An Electric Sports Sedan? Can Someone say Tesla?

The Tesla Model S has been heaped in praise lately, awarded as Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine, Automobile Magazine, and Yahoo! Autos. Now, even Consumer Reports has joined in.

The independent, consumer-oriented magazine has given the Tesla Model S an initial review, and it’s almost all good. In a short video, auto engineer Tom Mutchler explains the basics of the electric car, and goes over a list of pros and cons.

He notes the “sleek styling” and the 17-inch touch screen’s “fantastic” graphics and instant response. Mutchler is nearly ecstatic over the car’s performance, which he calls “stunning,” especially its “fantastic” and “addictive” acceleration.

The list of cons is shorter, and focuses on minor issues: Tesla “might have gone too far” by putting all of the car’s controls on the screen, and the door handles are “fussy.” Mutchler mentions charge time and range as drawbacks to electric vehicles in general.

Overall, he says, “We were really impressed.”

Consumer Reports based this first, preliminary review on a car provided by Tesla; it will later buy a car and test it more fully on its own track.

Watch the video review:

AutoWeek Review

What is it?

To the mass media, the Tesla Model S is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated models, if not the most anticipated model to hit the road this year. Since Elon Musk‘s EV concern showed a mock-up Model S prototype back in 2009, the Model S has been called everything from the salvation of the auto industry to abject vaporware.

The jury’s still out on the former, but we’re pleased to report that the latter is no longer a concern. On June 22, Tesla began the regular delivery of cars (Musk and Tesla investor Steve Jurvetson had already received their vehicles). Currently produced at the company’s Fremont, Calif., plant at the rate of one per day, with a ramp-up schedule that has the electric seven-passenger sedan rolling off the line at 80 per day by year’s end, the Model S is a real car with excellent power and fine handling.

The car’s other salient merits aren’t things we really had a chance to evaluate during our 20 minutes in the new sedan. The first 10 consisted of a ride with a Tesla sales representative in a Signature Series Performance model. For our own drive, we chose a base Signature Series car. All Signature Series models feature Tesla’s largest battery pack, an 85-kilowatt-hour unit EPA-rated to have a 265-mile range under their new five-cycle EV-testing regimen.

Later this year, less expensive models will arrive with 60-kilowatt-hour and 40-kilowatt-hour packs, for which the EPA has yet to release range figures.

What is it like to drive?

While Tesla likes to tout the Model S as an alternative to the BMW 5-series, it’s really an alternative to two of our favorite 5er alternatives—the Audi A7 and the Jaguar XF. The hatch and the ride bring the Audi to mind. The “Wait, this thing is really that rapid?” acceleration recalls the supercharged versions of the Jag.

The large, rectangular battery pack acts as a stressed member of the chassis, tying the thick, extruded-aluminum frame rails together. The compact powertrain is mounted between the rails at the rear axle, occupying little more space than a traditional diff pumpkin and half-shafts would. The effect of all that mass so low in the vehicle is a center of gravity similar to that of the Ford GT.

But while the GT is all wild hair and violence—a brash, brutish, American thing—the Model S, despite its Californian design and construction, is undoubtedly the most European-feeling sedan built by a non-European manufacturer. Yes, the exterior by former Mazda designer Franz von Holzhausen is somewhat akin to a leaping cat with “zoom-zoom” buzzed into its fur, but the Model S feels otherwise wholly continental. The steering column and window switches sourced from Mercedes do nothing to dispel the feeling.

During our short loop, which took us through Tesla’s facility, down a few Fremont surface streets and back up I-880, we had enough of a chance for an initial impression, albeit a rough one. Nevertheless, Tesla’s people encouraged us to open the taps, attempt to unsettle the car with sudden inputs, stomp the brakes, fling the car around an on-ramp and get a feel for the way the company uses regenerative braking.

Tesla claims a 0-to-60-mph time of 4.4 seconds for the Model S Performance. The way the car delivers its 443 lb-ft of torque made it feel like even less. We don’t recall feeling the same gut punch from the Porsche Panamera Turbo S, a car that performs the same feat roughly a second quicker.

At-speed acceleration, during which the Porsche does feel significantly more impressive, is still more than adequate in the Tesla. We accidentally hit severely extralegal speeds while shooting for a velocity only mildly disagreeable to Jehosaphat Q. Law. The car tops out at 125 mph, while the Performance sees a 5-mph bump to 130.

