Test driving the Tesla S
I tried to come up with a good analogy to describe the bright red Tesla S Sedan that I took out for a drive and, the supermodel comparison came to mind - sleek, elegant, stylish and sexy with a beauty that makes it all to possible to overlook the intelligence within. Oh, and it made my wife more than a little uncomfortable (more on that later).
This is the car that has been getting rave reviews, earning 99 out of 100 from Consumer Reports, shattering the range limits of other electric vehicles and driving stock in Tesla ever higher. I made a point of not reading those reviews so that I could answer the question for myself 'is it really that good?' And the short answer, unfortunately for anyone who does not have the $85 - 100,000 to plunk down on personal transportation, is a resounding "yes!"
From the tiny details such as the door handles the ride flush with the vehicle when it moving, but ease out to allow easy entry, the Tesla S demonstrates what happens when a company is not constrained by finances or the need to conform with customers' prior experience and expectations. The control system resides on a 17 inch screen (with the option of controlling things from the steering wheel) allowing simple, easy to use touch screen commands to set temperature, manage GPS, control music, temperature, lighting, and a host of options including dimmable mirrors, adjusting the regenerative braking system and even offering 3 different handling modes that instantly change the way the car steering feels.
The acceleration is remarkable, even by electric car standards. Having driven both the Ford Focus and the BMW ActiveE I was prepared for the lack of 'pedal lag' - that feeling you get between when you step on the gas pedal and when the car responds. In electric cars, a tap on the accelerator is all it takes for the vehicle to instantly jump forward. The Telsa doesn't jump, it leaps, as if it has been poised the whole time, just waiting for you to allow it to run free. And the S offers the same instant acceleration and there's-plenty-more-if-you-need-it feeling at 60 MPH as it does at 30.
Handling varies according to the setting (comfort and performance at the extremes), changing the feel of the steering wheel, instantly transforming from an incredibly responsive family sedan to a racer ready to cut loose.
Unlike the BMW, which looked and felt so much like a BMW (note, I drove a vehicle that had the new technology in a conventional body) that I found myself missing that familiar engine sound, the modern design of the dashboard and interior of the Tesla (and the fact that this is their first car for the masses) meant that the silence was part of the experience; until we turned out the better-than-my-home sound system which would have drowned out any sounds from the motor.
I did find that the directional signal lever and the one for cruise control were confusing. By the end of the ride, I still had not gotten the hang of which one informed other cars of my intentions on a regular basis. But I could easily learn to live with that. Apparently they source their steering wheels from the same company as Mercedes; so those drivers may not find this confusing.
I was surprised, as was my wife, with her reaction. Relegated to the back seat by the accompanying representative of Tesla during our test drive, she found the headroom (she's 5 foot 8) to be lacking (as I found out that others have). This is likely due to the sloping roof that gives the Tesla such a remarkable co-efficient of drag (part of the key to its best-in-class range of 200 miles). She also found that the back seat ended mid-thigh, so she never felt truly comfortable. She felt in danger of sliding off; a danger compounded when I asked for - and received - that remarkable acceleration.
Overall, as with many cars, men seem to be more enthusiastic about the Tesla than women, a fact that the sales people confirmed when asked; the vast majority of people they see are men. When women come by, they are usually accompanying their husbands or with their families.
The Tesla S is a remarkable achievement in design, engineering and execution, and knowing that they are built in America (California) is a selling point. I did ask, but the representatives did not know the 'green' credentials of the production facility. And, of course, the batteries which eventually will need to be recycled or disposed, present an environmental challenge. Based on what I have experienced, however, I would not be surprised to find out that Tesla is not only working on it already, but that they're close to a solution.
Range issues are a big concern with electric cars, but Tesla has two very clever solutions. The first is supercharging stations that can charge the car enough to give another 150 miles in 20 minutes (they cannot charge more than this at this high speed rate). The second solution is the 90 second battery swap. Taking advantage of the fact that the battery is mounted under the floorboards, Tesla is building facilities that can remove it and and substitute a fully charged one in less time than it takes to fill a conventional automobile with gasoline. Whether people who spend the kind of money Tesla buyers are being asked to spend will be eager to swap out such a major component of their vehicle is an open question.
It is already a piece of transportation history and the accolades will likely pour in for quite some time. Me, personally, I'll wait for the new model that is projected to be far less pricey. In the meantime, I hope that the figure out a way to address my wife's concerns about the back seat. Otherwise, I'll never get to bring this supermodel home with me. And I could so easily fall in love!
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