The Tesla Model S is kind of the halo “electric” car at the moment, and it really breaks the mold of a stereotypical electric car. It is fast, sexy, and super high tech, yet drives almost normally. Being a car enthusiast, I had previously driven the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt locally; but with so few Tesla showrooms and service centers in the country, it’s hard to have the opportunity to drive a Tesla, especially in Nebraska.
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to test drive a Tesla Model S on May 3, 2014 in Omaha, Nebraska. I had spotted a post on the Tesla Facebook page saying they were taking reservations for a test drive, so I signed up. They called me the next day and confirmed.
They had 4 cars on display in the corner of a parking lot. All were the P85 variant (the big battery model), and some had quite a few options, so sticker prices ranged from about $80k-$107k. Quite a few people were hanging around the car that was charging while a Tesla employee answered questions. Having read several reviews of the car and watching several videos of it, I had quite a bit of knowledge to draw from for my test drive.
My time slot came up and I scanned my drivers license, typed in a little info on an ipad and went for a test drive. The car is so quiet that in a somewhat crowded environment, people kept walking behind the car when we were trying to back out of the parking spot. Their mouths kind of dropped open when they saw this car come at them silently.
Acceleration – Instant torque is addicting. Really addicting. The acceleration in the Model S is so smooth and linear. It definitely pushes you back into the seat in a very satisfying way. Its speed and power are deceiving because of how quiet it is. In a gasoline powered car the engine gives you an indication of the speed you’re going; the S doesn’t have that, so it was very easy to go faster than the law says you should. It would be interesting to see if Model S owners get more speeding tickets because of it. I can verify that traction control is pretty effective too. When you give the S a lot of acceleration off the line, the traction control will come in and make sure you keep things on the road and straight; it does give the sensation of wiggling around a little though. It was fun. Because the Model S has no transmission or torque converter like in an automatic transmission, the car doesn’t creep along at low speeds. Tesla has added this creep mode as a software mode if you miss it. It takes a little getting use to in non creep mode.
Brakes – The Model S brake feel was nice and linear under normal street driving. Tesla has taken an interesting approach, giving you the option of a maximum regeneration mode or a low regeneration mode. It’s a simple setting on the 17” touchscreen center console. In the low generation mode, the car will coast much like a normal car with an automatic transmission with low drag. The downside of this is that it will generate much less energy to put back into the batteries and extend range. In maximum generation mode when off the accelerator it feels much more like you have downshifted on a car with a manual transmission. The feeling of drag is increased quite a bit. It’s essentially using electric motors as an engine brake by using the electric motor to generate electricity.. It takes a little getting used to since you don’t have to touch the brakes nearly as much in city driving. For instance, when coming down a hill, instead of coasting down the hill you actually may have to just use the lightest input on the accelerator to maintain speed. The benefits of this is it’s extend range optimally. Tesla says that this also greatly decreases brake rotor and pad wear because you’re not using them as much to slow the relatively heavy car.
Steering/Suspension – The Model S is the safest car on the road, and part of that has to do with how stiff the chassis is. That stiffness really adds to the sportiness of the car. The suspension is stiff, but well damped so it’s not harsh, but also not “Lexus” smooth. I would call it european inspired suspension. The car corners pretty flat, and in normal street driving hides its weight pretty well, I thought. That stiffness also made the car feel really solid and well built. Our test car (829 miles on the odometer) had no squeaks or shudders. It would be interesting to compare a model with the sport suspension option. The steering was a nice weight and some road feel feedback.
The 17” touch screen that serves as the cars center console and main control unit for all configurable things in the car really is the top interior feature. The large screen and first HD backup camera that can optionally be used when driving were great. The layout and navigation were really logical and intuitive of the controls and options. The UI was fast, and the cas a web browser build in to search for anything or read a website. Navigation was by Google Maps so it was great and always updated. The only driving control I was hunting around for was to put it in park (I will blame wanting to continue the test drive, I think it probably had enough range left to make it back home 🙂 )
For what the car cost, the seats should have been better. After visiting the BMW Welt in Germany my benchmark is admittedly a bit high when it comes to seats though. The Model S I drove had the standard seats, and while stylish, they lacked some adjustability and didn’t have enough side bolstering to match the car’s performance. With approximately a 300 mile range, you’re not as likely to be in one without a break as long as you would in a diesel or gas European luxury sedan in the same price range. The flat floor (no transmission tunnel) was really nice, and made the middle rear seat much more useable. Someone who is tall might have problems sitting in the back seat without hitting their head on the roof. The interior design was minimal but nice. The design of the door handles are by far my favorite interior design feature. I didn’t care for the dark gray walnut wood trim on the dash, and would have probably prefered a carbon fiber or dark, warmer wood color.
The key of the car is pretty cool, as you would expect. It’s a fob and there is no traditional key. It’s actually a Hot Wheels sized model of the Model S in black that is a bit more streamlined. Touching the model (key) on the trunk for a second or two will pop the trunk. Walk up to the car with the key in your pocket and the door handles automatically come out and it unlocks. The car is always on and ready to drive; sitting in the driver’s seat and putting your foot on the brake to put it into drive is all you need to do, no push button start or turning of a key. There is also no shutting it off, you touch the button for park and get out, the car locks and shuts off itself.
Coming into the test drive the car was already sitting on a pedestal. My test drive was short but for the most part it met and exceeded expectations. For me the standouts were the acceleration, large center console screen, general technology, and its sexy lines. It’s an expensive car, and for most people it probably would not be your only car unless you had access to something with more range for long trips. That will change as electric charging, especially the Tesla Super Charging stations, becomes more common. For me it would be a great daily driver: fast, sexy, super safe, and minimal day to day costs. The main barrier right now for most is the cost. It’s still quite an expensive car. Tesla is rumored to be coming out with a less expensive smaller 3 series competitor that will be more affordable for the masses. By that time they should have a more robust charging network too. That will be more of a revolution for the masses. Until then, the Model S is a great example of how good an electric car can be made, especially in the USA. It makes a few sacrifices and has some great benefits.