The dim outline of Santa Rosa Island is just barely visible on the horizon as we peer south across the Pacific Ocean toward Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California. We're 120 miles from home base and our 2012 Tesla Model S sits quiet in a roadside turnout on the Pacific Coast Highway.
But this pure electric luxury sedan isn't stranded with its battery perilously low on juice. No, we came to this remote stretch of unspoiled coastline on purpose, taking advantage of a lull in our schedule to go for a drive for the pure enjoyment of it.
With 265 miles of EPA-rated range on tap, we're sitting here munching our lunch and admiring the view with a battery that's still more than half full. We'll make it home comfortably the same way we got here — at prevailing freeway speeds, with the A/C on and the stereo thumping.
Why so confident? Because yesterday we drove the Tesla 267 miles on a single charge, and it was on our suburban city test loop, which includes plenty of stop-and-go driving along the way.
The key to the Tesla's range is its enormous liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery with an unprecedented 85 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of usable capacity — upward of four times what's found in a Nissan Leaf, Honda Fit EV or Ford Focus Electric.
The big battery comes standard in the Model S Performance, Signature and the Signature Performance test car that's currently parked next to our picnic table. It's also slated to be optional in the base Model S, which will come standard with 40 kilowatt-hours of usable juice, with an optional middle-size 60-kWh battery available besides.
For all its capacity the 85-kWh battery is essentially invisible because it's packed under the floor in the form of a 4-inch-thick rectangular pancake that stretches the length and breadth of the car between the wheelwells and side sills.
What's more, the battery case is a stressed member that nestles into the bottom of the Tesla's all-aluminum unibody to bolster rigidity. All told, a Signature Performance Model S weighs 4,647 pounds, some 950 pounds less than a Fisker Karma. Our tester tips the scales at 4,770 pounds owing to its optional all-glass moonroof and rear-facing third-row child seat.
The 2012 Tesla Model S is powered by a transverse rear-mounted liquid-cooled AC induction motor that is capable of 16,000 rpm. It drives the rear wheels through a single-speed transaxle with a 9.73-to-1 reduction that feeds an open differential.
Tesla's AC induction motor is a compact package that makes 362 horsepower in standard trim; our Signature Performance variant is good for 416 hp. Both carry the same EPA combined consumption rating of 38 kWh/100 miles (89 MPGe) because the test cycle never exploits the extra power.
Acceleration is eerily impressive, combining the punch of a supercar with the silence of a golf cart. Ever ridden a magnetically launched roller coaster? It's like that, but with less screaming.
At the track our VBOX records a time of 4.3 seconds to 60 mph (4.0 with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip) and does a quarter-mile in 12.6 seconds at 108.3 mph. A Porsche Panamera GTS V8 only manages 0.2 and 0.1 second better, respectively, and only on the strength of its all-wheel-drive launch advantage.
And that's with traction control off. Leave it on and the Tesla's performance remains utterly unchanged, while the Porsche loses a full second. Even the Panamera Turbo S can't outrun the Tesla with traction control in effect.
It's a similar story at the end of the run, as the Tesla's combination of four-piston Brembo brakes and regenerative braking means it needs just 108 feet to stop from 60 mph, a yard shorter than the Panamera twins despite a few hundred extra pounds. The Tesla's brake pedal remains admirably firm throughout, but its starting height is too similar to that of the throttle; unintended overlap is possible.
A Firm, Precise Ride
Our Tesla Signature Performance rides on a double-wishbone front suspension with split lower arms and dual ball joints. There's a multilink suspension out back and nearly everything is made of aluminum. All four monotube shocks are enveloped in actively controlled air springs which, as in the 2013 Dodge Ram we sampled recently, can be set to a range of ride heights.
The air springs do a good job of taking the edge off, but on rougher sections in the Santa Monica Mountains it feels busy and too tied down. And with no engine noise to mask it, coarse asphalt noise comes through from the sticky 21-inch Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 three-season rubber.
It turns out the suspension tuning and rubber on our test car is a proposed sport package, a work in progress that may or may not see the light of day. It's tuned for glassier roads and drivers who want all-out handling above all else. To us it doesn't fit the vibe of the Model S, which screams Grand Touring, not Grand Prix.
