2013 Automobile of the Year: Tesla Model S

A. J. Mueller

Last summer, Automobile Magazine editors had the opportunity to interview Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, as the company launched its all-new electric sedan. A well-known industry insider warned us not to fall for Musk's smooth talk. "Don't bring any cash," he said. "Because you'll be offering to give it to him twenty minutes into the interview."

To say there's healthy skepticism regarding Tesla and its new wundercar is an understatement: in many industry circles, it borders on outright hostility. We understand why. Building a car -- any car -- is really hard. Musk, the PayPal billionaire whose automotive accomplishments were limited to converting 2350 Lotus Elises to run on batteries, was not only proposing a class-leading sport sedan, but he promised it would have a more advanced electric powertrain than anything global automakers could muster.

He was doing this with our money -- your money -- courtesy of a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy, and he claimed to be doing it for our own good: "Since we are not appropriately pricing the CO2 capacity of the oceans and atmosphere, then the only way I could think to address that was with innovation."

We believe the proper business term to describe such a gambit is chutzpah.

We left the interview with our wallets no lighter, eager to see how the Model S would perform in the real world, removed from Musk's spin and Tesla's chaperones. As it happened, that opportunity arrived at our Automobile of the Year exercise. That's a rather intimidating environment to make a first impression, especially given that this year's field was the strongest in recent memory. We weren't expecting much from the Tesla other than some interesting dinner conversation as we considered "real" candidates like the Subaru BRZ and the Porsche Boxster. In fact, the Tesla blew them, and us, away.

Actually, the Model S can blow away almost anything. "It's the performance that won us over," admits editor-in-chief Jean Jennings. "The crazy speed builds silently and then pulls back the edges of your face. It had all of us endangering our licenses." Our Model S was of Signature Performance spec, which means its AC induction motor puts out 416 hp and that it blasts to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds. Even those numbers -- positively absurd for a large sedan that uses not a lick of gasoline -- fail to communicate how crazy it actually feels. "It's alarming to jam the accelerator of such a big car and have it surge forward so quickly and so quietly," says copy editor Rusty Blackwell. Like most electric cars, the Model S generates its torque almost instantly. Unlike most electric cars, Tesla's torque amounts to a prodigious 443 lb-ft, all of which goes to the rear wheels. The only indicators of your stunning momentum are the rush of scenery around you, a faint whine, and the digital speedometer's difficulty keeping pace. "Driving the Model S is decidedly not like piloting a Nissan Leaf or an electric Smart," notes road test editor Christopher Nelson. Contributor Ezra Dyer, meanwhile, was so impressed that he arranged an informal drag race to 100 mph with a 560-hp BMW M5. The Model S won. "It bears repeating: this thing is silly quick," he concluded.

Of course, straight-line speed is hardly our only qualification for Automobile of the Year. Tesla's first car, the two-seat Roadster, was even quicker but never made a serious bid for our award. That car was something of a one-trick pony -- everything else about the $100,000 Roadster felt like the $50,000 Lotus Elise on which it was based. The Model S, developed by Tesla from the ground up and assembled at its factory in Fremont, California, is a holistic and incredibly novel experience.

The Model S looks conventional enough -- somewhat disappointingly so. But that impression fades as soon as you walk up to it and the flush door handle powers out to meet your touch. Climb into the Tesla for the first time, and you're liable to spend a few minutes searching for the ignition button. You won't find it -- the car turned on when you sat down, and it's now waiting for you to shift into drive and glide away. The cabin is airy, modern, spacious, and impeccably trimmed in leather and wood. A flat battery pack and a rear-mounted motor yield a completely flat floor and a large, useful center-console storage area (the Model S uses a column-mounted shift lever supplied by Mercedes-Benz). Additional storage areas, such as map pockets in the door panels, might be nice but would spoil the interior's appealing, Bauhaus simplicity.

An absolutely enormous, seventeen-inch touchscreen dominates the dashboard and features the controls for everything from the radio to the steering effort. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but here it works wonderfully. Oh, yeah, and you can surf the Web on it, as well. "We turned a lot of preconceived notions on their head and said, 'Why does it have to be that way?'" says Tesla lead designer Franz von Holzhausen. Of course, practically every new car claims to be revolutionary. But this one actually feels like it is, to the point that many of us were reaching outside the automotive lexicon to describe it. "It reminds me of the first time I used an iPhone," gasped associate web editor Ben Timmins.

