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 a Corvette-like 4.4 seconds and travel up to 265 miles on a single battery charge. And it accomplishes those feats while costing no more than a comparable fossil fuel-powered 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 fist 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. Two different battery packs are available, including 60- and 85-kWh units. Both mate to the same basic liquid-cooled electric motor, though its output varies by model.
The entry-level 60-kWh model produces 302 horsepower and 317 lb-ft of torque, while the 85-kWh variant makes 362 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. The high-end "Performance" 85-kWh Model S tops out at 416 horsepower and 443-lb of torque.
The 85-kWh sedans are EPA-certified for a 265-mile driving range, and can scoot from zero-to-60 mph in 5.4 seconds in standard trim or 4.2 seconds in Performance form. The 60-kWh model is rated for a 208-mile range and can accelerate to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds.
As for efficiency, the 85-kWh Model S is rated at 88 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) in the city and 90 MPGe on the highway, with the 60-kWh battery pack is good for 94/97 MPGe.
Using a 240 volt outlet, fully recharging the battery takes roughly 7 hours for the 60 kWh model and 9 hours for 85 kWh variants. An optional High Power Home Charging system halves each of those times.
Notably, Tesla is building a nationwide network of "Supercharger" fast charging stations that can replenish 200 miles of range in the 85-kWh model in roughly an hour, thereby enabling worry-free long-distance travel. 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
The Tesla Model S is available in base and Performance trim levels.
All trims are fitted as standard with a 17-inch touchscreen infotainment display, automatic climate control, heated and power-adjustable front seats, a seven-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system with HD radio and two USB inputs, Bluetooth smartphone connectivity with audio streaming, a rearview camera, WiFi connectivity and 19-inch wheels.
The 60-kWh Model S can fitted with the Supercharger Enabled package that lets the car tap into Tesla's growing fast charging network.
Enthusiasts will want to step up to the Model S Performance, which adds the 85 kWh battery, as well as a high performance drive inverter, carbon fiber exterior accents and the Supercharger Enabled package.
Numerous options can be specified for further luxury and convenience.
The High Power Home Charging Package adds twin onboard charges, effectively halving charging time.
Offered exclusively for the 85-kWh model, the Performance Plus Package brings a wide range of dynamics-enhancing extras including upgraded dampers, bushings and stabilizer bars. Also fitted are 21-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires, including staggered, 20mm-wider rear units. Not only do the changes tighten up the Model S' handling, they improve ride comfort and boost range by 6 to 12 miles as well, Tesla claims.
The Tech Package nets navigation functionality, LED dayime running lights, LED cornering lights, a proximity key, a power liftgate, memory seats, mirrors and driver profile, lighted door handles, power folding, heated and electrochromatic mirrors, and GPS enable Homelink universal garage door opener.
As its name suggests, 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.
Stand-alone options include a 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, a rear parcel shelf and an Alcantara headliner.
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, Audi A6 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.