We've driven almost every electric car made, and tested most, but the Tesla Model S comes as a revelation. We've been taking turns driving a Signature Performance version on loan to us from Tesla for about a week now and everyone has come out of it impressed.
This is a large, heavy, luxury car that's wicked quick and agile, stretch-out roomy, and whisper quiet. And besides being a hoot to drive, this is the first electric car we've experienced that has a decent range—a realistic 200 miles per charge in our borrowed high-end version. (See our hybrid/EV buying guide and Ratings.)
Having visited Tesla, met several of its employees, and now driven the Model S, you get a very strong impression: These guys are serious about demolishing every obstacle that stands in the way of the electric car.
Range anxiety? Gone. A large (optional) 85-kWh battery realistically yields 200 plus miles with no pampering.
Slow charging times? Gone. A 10-kW onboard charger or optional twin chargers (20 kW), shorten charging times dramatically. A Tesla dedicated high-power charging station can funnel power quickly. Tesla is in the midst of setting up "supercharger" stations at rest areas along some interstate corridors to charge compatible versions of the car to 80-percent capacity in 30 minutes.
Slow acceleration? Gone. We clocked a zero to 60 mph sprint in 4.6 seconds.
Tight accommodations? Gone. The interior feels as roomy as a large luxury sedan, such as a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, with a flat floor and plenty of cargo room.
Equipped with the largest (85 kWh) of the three battery packs Tesla offers, our car's range indicator has been predicting around 245 miles on a full charge, and that's during an unusually cold early November. (Tesla claims 300 miles, the EPA pegs it at 265.) We've been getting about 200 miles of mixed driving—including expressways—without babying the car at all.
Using a loaned ($1,200) Tesla High-Power Wall Connector charging station, which resembles a parking meter with a garden-hose of a power cord, it's been taking only 4.5 to 5 hours to recharge. For context, consider that putting 75 or so miles of go juice into our 2010 Nissan Leaf EV using one of our 240-volt charging stations takes six hours. So for the much larger Tesla to get more than twice the distance in less time, well, that's a huge accomplishment.
Treating the Model S like any other car, I had no problem covering my 160-mile round-trip daily commute with heat, seat heaters, and lights blazing, plus I arrived back at the office with enough leftover range for ample peace of mind. And that's without even counting the extra 70 miles I managed to eke from "opportunity charging" at my house, on 120 volts, and at a public charging pole (240 volts) courtesy of the town of Fairfield, CT, while doing errands.
Takeoff from a standing start is smooth and effortless; 416 horsepower never felt so cultured. You feel drawn in as the landscape zooms by with just a muted whine in the background. Acceleration stats put it in Chevrolet Corvette and Porsche 911 territory, but the sensation makes it feel faster absent the engine and exhaust noise.
Despite the car's hefty 4,700-pound curb weight, it is agile, tied down, and light on its feet. Having no engine over the front axle is a pure benefit here. The ride is firm yet supple, even with the optional 21-inch summer tires—not quite Mercedes E-Class plush, but more compliant than a Porsche Panamera.
The center of the dash console is dominated by a stunningly large 17-inch touch-screen display. Picture a supersized iPad built into the dash, with vivid graphics and Google maps. Navigation, audio, phone and most other controls are operated through that command center. Although the potential for distraction is there, categories are well organized and delineated, with large landing areas for your fingers and quick response. The car also allows Internet connectivity (including web-based radio) while on the go, but even if your passenger is the one interacting with it, the distracting temptation is there for the driver.
The retractable door handles impressed everyone, but there are moments when you want them to be more readily available, especially when it's cold outside. The cabin is well finished and nicely detailed, especially the dash and door trim. The electronic shifter, stalks and window switches are sourced from Mercedes-Benz.
Thanks to the flat floor and no center tunnel intrusion there is ample rear leg room. The front cabin has lots of storage but, oddly, there are no map pockets anywhere. (Tesla did this intentionally for a clean interior look, but it's still nice to have places for stuff). There are two trunks, one beneath the rear hatch and what Tesla calls the "frunk" under the hood.
There's a lot about this car that says "Silicon Valley," and specifically Apple. From its unique plug-in connector to the large iPad-like screen, the Tesla instills an Apple-esque aura. Fittingly, Tesla showrooms are located in shopping malls, like Apple stores, rather than gasoline-alley dealerships. Some may view all this as a plus, others as a turn-off. But no doubt it's a fresh and innovative approach.
The base Model S, with a 160-mile battery, starts $57,400. As configured, our borrowed Model S exceeded $100,000—at least you get to subtract a $7,500 tax credit from that sum. But the most significant takeaway here is that this homegrown EV makes no excuses or compromises for being an electric car. In fact, in terms of the driving experience, it would make a completely viable alternative to an Audi A7 or Porsche Panamera. We can't wait until we buy our own Model S to formally test.