Last Friday, Elon Musk told the world that his company of fewer than a thousand people would build "the best car in the world." He was standing not in Detroit or Stuttgart, but in Silicon Valley and the car was powered by electricity, not gasoline.
Musk says he's trying to dispel "the illusion that electric cars cannot be as good as gasoline cars." He is adamant that "in 20 years' time half the cars on the road will be electric," and that Tesla will "make a significant contribution to the transition."
That plan got under way at the conclusion of his speech with the first deliveries of the 2012 Tesla Model S to paying customers. Unfortunately, that's as far as Musk's confidence stretched.
Although journalists were invited to sample the Model S, there were no extended test-drives, no instrumented testing and no real-world testing of the electric sedan's range. Instead, our time with the car was limited to short 10-minute stints behind the wheel on specified roads. If the Model S truly is one of the best cars in the world, then why won't Musk allow the car's performance to prove it?
First Impressions Our time with the car was limited to a test route that included some highway, some poorly surfaced urban roads and a short parking lot handling course. We completed the loop twice, first from the passenger seat and again from the driver seat. We only drove one vehicle — a top-of-the-line Signature Performance that starts at $107,350.
There is no traditional gearbox, so your choices are forward or reverse. The parking brake is applied automatically when "Park" is selected. To start the car, you simply park your derriere in the driver seat, select "D" and press what used to be called the "loud pedal." In the Model S, it has all the impact of a very loud pedal, without the accompanying soundtrack.
The acceleration from a standstill is downright vicious. It's rare in a road car of any description to feel this much of a sensation of G-force. After one launch, there's no doubt, the Tesla S is properly fast thanks to its instantaneous lug of torque. But what's unique about the 2012 Tesla Model S is its ability to maintain that acceleration up to 100 mph and beyond. It's all so effortless. Enthusiasts will no doubt miss an evocative soundtrack and the interaction of changing gears, but there's something undeniably luxurious about travelling so fast in something so quiet. The silence is disturbed only by some tire roar and a slight wind rustle around the screen pillars.
Handling the Weight The control arm front and multilink rear suspension has been developed under the stewardship of Graham Robertson, a Brit who's spent more than 20 years studying at the school of Lotus. Air suspension is standard on all but the entry-level models, offering increased ground clearance over rough terrain, or improved aerodynamics at speed.
The Tesla weighs in at 4,647 pounds, which is just over 300 pounds more than a BMW 740i. However, the location of the battery pack and the motor below the car floor help lower the center of gravity.
The Model S rolls a little on corner entry but then quickly takes a set and feels usefully agile for such a big car. And at 196 inches long, it is a seriously big sedan, slightly longer and a full 3 inches wider than a Porsche Panamera, in fact. This may be of little relevance on the broad highways of Silicon Valley, but in Europe it could prove a significant problem.
In tighter corners, the telltale blinking of the stability control light is indicative of how hard the rear tires are working to handle the torque, but its impact is unobtrusive. For a car riding on 21-inch rims, the ride quality is also impressive, no doubt helped by the mass and gargantuan wheelbase. We'll reserve final judgement until we've driven it over a greater variety of surfaces, but first impressions suggest a pleasing blend of suppleness and control. Less worthy of merit, though, is the steering, which is disappointingly lacking in feel.
Tesla is keen to educate its drivers about the need to maximize regenerative braking in order to extend the range. Although the effect of lifting off the throttle is not as severe as it is on the Mini E, the deceleration still requires a subtle shift in driving technique. You'll rely more on manipulation of the throttle than the brakes.
What Makes It Go While the Tesla Roadster was essentially a reengineered Lotus Elise, the Model S has been comprehensively engineered from the ground up over a four-year period. It's bespoke and appealingly simple.
