Driving a Tesla Model S: A Glimpse into the (Electric) Future

, senior vehicles analyst | January 9, 2014, 12:17 pm EDT
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This past weekend I had the opportunity to test drive a Tesla Model S, and it’s an amazing car to drive. Its luxury and high performance has won it accolades like Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year—but the inherent benefits of being an electric car are what really set it apart.

What an electric powertrain can do

The first thing you notice when you turn a battery electric vehicle “on” is nothing – there is no engine turning over, no vibration in the vehicle whatsoever, no spinning or whirring noises… nothing. When you shift into Drive and release the brake pedal, you simply go. And when you step on the accelerator, believe me, the Model S goes.

Showroom inspection of the Tesla Model S

Inspecting the Model S before hitting the road

I got to test drive the P85 version of the Model S, which is the performance edition and contains both the largest battery and the most efficient inverter, which means that it has a 0-to-60 time of about 4 seconds. All I can tell you is that it means near-instantaneous speed, particularly off the line. An electric motor generates the maximum torque at zero speed, and you can feel it.

In addition to the incredible acceleration, the Model S has a surprisingly potent feature to capture energy through deceleration, regenerative braking. While hybrid vehicles have used regenerative braking for years, the Model S engages regeneration the instant you let off the accelerator pedal to slow the car while storing the recaptured energy in the battery. This enables single-pedal driving so that you essentially don’t have to use the brake pedal. Once you adapt to single-pedal driving, it both maximizes efficiency and is also incredibly fun.

What about other electric vehicles?

So why don’t all electric vehicles drive like a Tesla? The most obvious answer is simply cost. At no point in the test drive did I forget that I was driving a luxury automobile. Besides the high capacity battery and powerful electric motor, there are many other upgrades on this car. To improve aerodynamics, the Tesla Model S retracts the door handles. The center console has been replaced by a giant touchscreen display with complimentary internet connection. The model I drove even had an adjustable air suspension that enabled improved handling and aerodynamics.

Interior on-road shot of Tesla Model S

Cruising the streets of DC in my borrowed luxury EV.

But you don’t need have to buy a luxury car to enjoy the advantages of an electric powertrain. There are over 50,000 Chevy Volts on the road in the United States, and all of them feature some of that same low-end torque that makes the Tesla S so thrilling off the line. And while some of the earliest electric vehicles on the market may have been designed to win over consumers with their exceptional fuel efficiency, we are starting to see design changes take place as automakers go after a broader consumer base.

The Fiat 500e, for example, has more horsepower and torque than the gasoline-powered 500, and has received kudos for its peppy performance. The Chevy Spark EV also has more horsepower and improved acceleration compared to its gasoline counterpart, with 400 ft-lbs. of torque racing off the line. And Tesla themselves intend to debut a more affordable sedan known as the Model E by 2015.

Whether it’s a high-end vehicle like the Tesla Model S or a peppy city car like the Fiat 500e, it’s easiest to grasp the driving advantages of an EV by experiencing the car in person. As more potential car buyers get an opportunity to check out what an electric powertrain can do, more people will choose to make their next car an EV. We’re already seeing the sales of electric cars accelerate, with an 84% increase from 2012 to 2013, putting us on the path to cutting Half the Oil from our transportation fleet. So if you find yourself with the opportunity, check out a Tesla Model S or any number of the other electric vehicles available today, and experience the future of transportation.

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  • We don’t need expensive Teslas designed for the wealthy or rocket ships from Virgin Air to loft Bob and Betty Big Bucks into orbit so they can look down on the rest of us who NEED electric cars that deliver great mileage and modest acceleration. We must outgrow that sort of dated, hairy chested, zero to sixty in minus 6 seconds mentality!

    • Thanks for your comment, George. As I noted in my article – the thrills available in an electric powertrain transcend price and are available in many of the EVs available today. And if you don’t need to sacrifice performance, why would you? The ability for electric vehicles to meet (and perhaps exceed) the characteristics consumers are looking for today is what is going to help get more of them out on the road and reduce our oil consumption.

  • Barry Fitzgerald

    As an owner of a Ford Focus EV (not mentioned in the article), I have to say that it is the least expensive transportation I have ever leased. We use it about 1000miles /mo and the cost of everything but the lease (~$200/mo) is ZERO. With night time charging on PGE EV Rate we save overall money on the electric bill in spite of the incremental extra usage by the vehicle which only slightly increased our consumption. Part of the reason usage was flat may be that we eliminated a spa heater, but the costs went down.
    The vehicle is very responsive and quiet. I drove the BMW i3 which was made as an EV from the start, and it was quite a bit more responsive yet. But space is significantly reduced inside.

