Before the introduction of the Tesla Model S in 2012, most Americans thought of an electric car as small and dorky. The big and bold design of the Model S changed all that—and actually made electric cars cool and sexy.
In 2012 and 2013, every sighting of a Model S was remarkable and somewhat shocking. Seeing one rolling down the street, you couldn’t help but stop in your tracks to admire its broad stance, sleek lines, and chest-pounding confidence. By 2016, the novelty was mostly worn off, especially in big cities in California and on the coasts where seeing a Model S is a daily occurrence. The Model S now elicits pretty much the same casual admiration as a Maserati, Jaguar or Aston Martin, which all bear some resemblance to Tesla’s big sedan.
The automotive press has unanimously endorsed the Model S design as a winner. Any minor blemishes—for example, visibility is not great—can’t undermine the beauty of the Model S design, which succeeded in its mission to make a full-size all-electric sedan as attractive as possible. In terms of looks, it arguably beats its gas-powered rivals, such as the BMW 7-Series and Audi A8, while trouncing those vehicles for efficiency.
For 2017, Tesla updated the front fascia of the Model S to bring it in line with the styling of the recently released Model X SUV and the upcoming Tesla Model 3. The headlights have been repositioned and the taillights have been tweaked as well. The faux grille is now gone, replaced with a thin “mustache” accent that frames the Tesla logo. The decision to move away from styling cues that in any way mimic cars with internal combustion engines should come as no surprise. The fact that EVs are fundamentally different from gas cars is a huge source of pride for Tesla. The latest Model S model is still somewhat minimalistic on the inside, but now offers two new décor options: Figured Ash Wood and Dark Ash wood.
In its first review of the Model S, Edmunds.com said: “Acceleration is eerily quiet and incredibly potent. With all torque being immediately available, it's like being shot out of a gun barrel—with a silencer.”
As impressive as the performance of the original Model S was, each successive year brought tweaks to its software, battery and drivetrain. Over the years, specs for all five available powertrain configurations have been amped up.
The base rear-wheel drive Model S with a 70-kWh battery pack delivers 315 horsepower, 325 pound feet of torque, 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds with a top speed of 140 miles per hour. The dual-motor all-wheel drive 70D and 75D get 329 horsepower, 387 pound-feet of torque, and can rocket to 60 in 5.2 seconds.
Upgrade to the 90D variant and the horsepower jumps to a whopping 417 ponies—while the 0 to 60 number drops to a speedy 4.2 seconds. Torque hits 485 pound-feet and top speed in this version is governed to 155 mph. The P90D boosts you up to 504 horsepower and a staggering 713 pound-feet of torque. Upgrading to the P90D Ludicrous edition cuts your 0 to 60 time to 2.8 seconds and pours on an extra 28 horsepower.
Sharp handling and precise steering, along with height-adjustable air shocks, gives the Model S superlative road manners. One of the most delightful aspects of driving a Tesla vehicle is the use of very strong regenerative braking, combined with the standard lack of creep from a standstill. (Allowing the car to slowly inch forward when your feet are off the pedals is available as a driver-controlled option.)
The Model S tech package includes Tesla’s much ballyhooed Autopilot system. The baseline features of the $4,250 option include navigation, LED cornering lights, fog lamps, keyless entry, lighted door handles, power liftgate, and power folding side mirrors. Now add Autopilot, a suite of assisted driver features that use a forward-facing camera, radar, and 360-degree ultrasonic sensors.
Autopilot resembles packages in other luxury and non-luxury vehicles that have adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning automatic braking and lane-keeping, and assisted parking. Tesla innovations include automatic lane changes after tapping the turn signal, as well as reading and following speed limit signs. (Be warned: Autopilot does not mean self-driving so keep your hands on the wheel.)
With the release of its Version 7.0 operating software last year, Tesla introduced its new Summon feature. On private property, the Model S will pull out of the garage and meet you at the curb, or drop your off at your door on its way to opening and parking in your garage.
These early iterations of the Autopilot feature are only the first steps toward what Tesla hopes will soon be driverless operation of its vehicles. Model S owners will reap the gradual rewards of this progression with each software update, but whether fully autonomous operation will be grandfathered into existing vehicles remains to be seen. No Autopilot functionality is available in Model S units produced before October 2014 and Tesla has no plans to retrofit Autopilot into those cars.
