What is it?
Deep in the heart of Silicon Valley, a young billionaire stood up and told his audience that Tesla would build ‘the best car in the world’. Elon Musk is determined to, “destroy the illusion that electric cars can’t be as good as petrol cars,” and his mission begins with the launch of the Model S.
While the Tesla Roadster was little more than an electrically powered Lotus Elise, the Model S is a bespoke concept. It marks Tesla’s emergence as a significant player in the world of electric vehicles. The company has taken 10,000 deposits and plans to build 20,000 next year.
What's it like?
For a car with such a radical powertrain, its styling is strangely generic. To our eyes it blends elements of the Jaguar XF, Aston Rapide and new Ford Mondeo. It doesn’t look like an electric car - there’s even a dummy radiator grille. “We are designing a car and building a brand around a powertrain that’s hard for people to take on board,” says chief designer Franz von Holzhausen. “The car needed to look familiar and be easy to accept. In the future we can be more experimental.”
The most notable feature of the exterior is its size. It’s 0.4in longer than a Porsche Panamera and a full 3in wider. The latter could be a problem in the UK and given the Tesla’s urban credentials, it’s a curious oversight.
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 acceptable but for a brand determined to do its own thing, it’s a surprise to find stalks and switches pinched from the Mercedes parts bin.
As you'd expect given its scale, there’s room inside for five, plus the option of a couple of rearward facing jump seats in the boot. There’s a second boot in the nose, which Tesla calls the frunk for ‘front trunk’. Under the floor there’s a 4in deep battery stack, while the electric motor resides on the rear axle. There are no plans for a four-wheel drive Model S.
The double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension has been developed under the stewardship of Graham Sutherland, a Brit who spent over 20 years at Lotus. Air suspension is standard on all bar the entry-level models and you can manually adjust the ride height.
The first, ‘early adopter’ cars will be of a high specification and our test car was the flagship Signature Performance, which costs $97,900 (£63k) in the US. It boasts 416bhp and 443lb ft of torque, sprinting from 0-60mph in 4.4sec and hitting 130mph before the electronics call time.
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 A-pillars. This Tesla redefines the idea of effortless performance.
Despite weighing a hefty 2108kg, the Model S benefits from a low centre of gravity. It rolls a little then takes a set and is more agile than it bulk suggests, although the steering could benefit from greater feedback. Initial impressions suggest it has a fine ride quality despite the 21in rims, mixing suppleness with decent control.
Should I buy one?
The unknown for now is the real world range. The official US EPA rating is 265 miles, although you’re unlikely to match that if you exploit the car’s performance. We’ll reserve judgement until we’ve tested a car in UK conditions.
The Model S is not, ‘the best car in the world’ but as a first attempt, it’s undeniably impressive. Tesla is getting serious and the rest of the world should take note.
Tesla Model S Signature Performance
Price: $97,900 (£63k); 0-62mph: 4.4sec; Top speed: 130mph (limited); Economy: 265 mile range (US EPA rating); CO2: 0; Kerbweight: 2108kg; Engine type, cc: three phase, four pole AC induction motor; Installation: rear, transverse; Power: 416bhp at 5000-8600rpm; Torque: 443lb ft at 0-5100rpm; Gearbox: 1-speed auto