There's much about the Model S, which Musk himself refers to as "Tesla's Macintosh," that has an innovative, Apple flavor. As with the tech giant's slickest products, there's a sense that even the smallest details here have been lavished with attention in order to be as distinctive and elegant as possible. To open the panoramic sunroof, for instance, one brings up an overhead image of the car on the touchscreen and literally drags the roof as far back as desired. Why didn't anyone think of that before? Then there's Tesla's controversial but intriguing strategy of distributing its products through company-owned boutiques rather than conventional dealers. It's being run by George Blankenship, who set up those posh Apple stores. Finally, it's hard to ignore that Tesla has in Musk a Steve Jobs-like figure, a relentless leader who guides the company's direction. "They're both brilliant, both thinking about things that other people won't be thinking about for twenty years," Blankenship says.

For all its high-tech novelty, the Model S does an exceptional job at the things we expect any high-priced sport sedan to do well. The electric power steering is nuanced and well-weighted, with natural buildup just off-center. Through corners, the Model S exhibits impressive body control and vacuumlike grip despite weighing more than 4500 pounds. Editors also raved about the suspension's ability to soak up bumps that tortured other test cars. It was just as impressive on the racetrack -- yes, we took it on the track. "All that speed, along with powerful braking, superflat handling, and sharp steering, gives you the sense that you're invincible," marvels Jennings. And although the exterior may be lacking in gotta-have-it character, it deserves credit for achieving a claimed 0.24 coefficient of drag -- better than a Toyota Prius or a Chevrolet Volt -- without those cars' gawky styling. The only concession to weirdness and egotism are the optional rear-facing third-row seats, which Musk wanted so he could ferry around his many children.

The car's professionalism owes to the fact that, despite its Silicon Valley sheen, Tesla employs plenty of people who know a lot about building cars. That begins with von Holzhausen, who penned the Pontiac Solstice, our 2006 Design of the Year, before moving on to Mazda. He joined Tesla's design team four years ago -- when Tesla basically didn't have a design team. "There was nothing here," he says. Huibert Mees of the Ford GT program led development of the Model S's chassis components, and the steering was likewise developed by Ford and Lotus veterans. Despite Musk's domineering reputation, the employees we've spoken to say he has a relatively hands-off management style. Continuing the comparison with the famously involved Jobs, Blankenship notes, "Steve hired incredibly bright people to get done what he wanted to get done. I think Elon hires incredible people and expects them to do what they were hired to do."

You'll note that we haven't even discussed Tesla's raison d'etre, which is, in Musk's words, "To accelerate the advent of electric cars." That's another credit to the Model S's overall execution and seductive powers. "The electric motor does not define this car," says Nelson. But it is, at the end of the day, what makes this very good sport sedan an absolute game changer. The Model S's range, rated by the EPA at 265 miles with the largest battery, finally fits the American conception of driving. Want to take the family from Washington, D.C., to New York? No problem. Stop for an hour at one of Tesla's Supercharger stations being installed throughout the country, and you can travel on to Boston. The even bigger psychological advantage, though, is the freedom to go about your daily life, with all its spontaneity and last-minute shopping trips, without the fear of running low. Electric cars that participated in past Automobile of the Year competitions have required special testing procedures -- shorter drive routes, strict guidelines against aggressive driving, industrial charging trucks. The Model S wore no such kid gloves. We plugged it in at night and then drove it all day -- and drove it hard.

Granted, this freedom doesn't come cheap. A Model S with an 85-kilowatt-hour battery, like the one we tested, starts at $78,750 (before a $7500 tax break). Less expensive versions have smaller batteries and shorter ranges, starting with $58,570 for 160 miles (again, before deductions). Put another way, though, the cheapest 85-kWh Model S offers more than three times the range of a Nissan Leaf for little more than twice the price. The battery pack should also be rather durable thanks to liquid cooling. But the most important factor here is that, more than any electric car that has come before it, the Model S feels and drives like a gasoline car of the same price. "There's still a lot of novelty in driving an EV," says senior editor Eric Tingwall, "but with the Model S, that's no longer the only reason to drive one." Design editor Robert Cumberford is more succinct: "I would happily own one."

But you might not be able to get one. Only 250 sedans have been delivered to customers as of this writing -- a rounding error for any mainstream automaker (some 13,000 customers have put down at least $5000 as a reservation). Musk himself admits that Tesla's path to viability is far from complete. "There have been car company start-ups before. The real challenge is to ramp up production. Then we're a real car company."

