My Drive this week was the Tesla Model S, a sedan running only on electricity by a relatively new company based in Silicon Valley in the USA. The Model S is as revolutionary as they get, and in 15 years of testing cars I don’t think I’ve quite driven anything like this car, but let me get to it in a moment. The name “Tesla” is one that’s only recently begun circulating around Australia, but Tesla Motors has been around for a little longer than that, being founded in California back in 2003. They’ve been working only on electric cars, starting with the Lotus-based Tesla Roadster they released around five years ago now. However, the Model S I’m talking about today is the company’s own completely in-house design, and for a car company with only 12 years of experience, you have to marvel at just what they’ve created here.
Just take the exterior design for instance. At first glance, it’s a large, sleekly-styled saloon that looks like your average luxury sedan, but the door handles appear to be chrome-coloured parts that are completely buried in the doors themselves. There doesn’t appear to be any way of operating them until you move closer to the car, where they gradually slide out, now ready for you to pull on them and open the door. Tesla explains that having the handles completely buried in the doors improves aerodynamic drag, reducing power consumption. Very high-tech.
Once you step inside the Model-S, your attention goes to the massive 17 inch LCD touchscreen built into the centre of the dashboard. This vertically-oriented screen is the control centre of the car, because everything is operated from this screen. The door locks, the headlights, the climate control system, everything. And while the car is almost completely missing any buttons altogether, I have to say, this way of doing things is just so intuitive. The top of the screen has status icons, just like your smartphone. There’s a Bluetooth status icon; tap it and you get the Bluetooth control screen, where pairing your phone is the simplest process I’ve seen in any car. There’s also the name of who’s driving the car; tap here and you get the profile control screen. You can set up profiles for everyone driving the car, and it’s only a matter of changing this profile to have seat, mirror and steering wheel position memory change, as well as every other personalisation setting change for that person.
Satellite navigation is standard and it’s based on Google Maps, although the navigation itself is provided by Tesla. You just have to begin typing your destination or address to get it to come up, and once you select it, bang, your navigation starts. It’s that much easier than competing systems, and it also will show the location of any registered charging stations, even factoring them into really long journeys where you might not have enough energy to make it. I’ll get to charging stations later, but having said this, the nav system can do with a bit more customisation. For example, you can’t tell it to specifically avoid tollways, which is a shame. But really, once you’ve got Google Maps up on a 17 inch screen, it’s hard to go back.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how Google Maps works without an internet connection, that’s because the car actually has its own one powered by Telstra’s 3G network, which Tesla says is free with the car for the first four years. This connectivity also allows Tesla to provide software updates for the whole car over the internet, just like your smartphone. This means software problems can be quickly fixed, and even new features can be added to the car over time. Tesla has already promised autopilot-related updates to the cruise control down the track, and I’ve been told newer cars will get faster 4G connections soon too. Amazing.
The driver’s instrument cluster is also one big LCD screen which shows a lot of information and can be reconfigured. You have both digital and analogue speedos and you can display trip information, energy consumption, the media player and even navigation info when you have a destination set.
I can go on and on here but I’ll mention one other thing I like about the screens – the attention to detail. Whenever you change something related to the car such as the headlights, you have a picture of the Model S on-screen to show you how the car looks as you change it. What’s great is that the picture of your particular car is exactly the way you’ve customised it – the car’s colour, the alloy wheels, if there’s a sunroof or not, all of it. It’s not just a random placeholder picture, it’s your car. These minor touches are everywhere to be found in the Model S, and it makes the experience special.
Ok, let’s get to the rest of the interior. It’s huge. With the electric motor in the rear, there’s no transmission tunnels or other mechanicals so there’s loads of legroom both front and back. Looking at luggage storage space, there’s a massive 744 litres of storage space in the rear boot, and you can drop the back seats to go up to more than double that capacity. Notice I said rear boot. Yes, there’s a front one too. There’s no engine or anything up front, so that space has been repurposed into a small 150 litre storage compartment under the bonnet. Beautiful.
Now let’s get to the driving. My test car was the 85 variant, which refers to a rear-wheel electric drivetrain with an 85 kWh battery, good for an official 502 km of range, although more realistically you’ll get just under 400 km out of it, still very practical for an electric car, or any car for that matter. For comparison, there’s a smaller and cheaper 70 kWh battery, as well as a larger 90 kWh battery available. The rear motor produces 270 kilowatts of power and 440 Newton-metres of torque in a direct drive configuration, meaning there’s no gearbox at all. It’s good for 0-100 km in 5.6 seconds.
In a word, wow. The amazing thing about electric torque is how instant, linear and consistent it is. Put your foot down in the Model S and the car will respond by nailing you into your seat in a way that no petrol or diesel engine can match. That’s how strong, how ferocious, and also how instant the acceleration is. If you need to suddenly overtake a car for whatever reason, I can tell you now that with the Model S you can do it with confidence because it will respond instantly and move quickly – it’s that impressive. It also does it in almost complete silence – the drivetrain is so refined that, even under full acceleration, the most you hear is the small whine of loads of electrical current being dropped into the motor, but dial things down and drive normally and it goes silent. If you listen really carefully you’ll hear a very slight hum at certain speeds, but otherwise, nothing. When they say silence is golden, they were probably talking about this car. Of course, the car itself is also soundproofed quite well, with road noise barely intruding into the car at all. The ride itself is a little too sporty however, being a little firm with small corrugations mostly transmitted into the cabin even at low speeds. It’s here that the Model S could use a little more work.
Energy consumption averaged out around 21 kWh per 100 kilometres, so with an 85 kWh battery you will get a 400 kilometre or so range as I mentioned earlier. If you have to travel further than this in one trip, Tesla operates a network of charging stations it calls Superchargers, which can top up your car with a few hundred kilometres of range in around half an hour – enough time for a coffee break. The company is in the process of building out this network on major highways around Australia, starting with the east coast, and best of all, the electricity they supply is free for the foreseeable future. Tesla has also got agreements with quite a few hotels and other facilities to supply charging infrastructure for Model S owners, so I think you’ll be hard pressed to get any range anxiety whatsoever in this car.
The Tesla Model S starts from $113,152 dollars for the cheapest 70 variant, and quickly works its way up from there with several options to choose from.
I have to say, it’s an absolutely amazing car that is extremely competitive with other luxury carmaker offerings, and it will be very interesting to see whatever else Tesla Motors conjures up in the future. That’s it for me this week.
August 8th 2015