Let's get one thing clear at the beginning. The Tesla Model S sedan is an extremely radical vehicle, even if it doesn't particularly look like it. It is one of only two specifically designed battery-electric cars on the market today and the only one created from the ground up as an electric, as the Leaf uses many existing Nissan components under its unique skin.
To me, silly little pods like the Renault Twizy and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV don't count as cars. The Chevrolet Volt, brilliant as it is, supplements the battery pack with a petroleum-fueled engine, as does the Fisker Karma. In my view, cars that have been designed first as internal-combustion vehicles and then retrofitted with batteries -- Ford, Honda, et al. -- are not true electric cars. They are attempts to pander to the current zeitgeist.
There are two approaches to designing a technically radical vehicle. One is to make its appearance so distinct and different as to compel attention, the so-called "science fiction" gambit as seen in the DeltaWing racing car concept or the vehicles in Blade Runner. The other is to hide the technical radicalism in a cloak of invisibility. Quite clearly, Tesla's visionary founder, Elon Musk, has chosen the latter approach, and his design team, led by Franz von Holzhausen, has executed a pretty, bland, "everycar" shape. To be fair, I should call it very pretty, because it is that. But there is absolutely nothing on its smoothly sculpted, plain-vanilla surfaces to distinguish it from the general mass of nicely shaped contemporary sedans.
The Model S is worthy of an insurance-company advertisement wherein the object is to avoid being able to identify a manufacturer whose product might be involved in an accident. The Model S could just as well be an unusually well-designed Chinese car we've never seen before, or with a more familiar grille shape, it could be any commodity manufacturer's product, say an Audi, a Buick, or a Mazda. It is far too nicely done to be a Toyota, and in any case Toyota has no recognizable identity cues to append.
As a designer, I naturally lean toward a radical design statement. As a student of automotive history, I understand that it is absolutely necessary to sell the largest number possible of anything that requires as much investment as a car, especially a new one with technology that might cause potential buyers a certain unease. This is a good-looking, reassuring design, clearly different from the Kamm-based aerodynamic shape of the Prius and its Honda Insight clone. It's not Germanic in any obvious way, but neither is it perceptibly American in any way at all. That's too bad. Musk's bold commitment to creating a new car company based on new technical concepts is very much in the American tradition, and it would be nice for it to succeed and thereby inspire other initiatives. But there's nothing about its appearance to command desire. Good thing it's great to drive.
FRONT 3/4 VIEW
1 This pointed-end T-shape, complete with curved-horn top-bar letter T, is vaguely reminiscent of Chrysler's Ram insignia. The whole grille/shield is aggressively anonymous.
2 Domed hood is necessitated by pedestrian impact regulations.
3 Roof profile is elegant, aerodynamic, ...and generic.
4 External mirrors are well-designed and large enough, but where are the digital rear images that a Silicon Valley car ought to employ?
5 Slight haunch of rear fender is sporty, beautifully executed, and very nice indeed.
6 This stiffening crease is contained wholly in the door skins and is happily not run straight through the pop-out door handles, which themselves are nicely shaped and well-placed for both function and stylistic composition.
7 This curious little brightwork piece underscores the doors only, leaving the impression that the front and rear portions of it were either forgotten or fell off.
8 This little joggle in the headlamp cover is presumably intended to become an identity mark for the entire Tesla line. It's not much upon which to build a recognizable identity.
9 Lower front corner inlet is enhanced by double bright strips and placement of secondary lamps at the periphery, but it's an obvious and generic solution.
10 This slot may be all the opening necessary for inlet air, so either this or the grille above could probably be eliminated in terms of function.
REAR 3/4 VIEW
11 From this view, one can easily see the rounding of the front end in plan view, which supports the claims of a very low drag coefficient. The attention of good aerodynamicists is evident throughout.
12 Black glass roof panel is elegant, provides interior ambience, and integrates the backlight as a discrete design element, without any added trim pieces.
13 Hatchback deck makes trunk access much more convenient with the overall fastback form.
14 Backlight is too small for good rear visibility, increasingly a problem on swoopy sedans. Looks good, doesn't work so well.
15 There is quite a stack of horizontal lines on the rear, some of them to emphasize visual width, some to keep the tail from looking too tall. Unobjectionable but ordinary.
16 Interesting crisp break between side and rear disappears quickly in the bumper fascia and turns to the horizontal within the taillight lens molding. Presumably it reduces drag by keeping flow fairly laminar on the sides.
17 Sharp corners where the color break separates lower and upper body surfaces give the impression that the body was dropped onto a flat baseboard. The effect is curious, giving a sense of unfinished bodywork.
18 Also a curiosity is the severe rear door cut. At the top, it curves gracefully back and down, and then it becomes a straight line without reference to the rear wheel opening.
19 Seemingly obligatory factory-installed door dent is present and accounted for.
20 The bottom of the car around the whole perimeter is blacked out but continues the form.
21 Very flat instrument panel and console is surprisingly trucklike. It's not a bad design, but it looks like a hurried, rather than carefully studied, solution.
22 Front seats look like advanced thin-shell designs at first glance, but then one becomes aware of the very thick supporting structure behind the delicate-seeming backrests.
23 Profile of the color-separation line is dynamic, giving the light-colored portion a sense of advanced design that isn't really there. Too bad.
24 Back seats look thin, hard, and flat, but they're very comfortable -- I tried them and was convinced. (There's also an optional rear-facing third row for two kids.)
25 Transparent panels in the glass roof provide agreeable luminosity, making the rather plain interior attractive if not impressive.