We can't say for certain whether Tesla will be able to make that happen. The auto industry is tough enough for a giant like General Motors. What we can say with this award is that Tesla deserves to succeed. It has managed to blend the innovation of a Silicon Valley start-up, the execution of a world-class automaker, and, yes, the chutzpah of its visionary leader. The result is the Model S. It's not vaporware. It's our Automobile of the Year.

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The Model S Performance comparator says it only puts out 362hp. It does not. It produces 416 hp and 443 lb. ft. of torque.
Only 39% of the US rid is powered by coal. The rest is a blend of natural as which is set to overtake coal soon, nuclear, hydro, solar, and other. With an ICE-powered car, you have no choice but to use fossil fuels. However, an electric car can use electrons sourced from anywhere. Many EV owners have installed solar panels or live in places where their power is produced by solar, wind, and hydro. You don't have that option if you have a gas car. Every gallon you buy funds terrorism and nations that hate us. National security is the biggest reason people buy electric cars; that and not using gas, thus saving money and not polluting. By getting a Tesla Model S, people who would have gotten a Mercedes S-class save money. By getting a $22,000 Nissan Leaf, people who would have gotten a $20,000 compact car save money. And time I might add because it is always full of electrons in the morning.
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Very interesting information provided! Much to learn about the issue and good ads. We wish you all a happy fruitful new year! May god bless you all and USA! (After all the end of the world never came!) Now you know why the Mexicans can't cross the line so easy *lol*

