2012 Tesla Model S

Photo by Bradley Berman.

Styling

The Model S sports a big, bold, badass design. When you see it rolling down the street, you can't help but stop to admire its broad stance, sleek lines, and chest-pounding confidence.

When we spoke to Franz Von Holzhausen, Tesla's chief designer, we inquired about design vocabulary borrowed from Aston Martin, Maserati, and Jaguar. “If people make that aspirational brand reference, I’m psyched,” he said.

Von Holzhausen has great taste, and excellent pedigree from his previous stints at Volkswagen and General Motors, where he designed the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky.

You can just imagine Tesla CEO Elon Musk standing over Von Holzhausen’s shoulder, making sure that he pushes the envelope on visual excitement, aerodynamics, and maximum utility. Franz delivered.

2012 Tesla Model S

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.

Performance

In awarding its 2013 car of the year honor to the Model S, Automobile magazine editor-in-chief Jean Jennings praised the car’s performance. “The Model S can blow away almost anything,” she said. "The crazy speed builds silently and then pulls back the edges of your face. It had all of us endangering our licenses."

Cars.com said: “It's the immediate rush of off-the-line acceleration that buries you in the backrest in ways gas-powered cars don't—even if their zero-to-60 times match.”

And our favorite endorsement comes from Edmunds.com: “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.”

These qualitative characterizations of the Model S are supported by its specs, which spiral up in speed based on which model you consider. The Model S with the 60 kWh battery pack delivers 302 horsepower, 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds, and a top speed of 120 miles per hour.

Upgrade to the 85 kWh variant, and the horsepower jumps to 362 ponies—while the zero to 60 number drops to 5.4 seconds. Top speed in this version reaches 125 mph.

If you are a glutton for raw power, opt for the 85 kWh Performance package, to ramp up the horsepower all the way to 416 hp, and a top speed of 130 miles per hour. Jumping off the line to 60 mph is shaved to just 4.2 seconds.

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 no creep from a standstill. Single-pedal control is the gold standard for EV driving. Tesla nailed it.

Efficiency/Range

According to official EPA range testing, the 60 kWh Model S provides 208 miles of driving range on a single charge. The 85 kWh pack increases the range to 265 miles after the battery has been topped up.

But those are official numbers rather than real-world figures. As with gas-powered vehicles, your mileage may vary. Tesla claims that, at 55 miles per hour, the range of the smaller-pack model is 230 miles, and the bigger one is 300 miles.

We managed, with extremely careful driving (not the way any reasonable human being would operate the Model S), to barely squeeze out 300 miles from the 85 kilowatt-hour pack. You should expect something much closer to 230 miles—which is extraordinary for a car of the Model S’s size operating purely on electrons.

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 electric vehicles with nearly as much range as petro-cars.

Charging

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.

2012 Tesla Model S

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 offers a twin-charger that doubles 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.

These scenarios all refer to home charging. But the cherry on top of the EV ice cream sundae is the free use of the Tesla Supercharger network, which enables all-electric mode 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, in 2014 about 80 percent of the US population has ready access to the Supercharger network; and in 2015, that coverage will increase to 98 percent. Consult with the Tesla website to see the current layout of Superchargers in your region: http://www.teslamotors.com/supercharger

Passenger/Cargo Room

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. Lighting, climate and music selection are intuitive. But the allure of this wide-ranging 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.

2012 Tesla Model S

Safety

The Tesla Model S caught fire on three occasions in less than two months in late 2013—resulting in headlines that raised concerns about the safety of the vehicle, and electric cars in general. Don't believe the hype.

Soon after the incidents, we learned that the fires resulted from the Model S running over road debris. By the end of March, U.S. safety regulators said they closed their investigation by finding no “defect trend” in the Model S. To put any question about safety to rest, Telsa announced it is adding a triple underbody shield to the vehicle, to eliminate any possibility of the battery compartment being punctured.

Tesla asserts that the, “Model S continues to have the best safety track record of any vehicle in the world,” with a great deal of justification. Nobody was harmed by these incidents. Furthermore, 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, and traction control.

The 170,000 or so gas-powered vehicles that catch fire every year mostly escape the notice of media, while a single EV blaze gets headline coverage and goes viral on the Internet. The disproportionate focus on the Model S undermines the reality: it’s a very safe vehicle.

Price

The 60 kWh model, offering around 200 miles of range, sells for a base price of $69,900. Accessing the Supercharger network and 19-inch wheels are optional upgrades for about $3,000.

The 85 kWh model, offering around 250 miles of range, increases the base price to $79,900. The Supercharger network and bigger wheels are included.

Tesla destination fees are $1,170.

Amp it up to the 85 kWh Performance model, which adds faster acceleration and trim embellishments but not more range, and the price escalates to $93,400.

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 different regions of the United States.

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: http://www.teslamotors.com/models/design

One recommendation at this point is to consider that the additional $10,000 to go from with 60 kWh Model S, to the 85 kWh version, is probably the smart move. The additional range adds a lot more value and versatility to the car, which will likely be recouped if and when it is resold. More importantly, the extra range will be enjoyed during your period of ownership or lease.

The jump to the Performance model is of more questionable value, but if money is no object for you, go for it.

The Tesla website also offers “lease-like” financing options, but take the company’s Cost of Ownership tools with a grain of salt.

Comparisons of Similar Cars

What electric cars can be fairly compared with the Tesla Model S? The short answer is: none.

But if you want to stretch the point, you could take a glance at the Porsche Panamera Plug-in Hybrid, which carries a starting MSRP of $99,000. 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 hp 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.

The Cadillac ELR, another luxury plug-in hybrid, is capable of more all-electric drive—around 35 miles, before the gas engine kicks in. However, the $76,000 ELR doesn't come close to the Model S in terms of size, performance, and innovation. It's a muscle-bound luxury coupe, built on the platform of the Chevy Volt. The ELR's 207 horsepower, and crisp angular lines, are a welcome addition to the marketplace—but not legitimate competition in any respect to the Model S. The Tesla makes the Caddy look cheap.

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 wait until later in 2014 for the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid, which starts at $136,000.

Purchase Process

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 nearly 60 retail outlets throughout North America. 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 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.

2014 Tesla Model S specifications

Availability: Now
Base MSRP: $81000
Est. tax credit: $7500
Technology: Electric Vehicle
Body type: Sedan
Seats: 5
Range: 265 miles
EPA Range: 265 miles pure electric
Battery size: 85 kWh
Charging rate: 10.0 kW


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