Tesla Motors originally came to fame when Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, created the worlds first full electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster. This was followed in 2012 by the world launch of the Tesla Model S, an upmarket luxury saloon, electrically powered and with a claimed range of 300 miles, far in excess of the 100 or thereabouts miles of the rest of the electric car models on offer, none of which provide either the size or levels of luxury offered by the Model S. The first customer Model S’s were brought to the UK a few months ago, and Tesla’s “Supercharger” rapid chargers are just starting to be rolled out across the country.
Regular readers of the site will recall that I have consistently highlighted the Tesla Model S as the shape of things to come, at least as far as its power system is concerned. A recent opportunity to sample this intriguing machine could therefore not be missed.
At first sight, the Model S looks to be a typical, stylish mid-to-large size saloon, at 4970mm long being about the same length as a Jaguar XF. On closer examination however, intriguing aspects of detail design emerge, and it becomes clear that this is no ordinary saloon. It’s very extraordinariness stems from the fact that, untrammelled by the need to design and manufacture the car using the staff & factories of an existing motor manufacturer, Tesla created a design team from scratch, and redeveloped a shut-down GM / Toyota manufacturing plant in Fremont, California.
This freedom from having to adhere to existing hardware & practices means that the Tesla abounds with unique and interesting details. Provided that you have the keyfob with you, as you arrive at the car the door handles, previously flush with the bodywork, glide out to meet you. Walking round the car, the absence of a fuel filler or charging port flap is noted, for the charging point is cunningly integrated into the side of one of the rear lights.
Opening the bonnet reveals a massive luggage space, unencumbered by batteries, electric motors or control gear. Similarly, opening the tailgate also reveals a huge and equally unencumbered loadspace. So big, in fact, that Tesla have cleverly developed an optional set of ECE-approved rearward-facing child seats for this area. In a further example of blue-sky thinking, the seat belts for these seats are uniquely adjustable so as to fit children between 3 and 12 years of age, avoiding the need for separate child seats. Sensibly, where this third row of seats is specified, Tesla have developed increased strengthening for the rear bumper to provide additional protection for these passengers.
How does the Model S manage to achieve two huge luggage spaces? Again, by designing the car from scratch to be an electric vehicle, Tesla have succeeded in optimising the body structure to suit. Thus for example, all the batteries are tucked under, and indeed incorporated into, the floor. Motors and battery controls are equally unobtrusively packaged, leaving the majority of the car’s volume for passenger and luggage space.
Once aboard the Model S, and sinking into the beautifully-finished leather seats, first impressions are of the huge 17” centre display screen, easily the size of a pair of iPads and far bigger than that seen on any other car. The rest of the facia is cleanly styled and unencumbered with the usual plethora of switchgear, indeed the whole facia only features two switches – and one of those is the glovebox catch!
The centre touchscreen display, then, is in every respect the heart of controlling the Model S. From its’ obvious satellite navigation role, which uses Google Maps to ensure being bang up-to-date, through to providing screens to adjust feature such as steering effort, brake regeneration, and the like, the screen provides a comprehensive “mission control centre” for the Model S. Some touchscreens can be hard to use in a moving car, in this case operation was relatively easy as the size means that the target areas for “buttons” are set comparatively well apart, although obviously there is no physical button to touch and so it is necessary to look at the screen to make any changes to settings.
Although initially looking daunting, use of the screen soon becomes second nature to any PC user, as a similar basic structure of menus is used. Indeed, the car is internet-enabled, and the screen is to all intents & purposes a PC, incorporating an optional hard drive to ensure that, for example, those Google Maps are not lost in the event of a connection disruption. Indeed, not only are the maps stored, so are many other settings, including up to 10 driver profiles covering seating and steering wheel positions as well as rear view mirror settings.
Normal internet connection is via the 3G mobile phone network, with 4 years of free connectivity included. Even if the connection is not renewed after this time, updates can still be done via wi-fi. In another industry first, this internet capability is also used to enable the cars software to be updated remotely, rather than having to schedule dealer visits with consequent time off the road. As software updates can take some time on any car brand, even if carried out by the dealer, they are “pushed” to the Model S enabling the driver to install them at leisure.
Once familiar with the fascinations of the screen, a perusal of the cabin shows an impeccable level of quality throughout, together with innovative approaches to almost everything. Door handles and pulls for example are unlike anything in any other car. In comparatively low-volume cars like this, sheer economies of scale dictate that the parts bins of the worlds manufacturers must be raided to provide the necessary myriad of controls, knobs and switches. Not so the Model S: the only proprietary item visible in the entire cabin is the steering-column-mounted gear selector lever, a Mercedes product, and even this is quite discreet.
Moving off in the Model S is an uncanny experience. No starter button, no handbrake to release, just select Drive and the car starts to gently creep forward like any good automatic. Push the accelerator further and the acceleration is impressive, courtesy of the stunning 600Nm low-speed torque of this P85+ test car, the highest performing Model S. The P85+ develops 469hp, giving the car a top speed of 130mph and a 0–60 time of 4.2 seconds.
