Monday, October 28, 2013

At The Wheel: We Review the Tesla Model S

Tesla’s Model S is a supercar in a luxury sedan’s clothing. If you know anything about this car, you likely know the numbers: 0-60 mph in 4.2 almost-silent seconds (making it one of the fastest sedans ever built), 416 horsepower, 250 patents plus more pending, 265-mile range on a full charge, 90 mpg-e on the highway, $0.06 per mile fueling costs.



That four-second dash to 60 mph also comes with an oppositely proportionate price tag: $89,900. Yes, the hyper-performance, top-range 85-kWh Performance Model S (P85) runs like a monster… and is priced like one, too (although much less so than most cars of similar performance).

But the Tesla Model S is indeed a car that is relevant to our industry, because you can have all the prestige, novelty, image, fuel and maintenance cost savings, and most of the aforementioned performance of this revolutionary vehicle in your fleet for just $62,400—or around the same price as a similarly equipped BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, or Audi A6.

The entry-level 60-kWh Model S—dubbed the 60—has a base price of $69,900, and all Teslas, being all-electric, zero-emissions vehicles, earn their buyers a $7,500 federal tax credit. And the 60 will still impress the hell out of you and your valued clients. It comes standard with 19-inch wheels, black textile and synthetic leather interior, 17-inch touchscreen, seven-speaker sound system with AM/FM/HD radio, mobile connector, and a J1772 charging adapter, which enables charging at Tesla and public charging stations. And for those who are always inspecting those acceleration numbers, it’ll hit 60 mph in 5.9 seconds.

The 17-inch touchscreen, which is standard on all Model S variants, is one of the most impressive points on this very impressive car. It controls everything from the climate, audio, and navigations systems to physical features of the vehicle itself, such as lighting, brake regeneration modes, ride height, steering feel, and the opening and closing of the charge port, sunroof, and front and rear trunks. Your driver and front-seat passenger can even surf the web in full, unrestricted freedom.

This system controls so many aspects of the car’s functions that there are only two buttons on the entire dash—controls for the hazard lights and glove compartment door. But perhaps the greatest thing about the car’s touchscreen-controlled digital system is that improvements for almost the entire car are like those for your smartphone: just an over-the-air software update away.

The Model S’ AC induction motor is tiny—so small that it sits between the rear wheels. This, plus placement of the lithium-ion battery packs along the floor of the vehicle, allows for a lot of important benefits. The car’s weight distribution is an astounding 47 percent front/53 percent rear—far more even-keeled than a typical vehicle, which has the mass of its behemoth gasoline engine weighing down the front. The center of gravity on a Model S is just 17.5 inches, making this car extremely safe and virtually impossible to flip. Because there are no mechanical parts that need to pass down the center of the vehicle, the floor is completely flat, providing three rear passengers with a level platform on which to place their feet, or two passengers the ability to stretch one leg over into the center of the floor. And since there is no motor up front (or behind the rear wheels), there is a small trunk under the hood—perfect for coats, bottles of water, or the driver’s personal effects—and a massive one under the rear hatchback lid. Tesla offers an optional third row of child seats which flip up out of the rear trunk’s floor, making the Model S the first hatchback in the world to offer third-row seating. But for our industry, not checking that option box means even more space for suitcases—26.3 cubic feet total (58.1 with the seats down), or about as much as a midsize SUV.

Yet another benefit of electric cars is the lack of required maintenance. Without a gasoline or diesel engine, there are no fluids, no oil to change, and almost zero engine components that can break down or require repair or replacement. Of course, an electric vehicle has its limits, too. You can’t send a Model S out for 400 miles a day and just have your driver refuel it as needed. It has to come back to your base for recharging (there are supercharging stations located throughout the U.S., as well as public charging stations, but those are of more interest to the private consumer than to those in our industry). However, the 85-kWh model has a range of 265 miles, and the 60 will go 206 miles before recharging—ranges that are more than sufficient for airport and around-town runs for your VIP clients. With a standard 240-volt wall outlet, the Model S recharges at a rate of 31 miles of range per hour of charging. Fleet operators will certainly want to invest in the High Power Wall Connector and twin chargers, which will enable their vehicles to recharge at 62 miles of range per hour. With this option, a full-range 60-kWh recharge takes just 3.35 hours, or 4.27 hours for the 85-kWh variant. All Teslas can also be charged on a standard 110-volt outlet in a pinch.
The Model S excels in the safety arena. As mentioned, the car’s center of gravity is so low that it provides an extremely stable platform on which everything rides. The electric motor’s instant torque allows for quick maneuvers in traffic and while passing. Stability and anti-lock braking systems are specifically tuned for the immediate torque and regenerative braking characteristics of the Model S’ electric powertrain. And double octagon extrusions in the front and the rear, as well as a super-strong roof structure, ensure that your driver and clients are well protected at all times. Tesla claims the Model S exceeds federal crash standards, as it has been impact-tested at 50 mph, while the mandatory standard is 35 mph.

We drove two Model S SP85+ test vehicles on two separate occasions (a 60 was not available for testing), and we were beyond impressed. The car is smooth as butter, whether strolling through a parking lot at 10 mph or instantly and seamlessly (one gear = no shifting) rocketing to 60 in a few seconds. Though the car is built for handling and performance, it is also surprisingly well-mannered, and we felt cushioned and coddled by the suspension and the leather seats when sitting in the back. Although rear legroom is certainly nothing compared to that of a Town Car, our legs were comfortably semi-stretched, and we enjoyed being able to extend them out into the flat center floor. The All Glass Panoramic Roof in both of our test vehicles was among the most spectacular appointments visible from the rear seats, and we were amazed by the near-absence of heat from the sun intruding into the vehicle on one hot and sunny day, even though we knew the roof’s glass was blocking 98 percent of visible light and 81 percent of heat. When we weren’t admiring that, we were transfixed by the beautiful 17-inch display being used by the driver to adjust vehicle settings. Needless to say, the Model S is a vehicle that impresses its passengers.

With no immediate maintenance expenses and such low fueling costs, the Model S is a car that in many ways pays for itself. Its design is gorgeous—both elegant and sporting at the same time—and any client will be impressed and amazed when they step out of an airport, hotel or their home to find this car waiting for them, whether they know about Tesla or not. If they do, they’ll be even further affected, knowing what this car can do on the road, with so little relative impact to the environment. This is an American-made car that everyone wants to see and be seen in. It’s no wonder the Tesla Model S is gaining momentum in the luxury ground transportation industry, as it allows companies to save money while going above and beyond what their clients expect. In this game, there’s no better formula than that. //LD

Written by Evan McCauley

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