2012 Tesla Model S Review
Pros & Cons
- Acceptable to excellent battery range
- sleek styling
- impressive performance from all models
- available seven-passenger configuration
- reasonable base price.
- Unknown reliability
- options are pricey
- cramped third-row seats sacrifice cargo space.
Edmunds' Expert Review
Not only is the 2012 Tesla Model S the best electric car you can buy today, it's also one of the best luxury sedans available.
Forget everything you once knew of electric cars. The 2012 Tesla Model S has rewritten the rule book and may have even set the bar higher for conventionally powered cars.
Unlike other EVs currently out there, the Tesla Model S is not a podlike transport, nor is it based on an existing economy car. It's a large sedan with luxury leanings, eyebrow-raising performance and stunning good looks. By all accounts, it's one of the best cars you can buy, electric or otherwise.
The 2012 Tesla Model S isn't a bank-account-emptying toy for the ultra-wealthy, either. With a starting price right around $60,000 (not including the $7,500 federal tax credit), the base model is surprisingly accessible. That 40 kWh model is, however, the least powerful (235 horsepower) and has the shortest range (we'd guess just over 100 miles). For another $10,000, you can upgrade to the 60 kWh battery pack with 302 hp and a 208-mile range. With yet another $10,000, the 85 kWh pack kicks power to 356 hp and 265 miles of range. There's also the $87,400 Performance version, boasting 416 hp and identical range.
Regardless of which model you choose, the 2012 Tesla Model S is thoroughly modern inside and out, fulfilling our childhood dreams of what a 21st-century car should be. The sleek body is a pleasure to look at and even the flush-mounted door handles kick the cool factor up as they deploy when unlocked and require a minimum of effort to access the cabin.
The love affair continues inside, with a modern and tasteful interpretation of what a car interior could be. A massive central touchscreen replaces conventional knobs and buttons and the simple elegance of the cabin design is the epitome of tech chic. None of this sacrifices usability or utility, either, as the systems actually work as you'd expect and there's a wealth of cargo space.
Even without the electric drivetrain, the 2012 Tesla Model S is unique among all other cars. Understandably, competition is slim, if not nonexistent. So not only has Tesla rewritten the rule book, they may have tossed it into the shredder.
2012 Tesla Model S models
The 2012 Tesla Model S is classified as a large sedan and is available in four trim levels: base, Performance, Signature and Signature Performance.
Standard features for the base Model S include 19-inch wheels, LED daytime running lights, keyless entry, full power accessories, cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 17-inch touchscreen, cloth upholstery, heated 12-way power front seats with memory functions, 60/40-split-folding rear seats, a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and streaming audio and a seven-speaker sound system with dual USB ports and HD radio.
Besides an increase in power output, the Performance models add the ability to use twin chargers, an active air suspension and leather upholstery.
Since the Model S features mobile Internet connectivity, access to rudimentary Web-based navigation and maps is possible, but turn-by-turn guidance is only available as part of the optional Tech package. Other Tech package features include xenon headlights, LED foglights, auto-dimming exterior mirrors, a power rear hatch, automatic keyless entry, a universal garage door opener and a high-definition rearview camera. The Sound Studio package includes a 12-speaker surround-sound audio system. Stand-alone options include 21-inch wheels with performance tires, a panoramic sunroof, rear-facing third-row seats, a cargo cover and additional charging units.
Signature and Signature Performance trims included the Tech and Sound Studio packages along with twin charge capability.
Performance & mpg
Four distinct powertrain choices are offered with the 2012 Tesla Model S, each with increasing levels of range and performance. All Model S powertrains are propelled by a single water-cooled electric motor, routing power through a single-speed transmission on its way to the rear wheels. Lithium-ion battery packs are also utilized throughout the lineup.
With the base 40kWh battery pack, the Model S can produce the equivalent of 235 hp and 310 pound-feet of torque. You can expect a cruising range of just over 100 miles. Tesla claims a 0-60-mph time of 6.5 seconds, which is comparable to a base midsize luxury sedan.
With the 60kWh battery, electric motor performance increases output to 302 hp and 317 lb-ft of torque. The EPA estimates a range of 208 miles, while Tesla expects it to reach 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. The 85 kWh model makes 362 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque with an estimated 60-mph run of 5.6 seconds and a range of 265 miles. Upgrading to the 85kWh Performance boosts output to 416 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque, with a range of 265 miles. In Edmunds testing, the Tesla Model S Performance accelerated to 60 mph in a very quick 4.3 seconds, which confirms Tesla's 4.4-second estimate.
