January 15, 2013
Preview: 2013 Tesla Model S
Comparison Test: Best Fuel Efficient Cars
Test Drive: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL
Test Drive: 2012 Chevrolet Volt
Test Drive: 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV
Review and photos by Brendan McAleer
2013 Tesla Model S
I’m standing in the Whole Foods parking lot, having just been handed the key to a sleek super-sedan that costs north of a hundred grand, doesn’t use any gasoline and plugs into the wall. Seems about right.
In fact, what better place to examine the premium paid for the feel-good green-cred of an all-electric vehicle than a place that charges twenty bucks for organic mac n’ cheese? Start doing the math on your average plug-in, and it’s hard to see the point, outside of niche appeal. Financially speaking, wouldn’t we be better off heading to Costco to nab a case of Kraft Dinner?
2013 TESLA MODEL S. Click image to enlarge
Oh, but this Tesla Model S isn’t your average EV-pod. Even in a sea of big-dollar Teutonic titans, you can tell it’s something special, hunkering there on turbine-styled 21-inch alloys that look like they were plucked from the intake nacelles of a 747. Front and back, the dagger-shaped “T” badges resemble nothing so much as the nail Tesla’s trying to drive into the internal-combustion engine’s coffin.
It looks expensive. It looks fast. It looks like it ought to be powered by some twin-turbo V12 motor that requires premium fuel and a supplementary truffle-oil reserve tank.
There’s a premium being paid here, sure, but this is the high-falutin’ world of the prestige sedan: Porsche Panamera, Mercedes-Benz CLS, BMW Gran Coupe, that sort of thing. Lined up next to spendy German iron, the Model S holds its own when judged on curb appeal and snob factor. Perhaps the front-end tends towards the generic gawp-mouthed grille that nearly every luxury marque now carries, but as a first-time ground-up design from a small company, the big guys should be taking notes.
Palm the key. It’s a tiny representation of the car, smooth-surfaced with hidden pressure switches to control the various functions. Approach the Model S and flush-mounted door handles slide open. You grasp and pull.
2013 Tesla Model S. Click image to enlarge
First surprise? This car is one front bench-seat away from a 1970 Plymouth Belvedere. Without a gasoline-engine drivetrain and the associated packaging concerns, the Model S is almost weirdly spacious. There’s a large rear trunk, with hatchback access (rear-mounted jump-seats to make the S a 7-seater aren’t yet approved for Canada), a cavernous “frunk” under the hood, nicely airy rear seating, and no transmission tunnel to stop you playing footsie with your passenger. With the battery pack mounted low in the floor, it’s almost a bit like the designers weren’t sure what to do with all the room.
So, what they’ve primarily done is glue an iPad to the dashboard. Well, that’s a bit dismissive: it’s more like two iPads. The centrally mounted control touchscreen dominates the cabin and controls pretty much everything. Naturally, given how fiddly other touchscreen interfaces can be, the lack of manual controls is immediately worrying.
On the other hand, I found myself surprised at how well everything worked. Yes, the ability to browse the internet at speed is the sort of thing that’d have anti-distracted-driving campaigners throwing their hands up in disgust, but the intuitive touch and swipe functionality is very easy to use. Given the sheer size of the screen, just a glance is good enough to adjust most features, making it easier to keep your eyes on the road.
It’s the dashboard of the future: all the more jarring then, that you grasp the stalk of a Mercedes-Benz column shifter to put the Tesla into drive. It’s a minor niggle, one of the unpolished edges showing through a mostly well-realized product (M-B is a major investor in Tesla), and quite frankly, a bit old-fashioned for “the car of the future”. I’d prefer a Star Trek–style touchscreen arrangement. Or maybe a voice command, “Number One, plot a course. Engage.”
The Model S slips silently out of the lot, that pussy-footing party trick of all electric vehicles. For a fairly big car, it’s easy to see out of, with only moderate rear-quarter blind spots. Traffic is heavy as we wind our way out of West Vancouver towards the upper levels highway; a clogged on-ramp provides little joy, despite the sunny day.
