Driving the Tesla Model S is like using an iPad, thanks to leading-edge interior

Consumer Reports News: May 10, 2013 02:38 PM

Imagine driving while using your iPad to play music, and look at Google maps. Now imagine your iPad is built into the car and also runs your climate control, phone, and even basic car controls, such as braking, steering, suspension, and sunroof settings. Oh, and it's much bigger than a standard iPad. That's what it's like driving a Tesla.

We found the system overall is quick and easy to use, but the potential for distraction is very real. The only physical controls in the cockpit—meaning those not in the touch-screen—are the shifter, turn signals, wiper, and hazard lights. Without physical buttons to feel for, you need to look away from the road to target the screen when wanting to make adjustments. And some functions require going two or three menu pages deep into the system.

What helps the ease of use and "wow" factor is that the touch-screen display is huge, measuring 17 inches diagonally. For contrast, this dwarfs a 10-inch iPad and 8-inch MyFord Touch screen. The generous screen real estate makes the large, virtual buttons easy to find and press while you're driving—a far cry from the tiny little targets common on other in-car displays. Fonts are big, and the screen layout is very logical, aided by large, clear graphics. Nice touches abound, such as when you turn on the headlights, the on-screen car's lights turn on, as well.

Find out why the Tesla Model S is our top-scoring car.

Tesla-iPad-3.jpgLike the iPad, several functions use swiping and dragging to scroll, including going through entertainment options and to opening the sunroof to any position. You can even pinch to zoom the Google maps, making it feel much like operating a large tablet computer.

We found that the system is fast-unlike MyFord Touch-and responsive. Based in the heart of Silicon Valley, Tesla has hired coders from Apple to design the software. And it shows. According to company representatives, the system is faster and more responsive than other in-car control screens, because the software developers wrote in code native to the processor, rather than using a compiler as other software developers have done. That's apparent. Swipe motions that are cumbersome in Cadillac's CUE work easily here.

The system isn't perfect. For example, it works well for navigation and playing Internet radio, but terrestrial radio reception is very poor. And the USB ports in our car didn't work for connecting an iPod. (Android phones can stream to the system over Bluetooth, which works well.)

Otherwise, the control screen works well. The buttons are big and responsive enough that you can look once, touch the button you want, and have confidence it's doing what you asked. That's a big improvement over other systems that are slow, unresponsive, or sometimes respond repeatedly, making you look back to ensure the system did what you wanted—then making you glance down again to start over if it didn't, compounding the distraction. It's almost good enough not to make us wish the Model S has more physical knobs and buttons that wouldn't require a glance away from the road at all. Almost.

Check out our video to see the touch screen in action.

Read our complete Tesla Model S road test for more details, and check the Ratings to see how it compares to other luxury cars.

Talking Cars: Our experts discuss life with the Tesla Model S
Video: The Tesla Model S is our top-scoring car
Video: With Tesla Model S testing complete, its time to drift

Eric Evarts

Find Ratings

Hybrids/EVs Ratings

View and compare all Hybrids/EVs ratings.

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Cars News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more