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Very interesting information provided! Much to learn about the issue and good ads. We wish you all a happy fruitful new year! May god bless you all and USA! (After all the end of the world never came!) Now you know why the Mexicans can't cross the line so easy *lol*.__________________________Buy Steroids Online
The 85KW battery option has enough range that you can drive straight
from Vegas to LA no charging. You charge overnight at your hotel/motel
then take off and hit the road. Since I-15 is packed on the weekends,
you will be sitting on the freeway, not using battery juice, while in a
gasoline car, the engine will be burning fuel. In 10 years there will be
supercharging stations all over the US and Tesla will sell every
vehicle with supercharging capability. Yes I am partial, my family is
from Serbia, the homeland of the Great Nicholas Tesla.
As I have had a first touch and feel of the Model S today , and have been in the U.S. Auto Industry for 20 plus years,this car with some direction could be made more affordable and hitting Elon Musk's target of 81 vehicles per shift will definitely start filling more orders quickly. This is history repeating itself in the electric auto industry,except this time and these American Made Tesla's will become more and more popular. This country is already one to three years away from using Natural Gas to power previosly powered Gasoline engines. This is definitely the right time for an excellent high quality vehicle like the Tesla to become more mainstream. Start looking for more production,therefore more jobs  and higher profitability. This should make the creator of Paypal his next Billion or Two very Quickly!!Whoever thought just 30 years ago that Apple and Microsoft would be wealthier than General Motors,and here we are !!Great Job Tesla Designers and Creators,that is The Automoblie Thinking That Wins The Award for CAR OF THE YEAR!
I am so tired of car culture but atleast these electrics make less noise and don't burn oil/gas
US Aeroengr
EVs are the ONLY technology which can free us from the grip of big oil. And if they try to jack up the price of electricity, we can just put up our own PV cells. Let's put down the crude oil coolaid, and stop worrying about what a bunch of crazies in the middle east will do next. As for the politics, you can love the tea party tax revolt and EVs both. The tiny subsidies EVs get is NOTHING compared to the blood, sweat, tears and treasure we spend daily on oil.
Car of the Year? Hmmm, car of the year is a car that most of only make what it costs. Hmmm, would have been my choice for this award to? What? Is O'blowzo's brother, the editor of this rag?
@BMW guy:I partially agree with you. I live in Austria, Europe, and here it seems to be easier to go on a trip and recharge the car whilst having lunch or a break on the autobahn.The distances are not that big as in the US.The number of charging stations is increasing.Nevertheless the research of the technology of electric car driving is still at the beginning and the way to search for better and other technologies than the fossil fuels is absolutely right.The market segment where the Tesla Model S is operating is on the same level as a BMW 525 or Mercedes E500 BlueEfficiency regarding the Engines Power.And in this competition, the Model S is CHEAPER than the cars mentioned before. And even much cheaper when you compare the consequencial costs, e.g. the insurance.How far do americans usually go with the car when they make a weekendtrip?
BMW guy from SMF
OK, politics aside - it is a cool car as cars go, but will take some time to make work for everyone. I do think the fuel cell is more practical, if just for the following reasons: 1 - Supercharger? It won't work, period. Imagine 25 people in Los Angeles drive to Las Vegas on a Friday afternoon (reality there are probably more like 20 or 30 thousand on a Friday night). They stop in Barstow (or whereever) to eat a quick dinner or snack and get a recharge. BUT there are only 3 or 4 or 5 recharge stations in the WHOLE town. What then? Patiently wait for a few hours until your slot opens up? Won't happen, not when you pay that much for a car ...2 - City recharging stations. I saw this at the Sacramento airport a few months ago - an electric car with it's charging cord thrown over the hood and another car getting juiced up instead.I seriously like the new technology and ideas, but just don't think the day to day details make it work for everyone.
Hmm, Automobile has an Automobile of the year award?Interesting...
@ Jagster911Which hydrogen car do you think should be awarded car of the year? How much does it cost? Where are the reviews?
@GoDiesel How many reservations do the Leaf and focus electric or volt have? Because model S has 13 000, and it is just now starting to appear in europe. Which fuel cell car from this year do you think deserved the title, and how much did it cost?
The advanced powertrain in this car is basically the same as in the roadster. That's why they call it a proof-of-concept. The LOAN from the DoE was for the production of the car itself, why would the DoE give money to somebody to produce a one-off or limited production car, no matter how powerful it is? And Musk has said he doesn't like the government picking winners, and only took the money because it was already there. Maybe they would have gone bust without it, but maybe not, musk has said the loan from daimler was much more vital than the DoE for the survival of the company.
scstude5@aol.com, you've got a few problems with your statements:You: They are now requesting additional infusion of funds from the Federal Government. Truth: Tesla is paying back the government earlier than required by the gov't loan. They had a secondary stock offering recently, and the stock price is higher since the secondary.You: Take a look at sales of the Chevy Volt, there aren't enough buyers willing to invest in this technology to make this vehicle viable. Fact: There are about 260 car models for sale in the U.S., and the Volt is #130 in sales in that list. The Volt is THE median car, and increasing every month. In fact the Volt is outselling the Prius vs. the Prius's first two years of sale. And Prius sales started at an economic boom time with a much larger new-vehicle market. The Prius is now third best selling cars/brand in the world. The Volt is on a track to surpass that, indicating that there is a very viable market. The jury's out on Model S sales, but there is a market.
new inventions often face rejection, ridicule, acceptance and then praise.model S is one of them.
