Tesla isn’t ready to let journalists drive its new Model S, but it did give the media a chance to ride around the grounds of its Fremont, California, factory in beta prototypes of the all-electric luxury sedan with a company employee at the wheel. First impressions?
The Model S is a big car, 196 inches long, or almost exactly the same length as a Jaguar XF, to which it bears more than a passing resemblance. The Model S is significantly wider, though, at 77.3 inches compared to 73.9 for the Jag. Actually, that width is not only significantly wider than the Jag, but significantly wider than a Mercedes-Benz S-class and most anything else on the market that doesn’t have off-road pretensions. A flat floor helps create a sense of minivan-like openness, but the large cargo area—which, like a 1970s station wagon, can be fitted with two rear-facing kid-sized seats—intrudes somewhat on cabin space.
There’s no excess head- or legroom inside, mainly because the flat floor is rather high due to the massive battery tray that lies beneath. Taller rear passengers rub their scalps on the headliner, while the front passengers have to sit somewhat close to the dash to give those behind adequate knee clearance.
The Apple (Imposter) of My Eye
The Model S has the dashboard Apple would have designed, with just two visible physical buttons, for the hazard lights and to release the glove-box door. Every other function that isn’t handled by steering-column stalks, from climate to radio to navigation to cell-phone and internet connectivity, is concentrated in a huge touch-sensitive flat-panel display in the center of the dash. It’s as if the whole car is run off an iPad glued to the dash. A bank of four USB ports along the bottom allows you to plug in various devices for file sharing and recharging. The gauges are likewise virtual, with a central speedometer and a running graph indicating power consumption. We’re told that the display in the prototype is different from what will eventually appear in production cars. The final version will use a capacitive touch screen, the type of technology also found in the iPad, iPhone, and most similar smartphones.
The car we rode in was a Signature Series model, a loaded-up trim that will be applied to the first 1000 cars built. The Signature Series won’t be cheap: Company execs hint that it could cost as much as $20,000 more than the Model S’s advertised base price of $57,400. As such, it was painted in Signature Red and had a full Zuma White leather interior, with cowhide wrapping the dash and even the A- and B-pillars. Most important, this special introductory offer will include a stouter battery pack that almost doubles the range of the base car, increasing maximum travel distance from 160 miles to 300.
If the copious use of animal hide makes your inner environmentalist flinch, take comfort in the fact that cloth will be available, and the wood-like dash trim of the Signature Series actually is pressed banana leaf taken from the forest floor after it has already fallen. You can also spec piano-black or lacewood trim, the latter gray and mottled and, yes, made of trees.
The car uses a current Mercedes-Benz steering column only thinly disguised by a Tesla-branded wheel, so the park/drive/reverse selector stalk on the right and cruise and signal/wiper stalks on the left are very familiar. In motion, the 4150-pound car seems much lighter than it is, leaping quickly off the line as the 362-hp electric motor’s 306 lb-ft of torque are available from rest. Like most other electric cars, the Model S uses a single-speed gear-reduction transmission. Tesla pegs the 0-to-60-mph sprint at 5.6 seconds, the top speed at 130 mph.
The electric-assist steering rack seemed to respond eagerly to steering inputs, and there was hardly any body roll around the factory’s banked dog-bone test track. Our driver, development engineer Graham Sutherland, formerly of Lotus, claims that this is due to the concentration of mass in the center. The battery pack may weigh 600 pounds, but it lies at the bottom of the car, as does the motor. Sutherland figures that the center of gravity will be 16 to 16.5 inches high once final measurements are done. That figure is substantially lower than all but the lowest ground-sucking sports cars; the lowest CG height in our recent test of the best-handling cars for less than $40,000 was the Mazda Miata’s 19.0 inches.
Even with its suspension compressed in the banked turns, the Model S rode smoothly, soaking up the many fissures in the plant’s old and cracking pavement. Chief engineer Peter Rawlinson says the low center of gravity helps out here, too, allowing the Model S to run much thinner anti-roll bars than would be normal on a two-ton sports sedan. That helps reduce impact shock and ride harshness.
Feels Like a Keeper
Though it may be just a preproduction “beta,” the sample car had tight panel gaps and a quiet cabin free of squeaks or rattles. This is even more important than usual in an auditory environment that offers no engine rumble for cover, just the distant whine of the electric propulsion unit.
Despite being electric, the Model S looks like a conventional car, with a long hood capped by a blacked-out snout that gives the impression of a large radiator grille. In fact, just three small heat exchangers sit behind the front bumper; one is down low in the center for motor and battery coolant and one lies below each of the headlights for cabin cooling. A computer-controlled shutter system blocks off the radiator openings when they’re not needed.
Chief designer Franz von Holzhausen says the Model S has a conventional “face” and proportions—never mind that freakish width—to make customers who might be cross-shopping the car against a BMW or an Audi more comfortable with the Tesla. Once the brand is established, he hopes to push the design more to take advantage of the unconventional powertrain, and “expand the notion of what a car is supposed to look like.”
Similar to Traditional Luxury Cars, but Very Different
The hatchback Model S will have a range of luxury-car options when it debuts, including a sunroof, the leather interior, and an air suspension. Also, buyers will be able to select from three battery sizes. The battery on the base $57,400 Model S will provide a 160-mile range, while Tesla says a 230-mile range will be available for perhaps another $10,000 (a figure yet to be finalized and which may include other package extras). At the top of the line, a 300-mile range will cost perhaps $20,000 extra and open up the option of special aerodynamic wheels that stretch range to 320 miles.
While those are some big leaps in pricing, a 300-mile car, at about $77,000, undercuts the base price of the Tesla’s most direct competitor, the equally all-new $96,895 Fisker Karma, by almost $20,000. They’re different beasts—the Fisker, with a gas engine onboard to recharge the batteries, is conceptually more like a Chevrolet Volt—but both present an interesting and very attractive way to experience a possible future of transportation.
VEHICLE TYPE: rear-motor, rear-wheel-drive, 5- or 7-passenger, 5-door hatchback
ESTIMATED PRICE AS RIDDEN IN: $77,000 (base price: $57,400)
ENGINE TYPE: 3-phase AC induction electric motor
Power: 362 bhp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 306 lb-ft @ 0 rpm
TRANSMISSIONS: 1-speed gear-reduction
Wheelbase: 116.5 in
Length: 196.0 in
Width: 77.3 in Height: 56.5 in
Curb weight (C/D est): 4150 lb
PERFORMANCE (MFR’S EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 5.6 sec
Top speed: 130 mph
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