Out on the road, the adjustable air suspension gave a cosseting ride, soaking up the worst of Britains road surfaces with aplomb, and aided by the extremely comfortable and supportive seats.
Steering effort was excellent in “normal” mode, however the “comfort” setting was unpleasantly light. Although maybe acceptable for America’s more relaxed freeways, Tesla would do well to tune this setting to better suit Britains roads.
The ability for an electric car to recover energy which would otherwise be lost by braking is the key area where electric cars, and electric vehicles generally, achieve most of their efficiency gains. On the Tesla, the level of regeneration is adjustable, as with everything else through that ubiquitous central screen. The standard regeneration setting took a little getting used to, as the car started to slow significantly immediately the drivers foot was eased, let alone removed, from the accelerator. With a little practice, this was fairly soon mastered, although again Tesla could consider softening this setting slightly for UK use.
On the move, the absence of the usual engine & exhaust sounds made tyre noise seem particularly prominent, although in reality it was probably no worse than any other similar sized car. Surprisingly, as far as we could tell, the Model S does not appear to be equipped with any external sound generation to provide pedestrians with any audible warning.
Stopping and exiting the Model S is the reverse of approaching & driving off. No positive actions other than moving the selector lever out of Drive and getting out of the car. No handbrake to apply, ignition to switch off, or doors to lock – the car does it all for you. Uncanny!
Now, as we pointed out at the start of this feature, the key claim to fame of the Model S is its’ range. We spoke at length on this to Laura Hardy, Tesla’s Communications Manager, who confirmed that depending on driving style, normal users could expect around 260 miles as a typical range. In support of this, the test car, which had doubtless had a hard life, was averaging 249 miles between “fills”. Not bad, and a far cry away from the real-world 80-100 miles typical of say a Nissan Leaf. So far, so impressive.
But what about charging? The Model S’s other claim to fame is it’s accompanying Supercharger charging system, which enables the batteries to receive a useful 50% charge in as little as 20 minutes using Tesla’s 120kW Supercharging station, of which there are unfortunately only 4 in the UK currently. This number is set to rise rapidly as further Supercharger stations are brought on stream, aided by, hopefully, other manufacturers adopting the Supercharger technology which has now been offered patent-free to the world’s motor industry. An added bonus is that lifetime use of the Supercharger network is free of charge to Model S owners.
In the meantime however, Model S owners can use most of the existing infrastructure of charging points excluding the CHAdeMO network used by the likes of the Leaf, although charge rates will be commensurately slower, and down to a painful 27 hours for a full charge on a domestic 3 pin supply.
The other stumbling block cited by some would-be electric car owners is battery life, and we pushed Laura on this point. She explained that their batteries have an 8-year warranty, although their life expectancy could be considerably greater than that depending on how they are treated by the driver. As she reminded us, lithium-ion battery life is optimised if they are generally cycled only up to about 80% of maximum capacity and not completely discharged. As such the battery management system of the Model S does keep within these limits by default, but does offer the driver the option to over-ride them if maximum range is essential.
Laura also shared with us some of Tesla’s thinking on batteries, which is both interesting and significant. Firstly, although it is possible, indeed probable, that any given Model S will require a new battery pack within its life, changing the pack is not an extensive workshop operation – in fact Tesla have developed techniques to swap battery packs within an incredible 90 seconds!
Secondly, and significantly, Tesla expect battery technology to have moved significantly by the time a replacement pack is needed, and it is here that one of their key advantages lie. Because the design of the Tesla was started from a clean sheet of paper, it was able to provide adequate space to package an adequate volume of low-capacity batteries almost identical to those used in laptops etc. and so taking advantage of economies of scale.
Other electric car manufacturers, by contrast, have been forced to squeeze batteries into their cars as best they can, necessitating expensive high power-density batteries. Battery technology gains will inevitably be seen on the high-volume consumer-goods batteries before these high power-density units, so Tesla should remain at the forefront of electric car technology for the foreseeable future.
So with pretty much all the arguments against electric car ownership pretty comprehensively destroyed by the Model S, what remains? In truth, probably only the price, with the range starting from £49,000 although the test car as kitted out retails at a rather higher £95,000! There are of course no fuel costs to factor in, although depending where you recharge, some electricity costs are likely.
All is not lost though, as Tesla have confirmed their intention to introduce further cars utilising their battery technology allied to their Supercharging system. Indeed, as this feature is written, an announcement is awaited from them on their next model, although this is unlikely as yet to be their rumoured mid-range $30,000 (£18,750) Model E. Now that really could set the cat among the pigeons!
If you found this feature interesting you can find out much more over at the Tesla Model S website here.
With thanks to Laura Hardy and the Tesla team for the loan of the car and the technical discussions.