MAHWAH, NEW JERSEY—The Sheraton Hotel here is enormous, which is why the guy behind the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts gave me the fish eye when I asked him where it was. “Right there,” he said, pointing across the street. And there the hotel loomed, even though in my defense I should point out that crossing busy Route 17 was hardly intuitive. This part of the Garden State is not exactly my ideal test track, though for the Tesla Model S it’s far superior to the jammed streets of midtown Manhattan, where many of my colleagues drove the car last week.
The car was in Jersey for Tesla's "Get Amped" tour, which hands over the keys to reservation holders, supposedly more than 5,000 of them in 45 days. Check here to see if the tour is coming anywhere near you.
Car Talk has been trying to get behind the wheel of the Tesla Model S for years, but the best we could do was the back seat. While we were waiting, Tesla got the car on the market on schedule, winning a bet with Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Neil. The loser had to write a check to Doctors Without Borders, but Tesla CEO Elon Musk told me he’d “feel like an ass” if he stiffed the group—so they’re getting $1 million from him (over 10 years) anyway.
Musk also told me that the ecstatic press around the Model S’ first drives was “gratifying,” and indeed it must have been. I’d love to be the contrarian here and point out the emperor’s lack of clothes, but in fact the car is arrayed in rich raiment.
Musk, who isn’t exactly modest, said he’d built a “better” car than the V-12-powered Aston-Martin Vantage. He’s an upstart against Aston, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year. But from my point of view, given all the Model S is and can do, I think he’s right. The big question isn’t whether the Model S is good (it is) but whether Tesla can turn it into a mainstream car with Aston-like longevity.
The car I drove is the standard vehicle, with the optional 85-kilowatt-hour (300-mile) battery pack. In that guise it’s $77,400 before the federal income tax credit, and $69,900 after it. Some have described the standard interior as Spartan, but I found it nicely understated. Startup cars usually have glaring fit-and-finish problems, but none were apparent on the Model S.
I missed door pockets, but one of Tesla’s moves here is to get rid of the CD player, so that obvious cargo won’t be making the ride. Absent a transmission tunnel, the center console offered a large, flat storage space that Tesla is planning to equip with custom lockable bins and cupholders. The 17-inch screen dominates, of course. I’d need a longer time to evaluate it properly, but I especially liked the touch suspension and regenerative braking settings. The huge screen could get distracting, but it can be dimmed and there’s a night-driving option. Tesla doesn’t stop you from surfing the web on the fly, but Car Talk definitely recommends against it.
It was raining, and the tiny shifter is on the right, so in looking for the wipers I accidentally put the car into neutral twice before getting on the road. I don’t consider it a defect; owners would get used to that in a day. With an electric car’s big torque advantage, the Model S takes off without fanfare or noise on the run onto Route 17. I had Tesla’s Ted Merendino and Christina Ra along for the ride, which was a good thing because otherwise I’d have gotten lost in the vicious NJ traffic. The GPS (which displays maps on the screen and in front of the driver) came in handy.
I exploited any gaps in the traffic with a big push on the accelerator. Zero to 60 comes up in 5.6 seconds in this model. The strong tendency is to drive the car aggressively, but the Model S shows you graphically how you’re compromising range when you take that option. My car had 266 miles of range when I started out and 213 when I got back, but the display said if I’d continued pushing it hard only 139 miles were left.
Pushing the car into corners was fun, because as others have mentioned the low center of gravity caused by the battery pack mounting underneath the passenger compartment yields great handling characteristics. It doesn’t lean much, if at all, and goes around the bend quietly without tire squeal. Nothing the Model S does is especially dramatic, except for that creamy and relentless forward thrust it provides on demand. I felt some vibration through the wheel on Route 17, but it went away on smoother surfaces.
Using the “standard” regen braking yields a very noticeable pushback when the driver eases up on the accelerator. The low setting takes most of that away, but I’d recommend staying with it, both for added range and the potential for staying off the foot brakes. Tesla isn’t initially offering “creep” or hill-holding, and that could be a challenge when you’re stopped on a hill. Merendino says that both will be offered soon as part of a wireless software upgrade.
Some of the Model S’ mature benefits were obvious only after we’d returned to the big hotel. There’s a “frunk” with big storage up front where you’d expect the motor to be, and a similarly cavernous space at the back. My test car had the $1,500 option of fold-up rear kids’ seats. I’d been skeptical that these seats were for anything but show, but in fact they offer really good legroom, if not much chance to pester people in the other seats. I’m over six feet, but with the seat properly adjusted I could still sit behind it in the second row—a rarity in high-performance cars.
I’m looking for demerits on the Model S, and not many were revealed in my drive. It’s easy to imagine living with this car. It’s even easier to develop a passionate longing for one. The love affair could cool if charging presents challenges. Musk promised me that Tesla’s Supercharger, with one-hour Model S recharge times, will be announced in September. Here's a video look at the car, shot right after the drive:
Maybe around then Tesla will also be offering voice recognition. Musk said Siri is under consideration, but it’s more likely that the company will develop its own system—it’s the Tesla way. On Tuesday, Tesla said that it will offer the TuneIn service on the Model S—giving access to something like 70,000 Internet radio stations in 230 countries, without an onboard cell phone. Obviously, the company is trying to be cutting edge on infotainment.
Also to come is more interactivity, such as head-end display, from Pandora and other apps. Since it’s a Wi-Fi download, the car won’t have to go back to the Tesla dealer, which is a good thing because many owners won’t have one nearby. No matter, the company says. “Tesla Service Rangers can come to your home or office to perform routine maintenance.”
Sure, Tesla has challenges given its embryonic dealer network. Can the Model S really make the 30,000 sales targeted for 2013? It certainly won’t be easy. But the company has proven adept at getting free publicity from heavy-breathing journalists like me, and it’s got pretty good name recognition, at least here in the U.S. The people who want it really want it, so they’re willing to go the extra mile. Fortunately, given that 300-mile battery pack, so is the car.