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Tesla Model S Test Drive

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The Model S has gotten some great press lately.  It’s been lauded as ‘the safest car ever tested’ by the US Government and it garnered the highest score of any car ever tested by Consumer Reports.  Here’s my take:

On January 12th 2013, we travelled to White Plains NY to test drive the Tesla Model S.  Thanks to Elon Musk’s steady handed leadership and wonderfully transparent marketing, Tesla had been on my radar as a probable next car for some time.  The allure of  its staggering mechanical simplicity, instant power delivery, silent operation and promise of a full ‘gas tank’ every morning had won me over before before ever seeing one firsthand.  While visiting Washington state , we’d popped into the Tesla’s Seattle mall showroom to inquire about a test drive.  Turned out there was a 2 week waiting list so we sat in the demo and pushed its buttons.  A disembodied powertrain was also there for examination and seeing the car’s entire inner workings there on the floor was quite inspiring to someone who’d spent months working beneath a more conventional (and far more complicated) internal combustion design.

Tesla Model S Powertrain

Battery floor plate; motor/transmission in back

 

The Test Drive

A few weeks later we arrived at a more local Tesla dealership and saw some road time with the top end performance version of the Model S.  It had the biggest 85kWh battery, huge 21 inch wheels and the trick air suspension option.  After getting aquainted with the seats and mirrors, I wanted to see the air suspension in action.  With a little fiddling on the screen, you can adjust your ride height between 3 presets depending on how smooth or bump ridden the roads are.   It takes a few seconds for the air pumps to manage this and they can vary the height on the fly based on your speed – which a is a nice feature for the highway.  Another area of adjustment is the ‘parking lot behavior’ of the car – you can dial in the ‘idle creep’ characteristic of an automatic transmission [of all things!] so when you let off the brake pedal, the car begins to inch forward.  The big onscreen menu has lots of little tweaks like this, allowing you to tailor your Model S into whatever’s familiar.  Switch into reverse and this screen becomes a backup camera, which I begrudgingly used to pull out of the charger area.   A downside of the attractive high-backed body design is practically non-existent rear visibility.

Threading through a parking garage reminds you just how big and wide this car is.  I’m generally a fan of small, nimble cars so the initial rolling impression with the Model S was ‘whoa this is too big’.  During our first maneuvers, I noticed that the placement of the blinker stalk was disorienting and even by the end of the test drive I was still using the cruise control stalk to change lanes.  Once we were out in the open and light had a chance to flood the cabin, the sheer vastness of the interior was revealed.  The Tesla salesman was in the passenger seat, not close, but rather nearby, and Chelsea was a ways away in the back seat.   The far A pillar seemed out of reach and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was hearing echoes of our words.  The inner vastness might not have seemed so strange in an SUV, but in a car this low it was striking.  Addendum: despite all the roominess, Chelsea mentioned that her hair was grazing the rear roof even after moving to the center seat; she’s 5’7″ but frequently claims to ‘have a long torso’.

Around town we got lots of looks from the sidewalks and other drivers as the car zipped along smoothly and quietly.  On the road it did not not feel as big as it did in the parking labyrinth, but it did feel rather soft and wallowy.  The salesman suggested switching the steering and suspension modes mode to ‘sport’ and voila – the 4600lb Tesla felt taut – just like that.  Another correctable peculiarity was the regenerative braking.   When enabled, letting off the gas pedal lets the electrtic motor turn into an electric generator, which essentially feels like stomping on the brakes.  Jump into the customization menus and you can dial this back by degrees.  I found a comfortable compromise that mimicked the feel of a manual transmission.

Soon we’d reached the highway.  The salesman had plotted our course on the Tesla’s navigation screen and looking at the highway stretch I knew I wouldn’t have much time to dance.  We ripped down the on ramp and arrived in the far left lane without drama.   Impressively there had been no perceptible wheel slip OR signs of anti-wheel slip throttle intervention thanks to very well designed traction control system.  Next it was time to slow down to 60mph and punch it.  Much is said about the smooth and seamless power delivery and I have to agree it is very pleasant and endless-feeling.  It was not as crazy or otherworldly as I expected, but keep in mind this car weighs over 4600 lbs and contained two other passengers at the time.  Anyhow, coming from a somewhat savage turbocharged daily driver, my impression is that the top end Tesla’s power is quite refined and ‘just right’.  Thanks to the sport settings and auto-hunkering-down of the air suspension at speed, aggressive lane changing was no sweat and the car felt poised and willing at all times through a gamut of not entirely legal speeds.  Getting ahead of rival motorists was easier than ever, as no planning or downshifting was required.  The only real caveat was the irritating lack of rear visibility, especially when glancing at the blindspots, which meant a lot more mirror checking than I was used too.

The cabin was not as quiet as I’d supposed on the highway.  Although the motor and transmission noise was minimal, the wind noise at 80mph was all the more prominent.  As cars go it was quiet on the highway – especially when talking about full throttle – but it was nowhere near the serene high speed silence I had naively hoped for.   Soon our time on the highway was up and and I threw the car into the deep S curves of the off ramp, hoping to put the model S off balance and hear some tire noise.  Nothing.   Nor did it even feel ungainly.  The car is set up very well.

On the way back Chelsea drove and we listened to some streaming music and browsed some of the performance and efficiency metrics captured by the onboard computer.  All very nice.  I took over again for the parking garage.  Parallel parking and backing the car in were not comfortable due to its size and the fact that you can’t see behind it.  I’m sure you get used to the backup camera, but I’d really prefer using my eyes.

Pros:

  • Plenty of seamless power
  • Crisp, composed handling
  • Lapidary, clean sheet full-EV design with all the accordant benefits

Con:

  • Too big
  • Bad rear visibility
  • Why is the blinker stalk where cruise control should be?

The first two cons are flat out dealbreakers for me.  Parking the Model S out of harm’s way would be a nightmare.   Not only do you need an open  parking space – it needs to be huge.  Otherwise I suspect door dings would be a bi-weekly ritual and aluminum dent removal is not as easy as it is with steel.  A workaround might be to carry some orange traffic cones in the cavernous trunk and deploy them around the car when parked.  The car’s hefty weight also necessarily means an increased wear rate on all friction components e.g. tires, brakes and bushings.  Also, good rear blindspot-check visibility is the difference between confident aggressive driving and ‘fingers crossed’ aggressive driving.  That is not a compromise I am willing to make.

It appears that part of – if not THE – reason for the Tesla’s titanic dimensions is ‘right-sizing’.  Given that some of the main design goals were fossil-fuel-esque range and performance, there is a certain battery size which makes sense for that goal and a certain chassis size which makes sense given that battery size.  Hence, the Tesla Model S is ‘right sized’ accordingly.  Be that as it may, I eagerly await the day when battery technology allows Tesla to make a smaller ~3500lb version with the same range and performance characteristics;  I will buy one of those in a heartbeat.



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