The Tesla Model S is the most incredible car that I have ever driven.
I say that because the Model S is such a fascinating vehicle to drive, to sit inside, to be driven around in, to look at, to be a part of the culture of. Buy one and you won't ever pay for petrol again. Buy one and you're buying into the first car to be a rolling beta test, updated monthly with new technology and new software features. Buy one and you'll have arguably the most innovative and important piece of steel and aluminium (and lithium and graphite) on four round pieces of vulcanised rubber in a long time.
In early November, I had the chance to take a Model S, Tesla Motors' $100,000-plus all-electric sports sedan, out for a day of driving around Sydney. My particular poison was a circa-$150,000 Model S Performance P85+. If you're reading this review, you probably know a little about the car already, but I'll get into detail on that further on. On my test drive day, I picked up Giz editor Luke Hopewell from the CBD, we drove up to the city's Northern Beaches to meet another Model S owner, around the North Shore, and down through the city itself, turning heads and impressing punters on the side of the road as we went.
This review, obviously, is based on my one day's experience with the car. It's experiential. It's not comprehensive, it's not expert, and it's not conclusive — even though I have been following Tesla's journey to Australia for quite a while now. I've driven a Model S since, at Tesla's Sydney showroom launch, but that was for a similarly short period of time. I haven't had the chance to experience living with the Model S — charging it on either Supercharger or home-installed wall charger, driving it to and from work every day, taking it out on the open road for a holiday, and so on. I'll leave those experiences for the owners themselves to share.
Tesla Motors (relatively) quietly entered the electric automotive game in 2006, with the first generation of the Roadster released in the US, based on an all-electric modification of the Lotus Elise sportscar platform. A few Roadsters made their way down under, but by and large we didn't see Tesla's first car in the country apart from in the hands of super-enthusiasts like Internode founder Simon Hackett.
Fast forward eight years, and Tesla Motors has launched its large-scale Australian operations with a bang, delivering the first few Signature edition Model S all-electric sedans to customers. More cars are on their way, there are plenty of customers lined up with pre-orders placed, and the car itself is constantly evolving as the weeks and months go on.
Tesla has its fingers in a lot of pies; a quickly expanding Supercharger network in the US and Europe and soon in Australia, a huge investment in an electric battery gigafactory, and ongoing development of a gullwing-door SUV and a smaller, cheaper city car. But the Model S is the sole focus of Tesla's Californian factory attention for now, and in Australia at least, the automotive industry's collective eyes are keenly fixed on how this disruptive newcomer will perform.
The Supercharger Network
Yes, Tesla is building a network of Supercharger fast-charging stations across Australia. That network is still in its extreme infancy, but it is happening. There are five Superchargers at the company's Artarmon showroom and service centre, and four at The Star casino in Pyrmont — in quite close proximity to each other in geographical sense — but more are on the way.
For the uninformed, a Supercharger is an electric charging station, specific to Tesla's Model S, that allows for super-fast charging. That is, half of the Model S' 502km rated electric charge filled in 20 minutes. The entire battery filled from (near) flat in an hour. That's a long way from taking five minutes to fill your dinosaur-burning petrol or diesel's car with fuel, but it's not the eight-hour overnight recharge that other electric cars, even those with smaller batteries, are subject to.
Tesla Motors plans to build out the Supercharger network over the next year, with Superchargers at the moment slated exclusively for the east coast of the country. By mid-2015, you'll be able to travel between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, with 'chargers placed roughly 200 kilometres from each other. The first Supercharger location outside of Sydney is in Goulburn, as far as I'm aware.
By 2016, the network will have expanded — if the company's plans come off without a hitch — to connect Adelaide to Brisbane, and everything in between. Cities in more relatively remote locations like Darwin, Alice Springs, Perth, Broome — don't expect a network per se, but it makes sense that if enough cars are sold to owners in those locations then a Supercharger station would be set up. If you want one outside of the east coast, you gotta talk to Tesla.
The Tesla Motors Model S is a four-door sedan measuring 4970mm long, 2187mm wide, and 1445mm tall, with a front and rear track of 1662mm and 1700mm respectively and a wheelbase of 2960mm. That is, it's quite a big car. With a driver inside, you'll be tipping the scales at 2200kg, too, so it's not exactly lightweight. I drive a VW Polo GTI day-to-day, and manuevering the Model S around car parks and the city, sometimes it felt like I could fit that GTI inside the Model S.
If I'm honest, I found the Model S' interior — not precisely the choice of materials, but the fit and finish of the interior door skin against the dashboard, the stitching of the driver's seat panels — just OK for a car costing $100,000. It still feels luxe, and you're spoiled with a choice of different colours and materials and dashboard finishes, but it doesn't scream expensive. If you're paying $200,000 for a fully specced P85+ or P85D, you will probably find the interior a little less premium than a comparably priced European luxury sedan from BMW or Mercedes or Audi. There's also a little less noise deadening and a little more road noise than I expected to find.