    • I haven’t yet driven the Focus EV, Barry, but I appreciate your positive feedback. Depending on driving patterns, an EV could use about as much electricity as a hot tub, but as you point out, some utilities work with consumers to provide time-of-use rates, which can help lower costs and shift the burden on the grid to off-peak usage. When viewed on a “total cost of ownership” basis, EVs can provide quite a value – glad to see your experience has been a good one.

  • Matthew Stephen

    To be fair, the author say the Volt has “SOME of the same low end torque” as a Tesla. As a Chevy Volt owner, I would agree. Put it in “Sport” mode, and you will feel instant aggressive power from 273 lb-ft of torque. David Noland, who owns both a Volt and a Tesla (60 KWH model) wrote an article a few months ago comparing the two for “Green Car Reports.” You can Google it, but the bottom line is that he said the Volt holds up surprisingly well to the Tesla Model S. Regardless, I am still saving for a Tesla! Their Supercharger network (now up to 53 locations – going to 200) will make the Tesla a car for all needs. And they can be used free for life.

  • Charlotte Omoto

    I appreciate the author’s attempt to give a balanced view of EVs by mentioning other manufacturers than Tesla. Yet other EVs do not have the power of a Tesla. For example, 0-60 for the Chevy Volt is almost 9 seconds, approximately double the time for the Model S, so saying that they have the “same low end torque” seems a bit of a stretch. Other than Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt (which really isn’t a pure EV) other EVs mentioned in the article are “Available at participating dealers in CA and OR in limited quantities”. In fact the article that is referred to regarding Fiat 500e begins “The Fiat 500e electric car is Chrysler’s token entry for complying with California’s zero-emissions mandate.” So left to the traditional automakers and without a CA ZEV mandate, the future of EV is not as bright as the author states. In fact, most people will not have the choice to make their next car an EV unless they live in California. I am not sure that cost is the overriding reason that other EV cars are not like Tesla. I think most others are modification of their ICE counterparts because these auto manufacturers don’t see the future as EV as the author and do not want to put in resources to make good EVs but just to comply with ZEV mandate. I have spoken to auto dealers, and many not only do not mention their EV cars, but when I bring them up, they put it down!

    • Thank you for comments, Charlotte. In terms of the “low-end torque”, a 0-to-60 time isn’t that informative, particularly with electric motors, which have a different power profile than a standard combustion engine – as I mentioned in the post, they perform best at zero speed, or “off the line”. It’s true that while perhaps not directly comparable, the Volt is actually not far off the base model S in 0-to-30mph time, which is more what I was referring to – it’s just that at higher speeds there’s a more substantial drop off in power.

      A more crucial question, though, is the accessibility of EVs to everyday drivers. These vehicles are typically not sold solely in California, though there is inertia and support for them in that state. Seven other states have signed agreements to adopt CA’s zero-emission vehicle policy. These 8 states in total amount to nearly 30% of new vehicle sales in the United States, and OEMs will continue to expand the roll-out of new vehicles across the country in response.

      Your issue of how a traditional OEM treats EVs vs. a start-up is also an important one. Tesla has a model built on selling luxury automobiles to eventually subsidize the production of a mass-market vehicle. But right now, their facilities are significantly underutilized, and they are only competing with other luxury brands. Because some OEMs see electric vehicles as cannibalizing the sales of some of their other models, and since the production costs of these vehicles are still rather high, there isn’t as strong an incentive to sell in high volume. Plus, it’s easier for them to simply add a new “engine” to an existing model. But, as I mentioned, we are seeing consistent growth, and there are OEMs like BMW, GM, and Nissan who are more willing to go “all-in” on the EV powertrain. Those that are more risk-averse may find themselves behind the curve, but that doesn’t mean they won’t more aggressively hop on board if EV sales continue to rise and battery costs come further down.

      • Charlotte Omoto

        Isn’t it sad that it takes a ZEV mandate to get auto manufacturers to sell EVs? If that is the main driving force for an auto manufacturers to sell a vehicle they’ve already designed and make, all it would take would be an anti-EV pro-oil legislature or in the earlier case in CA, an “independent” air control board to eliminate the mandate and they’ll get rid of the car, or worse yet in the earlier case of EV1 in CA, crush them.

        This is why Tesla is pushing EVs. The Model S is in the luxury class by cost, but you might be surprised how many former Prius or Nissan Leaf owners, who previously not owned a car in that price range, buying Teslas. Check this out