At speed, there’s as little noise as you’d expect from any other luxury sedan. The ride is supple, the seats supportive. The sharply defined instrument panel shows a range of just over a hundred and eighty miles (this is a US-spec demonstrator from Tesla’s Seattle showroom), enough to take us up to Whistler with joules to spare, or so the readout says. Relaxing. Ho-hum.
2013 Tesla Model S. Click image to enlarge
Stuck behind a bumbling delivery truck, we’re not getting the full Sea-to-Sky experience, despite the crisp clearness of the day. Sun glints off the choppy water of Howe Sound, a pair of kiteboarders off in the distance taking advantage of the breeze. We go 40 km/h.
And then, blissfully, at one of the all-too-brief passing lanes created during road improvements for the winter Olympics, the truck oozes over to the right, I show the Model S the clear road ahead and, lulled by quiet comfort, stomp on the accelerator. At which point, we are apparently rear-ended by the Millennium Falcon.
This Tesla is equipped with the 85-kWh battery back and hi-po drive inverter that puts out the equivalent of 416 horsepower. Let me just put this out there: horsepower is now an outdated measurement.
With no transmission, transfer-cases or other drivetrain slop to soak up the power, the Model S transforms nearly all that stored electric power to instant, full-torque thrust. It’s a completely different beast than an equivalently powerful internal-combustion-powered sedan – in fact, the last time I was on this particular piece of road, it was in the much-lauded Porsche Panamera GTS. The Porsche growled, where the Tesla utters little more than an amusing “phfweeeee!”, but the electric car is faster. Much faster.
Blink and we’ve suddenly arrived at the other end of the two-lane zone, as quickly as if teleported. Suddenly, there’s a wolf pack of buzzing, angry sportbikes ahead, as well as a lone driver in a rare Porsche Boxster Spyder. From overhead, the Tesla must look like a whale shark surrounded by a cloud of pilot fish.
And yet, through the first corner as the bikers all lean hard and the Boxster does what it was built to do, the Model S sticks and moves. Yes, its 2,087-kg (4,600 lb.) curb weight is more SUV than sports car, but the centre of gravity is very low to the ground with that flat-mounted battery pack, and the adaptive suspension works in concert with the balanced chassis to produce an engaging drive. The only shortfall seems to be in the seats: not checking the sport option allows you to slop around a little too much.
2013 Tesla Model S. Click image to enlarge
Admittedly, this is nothing like a traditional combustion-engine car, but it’s also not artificial-feeling. Compared to a mastadon-in-running-shoes like a BMW X6 M, it’s much more genuinely a sporting machine. Of course, the range is suffering somewhat.
And then, suddenly, no more forward velocity. My Tesla chaperone for the day, Shanna Hendricks, dials up the Seattle dealership, who link up to the car directly via 3G to confirm that there’s a speed limiter in place. They also make sure to tell me that my energy consumption levels are, quote, “weak-sauce”. So, more a car for the lead-foots than the hypermiling crowd?
At the turnaround point, I’m completely smitten with this big sedan. Not that there aren’t a few warnings for first intenders. The range is down quite a bit as a result of putting my foot in it – enough to get to Whistler, but not enough to get back without risking a flat-deck tow. Also, the rear passenger door handle is broken on this demo.
So, a few warts on the lightning bolt, then. But some time after I return the demonstrator, I run into BC-born NHL defenceman Willie Mitchell as he parks his white Model S near a ski store in West Vancouver. He’s effusive about the car, talks about charging it off a windmill at his place in Tofino, loves the way it handles downtown Vancouver traffic, can’t wait to leapfrog down the coast once Tesla’s chain of quick-fill Supercharger stations are set up.
Here’s a guy who could have just as easily bought a Bentley or an Aston, but paid a premium for something completely different. As an early adopter, it’s a heck of a risk to take – just look at Fisker’s currently unstable position. On the other hand, style, grace, exclusivity and performance in spades? No sticker-shock here.
Model S 40-kWh battery: $67,100
Model S 65-kWh battery: $77,800
Model S 85-kWh battery: $88,500
Model S Performance 85-kWh battery: $103,000
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