In a banked corner, the car simply sticks as a result of all that mass so close to the ground. The Model S doesn’t feel quite as buttoned-down under violent sawing as the normal comportment of the car would suggest. We imagine that the Performance model is better in this regard, though the basic car is still certainly within the acceptable range.

We can’t tell you how the brakes stand up to repeated abuse, but feel and modulation are very good; they hauled the heavy five-door down nicely during our one hard stop.

Part of the reason that the brakes feel so natural is the Tesla’s approach to regenerative braking. Unlike many manufacturers, regeneration isn’t controlled by the brake pedal at all–it’s handled solely by the accelerator. Let off the pedal slightly, and the car begins meting juice back into the pack. Remove your right foot entirely and the sedan generates electricity at its maximum rate. A gyro measures the rate of deceleration and flicks on the LED brake lights accordingly.

Over broken pavement, the Model S doesn’t feel unsettled, though it does transmit its fair share of surface imperfections to the occupants. Otherwise, the ride is fantastic, certainly within the expectations of the target demographic.

If the Tesla’s latest has any glaring shortcomings, they’re in the interior. While the overall design is nice, for a car that the company claims is family-oriented and everyday usable, it’s missing a number of amenities that buyers take for granted.

Since there’s no transmission or driveshaft, the interior’s default configuration features a small armrest console between the front seats, with a floor-level rubber tray running forward to the dash. The company suggests that a briefcase would sit nicely there. We stuffed it with a heavily laden messenger bag, and while it stayed in place, the lack of motion seemed more the result of the fact that we’d wedged the item between the seats, the console and the dash. Under cornering, smaller bags or cases could become unwelcome projectiles.

There are no cupholders for the rear-seat occupants (although there are for the unfortunate souls stuffed into the rear-facing jump seats). Neither the doors nor the front seatbacks have map pockets. We suppose Tesla assumes that the gargantuan 17-inch multifunction display obviates the need for maps. Still, the ignorance of interior storage in a modern sedan feels like a bush-league mistake.

The company does say that a variety of center-console modules are under development. We doubt that the early adopters who’ve plunked down cash for the first thousand cars will miss the amenities all that much. They’ll even likely be happy to have the opportunity to personalize their cars further. The mass market will not be so kind.

As for the Brobdingnagian touch screen, which von Holzhausen characterizes as the “hero” of the interior? It’s a cute party piece and a nod to the company’s Silicon Valley home, but we’re still partial to good old buttons.

One final knock on the interior is the forward chairs’ severe lack of lateral support. We found ourselves sliding around both as driver and passenger. Inexplicably, there’s no sport seat option. A car that corners like this practically demands one.

On the upside, it’s an otherwise nice place to spend time, featuring negligible NVH levels, a choice of interesting and well-executed wood finishes, quality leather and a genuine aura of craftsmanship.

Do I want one?

There’s no question that the Model S is a desirable automobile. It’s attractive, feels well-built and luxurious, offers features that no other EV does, handles the way a serious sports sedan should, and generally comes off as a wholly considered proposition. Despite some of the cloying touches, it’s a genuine automobile designed and constructed by people who truly care about creating a great car—not just paying the concept lip service.

It is, however, still a machine for early adopters. As Tesla’s first real ground-up vehicle, there will be teething problems, and we can’t be sure how the company is equipped to handle them.

Caveats aside, the Model S is the most fully-realized electric vehicle anybody has yet delivered. It’s a genuinely impressive effort; one that compares favorably with the vehicles to which Tesla touts it as an alternative. Already manna from heaven to the faithful, it remains to be seen how many fence-sitters this new sedan can convert.

2012 Tesla Model S

Base Price: $57,490

As-Tested Price: $94,490

Drivetrain: 85-kWh battery pack; 362-hp, 324-lb-ft three-phase, four-pole AC induction motor; one-speed automatic

Curb Weight: 4,647.3 lb

Fuel Economy (EPA): 89 mpg-e

Range (EPA): 265 mi


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Published by CityFella

Moved to the Big Tomata in the nineties from San Francisco. No Suburbs for me with its single colored houses and lawns and the excitement of pulling out my trash can once a week. I'm a CityFella , a part time New Yorker. I'm happiest in the Center City where people the streets and people are alive. I'm still waiting to buy a 34th floor condo somewhere downtown/Midtown with a nightclub. "Hurry I'm old" My politics are somewhere in the middle with a needle that constantly moves. I'm too liberal to be a Republican and too conservative to be a Democrat. Everything interests me . I've come to love Sacratomato, Its a nice town in cheap sensible shoes .

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