Having been available for just over a year now, Tesla’s Model S has received its fair share of acclaim, and its fair share of criticism. So what’s it like to drive this 416 hp all-electric, and how does it compare to other premium sedans? Gizmag went to Palo Alto to find out first hand.

Tesla is seen as one of the forerunners in the development of electric vehicles, but the history of the EV goes back further than you might think. During the 1830s several inventor/designers were in the process of configuring carriages with electric powerplants. Scotland, Holland and Vermont, USA all contributed to the game with crude but ambitious EV’s. In the later part of the 1800s both France and the UK got behind the development of the electric vehicle, with Belgium producing the “La Jamai Contente”, the world’s first electric racecar. Designed by Camille Jenatzy, the car set a land speed record of 68 mph (109 km/h) in 1899 proving that electric was capable of providing adequate power to the new horseless carriages.

In the early 1900s the US got in on the EV act, with electric vehicles outselling steam and gas powered vehicles. Like the Tesla, the electrics in the day had a simpler transmission setup and did not stink or produce acrid exhaust like the early-day petrol powered alternatives. But the death stroke for electrics would ultimately be petrol’s increasing availability, limited battery systems, range limitations and charging options.

Most of these factors remain relevant in the modern renaissance of the EV, but technology has come a long way towards making electric vehicles a practical and attractive transport option – the Model S is a case in point. I had the chance to experience/drive Tesla's P85 Model S a few months ago out of the company's Palo Alto headquarters.

So how does Tesla’s Model S drive, and how does an all-electric compare against its petrol infused brethren? To be honest, having never driven an electric vehicle before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I am and have long been a dedicated fan of the controlled explosion gasoline engine, so would I soon become an EV convert? As it turned out, yes. Sure I can’t drive to Manitoba in a Model S without having to stop in various Saskatchewan villas along the way, but the range compromises are worth it.

Handling? The car is quicker than I had imagined, with athletic abilities on par with or surpassing any gas-powered euro-sedan I've driven. Without the usual gas engine weight waving about up front, not only is handling more composed and flat, but braking is also significantly better with that big chunk of steel gone from the equation.

Let’s be clear though, at 4,647 lb (2108 kg) the Model S is definitely not a lightweight. When put up against similarly priced Euro-sedans the Tesla comes out heavier than BMW’s ActiveHybrid 5 Series and the Mercedes-Benz S Class by a few hundred pounds. Both German cars however can’t touch the Model S in terms of acceleration, with the Benz getting the closest at 4.8 seconds to 100 km/h (62 mph), compared to Tesla’s 4.4 seconds for the 85 kWh model.

As for technology, the Model S has no shortage on next generation functionality. One to note is the “creep” function, which imitates a gas vehicle's slow forward movement when your foot is off the pedal. This small but important change ensures people are tangibly attached to the car and aware that it is in fact running. Starting the car is similar to most electrics. Simply take the Tesla shaped key into the car, press the brake and you’re good to go.

One complaint from petrol junkies affronted by the thought of an electric drivetrain is the lack of aural emanations. I too appreciate the need for the noisy, high-revving pleasures of a Lamborghini , a McLaren or late 60’s muscle car. When you first step on the Model S' accelerator, which of course has no mechanical linkage to fuel injector rails or carburetors, the only sound you expect to hear is ... nothing. Actually that’s not true. The first sound to become noticeable is the word “whoah!” coming out of your mouth as the car launches in a pure linear fashion like no other gas powered vehicle I’ve ever driven. After this initial verbal outpouring the the generator starts to chime in.

Now the rising whine of the generator, I have to say is a bit disconcerting. Not disconcerting in a something is wrong way, but more like the body/brain are so conditioned to traditional inputs that it has trouble making the connection between said whine and acceleration. But after a few acceleration tests (okay a lot of acceleration tests) you get used to the generator's supercharger-like whine quite quickly. Experiencing what an electric performance vehicle is truly capable of is still a sensory feast. In a way, you lose one sense and the others become vastly enhanced.

Our premium Model S with the P85 option has an 85 kWh battery pack and produces 310 kW (416 hp) of power and 600 Nm (443 ft lb) of torque – Tesla’s top of the line performance package. This power rating puts the Model S comfortably in the same league as comparable Euro and American performance sedans. But what’s really important in this conversation is the prominence of electric torque and what it delivers in real world applications.