For 2016, there are four basic Model S powertrain configurations, each offering their own blends of efficiency and range. (60 kWh and 85 kWh battery options have both been discontinued, but a 75 kWh battery will soon be offered as an unlockable option for the 2017 models.)
The base level S70 has a 234-mile range and gets 89 MPGe. The 70D has a 240-mile range and gets 101 MPGe; the 90D has a 294-mile range and gets 103 MPGe. The P90D goes 270 miles on a charge and is rated for 95 MPGe. For 2017, range and efficiency is expected to increase by about five percent, across the board.
These are official numbers rather than real-world figures. As with gas-powered vehicles, your mileage will vary. In extremely hot or cold weather, your range will shrink as the car uses its battery to power climate control. When driven at moderate speeds in temperate climates though, Teslas have been to known see their ranges significantly outperform official EPA estimates. The current record (set last year in an 85 kWh Model S) is more than 550 miles.
The secret sauce of the Tesla Model S, both in terms of power and driving range, is the use of nearly 7,000 small commodity battery cells, rather than the larger automotive modules used by other automakers. This strategy, once considered risky and still viewed as unorthodox, has proven effective, economical and durable over time. Of course, these cars are still pricy—but Tesla’s unique engineering strategy is viewed as the key to eventually offering affordable mainstream electric vehicles with nearly as much range as petro-cars.
Elon Musk speculated that Tesla may offer a reasonably-priced battery upgrade that would extend the range of the Model S “into 500-mile territory” by 2019.
Much in the way that Tesla pushes the limits of EV acceleration and range, the company offers the most elegant and powerful charging system in the marketplace. While Nissan only last year upgraded the onboard charger of its small LEAF electric car to 6.6 kilowatts, the Tesla Model S uses a 10-kW charger. This means adding 30 or more miles of range per hour of charging from a 240-volt source, rather than around 20 miles in that same hour.
The big battery pack used in the Model S makes this faster rate very useful—although most drivers will find that they have plenty of energy reserves on a daily basis for common driving (regardless of charging rate).
Never content to offer just the best—rather than the crazy over-the-top absolute best—Tesla also used to offer a twin-charger that doubled the power rating to 20 kilowatts when combined with adequate amperage from home electricity service and Tesla’s High Power Wall Connector. In this configuration, you could pump in 60 or more miles of range in an hour of charging.
The twin-charger will be discontinued for 2017. Instead, Tesla has improved the amperage rating of its base charger to 48 amps and now offers a second single-charger option ($1,500) that hits 72 amps—and thereby approaches the same rate as the prior twin-charger.
For Model S owners, the cherry on top of the EV ice cream sundae is free use of the Tesla Supercharger network, which enables all-electric road trips. The network—consisting of strategically placed 120-kW rapid chargers that can add as much as 170 miles of range in just 30 minutes—is a stroke of genius by Tesla.
According to the company, about 98 percent of the US population has ready access to the Supercharger network. Consult with the Tesla website to see the current layout of Superchargers in your region: http://www.teslamotors.com/supercharger
The cabin of the Model S is attractive and spacious—although not as plush and refined as some high-end German flagship sedans in the same price range. There’s a little bit of American muscle in the relatively minimalistic hip design of the large Tesla EV.
What is certainly not minimalistic is the amount of cargo space and the liberal use of technology on the dashboard. The Model S trounces competitors for cargo, because it not only has a spacious hatchback, but a trunk in the front where other cars would need a lot of messy internal combustion components. Tesla cutely calls this space the “frunk.” Many owners believe the abundance of storage, and legroom, matches the utility of the top SUVs on the market.
The stark interior is dominated by a 17-inch iPad-like touch screen, giving digital control of nearly every automotive function. The interface is brilliant—a step above anything else you can drive. However, the gap between competitors is narrowing as the entire auto industry follows in Tesla’s footsteps and introduces relatively large touch screens. Lighting, climate and music selection are intuitive.
The allure of the screen’s functionality—including full web browsing capability and high definition rear facing camera that can be deployed at any speed—can be distracting. Don't misunderstand: the ability to have a full screen for entering addresses and keywords for navigation is kick-ass. The homegrown audio system will also blow you away.
