Tesla Model S: we take a ride

The pure electric sedan certainly looks the part, but what’s it like in motion?

By Will Dron on October 12, 2011 5:46 AM

The pure electric Tesla Model S is a gorgeous looking car, with shades of Jaguar XF or Aston Martin Rapide. During its long development Tesla Motors has been teasing us with bits of information, so when TheChargingPoint.com was invited to attend the Model S unveil in Fremont, California we were looking forward to finally getting behind the wheel. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait even longer for that – Tesla was only letting journalists ride in the car, not drive. Disappointing.

But there is an understandable reason for not letting the hacks take the driving seat just yet… the cars available right now are what Tesla calls a Beta version – basically a pre-production testbed model – and there is a very limited number of these vehicles about right now. The risk of a right-foot-happy car scribe planting a priceless Model S into a wall was a risk Tesla just isn’t willing to take.

Also, Tesla can still fettle the car’s dynamics and the safety systems such as side and curtain airbags are not yet operational, so it’s too soon for a definitive road test. When the 160-mile ($57,400), 230-mile ($67,400) and 300-mile ($77,400) production versions, not to mention the Performance edition (price TBC) are ready, we’ll get behind the wheel. But until then, what did we learn from our short ride? Well, a surprising amount, as it turns out. Let’s break it down…

It’s Tardis-like inside

The use of space inside the Tesla Model S is remarkably clever. My 6’5” (198cm) frame fit quite comfortably in the back, with room for two more adults beside me. Legroom is abundant and headroom is decent. And the car is arranged into an innovative 5+2 seating arrangement, meaning five adults and two small people – for which, read ‘children’ – who get their own seats in the boot (trunk).

Three adults in the back? Amazingly, we reckon it's not going to be uncomfortable.

We were initially very sceptical about how practical this would be, but seeing it in person it’s clear that two kids can be carried very comfortably in the back. With decent space in the main cabin, exactly how many customers will want the additional child seats is unclear, but it is a clever idea.

Yes, they really did fit two child seats in the boot, making this a genuine '5+2' seater

So with your children stowed in the boot, where would the luggage go, we hear you ask. Under the bonnet (hood), of course. And the Porsche 911-style storage space between the front wheels is impressively large – at 8.1 cubic feet, it was spacious enough for a Tesla employee to be smuggled on stage during the customer presentation we attended.

There's 8.1 cubic feet of luggage space under the bonnet - enough to smuggle a whole human

If there are just two passengers, folding the rear seats down gives an additional 51.8 cubic feet of luggage.

In short, Dr Who would be impressed with the Model S’s interior space.

Build quality is excellent, even on the Beta car

With prototype vehicles you expect some shut lines to be off and some interior materials to be sub-standard. In fact, the beta version looked terrific. OK, so there were no belt buckles in the back of the car, which led to a comedy moment when I and the journalist sat to my right started sliding around in the car during the slalom test (see the video below), but the finish is already impressive – quality materials, expertly fitted.

It’s a quiet ride… but the motor sounds good at speed

One major difference between the Model S and Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, is the interior noise. Or, should we say, lack of it. We all know electric cars are quiet compared with petrol and especially diesel equivalents, but the hard top of the Model S and the extra attention to sound deadening means it is leagues ahead of the Roadster in terms of noise.

Put your foot down, however, and you will notice a rather distinctive note from the 362hp electric motor. As described in the video above, to my ear it was more reminiscent of a refined and muted petrol engine than anything you will have heard before. Don’t think ‘milk float’ and don’t think ‘raw jet engine’ – it’s altogether more agreeable than either.

The road-holding is good and possibly even excellent (we need driving time to confirm that)

The Model S has electronically-controlled air suspension. That means it can sense load weight and adjust the firmness accordingly and will automatically hunker down at high speeds to reduce the drag from air flowing over the car – clever stuff, and a feature on many high-end cars.

Road holding from the air suspension is good, but we need to drive it ourselves

But it also goes round bends with real poise. During the slalom test the car displayed high levels of balance and grip, confirmed by the worried looks on the faces of the two un-belted passengers in the back as the car started weaving left and right. While we can’t give it a proper assessment from a driver’s point of view, we are expecting great things based on this initial taster.

It’s got plenty of power

The spec sheet says 0-60mph in 5.6 seconds for the 300-mile Model S (the Model S comes with a 160-mile or 230-mile battery, depending on budget), and we have no reason to doubt it. Power is ample, and puts the Model S firmly in the same league as petrol rivals like the BMW 5 Series… in fact it slots in between the BMW 535i SE and twin turbo 550i SE V8 in acceleration terms (6.0 and 5.0 seconds respectively). Our short run down the Tesla test track straight saw us reach 75mph in no time at all. Which is good.

But there will also be a hot Model S available that will manage 0-60mph in under 4.5 seconds – that’s Porsche 911 Carrera-beating power, which we like even more.

The infotainment system is a revelation

TheChargingPoint.com has always been a little dubious over the usefulness of a large, tablet PC-style centre console in a car – it just seems a bit fiddly, and nice, tactile buttons in a set layout appears a much more intuitive system. Besides, it’s a tried and tested approach.

But the Model S’s large touchscreen is going to make gadget freaks tremble with excitement. Not only is it large, adaptable and clear, but it is fully internet enabled, meaning you can browse web pages if you want – we were shown the New York Times homepage during our ride. You can also devote the full 17 inches to a satellite view map of your location if you wish. The whole thing is a world away from anything we’ve seen before – versatile and adaptable. Whether it will tempt the Jaguar and Aston Martin crowd remains to be seen, but many of the reservation holders were as impressed as we were.

The 17 inch touchscreen is versatile and surprisingly user-friendly - think iPad intuitiveness

But the web connectivity doesn’t end there. It has internet radio, meaning you can listen to pretty much any station on the planet. Even better, Tesla recognises the fact that people are increasingly streaming music to home computers rather than buying CDs or downloading MP3s, so the Model S can stream music on demand. It facilitates what CEO Elon Musk described to us as, “Any music, anywhere, any time.” The music streaming service it’s connected to will allow you to choose related artists as well; want to listen to music similar to Bob Marley? No problem.

It’s voice activated, too.

No airbags in the Beta version, but expect first-class safety in final car

One reason for not letting journos loose in the car on the roads was that some of the safety devices are not yet active on the Model S Beta – as mentioned above, the rear seat belts are not fully fitted and the eight airbags due on the final vehicles were not installed. However, expect all the usual safety devices and electronics on the final car.

The stripped down Model S on the Fremont assembly line

Built from the ground up as an electric car (as opposed to being based on an existing petrol or diesel model), the designers created a unique chassis that positions the battery cells in a flat pack below the floor of the car, between the wheels. That has allowed the extra luggage space at the front so the area available to absorb a head-on impact is vast, with no large, heavy masses like an engine or battery to intrude on the passenger compartment.

The car also comes with traction control, power steering, stability control and ABS, but that’s as you’d expect from a car of this class.

In conclusion…

We were mightily impressed by what we saw and will be front-and-centre for an early first drive. Will this be the most amazing pure electric car ever? Watch this space.