These days, it seems that nearly every automaker touts its latest model as a "game-changer," but Tesla's all-electric Model S luxury sedan may be one of the rare instances where such a claim is completely justified.
What sets the Model S apart from every other electric car on the market is that it matches or betters its gas-powered rivals in terms of performance, technology and value while requiring little compromise in terms of driving range. In addition to a spacious and forward-thinking interior, the Model S can sprint from zero-to-60 mph in as little as 2.8 seconds and travel up to 270 miles on a single battery charge. And it accomplishes those feats while costing no more than a comparable fossil fuel-powered premium sedan.
Unlike most of the somewhat dowdily-styled EVs on the road today, the Model S sports a sleek but conventional look with a coupe-like roofline similar to that of the Jaguar XF. Short front and rear overhangs not only give the Model S a clean, sporting look, but also allow for the maximum interior volume. Large 19 or 21-inch wheels sit at all four corners, giving the Model S a truly planted appearance.
Step inside the Model S for the first time and you might spend a few minutes searching for a non-existent ignition button - the sedan actually turns automatically on as soon as the driver sits down. The dashboard is dominated by a 17-inch touchscreen display - the largest on the market - that apes the look and feel of an iPad. It controls everything from the navigation system to the HVAC system to the stereo, while also offering internet search capability (the car comes equipped with 3G wireless internet).
The highly customizable system can display two functions at once (nav and internet browsing, for example) and features numerous clever touches - to open the optional panoramic sunroof, for instance, simply summon an overhead image of the car and drag the roof as far open as desired.
In other respects, such as the stitched-leather dash, soft-touch material and high-quality furnishings (the gear shifter is even sourced from the Mercedes-Benz S-Class), the Model S' cabin is everything one would expect from a luxury sedan. In keeping with the Model S' green theme, Tesla offers chrome-free vegetable tanned Italian leather on the interior, and 100 percent recycled PET carpeting from Futuris.
Thanks to its practical hatchback configuration, the Model S offers a surprising amount of cargo space: a crossover-like 26.3 cubic feet is available behind the rear seats, while a full 58.1 cubes can be unlocked by folding the rear seats down. Additionally, there's a small frunk (front trunk) - the electric powertrain takes up less underhood space than a conventional engine - that serves up an extra 5.3 cubic inches for small items.
Should people-carrying be a priority, the Model S offers buyers the option of a pair of rear-facing jump seats (similar to the units found in stations wagons of a bygone era) to bring seating capacity up seven.
Where the Model S really shines is in its performance. Buyers can choose from three models called 70D, 90D, and P90D, respectively.
The entry-level 70-kWh model makes 328 horsepower and 325 lb-ft. of torque when it's ordered with rear-wheel drive. It hits 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and goes on to a top speed of 140 mph. It's capable of driving for up to 230 miles on a single charge.
Selecting all-wheel drive -- which essentially means adding a second motor up front -- brings 382 horsepower and 387 lb-ft. of torque. The sedan consequently takes 5.2 seconds to reach 60 mph, and it has a range of 240 miles. Its driving range remains unchanged.
Only offered with all-wheel drive, the 90-kWh P90D gets 417 horsepower and 485 lb-ft. of torque. It's capable of sprinting from zero to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds before going on to a top speed of 155 mph. Driven with a light right foot, it's capable of making a full charge last 270 miles.
Finally, the hot-rodded P90D gets 463 horsepower and 713 lb-ft. of torque in its most basic configuration. However, dialing in Tesla's vaunted Ludicrous mode unleashes 532 ponies. Ludicrous mode allows the S to hit 60 mph from a stop in 2.8 seconds, though top speed remains limited to 155 mph. The extra performance limits the P90D's range to 253 miles.
Regardless of its capacity, the battery pack can be topped up using a 240-volt outlet, or an optional High Power Home Charging System.
Notably, Tesla is building a nationwide network of "Supercharger" fast charging stations that can replenish about 170 miles of range in as little as 30 minutes, thereby enabling worry-free long-distance travel -- provided your route includes supercharger stations along the way. For now, the stations are largely concentrated along the east and west coasts, Texas and key Midwest regions, but Tesla hopes to add new units throughout the country over the next decade.
The charge for a Supercharger "fill-up"? Absolutely nothing.
Standard and Optional Features
Every Model S comes standard with a digital instrument cluster, a 17-inch touch screen, navigation, WiFi and internet connectivity, keyless entry, Xenon headlights, one-touch power windows, a rear-view camera, rain-sensing wipers, voice commands, Bluetooth connectivity, power-folding heated mirrors, a 12-volt power outlet, 12-way power-adjustable front seats, daytime running lights, a lane departure warning system, and parking sensors on both ends.
The list of standalone options includes glass panoramic roof, front and rear parking sensors, LED fog lights, a 12-speaker premium sound system, ambient LED interior lighting, rear facing 3rd-row seats, and an Alcantara headliner.
Tesla's Autopilot technology is offered at an extra cost. As its name implies, Autopilot allows the S to drive itself in stop-and-go traffic and at freeway speeds. A new feature called Summon allows the S to park itself, and to automatically open and close the garage door.
Buyers also have a few option packages to choose from. Notably, the Smart Air Suspension Package includes an adaptive air suspension that provides an optimum blend of handling agility and ride comfort.
The Subzero Weather Package adds heated rear seats, wiper blade defrosters and washer nozzle heaters.
Finally, the Premium Interior and Lighting package bundles a power liftgate, Nappa leather upholstery on the armrests and on the dashboard, interior accent lighting, fog and cornering lights, and lighted door handles.
All Model S sedans come standard with dual front, front side and full-length side curtain airbags in addition to traction and stability control systems.
As an all-electric luxury sedan with ample range and performance that rivals or surpass conventionally-powered models, the Model S has no true rivals.
Other EVs, such as the Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf, are in a different league due their lower price, smaller size, more modest range and lack of luxury content. Comparable gas models include the BMW 5 Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.