Tesla will begin deliveries to UK Model S customers in summer 2013, with a right-hand drive version of the electric limo due to follow in late 2014. The top-level Signature trim model will start at £83,000 and will only be available with the flagship 85kWh battery that we've tested below. The entry-level model, capable of a 160 mile range from its 40kWh battery, will be available for approximately £50,000. All versions will be eligible for the UK's £5000 government grant.
But is the Tesla Model S really a credible alternative to cars like the Audi A7 Sportback and Mercedes CLS? Read on for CAR's full review.
Electric cars aren't catching on – is the Tesla any different?
An electric car isn’t meant to feel like this. We come around the slip road onto the autobahn and immediately see the round white sign with five black diagonal lines that indicates there’s no speed limit. So I floor the Tesla Model S. The response is, well... electric. Supercar acceleration from the 416bhp motor, eerie quiet and total composure as the speedo leaps three digits at a time to keep pace with the thrust until the electronic limiter kicks in at an indicated 213km/h, or 132mph.
The last few months have been interesting for Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk. His Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station. He opened the first of the Supercharger fast-charging stations that aim to make the Model S as usable across the US as across town. He brought the Model S to Europe for the first time, letting us witness the full, extraordinary range of its dynamic abilities in Germany, and collected Car of the Year gongs from two of America’s biggest car magazines. But Tesla was also branded a ‘loser’ by Mitt Romney in the US Presidential debates. Jeez, Mitt! Did you drive one?
So is the Tesla Model S the car of the future, today?
The Model S isn’t perfect. It won’t sell in vast numbers: around 25,000 each year, with 7000 in Europe. It will be expensive, with prices expected to range from £50,000 to £80,000 when right-hand drive deliveries start later this year. But it’s also the single most significant American car for decades. Built in Silicon Valley, it concentrates so many innovations in one new design that it might be remembered alongside the Model T and the Mini as an automotive game-changer.
Just why is the Tesla Model S so promising?
Until now, most EVs have been modified petrol cars. The Model S is so significant (and drives so well) because it is one of very few cars to be designed specifically as an EV, and is arguably the only one to take full advantage of the opportunities that offers. Viewed from the side, the electric motor and invertor are contained within the profile of the rear wheels, and the battery – just 10cm thick – sits under the cabin and between the axles. So other than the suspension turrets, the car’s mechanical package is as flat as a skateboard, and this brings a whole bunch of unexpected benefits.
Tesla design chief Franz von Holzhausen made the Model S good looking but conventional.
But, that flat drivetrain means future electric sports cars can have wild styling. An EV also needs less cooling, and the fewer open grilles in the front combined with the totally flat underbody made possible by the lack of exhausts make the Model S the most aerodynamic car on sale today, with a drag coefficient of 0.24. Seems a pity that von Holzhausen has bowed to convention and included a dummy front grille.
Does that hefty battery pack reduce space inside?
No, it's actually more space efficient than an internal combustion drivetrain. It makes for a flat cabin floor – no transmission tunnel – and a huge boot. Under the boot floor where the fuel tank would usually be, there’s a deep recess for more bags, or legroom for kids in the two optional rear-facing child-seats. And under the bonnet there’s no engine – just another huge front trunk, or ‘frunk’, as Tesla calls it. This also makes the Model S safer in a head-on collision, with a front-end that is virtually all crash structure with no big lump of iron trying to break into the cabin.
I've spotted the Tesla's enormous touchscreen dashboard...
Inside, the vast 43cm touchscreen that dominates the central console controls virtually all the car’s functions with a swipe; it makes your iPad look dim, small and slow and is astonishingly easy to navigate. You can split the huge screen any way you like, swiping functions like Google maps or a web browser down from a menu at the top. To open the colossal panoramic sunroof – Tesla claims that only the Audi Q7’s is bigger – you just swipe it back as far as you want.
In the vehicle set-up screen, there’s an image of your exact car: open a door or switch on the lights and it shows on the on-screen car. The reversing camera is high-definition, and Spinal Tap fans will appreciate Musk’s insistence that the audio volume goes all the way to 11. So much control has been concentrated in the touchscreen that there are only two switches on the central console – for the hazards, and the release for the glovebox.
And just like an iPad, your Model S gets wireless software updates. Tesla has already issued an update to allow the drivetrain to ‘creep’ in traffic, something that would require serious workshop time in a conventional car. This is revolutionary: now your car can be saved from obsolescence during the course of its lifetime.
Cabin quality is fine, and the Model S shares a bespoke, low-volume, hand-made feel with the Fisker Karma; there are none of the big, expensive mouldings you get in saloons that sell by the million. The transmission and wiper/indicator stalks are by Tesla’s partner Mercedes – no problem there. There’s no need to start the car; once you’re in the seat with the key in your pocket, it reasonably assumes you want to drive. The touchscreen lets you select from three levels of steering assistance and two levels of regenerative braking – among 20 other parameters which can be stored in ten driver settings – but otherwise you just pull the Merc stalk down into ‘Drive’, and go.
How does the Tesla Model S drive?
Of course, an electric car doesn’t drive like anything else, but the difference is more pronounced in the Tesla, its top-spec motor producing up to 416bhp and delivering all its torque instantly for a 4.4sec sprint to 60mph. The transmission and brakes are very different, too: only one gear means that surge is seamless, and the way the electric motor recovers energy when you lift off the throttle means that if you’re anticipating properly you seldom need to shift your foot to the brake, rendering the driving experience even more relaxing, and even more different to a standard car. Not all versions will be this quick: batteries with 40 and 60kWh will be offered at lower prices; their range will be around half and three-quarters that of our 85kWh respectively, but they’ll still feel swift at 6.5 and 5.9sec to 60mph.
The Model S has a centre of gravity just 45cm from the ground, so despite its relatively portly 2108kg – the structure is mostly aluminium but the batteries weigh 450kg – it handles astonishingly well, with little lean under cornering or dive under braking, impressive stability at top speed, and fine, controlled ride at regular speeds. It isn’t entirely silent, but the general level of refinement eclipses almost anything else on the road.
So the Model S is fast. It handles. Its official US EPA-certified range of 265 miles with a five-hour, 240v charge is achievable, and it is a genuinely ground-breaking new car. We think we know who the real loser is – Mitt.