Tesla Model S first drive report

Only UK motoring journalist invited to drive pure-electric saloon gives us the lowdown

By Alistair Weaver on July 4, 2012 1:34 PM

Tesla CEO Elon Musk reckons that within twenty years, over half the new cars built will be electrically powered. He is determined to, “destroy the illusion that electric cars can’t be as good as petrol cars,” and to prove that his fledgling company can build, “the best cars in the world.”

These are bold claims indeed but the chief exec has reason to be optimistic. We were chatting in Silicon Valley, California, where Tesla was launching the Model S, a battery-powered electric sports saloon with an official range (in America) of 265 miles. Tesla had already taken 10,000 orders for the car (before anyone outside the company had driven it) and plans to build 20,000 next year.

While Tesla’s first car, the incredibly rapid Roadster, was essentially an electric drivetrain planted in a Lotus Elise chassis, the Model S is bespoke. It employs a high-powered battery pack located under the floor of the car in a 4-inch deep stack. An electric motor sits on the rear axle.

One notable feature is its colossal size. It’s 0.4 inches longer than a Porsche Panamera and a full three inches wider. The latter could be a problem in the UK.

Inside, attention focuses on a 17in touchscreen display that looks like a giant iPad and controls everything from the air-conditioning to the air suspension. The quality is good and there’s room inside for five, plus a couple of rearward facing jump seats in the boot. There’s a second boot in the nose, which Tesla calls the ‘frunk’, or front trunk.

Behind the wheel

We drove the car on the day that Tesla handed over the first Model S’s to customers and, in line with other media titles, our time was limited to around 15 minutes behind the wheel. That’s not enough for a full road test, but it did offer some useful first impressions.

The Performance model boasts 416bhp and 443lb-ft of torque, sprinting from 0-60mph in 4.4sec and hitting 130mph before the electronics call time. As with most other electric cars there’s no gearbox as such, just forward and reverse.

From a standstill the acceleration is downright vicious thanks to an instantaneous lug of torque, but what’s equally impressive is its ability to maintain that acceleration to 100mph and beyond. And it does so in near silence, the calm being disturbed only by some tyre roar and a slight wind rustle around the windscreen.

"From a standstill the acceleration is downright vicious thanks to an instantaneous lug of torque, but what’s equally impressive is its ability to maintain that acceleration to 100mph and beyond."

It’s all so easy – you just extend a big toe and the Tesla scampers forwards at a pace that will worry Porsche. Lifting off the throttle encourages re-generative braking. The effect is not as brutal as in the Mini E or BMW Active-E, but the ‘engine braking’ effect is still more aggressive than it is in a traditional petrol or diesel car. Most Tesla owners will learn to use this feature to slow the car for corners, rather than relying on the (effective) brakes.

Despite weighing a hefty 2108kg, the Model S benefits from a low centre of gravity. It’s more agile than it bulk suggests; the double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension have been developed under the stewardship of Graham Sutherland, a Brit who spent more than twenty years at Lotus. Air suspension on the car we drove is standard on all bar the entry-level models and you can manually adjust the ride height.

Although there’s some body roll on the entry to corners, there’s no shortage of grip. Only the tell-tale blink of the stability control system under hard, mid-corner acceleration suggests the rear-wheels are fighting to control all that torque. This Tesla will have no troubling mixing it with more traditional sports saloons from BMW, Audi or Mercedes.

Initial impressions suggest it also has a fine ride quality despite the 21in alloy wheels, mixing suppleness with decent control. The steering could benefit from greater feedback though – it feels too lifeless for a car with such rabid performance.

The unknown for now is the real world range. Tesla says it’s good for 300 miles at a steady 55mph, although you’re unlikely to match that or the official figure if you exploit the car’s performance, of course. We’ll reserve judgement until we’ve tested a car in UK conditions.

The Model S arrives in the UK in right-hand drive next summer. It is not “the best car in the world”, but as a first attempt, it’s undeniably impressive. Tesla is getting serious.

About Alistair Weaver:

Alistair Weaver is an award-winning motoring journalist and broadcaster. He began his career at Autocar and has gone on to contribute to most of the world’s top automotive and lifestyle publications. His presenting career includes ITV1’s Pulling Power and 5 Live Drives for BBC Radio 5 Live and Alistair is the MD of Gaucho Productions. He was the first and only UK journalist to the invited to drive the Tesla Model S at its launch event in June.

Images: Dewhurst Photography