Fascinating! Not the article, which was fantastic, by the way, but the comments. I'm been on the political side of EVs for a full decade now, and I've read a lot of EV stories. There are always a few serious EV haters out there who sound alike. They say really stupid things like the fellow "GoDiesel" and the two following him. I've seen these comments before, almost word for word. These guys are clearly paid shills who lurk on EV stories trying to discredit the technology.What's fun is that we have about 40,000 plugin cars in the U.S. now, and growing fast. All of these people are clued in to the truth, and stories like this one pretty much confirm it for the masses.Electricity, eventually all renewable, will be the energy that moves us in the future. Those of us who have experienced it know this. Those who don't are either paid to try and stop us, or just haven't tried it yet. Clearly, it's inevitable.
Firstly, anyone that is a true car guy would appreciate the Model S as an automobile regardless of it's powertrain it is an extremely impressive vehicle. The obtuse points of view shown in the comments here are from people that would love to have one of these things and are just jealous and annoying. GIVE ME A BREAK you poor conservative losers.
Many people keep pointing to the Volt somehow being a failure. This year to date, the Volt has sold more than 13,500 USA delivered vehicles in this model year alone - a 700% increase over the same period last year. To put that in full perspective, the Volt, on US sales alone the Volt is number 131 in total units sold for the year among all US cars sold new at dealers today. This puts it ahead of the Audi A6 and all models of the BMW 7 series combined for the same period, nationwide. As those of you who often vote against your own interest say, good things often start with rich and move down to the rest of us. Musk's strategy to start out in the luxury car market is brilliant. Sell electric cars to those who buy them as choice and leverage that to give practical electric transportation to the rest of us in the not so distant future. Nobody has to have a $75,000 BMW, but many people choose to buy one. Same for the luxury electric car.
What a joke! A limited capability car that only the 1% can afford? Rich boys toy! This is not even funny. How is this possible when the Leaf, Volt, C-Max are struggling to get enough buyers to justify their existence? Wake up and put down that Kool-Aid liberals. I believe electric cars are here to bridge the gap between gas powered and something better in the future, possibly fuel cell.
Folks, this is simple. No matter how much people want electric cars to be viable, no matter how idealistic, utopian or downright stupid people want to be, electric cars based on batteries will /never/ be viable technology. The simple fact is that it takes more energy to construct the car and charge the battery than you save. Gasoline is far better at storing potential energy than batteries. It's actually economically efficient to convert oil into gasoline and then burn it. No amount of hand-wringing or feelgoodism will change the physics.
They believed in the EV II I mean Volt to and look where it is. I dont know why they are wasting time with these cars when the future is going to be fuel cells.
What an awesome choice, and a landmark in a new direction for US engineering, oil-free transportation and green energy.Certainly, the Tes Bag crowd won't pull their heads out of the posteriors, but for the rest of the, I hope this leads to wider and wider adoption of oil-free cars, and thus the price of those cars becoming more economical and even more capable (quite a high mark with this car!).Tesla did take a loan from the government, and recently announced that they will pay it back early. Does this mean that everything will end well? Of course not; clearly a Romney White House could put us back the the Stone Age of oil for at least another 4-8 years. Obviously, Tesla would quite possibly fail then. Or a design feature may prove fatal, however things are looking good there.
Tesla Model S Car of the Year, You have got to be kidding me. A product from a company on the brink of bankruptcy which the US Federal Government provided 465 million to allow them to produce the Model S. They are now requesting additional infusion of funds from the Federal Government. Take a look at sales of the Chevy Volt, there aren't enough buyers willing to invest in this technology to make this vehicle viable. This will be another Solyndra.
Congratulations Tesla, welcome world to the next generation of transportation. No more EV1 snafu's... Thanks Elan.
actually Jagster, you need to read the article before responding. range is EPA 5 cycle test of 265. the old 2 cycle test it is 300. electric car range can vary city or hightway.the 150 miles is the charge miles in 30 minutes using a tesla supercharger. and yes that 30 minutes will make you wait, but most drivers do that anyways on a long drive. imagine you leave your house with 265 miles. drive 250 miles to a supercharger, plug in, and get yourself lunch, or coffee and use the restroom. before your are done, the car has charged up 150 miles. wait another 30 minutes and you have over 200 miles range again. guess what, most people do not drive on long trips more than 300-450 miles in a day. so you can easily do it in a Tesla. and with minimal extra time because of the charging. (arent you going ot eat if you drive an ICE car??)learn about the car before responding. and also go test drive it. it will change your negative attitude. what will you do when oil is consistently above 125-150 a barrel?
Car of the year, my ass. What? Another electric that goes 150 miles? And, we plug it in between uses? How about a hydrogen car? And the price, like the Volt disaster, is a joke. Honda had 50 mpg cars way back when, with a tiny gas engine. Small and light gets the job done. This 4,000 pound boutique special is a joke, and you guys fell for it. Oh, that half-billion from Uncle Sugar sure let someone have a good time on our dime. Really, guys!
@Oemissions No they just burn coal.
William Jones-Halibut
@US Aeroengr On most days less than 20% of the Tesla S range of 265 miles will be required by most people.   The 16kWHr required can be achieved in California with a 4kW peak solar installation.   If mono crystalline cells with a 25 year warranty were used they would cost about $8000 (bulk cost $2000 per kW).  A full 80kWHr charge will seldom be required.Possibly it makes more sense to leave solar on the roof and the battery as part of a stationary renewable energy system.
@US Aeroengr Let's start drilling here in this hemisphere and forget about both the "middle-eastern crazies" AND the largely coal-powered electricity brought to us via an antiquated grid.
@BMW guy from SMFDo you actually think that people will be taking their $90,000 car on road trips eery Friday night? No, of course not. Every Tesla owner will probably do a few just to see what it's like. Road trips are not this car's big thing though they are possible. It's the other 95% of the time you drive it. What you are doing is called swallowing a camel and straining at a gnat. If you do get a chance to drive one, you will understand why people really want one. It's awesome! About road trips, if you really are that concerned about range, use your other car.

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