That said, our 2012 Tesla Model S comes alive on Orange County's Ortega Highway, a smooth flowing mountain road with asphalt so fresh they hadn't repainted the stripes yet. Response is quick thanks to a 13-to-1 steering ratio, and of three driver-selectable choices, the standard EPS setting does a commendable job of balancing steering effort with feedback.
And it rings up good numbers at our test track: 66.8 mph through the slalom and 0.86 g on the skid pad are not bad for a machine that weighs 400 pounds more than a Panamera GTS despite riding on rubber that's skinnier by 10mm in front and 30mm out back.
Our trip north up the coast could have easily been an overnight one with another couple because the 2012 Tesla Model S provides generous room for five adults and their bags.
Head- and legroom are more ample here than in the Panamera, and cabin width is second-to-none. We'd gladly trade some of that width for door pockets, though, which are curiously absent. In fact, there's not much storage other than the glove compartment. Even the center console doesn't open.
On the other hand there's ample cargo space under the rear hatch. A lack of mufflers allows a deep storage well behind the rear axle, minivan-style. More than 26 cubic feet are available with folks riding in the backseat, almost 70 percent more than a Panamera. Add in the extra 5.3 cubic feet in the "frunk" under the hood and we're talking double the cargo space.
But the star of the interior is the massive touchscreen that dominates the center stack. Correction: It is the center stack. Looking for all the world like a double-size iPad, every single function that isn't on the steering stalks and door switches is found here. And it behaves like an iPad, too.
A flick of your finger makes it a back-up camera, a navigation screen and a 3G Web browser. This is where you go to pair phones, tune the stereo, adjust the climate control, tweak the suspension and steering settings, open the sunroof, peruse the trip computer and monitor battery status. It's all here, and as far as we can tell it all continues to work when the car is moving.
As for charging, Tesla isn't onboard with the SAE's standardized plug. Tesla provides an adapter to support it, but it likes its in-house charge port better.
Why? Tesla's charge port isn't just good for 120-volt Level 1 and 240-volt Level 2 power; it also works with their 480-volt Level 3 "supercharger" which can fill the 85-kWh battery halfway in 30 minutes. The SAE standard port doesn't support Level 3.
At home you'll want the Tesla High-Power Wall Connector because the Model S Signature series comes with 20 kilowatts of onboard charging capacity. We got all excited about the 6.6 kW chargers on the Fit EV and Focus Electric, and the Model S charger is potentially three times faster than those. Properly connected to a 100-amp circuit, the HPWC can replace those 265 miles in about 5 hours.
There's a catch, though, as most homes don't have the excess capacity to support a dedicated 100-amp breaker. For that reason the HPWC is compatible with service as low as 40 amps, the same as most SAE Level 2 power supplies. At this level the Model S will refill itself in 12 hours.
Overall, we're mighty impressed with the 2012 Tesla Model S. It's got enough battery power that range anxiety isn't a huge deal. Our 267-mile suburban city fuel economy loop ended with 2 miles left. The freeway-heavy trip up the coast amounted to 240 miles, with 21 more available when we got home. And our spirited 142-mile jaunt across the mountains in Orange County ended with another 124 left over. All told, the average of driven miles plus remaining miles came out to 265.4 miles.
On top of that the Model S is quick, handles well and is technically interesting inside. Our test sample did have a few misaligned panel gaps, though, but we'll reserve judgment because this was car No. 00002 from a company that is just now getting the ball rolling on full-fledged production.
Prices range from $59,350 for the base model with the 362-hp motor, 40 kWh battery, 10 kW onboard charger and coil spring suspension up to $107,350 for the Signature Performance model with 416 hp, 85 kWh of battery capacity, 20 kW of charging capacity and air suspension.
Options on the way to our as-tested price of $115,050 include the aforementioned third seat ($1,500), massive glass sunroof ($1,500) and 21-inch summer tires ($3,500) — none of which did our range any favors, by the way — as well as $1,200 for the recommended Tesla charge station. By contrast the 2013 Porsche Panamera GTS starts at $111,975.
The 2012 Tesla Model S is the first electric-powered sedan we've experienced, luxury or otherwise, that's good for more than mere left-brain activities such as errand-running and commuting. As an EV it's still confined to a radius of operation, but that circle is so large that the 2012 Tesla Model S can go places for no particular reason and get back. It's good for the weekend jaunt and an impromptu picnic with no range anxiety to think twice about.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.