Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Test Drive: Tesla Model S Performance

I freely admit, I am a fan of the Tesla Model S. Since the very first photos of the concept were released, I was smitten and started thinking about all the possible ways I could score a test drive. Of course, the problem up until recently was that one had to pretty much be a member of the automotive press or pony up the $5,000 deposit and wait for their turn in line in order to even have the opportunity. We were fortunate enough to get the chance to preview the Model S earlier this year that offered hands-on quality time with the car, but no test drives were available. Luckily, things have changed. In the last few weeks, with the recent positive news coming from Tesla, an influx of product availability means that the test drive policy is getting less restrictive and genuinely interested parties are finally able to experience the cars on public roads. So when Tesla store in Natick called me back to schedule a test drive, I jumped at the chance.

Tesla does things differently from other manufacturers. Unlike everyone else, Tesla does not have dealerships, only stores where prospective buyers can go and learn more about the cars as well as place their order if they are ready to buy. The store in Natick is tucked among the upscale shops of the Natick Mall. I arrived early for my appointment and, after taking some basic information from me, we headed quickly to the parking garage where the cars were stored.

Sal and Eric, the two Tesla employees who accompanied me for the test drive, chose a white Performance version to drive. They unplugged the car from the charger and we walked around, admiring the shape, the dark gunmetal 21-inch wheels, and the trick door handles. Getting into the car, we chatted about the features, reviewed the functionality controlled by the massive touchscreen center console, and played around with some of the settings. From the preview earlier in the year, I already knew that the material quality was top notch, but getting to finally sit inside and play with the controls gave me the opportunity to really evaluate everything thoroughly and, for the most part, nothing about this interior disappoints. The surfaces all look fantastic and feel as premium as they look. Although, there is one exception, which is the shifter stalk, a piece sourced from financial backer Daimler, that feels a tad delicate and would have me worried about longevity.

Before we move on to the drive, I want to focus on the touchscreen that is the centerpiece of the car's infotainment system. This massive Android powered tablet controls nearly every major adjustable function on the car along with providing audio control, GPS navigation, and backup camera functionality. Unlike many other touchscreen systems I have tested of late, this one is intuitive and responsive. Taps of the screen respond instantaneously and any lag is near imperceptible. The layout is easy to understand, with a row of buttons at the top allowing access to the primary function areas and most capabilities not hidden behind layers of menus because the screen has the real estate to spare. It is also possible to display two items at once, offering the driver tremendous flexibility. However, as wonderful as this system seems, I am still hesitant to endorse this input method in automobiles because in order to do anything one still has to take their eyes off the road to be able to use it effectively. Luckily, there are some redundant hardware controls for the radio and phone on the steering wheel. Still, my inner geek squeals with delight at the thought of having access to such cool gadgetry.

Everything about the Tesla is a little bit different from a normal car. The door handles extend to greet you as you approach the car with the key. There is no knob to turn or button to push to start the car; instead, you simply get in and the car turns itself on for you. Step on the brake and the car is ready to drive accompanied by a bit of mechanical whir in the background as the compressor for the air suspension charges the tank. The only part of this process that is even remotely typical is that you still have to select Drive in order to move. With the car set to allow creeping, I remove my foot from the brake and the electric motors propel the car forward with an eerie silence. At low speeds, there is almost no noise at all, offering a near tomb-like quiet as I glide away. Apply a little pressure to the throttle and the speed quickly increases to match with no additional noise. Maneuvering through the parking lot, it is easy to quickly forget how large of a car this really is as the low center of gravity and exceedingly quick to react air suspension keep it perfectly flat in even the tightest cornering situations. Of course, I am quickly reminded of the car's size as I thread it through the rather small exit corridor.

Out on the open road, the car continues to impress. Torque is instantaneous thanks to the powerful electric motors. The claimed 0-60 mph times of less than 4.5 seconds seem not only entirely plausible, but indefinitely repeatable as the car reacts with a consistency that only an electric vehicle could provide. The throttle feels brilliantly linear, something that I have not felt in some time in our modern world of throttle-by-wire cars, and it only takes a matter of moments to get comfortable with the amount of regenerative braking that the electric motors provide. With my two Tesla employees guiding the way, we thread through some side roads around the mall and make our way towards the highway. I use the opportunity to punch it a few times to test the throttle response and each time I am met with nothing but satisfying compliance.