In terms of efficiency, the EPA estimates the Model S will use 38 kWh city/37 kWh highway and 38 kWh combined per 100 miles driven. (Remember that here, the lower the number, the better.) In miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe), that's 88 mpg city/90 mpg highway and 89 mpg combined.
The Model S can be recharged from all standard 110- and 240-volt household outlets and from various public charging stations using the included Universal Mobile Connector and adapters. Figure up to 5 hours of recharging time at 240 volts for the 40 kWh pack with the base model's single onboard charger, and half that with the dual-charger system. The dual-charger system -- which needs a 100-amp circuit to operate at full capacity -- also is an option for the 60 kWh battery, halving the normal 7.5-hour recharge time. The system is standard on the Signature and Signature Performance models, giving them a potential 4-hour recharge time, despite their much larger battery packs.
Models equipped with the 60 and 85 kWh batteries can also use a nationwide network of "superchargers" that Tesla is building. Tesla says the industrial-grade, high-speed chargers promise to replenish 160 miles of range in the 85 kWh batteries in about 30 minutes, enabling long-distance travel.
Standard safety features for all 2012 Tesla Model S variants include head, knee and pelvic airbags for the front passengers as well as front and rear side curtain airbags. Also standard on all models are stability and traction control, crash sensors for high-voltage disconnect, antilock disc brakes and a rearview camera.
In Edmunds brake testing, the Model S with optional 21-inch wheels and performance tires came to a stop from 60 mph in an impressive 108 feet.
The 2012 Tesla Model S effectively crushes every preconceived notion you may have had about electric cars. Unlike the quirky pod cars, golf carts or even economy car-based EVs, the Tesla drives just like a conventional luxury sedan. Our experience has been limited to the 85 kWh Performance model, and we came away utterly impressed on a number of levels.
Acceleration is eerily quiet and incredibly potent. With all torque being immediately available, it's like being shot out of a gun barrel -- with a silencer. Braking is also praiseworthy, not just because the pedal feels like one from a conventional car, but also because it gets the Model S stopped with linear authority.
The well-tuned steering and suspension further add to the experience, with a sharpness and accuracy that brought a smile to our faces on serpentine roads. This could be attributed to the larger wheels shod with performance tires, but even so, this unexpected level of athleticism was refreshing. Fortunately, the Model S's sporty capabilities don't come at the expense of comfort and compliance either, as we found the ride quality to be smooth and agreeable.
The 2012 Tesla Model S features a cabin that is as modern and classy as you'll find in any segment. Almost all knobs and buttons are absent, replaced by a sleek 17-inch vertical touchscreen that controls almost all onboard systems. It is essentially a big and beautiful iPad. Besides looking good, the system actually functions well, too. Users can configure the placement of audio, navigation and climate controls to their liking on the screen and we experienced few, if any, flaws.
For the directionally challenged, however, we would recommend springing for the expensive Tech package which includes a turn-by-turn navigation system that is more like the units found in conventional cars. The standard system can access online maps for viewing, but that's about the extent of its function.
In terms of comfort, both front and rear seats offer ample legroom for adults, though taller rear-seat passengers may run out of headroom. The optional rear-facing jump seats, on the other hand, are almost comically small. Only small children would be willing or able to sit back there. These third-row seats do fold flat into the foot well, allowing for a capacious 26.3 cubic feet of cargo space, which is significantly more than other large luxury sedans. Folding the middle row flat expands that space to 58.1 cubes. There's also a secondary trunk under the hood that offers 5.3 cubic feet of storage.
Materials throughout the cabin are high-quality enough to be comparable to the typical luxury sedan, but those who purchase the range-topping $100,000-plus models might expect more than the Model S delivers. The leather upholstery is by no means a disappointment; it's just not up to premium luxury standards. Elsewhere, the typical window switches and driver controls have been sourced from Mercedes-Benz, making them hard to fault by any measure.
Most helpful consumer reviews
Features & Specs
More About This Model
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?
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.
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.
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.
Used 2012 Tesla Model S Overview
The Used 2012 Tesla Model S is offered in the following submodels: Model S Sedan. Available styles include Signature 4dr Sedan (electric 1DD), 4dr Sedan (electric 1DD), Signature Performance 4dr Sedan (electric 1DD), and Performance 4dr Sedan (electric 1DD).
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Should I lease or buy a 2012 Tesla Model S?
Is it better to lease or buy a car? Ask most people and they'll probably tell you that car buying is the way to go. And from a financial perspective, it's true, provided you're willing to make higher monthly payments, pay off the loan in full and keep the car for a few years. Leasing, on the other hand, can be a less expensive option on a month-to-month basis. It's also good if you're someone who likes to drive a new car every three years or so.