Status Update: 2013 Tesla Model S

If the Tesla Model S lacks any conspicuous electric-car characteristic -- no obvious charging port, for example -- it's by design. The five-door Signature Series sedan, which heavily subsidized Tesla Motors began delivering in small quantities on June 22, looks rather conventional in the same appealing vein as recent Jaguars and Audis. It has a long and low hood, a virile stance on 21-inch wheels, and a fastback sweeping to a subtle spoiler on the high tail. If this is underwhelming, without a hint of the self-obviousness of General Motors EV1, for instance, that's too bad.

"We don't want to scare people off the reservation," the nattily dressed design chief Franz von Holzhausen said during our visit. "As we cement the mind-set of Tesla as a brand, we can be more playful." Referring to the bizarre three-wheeler that more recently carried the torch for battery-electric cars, he added, "The Aptera route is a challenging way to go, right out of the box."

So if anyone does have the heebie-jeebies, it's not over styling but the the half-billion dollars in federal loans, state tax breaks, and bargain-priced factory space that Tesla has obtained. This is particularly true given the fact that Solyndra, the bankrupt solar-energy company that got even more DOE money, is found just two miles away. Tesla's chief technical officer JB Straubel, who comes from Wisconsin and wears perhaps the only white dress shirt in the Silicon Valley, said he saw the fountain at Solyndra still gurgling; he regularly exhorts his engineers to ask whether the next expenditure is necessary.

Nevertheless, what Tesla is doing is very expensive as well as being slightly impudent, and it reminds us of the Bugattis and Millers and Cords of the world. This means bespoke rather than commodity parts, a vertically integrated production process featuring numerous assembly innovations, and a retail strategy that lands somewhere between the Hare Krishnas' panhandling in airports and the Snap-on truck heading for a bachelor party.

Beyond all this, there's the fact that the Model S, with its anachronistically simple nomenclature, now is in customers' hands. The ceremonial day that began with a factory tour and brief drives for reporters ended with the handing of electronic keys to five buyers. Starry-eyed at the prospect of being the first Model S owners in their chapters of the Sierra Club, they had put down deposits of $40,000 and waited for their Signature models, priced at $97,900.

What did they get for the money? We were given eight minutes behind the wheel of a test car to find out. Touching the recessed door handle, we watched it automatically extend for use. "You should get kind of goose-bumpy," von Holzhausen said later when we commented on this novelty. Pulling this handle, we slid into our red car, inhaling the rich aroma of Nappa leather upholstery and noting the low seating position. We gaped at the most overpowering feature, namely, the glossy, sports-bar-sized central touchscreen, which has more graphical modes than magicians have hats and rabbits. The driver's instrument display also made us blink and gape. There are no bezels, indicators, counters, gauges, or needles. Watchmaker Edmond Jaeger would weep at the sight.

Awakened by a tap of the brake pedal, the Model S crept forward after a light pull on the column-mounted drive selector. (Lacking a transmission tunnel, the car offers instead a long flat tray that readily accepted a camera with zoom lens, a pen, and a notebook.) With the 85 kW-hour battery comprising over 7000 cells, the Signature Performance model is capable of 300 miles at 55 mph and 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds; upon turning onto the access road between the factory and Interstate 880, we spurred it and quickly found ourselves at 80 mph. Slowing for a left-hand sweeper, we listened to our front passenger, a Tesla employee, extol the lack of body roll, which he ascribed to the low center of gravity that's a byproduct of the huge battery. (Straubel would only say later that it's heavier than the 992-pound pack in the Tesla Roadster.) Frankly, we didn't notice anything exceptional about the cornering in comparison to, say, an Audi A7 or Fisker Karma; instead, the most evident characteristic is the aggressively calibrated energy recapture system, which chewed back at the road, rapidly slowing the car as soon as our right foot lifted. The other major finding had come during an earlier demonstration lap, when we sat comfortably in back and listened to the sniveling of the rear-mounted power inverter. But further impressions of this formidable automobile can only be returned after a longer test.

Will the Model S do anything to change the perception that electric cars are playthings for slimousine liberals who want access to the HOV lane and preferred parking spots? After our sampling, we see the opposite happening. And what happens to Tesla when the first 10,000 acolytes receive their servings? The plan: produce 20,000 units in 2013. We stood with a member of Tesla's communications team when CEO Elon Musk, tall and sleek in sports jacket and jeans, ambled past us on the factory floor, but even on this festive day his brow was furrowed. He might have been thinking about the additional billions of dollars needed as Tesla looks to expand its portfolio of electric vehicles to the Model X crossover and a future mass-market car priced around $30,000. "A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool," William Shakespeare wrote. On which side would Musk place himself?


