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Why driving the Tesla Model S makes older reviews meaningless

Tesla founder Elon Musk insists Model S is the world's best car. He could be six months from being right.


Today I became the first writer at Torque News to drive the Tesla Model S. The reason we begin this review with that is to emphasize that this car is rare. More accurately, was rare. Like most of my colleagues, I have driven all the electric cars for sale in the US (including the now-defunct Fisker Karma), and also a few that are not yet released for general sale, like BMW’s electric 3 Series.

The manufacturers usually make cars available to the expanded automotive press in a couple of different ways, but Tesla has not done so. That Tesla has not done the type of media test drives that all other manufacturers do should be no surprise, since they don’t do anything else in the typical fashion. And maybe they are better off because of that.

Here is the one-sentence review of driving the Model S: "I expected the car to be excellent and it was." Having driven many of the cars in its class including those by Audi, BMW, Lexus, Cadillac, and others, I knew what to expect and the Model S certainly delivers. Before we dive into the details we should disclose that our time in the S was that of a test drive, like that a new car buyer would have, but a little longer in duration. This was not a full test since again, Tesla has only offered the car to a dozen or so of the largest publications like the Wall St. Journal, Autoweek, and the like to do full testing. To say that those tests were controversial for Tesla would be accurate.

Based on my time with the car, and the Tesla employees, it is clear that so much has changed in the past 6 months that reading those old reviews is worthless. In the coming 6 months that is likely to be true again.

Here is the first revelation. The car I drove is for sale. Had any of the Tesla Store visitors in attendance when I was there today had $105,000.00 they could have bought it and become one of the 200 or so Tesla owners in all of New England. There were a couple other Model S sedans for sale as well. Most buyers like to order their car, and I confirmed this with a Tesla Product Specialist, but they have inventory too now. Who knew? Six months ago only a couple thousand Model S vehicles had been produced and the reservation list was literally tens of thousands of customers long. Now you can visit the Tesla store and buy one from stock.

Driving the Tesla Model S
My test car was a performance model with the largest battery pack. If you want to be dazzled by facts and figures Torque News has a huge archive of those stories. Let’s instead talk about how this car drives and what it might be like to live with one in the real world. As you set off, the accelerator immediately becomes your focus. When you push it the car it goes forward nicely. “Throttle” modulation is perfect. Press and you get what you want, not a lurch or a dead pedal. However, when you lift off the car slows dramatically. The regeneration system is always there. One becomes used to it, but it is unusual. Shortly into your drive, you begin to adapt and you use it to slow the car as you might with the brake. Having driven all of the electric cars in the market, and also dozens of hybrids, I would say that the brakes on this Model S are simply the best of them all in terms of feel. I never felt any of the non-linearity that all those other cars have. How refreshing.

While I drove the Product Specialist with me tapped the tablet and she adjusted the steering through its three sensitivity settings. All three settings had their own distinct feel. The feel of the suspension is not adjustable as it is in most cars at this price point. Great news, it does not need it. Even though my tester had the whopping 21-inch optional wheels it was buttery smooth over bumps and even when crossing railroad tracks. Yet, when I took an exit ramp aggressively the car barely leaned and it felt glued to the road. The suspension on my performance model self- adjusted for height. It lowers the car on the highway and it raises the car on side roads. It was raining when I drove yet the rear-wheel drive car never spun a wheel despite its insane torque. The electric motor, which is about the size and shape as a rolled up sleeping bag, hangs out over the rear axle. The weight of that and the massively heavy battery pack glues this car to the ground. As far as I know, this is the only car for sale in North America except the Porsche 911 that has its motor located behind the rear axle.

The car is very big, but it drives smaller. The view forward is good, to the sides and rear marginal. On one open stretch of road I was able to dip deeply into the accelerator and the car launched with the same urgency a Cadillac CTS-V might, but with more linearity. There is no hesitation before the big push, nor does it give you an ever-increasing rate of acceleration unless you give it more pedal. Having driven many performance cars I was impressed with the civility of the Model S. For a road car this machine seems to really get it right. It feels sophisticated. I know the numbers, and this car can hang with anything on a public road. Period. What set it apart for me was that it felt grown-up. No drama, no roar, just whoosh and you are at the next turn.

Tesla Model S Interior and Design
Inside the Model S all the things you touch or touch you, feel really, really good. For sure the car has some unique design elements. It is a column shift car. The gear shifter is where you expect the headlight stalk to be. There are two stalks on the left of the steering wheel. Those have everything else. It takes some getting used to because the blinkers are not where you expect. By the end of my drive, I had all figured out. The biggest shocker is the ginormous tablet that is mounted in the dash. I knew it would be there, but actually seeing it, and using it is a huge wake-up call. This is the future of all expensive cars. It makes the dinky little screens in other cars, particularly the ones that sort of pop up out of the dash (yeah we mean you Audi), look simply ridiculous. The seat was very comfortable and adjustment is logical and where I like it to be, at the bottom left of the driver’s seat. The interior of the Model S is very classy. My tester had the “upgraded leather” according to my Tesla Product Specialist. The only thing I noticed missing was cooled seats, which are not an option. Perforated leather with cooling is now commonly included on cars costing literally a third this much and it is a very useful feature.

