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Tesla’s $102,000 Electric Model S Surges Like a Supercar

November 01, 2012

Tesla Model S

A Tesla Model S. The all-electric car comes with an 85-kilowatt-per-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Source: Tesla via Bloomberg

The Tesla (TSLA:US) Model S is an all-electric car with incredible range. That may be the least interesting thing about it.

I stepped into the $92,000, battery-powered sedan with low expectations. By the time I exited, I was pretty sure I’d just experienced the future of the automobile.

Tesla and its chief executive officer, Elon Musk, are constant sources of hyperbole. I just didn’t expect to be spreading it.

This is the Palo Alto-based company’s second car. It was a stretch to even call the first model, the $100,000-plus Roadster, a true production car since it began life as a Lotus convertible. Tesla turned it into an electric vehicle (EV), but it looked like a Frankenstein-like kit car, and the build quality was terrible.

The Roadster had one very neat trick -- it rocketed from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than four seconds, silently. The Model S has more tricks than a Criss Angel-David Blaine double act.

The fundamentals: the base starts at $57,400, with the price increasing with the size of the lithium-ion battery pack, which in turn determines range and quickness.

Battery Pack

The Performance model I drove starts at $92,400 and was $102,270 with add-ons. It has the top-end, 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack and an EPA estimated range of 265 miles. (Tesla says 300 miles.)

It can recharge in as little as four hours. The electric motor makes 416 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. Sixty miles per hour comes in 4.4 seconds. Those numbers are compelling.

The Model S is a full-size car, and it’s big, seating five adults comfortably. The exterior is subdued, with little indication that it’s something special except for the closed front grill and low hood, which doesn’t need to fit a mechanical engine. (The electric motor is in the rear.)

It’s hard to know where to begin when describing all of its tricks.

Approach the locked car and you’ll find that the door handles are sunk into the metal. Press the center of the car- shaped key fob and the car handles slide out silkily.

Touch Screen

Slip inside and you’re confronted with a simple steering wheel, a driver’s digital screen and a shockingly large (17- inch) touch screen hanging from the center console. The screens are already on.

Except for controls on the steering wheel and its three stalks (gear shift, blinker and wipers), there are no other physically-evident controls. Coupled with chic wood inserts and fine leather, all perfectly fit together, the interior is a marriage of shiny tech and elegance.

The entire floor of the car is flat. There’s no center tunnel obstructing the area between driver and passenger (a gift of an EV’s unique engineering), and I marveled at the stuff you could put there. A backpack, a year’s worth of National Geographics, a sack of basketballs. A hoarder’s dream.

There is no ignition or start button. Put your foot on the brake pedal and the car silently turns on. Disconcerting, and Disneyland-cool. An early announcement that this is not business as usual.

Speed Demon

Then, go ahead. Jam on the pedal. If there’s a carryover from the Tesla Roadster, it’s speed. The Model S’s electric motor delivers all of its full torque instantly. The initial moment of acceleration is as good as any supercar I’ve recently driven, outside of the $2.5-million Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport.

My test car had optional 21-inch performance tires and the sound of them skimming on asphalt was the only noise as I bounded down a two-lane road in Michigan back country, yellow leaves swirling in a vortex behind me.

Then, an upcoming wicked right-hand turn. I didn’t want to break my shiny new toy. Would it manage that crook in the road at this speed?

Easily. The heavy batteries line the bottom of the car, keeping the center of gravity low. The S ducked into the turn, exited cleanly and I was back on the accelerator. The steering is eerily good and the brakes (which recapture energy) are predicable.

Glass Roof

Which brings me to the rest of the controls, which are manipulated via the biggest, sharpest touch screen I’ve ever seen. The top half of the screen manages everything from opening the optional panoramic glass roof to turning off the car. The bottom half is dedicated to the Internet -- giving full-color web pages.

Compared to other touch screens I’ve used recently (and complained about), this thing is generations better. Like a HD TV versus a black-and-white TV with bunny ears.

The icons are big, uncluttered and clear, and take just a brush of the fingers. I easily operated it on the move, only briefly taking my eyes off the road.

Which brings me to my only caveat. All of the technology is so new, so bold, that I’ve got to wonder how well it will work week after week, year after year. What happens if the screen freezes and it’s raining and you can’t shut the roof?

Tesla is charging customers $600 a year for a mandatory service plan. And the company potentially still has hard financial times ahead of it.

Still, something this good, this forward-thinking, will surely attract buyers who are equally bold. If I had $102,000 for my latest luxury ride, I’d take a chance on it.

The 2013 Tesla Model S Performance at a Glance

Engine: Electric motor with 85-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion

battery pack, with 416 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of

torque.

Transmission: Single gear.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds.

Range: 265 miles EPA estimate (Tesla says 300).

Price as tested: $102,270.

Best feature: The overall “wow” factor.

Worst feature: Unclear how reliable it will prove over

time.

Target buyer: The risk taker.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night and Greg Evans on TV.

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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