Tesla, a Silicon Valley electric vehicle startup that first came to prominence with the all-electric Roadster sportscar, isn’t yet known as a mainstream car manufacturer—unsurprising since it’s first product had a base price of $109,000. The Model S, a five-seat sedan released today, is Tesla’s debut into the mainstream market. If it succeeds, it could bolster the entire EV industry. If it fails, Tesla will be in trouble.
This week, I had the chance to test-drive the Model S at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif.. I can’t predict how well the car will do (though there are 10,000 reservations), but I can say this: it’s one of the most fun vehicles I’ve ever driven—and certainly the most exciting sedan. The car’s mammoth 17-inch central console touchscreen, which controls the sunroof, regenerative braking strength, music, maps, and more, doesn’t hurt. I experienced the Model S as both a passenger and driver.
While it’s always exhilarating to drive a vehicle that ramps up from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, the Model S takes it to another level: the car’s regenerative brakes (these capture energy and let the wheels recharge the vehicle’s batteries) allow it to quickly and naturally slow down when you take your foot off the gas pedal, even when driving at high speeds. That leads to a smooth driving experience—and it means that the brakes need less maintenance since they aren’t used as often.
During part of my short time (about 10 minutes) in the car, I drove on a bumpy road—and still, the virtually silent vehicle remained smooth. At one point, I found myself on the highway next to a Nissan Leaf (something I had never experienced before). And for one brief moment, it was as though I had entered a more enlightened universe where EVs were the norm.
The Model S has a low center of gravity, which makes turns a breeze. This is a performance advantage on many sportscars, but something that isn’t common in sedans (according to Tesla, the Model S has the lowest center of gravity out of any sedan).
Tesla’s sedan has a lot of things going for it. It has a top range of 265 miles in the high-end model (160 miles with the base model), which means that drivers will have little reason to fret about range anxiety—the fear that EVs will run out of charge before reaching their destination. This is thanks to the car’s giant battery pack (7,000 lithium-ion cells) which causes it to weigh 4,400 lbs.—and allows for that low center of gravity.
The vehicle’s giant touchscreen can also be used to update the vehicle, so if something goes wrong, Tesla can use the car’s wireless/3G connection to fix it remotely. As with the Roadster, Tesla will also come to customers to perform maintenance instead of making them go to a service center. It’s debatable how well this will scale up if the Model S gains in popularity.
But as with any electric car, there are concerns. What if someone wants to do a long roadtrip with the vehicle? There is no national network of EV charging stations, and there probably won’t be for a long time. The pricetag ($54,700 to $105,400) will also be a deterrent for many consumers. As the AP notes, the Nissan Leaf, which is almost half the price has sold under 30,000 vehicles since 2010. Tesla aims to sell 20,000 in 2013.
Make no mistake: it may look like a conventional sedan, but this is a luxury car. Tesla does plan on introducing cheaper models down the line, but the Model S is intended to compete with BMWs and Lexus’s of the world. As Franz Von Holzhausen, chief designer at Tesla, explains, this is supposed to be an approachable, stylistic, high-design vehicle, but not one that is so quirky or weird it would only appeal to early adopters. Tesla doesn’t have 100 years of branding history behind it like many other automakers. What it does have is gumption—something that many larger automakers who skirt the EV market lack.
If we’re lucky, it will one day have economy cars in its lineup, too. When that happens, the company can reach the goal that Tesla cofounder Elon Musk laid out at today’s unveiling: "to show that indeed electric cars can be better than any gasoline-powered car."