It is a special interior, though. There's a lot of room whether you're a driver or passenger, sitting in any of the four standard passenger seats. Or in the boot, to which can be added at purchasing time two rear-facing child seats. Or in the front trunk (front boot here in Oz), where there is space for someone to curl up If I had to guess the Model S' luggage capacity, I'd say that you could fit one body in the frunk and four in the boot — the most scientific measurement I can come up with. The floor is entirely flat, a function of the car's complete lack of transmission tunnel, transaxle, differential, and traditional drivetrain in general.
The dashboard, which can be customised in different leather, alcantara, woodgrain, faux-carbon fibre or plastic trim finishes, is angular in the same way that modern art is. The air vents — which spew forth very cold air from the electric air conditioning, which I'll admit initially concerned me having only experienced mediocre electric in-car cooling in the past — are arranged in the traditional fashion, there's a button-operated locking glove box above the front passenger seat, and for the most part the driver's side mimics any other car's. The front seats are vaguely sporty-shaped one-piece buckets, electrically adjustable in most ways as well as heated.
The feature of the Model S that grabs everyone's eye — and doesn't let go — is that 17-inch touchscreen, sitting in portrait orientation in the middle of the dashboard. The gloss-finish, daylight-bright panel is powered by a Ubuntu Linux-based PC hidden away in the bowels of the dashboard, and it's your one-stop shop for navigating through every function of the car's controls. It has live maps and navigation handled by Google Maps, hundreds of Internet radio stations, Rdio music streaming, and so much more.
Everything from media playback to navigation to energy consumption tracking is done on that full-colour touchscreen display. Either the driver or passenger can reach it easily, and the interface feels natural — tap and hold to drag items around the interface, which can be split into two segments — it is by default — or locked to a particular setting. The Model S has a rear-view reversing camera, which runs still while the car is moving (like a scene from C'était un rendez-vous or Climb Dance), and if you sync your phone over Bluetooth your daily calendar and contact list will appear for you to peruse. You can, obviously, call your friends over the car stereo and tell them you're driving a $200,000 smartphone.
Being an electric vehicle, arguably the chief purpose of the touchscreen is to keep you, the driver, updated on your electric vehicle's remaining charge and range. Thankfully, that function works very well — you're able to see the Model S' current and past power consumption statistics, presented in a graph over whichever elapsed distance you select. You can chart where you've mashed the loud pedal — a big spike in instantaneous energy consumption — or coasted or gone downhill, where the power consumption actually returns to a positive level and the Model S is generating its own power. The driver's dashboard is where you'll see remaining rated and expected range, but the main screen gives you the Cliff's Notes too.
Of course, it's worth mentioning that the Tesla Model S is also an Internet-connected vehicle, with its own 3G mobile broadband modem and SIM provided (at no cost to the customer) by a partnership between Tesla and nation-spanning telco provider Telstra. That 'net connection, unless you hook the Model S up to your home Wi-Fi or a mobile broadband hotspot (yes, the car has Wi-Fi, obviously), powers its Internet radio streaming, Google Maps navigation, and downloads over-the-air software updates when and if required.
One special note — In Australia, the cars are delivered sans Web browser, almost certainly as a result of government safety and on-road distraction testing. If there was one car you could hack to install a Web browser on, it'd be the Model S, but don't expect to be looking up Gizmodo on your Model S' touchscreen any time soon.
As a driver's car, you're presented with everything you need — and that's not much on an all-electric gearless appliance on wheels — within easy reach. The P-R-N-D is on the right stalk, indicators and wipers on the left, and cruise control has its own dedicated stem. The driver's dashboard is a full-colour display in the same vein as the 17-inch touch panel, although it is a display only — you'll use the steering wheel controls to change settings and views as you wish. That display gives you a live read-out of your speed and electrical power consumption, whether you're expending it to accelerate, or regenerating it — as the car slows or maintains its speed on a downhill descent and the electric motor is driven by gravity and momentum.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel, with contextual controls on either front face for volume and media control and voice commands for the Model S' speech-to-text-to-action voice recognition system, is quite large and chunky and easy to grip. Because it's large, it sometimes makes the car feel large, like you're operating heavy machinery.
But my god, is the Model S great to drive.
The Driving Experience
Stepping on the accelerator pedal in the Model S is so unlike doing the same in a petrol-powered car. In a fuel-burning internal combustion vehicle, you order power and torque in (increasingly large) increments as the engine's revolutions per minute increase, get your car up to the speed you want, and then coast Using the Model S' accelerator is like turning up the volume knob on a stereo — you set a power output level, you arrive at a certain rate of speed at a certain rate of acceleration determined by said output level, and you continue to maintain that speed. Lift off the accelerator and you don't coast, you lose speed. Press it harder and you'll go faster — that much is at least similar.