A 4-inch-deep battery pack resides under the floor of the cabin, while the electric motor nestles between the rear wheels it powers. Tesla offers three different battery options in the Model S. An entry-level 40-kWh model will be introduced this winter and offer a projected range of 160 miles. A 60-kWh version arrives this fall and has a projected range of 230 miles, while the flagship 85 kWh has a range of 300 miles in the same conditions. These are Tesla's own figures based on an average speed of 55 mph. The official EPA range for the 85-kWh car — the only one tested thus far — is 265 miles.
Two different versions of the 85-kWh car will be offered. The standard model boasts 362 horsepower, 325 pound-feet of torque and a claimed 0-60 mph time of 5.6 seconds. The appropriately titled "Performance" model offers 416 hp, 443 lb-ft of torque and a claimed 0-60-mph time of 4.4 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 125 mph in the standard car and 130 mph in the Performance version to conserve the motor. Intriguingly, Tesla quotes an identical range for both.
These systems have been developed under the stewardship of JB Straubel, a Tesla co-founder who built himself an electric Porsche 944 for fun. "With an internal-combustion engine, higher performance almost certainly means higher fuel consumption," he says, "but an electric motor is different. A high-performance motor can actually be more efficient under partial load, resulting in a bigger range." Needless to say, though, if you exploit its performance to the full, that range will drop dramatically.
The Inside Story The cockpit of the 2012 Tesla Model S is dominated by a 17-inch touchscreen. It's reminiscent of a giant iPad, but is built around Android architecture as Google was an early investor in Tesla. It controls all of the car's major functions and should ensure that the Model S is both easy to update and to personalize.
It works well enough, but its blunt face leaves the cabin looking notably stark. The organic curves of an Audi A8 or Mercedes S-Class are missing here and the quality of the materials chosen is unlikely to worry Audi. We were also surprised to see Mercedes switchgear and control stalks given Tesla's determination to assert its own identity.
Our test cars were early examples, but there were noticeable squeaks from the fascia over rough terrain, suggesting the build processes may also need some fine-tuning. If Tesla is serious about building "the best car in the world," these are details it must get right. Early adopters may be a forgiving bunch, but reputations stick.
The Model S will be sold as a five-seater but customers can opt for a pair of rear-facing jump seats in the trunk suitable for small children as long as they're not claustrophobic. As you'd expect given the car's vast proportions, passenger space is generous, although not quite a match for long-wheelbase versions of luxury sedans. Rear trunk space is 26.3 cubic feet, rising to 58.1 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down, and this is supplemented by an additional trunk in the nose where you might expect an engine. This "frunk," as Tesla likes to call it, adds an extra 5.3 cubic feet of storage space.
Strangely Generic For such a radical concept, the Tesla S looks extraordinarily ordinary. Styled by Tesla's chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen, it is a conventional sedan that looks like a bartender's blend of the Aston Martin Rapide, Ford Fusion and Jaguar XF. It's undeniably handsome, but we find it odd that given a clean sheet of paper Tesla came up with something so formulaic.
"We are designing a car and building a brand around a powertrain that's hard for people to take on board," says Holzhausen, who can claim VW, GM and Mazda on an impressive resume. "The car needs to feel familiar to a general consumer base and be easy to accept. It is about building a foundation for the brand before we can begin to move into more ambitious territory. The Model X, Tesla's forthcoming crossover, already feels more experimental."
It's a well-rehearsed answer but it will be interesting to see how it plays in the real world. Many consumers choose the Toyota Prius because it makes such a bold assertion of its eco credentials. The Model S, by contrast, is likely to go unnoticed by all but a few cognoscenti.
Final Thoughts Right now, the Model S is not "the best car in the world." While the company's mission statement sounds uncomfortably arrogant, it's not completely without foundation. Tesla might be small, but its top team has an impressive track record, both inside and outside the automotive world.
At first glance, the 2012 Tesla Model S is hugely convincing and if a longer test-drive proves that it lives up to its claims then it may very well be a game-changer. Until then, it's still riding on a promise of usability and performance that has yet to be demonstrated.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.