The back seat of the car is very big. I am 6 feet tall and I had no trouble sitting behind the driver’s seat when it was adjusted for me. There is a large frunk (front trunk) and the car has a hatchback style, so the rear area is also very big. Despite whatever the official measurements might be this is simply the largest 4-door sedan in terms of usable luggage and storage space. The Frunk is almost perfectly sized for a spare and it is such a shame that there isn’t one. The tires are not run-flats, there is no space-saver spare, and there is no standard emergency Fix-A-Flat kit. I asked the Service Manager about this and he told me the plan for flats is 24-hour roadside assistance. He even said that the roadside assistance will bring a new tire on a rim to a stranded driver to get them back on the road. However, that won’t be as much help as a spare if you are on vacation hours from the nearest Tesla Service Center. Nobody else is going to have the 21-inch tire in stock that car takes, so you will have to trust Tesla will be able to help you.

What’s Missing From the Model S
In terms of content, the Tesla has so much unique character, like the huge screen, that it really sells itself. However, drivers expecting adaptive cruise control and now common driver aids like city-braking-assist will be surprised to find out the Model S does not have this stuff. There are not even the little sensors that tell you how close you are to a parking garage wall for example. A Tesla employee told me these were coming, but missing content like this makes it hard to say the Model S is the best car in the world, which is what founder Elon Musk insists it is. It could easily be, but it isn’t, and not because it is driven electrically. Check back in 6 months and I bet it will all be there.

What Did Not Work
Two things on the model S I tested did not work. The back-up camera was wet from rain, and therefore it was non-functional. This is what I mean when I say check back in six months. All other car manufacturers have this issue solved. Many use a hydrophobic film on the camera glass. Some others, like VW, hide the camera under their logo and then tip the logo only when the car is in reverse, so the camera is always ready to go. Tesla will fix this, and stuff like this, but as of today, they have not.

The only actual test I gave the Model S it failed was the voice-activated Nav. I didn’t plan to test that because in my opinion writers who bash the Nav systems in cars they barely know are idiots. It takes time and study to properly operate a modern infotainment system. However, I had a Product Specialist with me. I asked her to show me how to type in a destination. We picked a school in my town as an example. She suggested we use the voice commands instead of the keypad and showed me how to do it. It didn’t work for me. We tried again, this time more carefully. It didn’t work. So I suggested we try Town Hall in case the school name we gave was wrong or updated. This time she operated the voice command system herself. It didn’t work. My 3-year-old Lexus has voice commands, as does my aftermarket system in my other car, and I don’t use them. So I am not bothered that the Tesla Model S voice command system failed this one test. You might be, so check how it works for you. I bet the system was fine and we were having a mental block.

One thing I do like very much about the Tesla infotainment system is that it allows inputs while moving. It also has a great “History” button that is always displayed. So if you frequently search for the closest Starbucks for example, you only need to tap “History.” Simple. To get the navigation package on your Model S you have to add $3,750.00 to the base price of almost $70,000.00. It is not included, but at least you can get it.

Forget About Range
This is an electric car so we have to talk about range. Actually, no we don’t because the Tesla Model S can easily do whatever you need it to do. The one I was in had a conservative minimum range of about 265 miles according to my Tesla co-pilot (and the EPA), and many drivers report much more than that. Over 300 miles is common according to her. I never talk about the specifications of an EV’s battery in my reviews (How many reviews of gas-powered cars focus on the fuel tank size in gallons?), and I am not going to dive deep here. Suffice it to say if you need unlimited driving range, keep a gasoline car just like almost every single Tesla owner does.

Like owners of Porsche 911s or an Audi A7s, the folks owning Teslas all have crossovers or sport ‘utes at home. Let’s not pretend otherwise. So if you are heading out on an endless journey, and simply cannot tolerate driving just 300 miles in one day (about 5 or 6 hours) before plugging your Tesla in at night, take the other car. I listen closely to the Teslarati who tell me about the Supercharger network and I still don’t get it. There is only one in all of New England, and it is barely even in New England (Milford CT is a distant suburb of New York City, which is not part of New England). They could build 10 times that number in New England and it is unclear to me why I would ever use it. I’d just plug the Model S in at home at night. Who drives more than 5 hours in a single day? Teslas can plug in and get more charge at night anywhere there is electricity available. Airports already have chargers the Tesla can use. To me, it seems like these special charging places are an admission that the car has some kind of handicap, and it really doesn’t. B

e aware that the original entry level Model S was dropped because its range was not practical for Tesla.

The Final Word On the Model S (For Now)
As my accompanying opinion piece will clarify, I was a skeptic that any electric car could ever be equal to any gas-powered car in its price-class. I remain a skeptic that this car is a value compared to anything else in its class despite the huge incentives and weird Tesla lease calculator. In terms of the basic vehicle, there is no doubt that the Model S is a serious performance competitor to any car in the $70K to $130K price range. In six months it may just be the one to beat as the company and its vehicle continue to mature and as the cars add more content.

Author’s note: This was not a stealth test drive. I offered my business card to all the Tesla Employees I met and told them I was an auto writer at check-in. The event was open to the general public. Of which I am a lifetime member.