And the Model S P85+ is quick. Tesla quotes zero to 100km/h as being achieved in 4.4 seconds, and while I didn't have my stopwatch out, I'd certainly believe those figures. Moreso than the numbers, what is impressive is how ceaseless and urgent the acceleration of the Model S is — it really just doesn't let up, anywhere from a standstill to well above any speed you should be legally driving on this nation's public roadways. There's no gearing, so there's no split-second break in the car's sprint up to speed. There's so much power on offer that if you turn the traction control off, I'm certain that you'd just sit there spinning the rear tyres, but even stepping on the pedal at a traffic light grand prix or coming around a bend you'll feel the tyres chirp and power management applied before you blast off very quickly.
One special addendum, for something I found difficult to get my head around on the test drive day. When you want all-out power, you have to literally step on the pedal to get it instantly; even pressing it quickly to the floor like you would in a fuel-burner you'll be breaking the national speed limit before your sole touches the Model S' interior carpet. That's half a function of the fact that the Model S is electric, and half a function of the fact that said Model S P85+ has 310 kilowatts of electromotive force just waiting to be used.
Braking is similarly odd. To do 90 per cent of the braking in the Model S, you simply let off the accelerator to reduce your speed. Engine braking — in that electric motor sense, at least — slows the car down. Of course, you still have piston-applied aramid-composed brake pads, calipers and discs should you need them. To be honest, apart from a few overly enthusiastic tests of the Model S' capabilities (practiced on a closed private test track, obviously), you very rarely need to actually apply the brakes, and even then you basically never need to apply them with any substantial force.
The steering weight can be adjusted on the Model S — obviously, it's an electrically assisted system as is everything else on the car — in three increments from Comfort to Sport. Sport is pleasantly weighted, and is responsive and accurate enough to throw the car around surprisingly effectively if you so choose to. Coming from a smaller more nimble car I found the Model S the most fun to drive in Sport, but if you're just travelling between work and home or the shops, then you'll probably want one of the two more relaxed setings.
There's no getting past the fact that the Model S weighs twice what my car does, but it hides that weight so well. This 2100-plus kilogram sports saloon has the vast majority of its weight planted squarely between its four wheels — on the skateboard chassis, the motor is mounted between the rears (and up front too on the dual-motor P85D), all the ancillaries are between the fronts, the battery sits low on the flat floor and everything above is the passenger safety cell and exterior panels. Because of that incredibly low centre of gravity, you can throw the car around quite a bit before you feel body roll, which itself is compensated for somewhat if you happen to have a car specced with air suspension.
The ride quality of the Model S is a mixed bag. The particular car I test drove was the sporty P85+, rolling on 21-inch rims and with the optional adjustable air suspension. Over especially bumpy roads — the track up to North Head in Sydney, where I snapped some photos, has potholes and speed bumps aplenty, as does glorious Parramatta Road — you do feel the car shift around quite firmly, in that it's-a-luxury-sports-car way, but you're never bounced around in your seat uncomfortably. Owners have suggested the 19s are better for ride comfort (and overall range, with a five per cent boost in maximum distance alleged), but your mileage may vary.
People generally wonder whether an electric car is silent, and the answer for the Model S is mostly. Apart from the road noise that I mentioned before — the stiff low-profile tyres on the 21-inch rims play a big part in that — the main noise you hear is a very faint whine from the Model S' rear electric motor and power-generating circuitry. Stamp on the accelerator and that whine becomes an urgent electrical whirr as the motor spins into overdrive. Mostly, though, you just hear the same whoosh of air rushing past, that you feel in your body, as the car moves more and more rapidly.
One thing that can't be encapsulated by talking steering weight and acceleration factors and braking is just how weird and wonderful the Tesla Model S is to drive. The electric-ness of the whole thing makes you feel like you're piloting a spaceship, moving levers and dials and feeding in power to navigate around your surroundings. Maybe the novelty wears off — it probably does — but for a day-long drive, as an avid driver of normal cars, it feels really special.
The Bottom Line
Can I buy one? No. (I can't afford one.) Can you buy one? I don't know. Should you buy one? Yes.
The Model S is a very special vehicle, and it feels like a very important vehicle at the same time. It's all-electric — no emissions, no guilt, no filling up at the petrol bowser every week and being a slave to ever-rising oil prices. It's fun, if initially odd, to drive. It's also a luxury car, which is always nice.
It's an expensive car, too, and an expensive beta test at that. You're not getting a finished product, you're getting a work in progress, and for some people that's not at all acceptable. For the Model S' prospective customers, though — the early adopters, technologically savvy, interested in the future and invested in the company's philosophy — it's perfect.