Mild Driveway Scrape - 2013 Tesla Model S Long-Term Road Test

2013 Tesla Model S Long-Term Road Test

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2013 Tesla Model S: Mild Driveway Scrape

November 21, 2013

2013 Tesla Model S

Six inches. That's how much ground clearance our 2013 Tesla Model S has according to the spec sheet. In light of recent events, Tesla is quick to point out this isn't terribly low compared to other cars. That's true on the face of it, but there's always more to this singular number than meets the eye.

The first question is "Where's the low point?" On a 4x4 it's usually the bulbous axle differential housing. Sometimes it's a shock absorber bracket. There's far more clearance under the middle of the vehicle. Sedans are different. The low point is usually some hanging part of the exhaust system. The rocker panel below the door isn't usually the limiting factor, but it's not far off. Still, you've got to get down on hands and knees and peer underneath to identify the point of first contact.

Knowing this, I was surprised when our 2013 Tesla Models S grounded out (mildly) when negotiating the above driveway, which didn't appear to be particularly unusual when I approached. Yes, the sidewalk is a bit higher than the parking lot, but I certainly didn't feel the need to come at it diagonally as I might have if I'd been in a lowered machine.

Two things: The Models S rides on a generous 116.9-inch wheelbase and its 6-inch low point is pretty much the entire underside of the car between the wheels. The battery box is a huge gray monolith, so the low point is a vast plane instead of a single point on a single drooping component. Technically, the low point occurs on the inch-wide rub/reinforcing strips built onto the surface, but even these run the entire length of the box in several bands.

If the plane theory holds true (or true enough as makes no difference), we can easily figure the Breakover Angle by assuming the low point applies at the midpoint of the wheelbase. The answer: 6 degrees.

Our Model S has air suspension, but the brief scraping stopped just as I was beginning to consider selecting High 1 via a virtual button that's buried a couple of levels in the touchscreen menus. Had I needed it, I'd have had to pause on Mount Driveway 15 seconds or so while I negotiated the menus, found the button, pressed it and waited while the compressor raised me off the reef another 0.9 inches. If that hadn't been enough, High 2 was waiting with another 0.4 inches of lift, bringing total ground clearance to 7.3 inches. The calculated breakover angles in these settings are roughly 7.0 and 7.4 degrees.

There's a Low mode, too, and it automatically drops the Tesla 0.8 inches at highway speeds to improve aerodynamics. As a result, the true running ground clearance of a Model S at speed is 5.2 inches, about the same as the length of the newest iPhone.

Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 11,886 miles


  • gslippy gslippy Posts:

    The resale on this car will be fascinating. It's worth mentioning that the software patch being pushed out by Tesla will soon raise the highway ground clearance by about an inch.

  • k5ing k5ing Posts:

    As you probably know by now, Tesla has disabled the lowering function at speed for now. They say in January they will bring it back and also let the driver select whatever ride height they want. I'm guessing that will include being able to drive it in one or both of the high modes. That will help on uneven/gravel/snowy roads where even the standard height may be an issue. My own opinion is that they should either add a button on the steering wheel, or at least put the height adjustment on one of the two dashboard displays accessible by the scroll buttons so they can be instantly accessed for situations like the one you describe in the article.

  • I agree with k5ing's suggestion of a button that is always accessible on the display. However, I would only make it adjustable at speeds below a certain mark, like 20-25 mph. Nobody is going to pull into a driveway at speeds anywhere near that. Driving in cities with roads that are rarely smooth, the high setting would be useful and practical.

  • fordson1 fordson1 Posts:

    There is a lot of ink being spilled over this, and it's a BS issue, like unintended acceleration for Toyotas. Any of the trailer hitches the guy hit would have stuck up much higher than 6 inches and would have hit the front undercarriage, not the battery.

  • capt601 capt601 Posts:

    15 seconds to negotiate the menu?? Wow. Takes us a total of 2 seconds and all while we are driving below 9 mph, so that when we reach the driveway it is already at full height.

  • hybris hybris Posts:

    Forget menus and touch screens what we need to is a small easy to turn knob on the dash with good indentions and the various drive heights clearly labeled. All that would take maybe a 2 or 2.5 inch section of the dash and surely Tesla can find that space somewhere on here.

  • Sounds like the engineers at Tesla anticipated this with the rub strips and the air suspension ability to raise the car. I wonder of the parking sensors could be programmed to detect objects that would cause a ground clearance problem.

  • actualsize actualsize Posts:

    Yes, the auto-lowering function has been disabled via a recent firmware update. Essentially, the 0.8-inch drop at highway speeds has been done away with. The 6-inch static ride height is now the freeway ride height. I wrote and submitted this before that news came out, but it would have made no difference in this situation. As for the 15-seconds, I could probably do a little better as a full-time owner, but the height controls still live on a menu screen I don't often access.

  • jvonbokel jvonbokel Posts:

    FWIW, Tesla has suggested that a future software update could include the option to automatically raise the suspension in certain areas, as defined by GPS.

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