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

January 9, 2014 | 12:17 pm
Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

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 The center console has been replaced by a giant touchscreen display with complimentary internet connection.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.