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Tesla Model S

2013 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan [photo by owner David Noland]

The Tesla Model S is a large luxury sedan, and it's by the far the longest-range electric car for sale in the U.S. today. It's also a genuine rarity: a competitive luxury sport sedan designed, engineered, tested, and manufactured by a brand-new startup automaker. Unlike the Tesla Roadster, which only sold 2,500 copies, the Model S is a volume production model that seats five adults and the option...

The Tesla Model S is a large luxury sedan, and it's by the far the longest-range electric car for sale in the U.S. today. It's also a genuine rarity: a competitive luxury sport sedan designed, engineered, tested, and manufactured by a brand-new startup automaker. Unlike the Tesla Roadster, which only sold 2,500 copies, the Model S is a volume production model that seats five adults and the option for two rear-facing seats for small children in the rear of the car. Tesla says it is now building about 400 of them a week; as of Spring 2013, it's on its way to delivering 10,000 of them within a one-year period.

Technically a five-door hatchback, the Model S has roughly the same form as the Audi A7, though its rounded lines more resemble a Jaguar XJ than the crisp, linear Audi. But just as those large luxury sedans offer a choice of engines, the Model S offers a choice of three different battery pack sizes for different ranges. The in-floor battery pack, electric motor, and power electronics have all been developed in-house at Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA], and the all-aluminum Model S (unlike the Roadster) is not based on the underpinnings of any other vehicle.

Its most direct competitors include mid-size or large sport sedans from German makers as much as other plug-in cars like the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, or Fisker Karma. Those vehicles would include the Audi A6, A7, and A8; the BMW 5-Series and 7-Series; and the Mercedes-Benz E Class and S Class (as well as the much sleeker CLS). Tesla also plans to launch a Model X crossover utility vehicle on the same platform, though its launch has been delayed to late 2014.

The Model S is potentially the most successful car from a ground-up automaker in many decades. Silicon Valley startup Tesla says it can build 20,000 cars a year in the factory, and the big Model S has already won a slew of industry and media awards. Production began in June 2012 at a San Francisco Bay Area factory Tesla bought from Toyota--an investor in the company, along with both Daimler and its battery cell supplier, Panasonic.

The styling of the Model S is sleek and low. Unusually for a midsize luxury sedan, the car is actually a five-door hatchback. Because the battery pack is contained entirely within a floorpan that is just a few inches tall, the designers had unusual freedom to allocate space inside the car.

This means the Model S can offer an optional pair of rear-facing seats for a sixth and seventh passenger, though they are only child-sized--and fitted with four-point safety restraints that at least some kids may find overly confining.

Inside, the most striking feature of the electric Model S is the 17-inch color display in the center stack--the largest ever fitted to an automobile--which displays output from apps specifically written for it. The sheer size of the display allows large, easily visible type sizes, and it is also offers direct Internet connectivity via the car's built-in cellular phone.

Every journalist who has driven a Model S  has been surprised at its on-road performance. It offers smooth, quiet, and remarkably quick acceleration, with a slight high-pitched whine from the electronics only under maximum power. With the weight of the battery mounted in the floorpan, as low as it can go, the Model S corners flat and predictably.

The first few thousand Model S sedan built have otherwise relatively few of the electronic systems and gadgetry offered in the large German luxury sedans. Tesla spent the bulk of its development effort on the battery management system--as well as designing the complete car. So the Model S does not offer adaptive cruise control, for instance, nor collision avoidance, lane-departure warning or correction, automatic parking, or any of the other complex electronic systems offered as pricey options among its competitors.

One important option for buyers, however, is the choice of three different battery-pack capacities: 85 kilowatt-hours, 60 kWh, and 40 kWh. The first has been rated at 265 miles of electric range by the EPA, and the second at 208 miles. Production of 60-kWh Model S versions began in January 2013, and the smallest 40-kWh capacity version is expected to follow within a few months. That last version has not yet been rated for range. As always, effective real-world range will vary greatly, depending on driving speed, style, accessory use, and outside temperature.

Tesla has chosen not to use the industry-standard J-1772 charging socket used in every other plug-in car, reportedly because it was viewed as too large and ugly. This has allowed the company, however, to fit a single plug of its own design that will handle the car's built-in 10-kilowatt charging--some models come with a pair of 10-kW chargers, for a total of 20 kW--as well as fast charging delivered by a future network of Tesla-only "Supercharger" stations to be located between city pairs. The lowest-range Model S cannot be equipped with the second 10-kW charger, but the company provides a J-1772 adaptor cord for all models so Model S owners can recharge at conventional public or private charging stations.

While observers often compare the Model S to the now-defunct Fisker Karma range-extended electric car--it too is a large luxury sedan powered by electricity--the Model S is both far more capacious and far simpler, being a pure battery electric with no onboard gasoline engine. (The Karma has a 2.0-liter "range extender" that generates electricity past its small pack's range of 32 miles.) But Fisker has suffered numerous quality glitches and produced a striking design that's really not very practical, whereas the Tesla Model S is far more competitive in the luxury sport sedan class. It is, in a phrase, a "real car" and not a science project or beta version.

That means the Model S offers not only the smooth, quiet power of electric drive but the simplicity and zero-emissions status of a battery electric car. For the Performance edition with the largest battery pack, Tesla quotes acceleration of 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, and a top speed over 100 mph.

The price for the lowest-range 2012 Tesla Model S, which comes with a 40-kilowatt-hour pack, is $59,900 before any incentives; all Model S cars qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for the purchase of a plug-in vehicle. The 60-kWh version is $69,900, and the 85-kWh version is $79,900.

The Performance model adds another $10,000 to the price of the 85-kWh model, and a small handful of options can push the price close to $100,000. The first run of 1,000 cars were all the limited-edition Model S Signature Series, with numbered plaques and painted in a special color that will not be offered on regular-production Model S cars.

In California, the Tesla Model S qualifies as a zero-emission vehicle for the "white sticker" permit that allows single-occupant travel in the state's carpool or High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. It also qualifies for a California purchase rebate of $2,500, and various other regional, local, and corporate incentives.

Tesla has said it will warranty the battery pack for 7 to 10 years, with a separate three- or four-year warranty on the rest of the car. The battery warranty, however, applies to the pack continuing to function--not to maintenance of its total energy capacity, which will decline over time at a yet-to-be-determined rate that depends on temperature, usage, and other factors. The liquid thermal conditioning of the pack, electric motor, and other electric components should keep the battery safely within its best operating temperature, however, unlike other electric cars that use passive air cooling for floor-mounted packs.


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