The Tesla Model S: Preparing to Launch

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 01, 2012

I’ve been writing about the Tesla Model S as a work in progress so long it’s hard to imagine it as an actual, on-the-road car. But the first customers will take delivery on June 22. And the car is no longer theoretical. I predict that the Model S will be the model to establish Tesla as a significant player in the auto future - it’s the company’s first all-new car, designed from the ground up as an electric. 

The Tesla Model S: It sure looks fast, but a test ride will prove it. (Tesla Motors photo)I’ve done everything with the Model S except drive it. I’ve ridden in it, sat behind the wheel, kicked the tires, played with the 17-inch infotainment screen, checked the legroom and the storage space - both under the hood and in the trunk. The driving experience is critical, though. I expect the low center of gravity (the battery pack is underneath) will help the car get a good grip on the road. The real test waits on the crucible of the great American road. Right now I can definitely say I love the way the car looks, and wish I could afford one (prices start at $57,400 before a federal $7,500 tax credit).

Tesla is busy trying to convince us the car is real, including with a look inside the Tesla Factory (formerly the GM/Toyota NUMMI) in Fremont, California. The aluminum bodyshells are produced there with giant hydraulic presses--the largest of their kind in North America, capable of producing a part every six seconds. Kuka robots, similar to those I saw at work in a BMW factory in German, line up blank sheets of aluminum, then the stamper exerts 1,000 tons of force to form them into finished panels for the paint shop. Here's the process on video:

Tesla's CEO has been much in the news because of the successful rocket launch by his other company, Space X, but there’s a bunch of electric car news. The word is that the car will have adjustable regenerative braking, which is a really good idea I’d like to see adopted more widely. Some cars have too much of that effect, which can result in the car dramatically de-accelerating when you lift off from the accelerator, and others have too little, which results in energy being “left on the table.” I love the idea of making your own choices.
And then there’s the range question. The first 1,000 Model S cars will be Signature models, with an 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack. The range goal for those cars was 300 miles, but Tesla is likely to surpass that—at least under ideal conditions. The company is planning to offer a prize for the first customer to get what it says is an achievable 400 miles on a charge, and Tesla predicts that 350 miles will be routinely possible, assuming a level road, 45 mph, rolled-up windows, no climate control and 300 pounds of load.
Even better was the detail I got from a screen in Tesla’s new Westchester, New York “new design” store. It’s very touchy-feely, with cars to climb on, lots of tchotchkes to buy, seat fabrics and interior wood choices, and finger-friendly screens that let you design your own Model S.
Tesla Model S cars on display outside the company's store at The Westchester mall in New York. (Jim Motavalli photo)George Blankenship, Tesla’s vice president of worldwide sales and ownership experience, told me that the design stores (all of which are in malls) are about letting people learn for themselves about how electric cars work, with actually buying one perhaps down the road. The screens let would-be owners explore how the car would work as day-to-day transportation. There are range estimates with many variables, including a whopping 378 miles if you do everything absolutely right. Range is assisted by the Model S’s slippery shape—the car has approximately 0.24 Cd, which is better than a Prius.
Tesla says some Roadster owners have gotten over 300 miles on a charge, but again that’s under ideal conditions. Use the heater a lot and drive fast, and less than 200 miles is more likely. The Model S has batteries that could be switchable, but the company is instead saying it’s more likely that they’ll come out only for routine maintenance. Instead, they’re emphasizing fast 480-volt charging with the Tesla “superchargers” that are expected soon. With Tesla’s 80-amp, 240-volt wall connector, charging a depleted Model S Signature model will take four hours and 55 minutes, the display said.
The 17-inch infotainment touch screen in the Model S invites fingertip exploration. (Tesla Motors photo)And what about the car’s carbon footprint when pollution from power plants is taken into account? In California, with a relatively clean electricity grid, Tesla says a 40-mile daily drive will produce 8.52 pounds of carbon dioxide, compared to 35.27 pounds in an unspecified gas vehicle. Vermont has 74 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, so the equation is especially good - just .03 pounds of CO2 from the Model S, compared to the same 35 pounds from that of a gas car. Tesla claims that even in Indiana, with a 97 percent coal grid, a Model S would produce 27.96 pounds of CO2, compared to the 35 from a gas car.
The Tesla’s equations look good on paper. As I write, we’re three weeks from delivery date, so I expect to get behind the wheel very soon.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One