Hitting a couple of speed bumps and potholes, one thing does become quickly apparent; the Model S is set up to be pretty stiff. It is intended to be a performance sedan and those aggressive 21-inch wheels really live up to their sporting potential, but also exhibit a bit of compromise in ride quality as a result. It is not bad, per se, as it is on par with the ride quality of other sporty competitors like the BMW M5 or Porsche Panamera, but it came as a bit of a surprise to me since I was expecting something more luxury oriented given the likely age of most buyers who can afford this car. The damping is well tuned for the sporty driving though and really offers a great feel for the road. In fact, even the steering feedback is excellent for an electronic power steering unit. This is the most surprising part about this totally electric vehicle is that it is genuinely fun to drive.

Approaching the highway on-ramp, I am encouraged to plant the throttle and really give the car a chance to stretch its legs. The sensation of being pushed back into the seat is impressive, given that this is a 4700-lb sedan. I can honestly say that no sport sedan driver will miss out on acceleration with this car because it definitely provides plenty of punch that easily matches or exceeds what the competitors can provide.

One thing that does become increasingly noticeable as speed increases, however, is the slight wind and tire noise. Normally, these noises are largely covered up by the noise of a gasoline motor thumping away, but in the Model S, there is nothing to cover these up. The sound deadening is actually excellent and what little outside road noise seeps into the cabin is muffled enough that it is entirely possible to keep up a conversation with your passenger without needing to raise your voice at all. Again, this is something that takes a moment to get used to as most of us have grown accustomed to raising our voices a bit in the car to make sure we are heard. The added benefit of this significantly more acoustically controlled cabin is that the custom built audio system for this car is able to really shine and provides excellent sound quality.

As we approach our off-ramp, I once again use the opportunity to test out the car's handling and discover an interesting trait: you can balance the car in a corner using nothing but the throttle. The chassis is so well set up and the steering provides just enough feel that, when combined with the throttle's linear power delivery and the stopping power from the regenerative braking effect, you can toss the car into a turn and adjust the attitude of the car by making minute adjustments to the amount of throttle being applied. And, because of the regenerative braking effect, small lifts in the throttle induce a slight weight shift towards the front wheels allowing a skilled driver to actually optimize the use of all four contact patches with nothing but the throttle. As an enthusiast, this kind of balance is absolutely thrilling, especially when piloting a car so big that this kind of behavior should not be possible. I started to use this to my advantage at every opportunity.

Off the freeway, we cruised through some main thoroughfares and down some city streets, encountering stoplights and slow vehicles along the way. Unless coming to a complete stop, I did not need to use the brake pedal at all, instead able to comfortably allow the regenerative braking to do the job of slowing me down. The extra benefit of this is that this allows for plenty of range regeneration. By the end of drive, despite having been out for nearly an hour, we had barely used up any of the battery charge because we had regained a fair amount of it during the last part of the drive.

The charging port of the Tesla Model S.
Pulling the car back into its parking space, Sal and Eric demonstrated how to properly plug the charger into the car. All in all, I could not help but be impressed by the whole experience. The car performed flawlessly and offers such a uniquely fun driving experience that no enthusiast would feel out of place behind the wheel. The power delivery is shockingly good and so extraordinarily different from that of other EVs that it really felt more like a traditional gasoline powered car, aside from the eerie lack of engine noise. The interior feels plushly appointed and definitely meets my expectations for the price point and the massive tablet center console is impressive and downright fun to play with.

So after all of this, would I be willing to put my own money on the line for a Model S? Not quite yet, but not for the reasons that you think. The driving experience is exceptional and I am completely convinced that the ownership experience would be great as well, especially as I fully understand the compromises inherent in an electric vehicle, though there really are not many with this car. The only thing holding me back from buying a Model S at the moment is that it is still such a tremendously large car, which I am not terribly comfortable with. I would much prefer something about one size-class smaller, which is a vehicle that Tesla has promised is in the works and should hopefully be due out in a couple of years, just as the lease on our current car draws to a close. In addition to being able to take advantage of newer battery technology, the smaller car should also be less expensive to purchase, which will make it more appealing to my wallet as well.

However, if you are someone who looking for a larger luxury performance sedan and you have about $100k to spend, I personally believe you cannot find a better vehicle on the market than the Model S to fit those needs. This car is genuinely not just a revolutionary electric vehicle, it is a revolutionary performance car. After having a chance to test the product, I have ever more faith that the team at Tesla will succeed in helping bring about a revolution in how Americans think of electric cars and I look forward to the day I will have one of my own to park in the garage.

Special thanks to the team at the Tesla store in Natick, MA for the excellent experience.