions on its right side. But the Model S' main party piece, what designer Franz von Holzhausen calls "the hero of the cabin," is the 17-inch touchscreen LCD panel dominating the center dashboard. This screen is certainly the largest currently used in autodom, and it serves to mark another break from the traditional car paradigm. This big screen, coupled with the Model S' built-in data connection, works like a tablet controller for infotainment.
Rather than the rows of buttons and complicated indirect controllers for small LCDs showing navigation and audio features in other cars, Tesla chose a minimalist design, reasoning that almost every feature accessed by hard buttons in other cars could be controlled on the LCD. BMW tried something similar with the first version of iDrive years ago but ended up hiding too many commonly used controls. Tesla made its interface much more usable, for example putting climate controls along the bottom of the screen in a persistent strip. Likewise, the stereo volume control also appears on that strip.
Another persistent strip at the top of the screen shows icons for navigation, the stereo, energy usage, and the Web browser, among other features. The main area of the screen can show a big Google map delivered to the car through its data connection, the stereo interface, Web browser, or other screens. Or at the driver's choice, it can show stacked screens. I commonly chose to have the map at the top and stereo at the bottom.
If you have ever used a Linux desktop, the windows and panels showing on the Model S' main screen will have a familiar feel. The touch areas deliver solid and quick responses, and easily let you swap top and bottom screens or choose one to fill the entire area. Other screens, such as the drive settings, appear as panels on top of the main screens.
Navigation works similar to Google Maps, with a simple search box at the top of the map screen. Tesla supplements that, however, with a panel showing nearby Superchargers, recently used charging stations, and recent destinations. The car I drove came with the optional stored map navigation system, useful for driving in areas outside of data coverage. It showed maps on the left side of the instrument panel, with identical turn-by-turn directions on that and the main LCD. The only time the maps went out of sync was when I crossed the new span of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, which had not been updated on the stored maps.
The stereo included HD radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth streaming, built-in Internet sources Slacker and TuneIn, and two USB ports. The USB ports worked for USB drives, but did not support iOS integration. I was somewhat disappointed to see that Tesla had not added more apps since.
Playing music through the optional upgraded stereo with 12 speakers, I enjoyed the crisp, well-balanced sound. Tesla doesn't advertise the component maker for the Model S' stereo, but I could tell it had a powerful, high-quality amp.
Room for improvement
Another area where Tesla differs from other car companies is its over-the-air updates to the Model S' software, upgrading systems and adding features so that the concept of a model year becomes meaningless. Except for the fact that there is only so much that can be done with software -- at some point the Model S will need new hardware.
The first thing I would suggest is upgrading to a 4G/LTE data connection, which will likely require a new transceiver chipset. The slowness of the 3G connection becomes obvious when loading maps or music from the online audio sources.
In comparison to other premium cars on the market, the Model S is severely deficient in driver-assistance technologies. A rear-view camera and sonar distance sensors are all that can be had currently. More systems, such as adaptive cruise control and pre-collision braking, will require new hardware. Tesla is purportedly working on what it calls autopilot features, but it seems unlikely to retrofit existing cars.
LED headlights are quickly being adopted by the automotive industry, coming standard on vehicles such as the, but not yet to be seen on the Model S. LED headlights would take some of the drain off the battery pack during night driving, shine brighter than the current lamps, and last longer.
I mentioned the lack of new audio apps for the Model S above. It seems that Tesla could add a number of apps to the car, such as weather or social media, with its over-the-air updates. The car's built-in Web browser, however, which can be used while underway, can currently load sites with those tools. Third-party developers have come up with some useful features for the Model S' Web browser, such as QuickTesla, which includes weather and a news feed.
In the past, Tesla has said it will support third-party apps running on the Model S' infotainment system. Some reports suggest this capability will come later this year.
A base level Model S, with 60-kilowatt-hour battery pack, goes for $71,070 in the US, and qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax incentive. In the UK, that model will cost £50,280 and avoid the Congestion Charge in London. Australia residents will pay $97,245 for the base Model S.
In Performance trim with the 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack, the Model S will run $94,570 in the US, £69,080 in the UK, and $134,294 in Australia. The Performance Plus package and a host of other options, such as the premium audio system and Tech package in the car I drove, take the total cost substantially higher.
|Model||2014 Tesla Model S|
|Powertrain||85-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack, 310 kilowatt electric motor|
|EPA fuel economy||38 kilowatt-hours/100 miles|
|Observed fuel economy||33 kilowatt-hours/100 miles|
|Navigation||Standard, with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet-based streaming, Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||12-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rear-view camera|
|Price as tested||$123,620|