The option for Executive Rear Seats turns the three-seat second-row bench into two leather-wrapped buckets with extra bolstering and padding. The back row additionally offers two-zone heaters, separated by a wide center console with hidden storage. This also allows rear seat passengers to control climate, media and panoramic roof settings with the Tesla app. The Executive option requires choosing the $3,500 Premium Interior Package (featuring leather and LED accent lighting) as well a $750 Subzero Weather Package. On top of that, you’ll need to spend $2,000 for the special seating itself.
Tesla asserts, “The Model S has the best safety track record of any vehicle in the world,” with a great deal of justification. NHTSA awarded the Model S with five stars, its highest rating, across the board for all crash and rollover tests.
The Model S utilizes a full arsenal of safety technologies, including eight airbags, four-wheel ABS and disc brakes, electronic stability control, traction control. In the last year, Autopilot and Summon joined the list. For 2017, an optional military-grade HEPA air filtration will as well.
First introduced in the Model X, the filtration system offers a “Bioweapon Defense Mode,” which is capable of rendering near-fatal levels of air pollution in the cabin undetectable in the span of a couple of minutes. Tesla proudly boasts that you can “survive a military grade bio weapon attack by sitting in your car.” Tesla fanboys love these kind of claims, while critics see them as Silicon Valley hyperbole.
Tesla will increase the starting price of the entire range of Model S editions by $1,500. The 70 kWh base model, offering around 240 miles of range, sells for a base price of $71,500. A 75 kWh option (which is unlockable through a software update,) will cost an additional $3,000. The cheapest 90 kWh model—which will offer around 300 miles of range—increases the base price to $89,500. The P90D starts at $109,500. Tesla’s destination fee tacks on an additional $1,200 to each model.
These prices do not reflect the $7,500 federal tax credit. (Make sure you have that much of a tax liability in order to take advantage of the credit.) Additional tax incentives are available in different regions of the United States. Heads up that Tesla will likely hit the 200,000-limit on these incentives in the next couple years, after which the tax credit will phase out.
Be prepared to bring a magnifying glass to the Tesla showroom, so you can read the fine print on a purchase agreement. A wide range of options and trim enhancements will easily increase the price by many thousands of dollars. Expect any number of additional tacked-on fees—including a $600 annual service fee to cover an inspection, replacement parts like brake pads and windshield wipers, 24-hour roadside assistance, system monitoring, remote diagnostics, and software updates.
The best way to get a more precise estimate cost is to visit the Tesla website, and use its design/pricing tool.
Comparison with Similar Cars
What electric cars can be fairly compared with the Tesla Model S? The short answer is: none that aren’t also manufactured by Tesla. Keep in mind that the Model X SUV is still dealing with production growing pains, and the wait list for the options-loaded Signature edition of the all-electric SUV is high. The Model 3 will offer comparable 200-plus mile range but there's a long wait: put down a deposit now and you’ll likely be waiting a couple of years before getting to order one.
If you want to stretch comparisons, you could take a glance at the Porsche Panamera Plug-in Hybrid, which carries a starting MSRP of $93,200. The Porsche plug-in qualifies for a federal tax incentive of $4,751.80, rather than the $7,500 available to the Model S. (We know, it’s bizarre.)
Nominally, the Panamera plug-in hybrid is faster, with 460 horsepower and a top speed of 167 mph—although road tests have revealed that the Model S is quicker. Of course, on the energy front, the Tesla is purely electric, while Porsche’s electrified luxury sedan manages only 22 miles of range before reverting to internal combustion.
If high-horsepower and flashy futuristic sports car design is your thing, and the Tesla Model S is not rich enough for your blood, then you could seek out the the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid, which starts at $136,000. The limited-run i8 is currently sold out, so you may have a hard time finding one in your area.
Tesla does not want to merely revolutionize automotive technology, but to also change core business models in the auto industry. The company, primarily an automobile manufacturer, also owns and operates more than 200 stores around the world. Company executives argue that these retail stores are necessary for competing against the entrenched gasoline powered vehicle market.
“Our goal is to bring electric vehicles to the mass market by telling our story, educating the public about electric vehicles, and delivering the best car in the world,” said CEO Elon Musk. “The ability to sell cars through Tesla-owned stores is important for sustainable transportation and is the best chance a new electric car company has of succeeding."
Musk believes that EVs operate under a different set of rules, and therefore Tesla's stores in no way conflict with the dealer model for gas cars.
In fact, all Tesla purchases begin with an online order, whether placed at home or from one of the company’s showroom floors. Product specialists are also available by phone, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Pacific to answer questions. Call 1-888-518-3752.