2013 Tesla Model S

Powertrain
Motor: Three-phase, four pole AC induction motor with copper rotor
Power: 416 hp/310 kW
Torque: 443 lb-ft/600 Nm
Transmission: Single-speed
Drive: Rear-wheel

Chassis
Steering: Electronic power-assisted
Suspension, Front: Double-wishbone with active air springs
Suspension, Rear: Independent multi-link with active air springs
Brakes: Four-wheel disc, ventilated, with ABS
Tires: P245/35ZR-21

Measurements
L x W x H: 196.0 x 77.3 x 56.5 in
Wheelbase: 116.5 in
Track F/R: 65.4/66.9 in
Weight: 4647 lb (base Model S)

Performance
0-60 MPH: 4.4 sec (mrf. est.)
Top Speed: 130 mph
EPA Mileage: 89 MPGe

Todd R. Lockwood
All these months later, Tesla has announced that they will be cash flow positive by the end of November and that they will be paying off their DOE loan early. Some poetic justice in that. And yes, it was a loan, not a subsidy.
Inclusivist
Ha ha ha! This richly revealing, more-than-mildly manipulative, and riotously ridiculous rant completely backfired suggesting to the reader that the opposite must be true!:) It did a great service to those who value style, sense, and sensibility!
JustTheDriver
Romney Ahrens, I think it's nearly a universal sentiment that you're an awful writer. I understand and can appreciate your angst, but I'm a car guy who wants to read about cars. Most don't pull up the Automobile URL to be lectured on your politics. Consider reading articles from some of your contemporaries here at Automobile (such as Joe Lorio or Robert Cumberford). There's always Foc News.
griz5
Ramon123 - Are you unable to grasp the concept of new technology being expensive? Remember how much a VCR cost back in 1980? And it is actually one of the jobs of the Government to spur growth and encourage innovation (and, if needed, incentivize the adoption thereof), hence the tax credit. As soon as you start complaning about your tax dollars going to subsidize oil companies not paying any taxes and bankrolling wars that only benefit Halliburton will you and your ilk be taken seriously. Until then, keep sucking your thumb.
arondaniel
"Will the Model S do anything to change the perception that electric cars are playthings for slimousine liberals who want access to the HOV lane and preferred parking spots? After our sampling, we see the opposite happening."Exactly... Forget about this car. Continue paying $4.00+ for gasoline, and ignore global conflict and climate change.
bwerick
A car review should review the car; an editorial on the subsidies offered to different transportation alternatives should analyze those policies. The two couldn't be mixed much more badly than in this tortured writing. What did Ron Ahrens feel when the door handle extended? (All I know was that the Tesla employee tried to tell him what to feel). Was the center stack fun? Useful? I'm not sure; I got the sense that it was extravagant, but that can be good or bad. The styling criticism was dismissive in tone, but I agree the car is something like an A7, and it's mouth watering in dark red - I wouldn't mind if Acura stylists were less original. And the bespoke parts - good or bad? An Aston Martin with a Ford turn signal switch is bad if you're reviewing cars because it takes away the fantasy of luxury (we know most of the extra cost of luxury is profit, but smell that leather!) Mr. Davis might have agreed with Mr. Ahrens' politics, but I don't think he'd like this article.
btc909
Ronald Ahrens do you need a ride to the unemployment office?
shamster
Wow. I'm at a loss for words after reading this clearly slanted tirade against the new Tesla. Did they physically harm you in some way? I have no problems with negative opinions about something, that's a reviewers job. But it's also your job to fairly evaluate without sligning slurs and mud in a, to quote you, "sniveling" fashion. Your high and mighty lambasting makes me question everything you have said and inherently distrust not only you but the words you put on a page. I hope Automobile magazine realizes what a disservice you have done to their magazine--I will not be reading again.
patr1ck
You can smirk all you want at Elon Musk, Mr. Arehns, but his other project (SpaceX) just successfully docked with the International Space Station. A big fancy golf cart is far less of a technological challenge to pull off. Your feathers may be ruffled over half a billion from Uncle Sam, but it still pales in comparison to the $49.5 billion the taxpayers chipped in to nurse GM back from its deathbed. If you are so offended by new ideas and tech, perhaps your editors should limit you to reviewing commercial trucks and delivery vans. I hear the tape deck in the new F650 is pretty sweet. Leave your regressive right-wing manifestos by the typewriter in your cabin.
ramon123
Sounds like Ron touched a nerve of blogger griz5 (wonderful handle, don't you think?). I have closely followed the development of the Model S, since it's the first EV that actually is capable of replacing your gas powered job in the garage. Assuming you have a very expensive garage. I love the way these well heeled early adopters expect to be subsidized in all manner by their favorite organizations - our dilapidated, brainless, undemocratic, bankrupt govts. It's a nice touch that the poor's tax dollars will do so much to elevate their standard of living with their $7500tax rebates, more than any low income folk can pay for their entire car. And tell unethical Mr Musk that selling a car with a $44,000 battery pack when much cheaper batteries are just around the corner isnothing but "business as usual." Wait till those early adopters realize this (they are such children). A class action lawsuit against Musk, I believe, is also just around the corner. It's tough being a liberal if you have a brain.
ruxper
Did you really just implicitly equate the 3700lb rated "best connected to the road" sedan A7 to the 5300lb high-CG pig Karma? All surrounding opinions discredited.
performancehound
Other reviewers have called the Model S "spectacular," they've raved about its performance and its tech, and all you can tell us is that the Tesla factory is 2 miles from Solyndra? Dude, Tesla is NOT Solyndra. Get over your warped bias against a new, innovative, American-made car company and review the damn car. You haven't even come close to doing that. Your snide comments tell us more about you than they do about Tesla's Model S. Pathetic.
griz5
Well, Ron, we now know alot about your politics but very little about the car. This is by far the least-informative article I have read about this car across all publications today. It is a privilege to have a job such as yours. Stick to writing about cars and leave your politics at home, please. It puts an ugly and unnecessary taint on your otherwise fine writing.

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