A decade ago Tesla almost went down in a flame of glory, but the nameplate recovered and went on to become one of the most disruptive forces in the automotive industry. The Model S has now been in production for six years, and with over 200,000 made, electric cars are a reality.
My personal introduction to Tesla came a number of years ago when colleague Sue Callaway drove a Model S shortly after its introduction. “This is a true paradigm shift,” she said on the phone while weaving through southern California traffic, “and I don’t say that lightly.” I took notice, for Sue is a true automotive skeptic, one who recognizes PR puffery from the real deal.
The next personal contact to pick up the Tesla torch was Chris Porritt. For years he was Aston Martin’s chief development engineer and driver, where his last car was the 750 horsepower, V12-powered One-77. That was right before he moved to California and Tesla, where I found him extolling the virtues of electrification, and calling most every car on the planet an “IC” (internal combustion), almost like “IC” meant it was somehow inferior.
“Dude,” I said as we walked along the production line, “you are creeping me out. You sound like the member of some cult.”
The Story Continues
Since then I’ve been a passenger in a Model S, so when a well-to-do friend called to say his new 75D was sitting in the garage, and how impressed he was, I listened. He’s gone through a number of new and old Ferraris, Porsches, Astons, BMWs, Mercedes and more, and currently has a BMW Gran Coupe Alpina, restored 427 Cobra and a remarkable, all original Triumph TR6 in the garage.
Several days later I found myself in the Tesla, silently whisking through the countryside at an enjoyable clip, talking with him about the differences between the 75, 90 and 100, and why he went with the 75 (“the 30 extra miles of range and the two-tenths of a second quicker to 60 mph weren’t worth $60,000”). All this and more had Mr. Analog here wondering if I too would become a card-carrying member of the fervent (and growing) “non-IC” contingent…
Starting the Model S is different from any car I’ve driven, for as you approach it literally comes to life. Beautifully sculpted door handles pop out, side mirrors rotate into position, and the dashboard, ambient lighting, and climate control come online. Clamor through a door that allows for easy ingress and egress, and the two-tone interior looks quite inviting. The high-back seat is firm but comfortable, with slight bolstering on the sides; I only wish the seat cushion was slightly longer for additional leg support for taller drivers.
Look around, and the interior is brilliant in its cleanliness of design. Brushed aluminum trim is applied in the right amounts, and has a beautiful symmetry and flow, as do the door panels and the top of the dash. The interior door handles must have won a number of design awards (if not, they should), while the space-age dash is a marvel to behold. The screen displayed the owner’s music choice, a rendering of the car (done in the exterior color), what I call the “gas tank” (how many miles are left on the battery), and a marvelous energy consumption gauge that either looks like a heart monitor or stock market volatility chart, depending upon one’s point of view. Then there’s the large screen to the right in the center of the dash, which I never even played with.
On the Move
So what’s it like on the move? Outside of simply getting into the car and quietly driving away without ever touching a key or starter button, my biggest adjustments were for the transmission, brakes, and engine and exhaust symphony—or rather, lack thereof.
I prefer a floor-mounted transmission, but Tesla’s steering column shift fits the car. It works just like a BMW’s where up engages reverse, and down is drive, and as we silently glided backward out of the garage the second adjustment came to the fore. The brakes have no linearity to the way they grab, for it seems 20% of the pedal travel does 90% of the work. In that way, they are like a Citroen, but you soon adjust so it becomes second nature.
Enjoy the Quiet
Which leads to the biggest change—the lack of mechanical noise. Once underway there is an occasional slight
electronic hum, and the silence soon becomes surprisingly enjoyable. The owner and I had a meaningful conversation about watching children grow and mature, and how influential a parent’s input is into the equation, and never once did we raise a voice to be heard, no matter how fast we were going. The experience was tranquil and relaxing, for coupled with the car’s pleasant ride and incredibly rigid chassis, it was like hanging out with a friend in a “feng shui” sitting room and watching the world go by.
Indeed, the chassis and underpinnings are two of the Tesla’s stronger attributes. The ride is nicely (but appropriately) firm, and as we sailed along an undulating road with a series of serious dips and rises, the Model S seemed to perfectly trace the rise and fall of each with no fussiness whatsoever. It also adhered to the tarmac when hustled through some turns, where it exhibited little body lean.
Lack of Conversation
Such accolades can’t be said about the steering, which may be the car’s weakest point. Not only does it feel pretty dead straight ahead but there’s not much resistance when you turn so you don’t feel it loading up at all, let alone the granularity of the road surface. The return action was much the same, and that lack of “conversation” was prevalent when I planted the accelerator for the first time coming out of a turn. It caused the front end to fishtail slightly as I over-corrected one way, and then another, before getting the car straightened out.
But it’s easy to adapt to the Tesla’s friendly nature, and such nuances soon fade into the background. Plus the Model S has safety nannies aplenty should you go too far astray. That in-dashboard vehicle rendering shows your lane placement, and when you stray too far off line, the steering wheel starts vibrating. At first that pulsating threw me for a curve, for I’m used to feedback from road surfaces and not some programmer’s code!
The First Rev
What about the acceleration so many rave about? With maximum horsepower and torque available from rev One, pin the throttle on the floor and two invisible hands grab your shoulders and pull you backward, the silent seamless surge continuing unabated. Around 70 mph it starts to let up slightly and loses some (but not most) of its vigor as the car pulls into triple digits.
Where the Tesla is more than happy to cruise at. The chassis is quite composed at 100+ mph, and you glide along in comfortable, mechanical silence, the only real shortcoming the whistling from the window sealing near the top of the A-pillar that’s not quite doing its job. Then, when you slow down and come to a stop, the “compression braking” effect is amazing. Simply taking your foot off of the accelerator slows the Telsa at an alarming rate, and it will come to a complete rest if you let it.
So what to make of Elon Musk’s wonder-mobile? No question this is a very impressive transportation appliance, but I’m a lover of motorcars—machines with distinct personalities, layers of nuances and unique traits. After driving for 20-30 minutes, feeling partial and full acceleration a number of times, hustling through some turns, hitting triple digit speeds, and doing normal stop-and-go driving, I looked at the owner and said, “I’m done, we can go home now.”
In that time the Tesla had shown me the vast majority of its personality, for there aren’t a lot of subtleties to discover. There was no extra pull of an engine coming on cam or turbo boost kicking in, an exhaust note that varied depending upon rpm, steering that gave different resistance and feedback related to how hard you were in a corner, the tactile feel of manually changing gears or bringing the brake pedal right up to the point of locking up, or the minute vibrations and sounds you feel in the right car when it’s at idle that say, “I’m alive, lets go!”
Then, as we got close to the owner’s house, something surprising happened: I suggested we continue to drive. We were having such a marvelous time catching up on life, cars, the economy and more, and I didn’t want that to end.’
And that’s when it hit me. The Model S wasn’t engaging or involving, but simply an enjoyable place to be. It doesn’t carry on a conversation with the driver, or flirt with you about its capabilities, but is something entirely different. Think “I Robot,” “Minority Report” or any number of other futuristic movies where they zip around in an electric vehicle or transportation module, and this is exactly how you would imagine those to be. Where everything is done seamlessly, just like when you swipe the screen on your iPhone.
Thus, there’s no way I’d take a Tesla out for a weekend (or weekday) pleasure drive. But in terms of a practical daily driver (“IC” or not), or being in that silent mobile sitting room where you spend time conversing with a friend rather than the car itself, the Model S excels.