Gas powered engines produce their output by throwing about numerous pistons, crank rods, gears, pushrods and valves. Some vehicles can reach peak torque as early as 2500 rpm, or lower. With electric drive systems this torque is available instantaneously. In the case of the Model S, this means 443 lb.ft of torque from 0 to 5100 rpm, giving the driver torque aplenty from the get go.

In driving the Model S out and about on the windy, rising roads of the rolling hills behind Tesla’s headquarters, the car's instantaneous torque not dominates the conversation. Without the need to keep revs high to maintain optimal power like a gas powered sedan, the P85 can accelerate out of corners very much like an electric go-kart ... a rather large electric go-kart mind you. Come off power for braking, which again the S does rather well, and the car handles like a much smaller performance coupe. Yes you notice the 4,700 lbs hanging about under your arse, but because of the battery’s location and consequent low center of gravity, you don’t feel the body roll as you do in similar gas-engined sedans.

Steering is of a variable ratio, speed sensitive configuration, which provides excellent wheel feedback under performance or cruising scenarios. The system responded well to driving inputs on the switchbacks outside Palo Alto and straight line feedback was also nicely dialed in, as was feel and assistance when parking.

The ride is another surprising aspect of the Model S I didn’t expect. The Model S is even quieter in the cabin than you expect, with very little road noise making its way in. The ride, thanks to Tesla’s advanced air suspension was comfortable when cruising, but became tight and responsive when called for. The air suspension can be adjusted via the display screen to clear speed bumps but also lowers itself as the car accelerates to give it a more dynamic stance, with better high speed stability and improved cornering abilities. Oh, and gear changes aren't an issue, becuase the car only has only one gear.

Inside the beautifully styled Model S, which I have to say should receive bonus points for surpassing design expectations for an electric, is a modernly minimalistic interior. The swooping door trim plays off exterior design elements while head, leg and cabin space is spacious thanks to the lack of engine intruding into the firewall or transmission hump impeding into the centee console area. Seating is sportingly comfortable up front with more than enough room for three adults in the back.

Notable design elements include beautifully solid metal door handles that remind me of something from a vehicle of the art-deco era. These simply disappear into the doors when parked, but open at a simple touch when approached with the key. The thing that really strikes me about the Model S’s design is not that its proportion and lines aren’t gorgeous, but that from an engineering perspective, it didn’t have to be this way. The sculptural, elongated hood doesn’t need to be there to cover the non-existent engine, nor does the long forward overhang or grille treatment. The only part of the Model S’s design that bothers me is the fake plastic grille cover. But I guess it would be too much of a visual departure to do away with it completely. The long, low arcing roofline also gets major points as it settles out nicely into the rear hatch and stubby bum. In short, the visually stunning Model S is another nail in the coffin of the notion that EVs are boxy and boring to look at.

Amongst the many cool technological touches in the Model S is the huge 17-inch touch screen positioned in place of the HVAC and entertainment controls/interface. Tesla’s highly configurable touchscreen provides interaction that is highly intuitive for anyone who has indulged themselves with an iPad or iPhone.

The multi-functional display does more than just replace buttons and dials. A slider opens the biggest sunroof I’ve ever seen and it also displays a virtual model of the that shows what doors are open or locked, and which lights are on, both inside and out. The other cool thing with an electric is that both AC and heat can be made available instantly. For any Canadian who’s ever had to freeze their snowpants off waiting for 15 minutes for the engine to warm up and windows to defrost knows this godsend of a heating amenity could almost justify the $90,000 asking price of the Model S. And if you're in California where snow knows no name, drivers might appreciate the oversized sunroof that provides open-air backup to the cooling system. Overall, Tesla has made the interior experience a darn near perfect one.

For multi-driver families, the Model S offers the ability to enter ten driver profiles into the system. Profile settings like lumbar and seat positioning are there, as is the ability to create musical profiles. Another nifty feature of the Model S media interface is the way fade or balance can be moved around the car by sliding your finger across the screen. The sedan’s gadgetry awesomeness is also backed up by a sound system that can compete with many a premium unit out there.

The infotainment system also offers internet access and an impressive GPS system. A scroll button on the steering wheel allows drivers to access and display up to four apps on the gauge cluster to the left of the speedometer/energy dial when needed. The Model S’ iPad-esque display gets major points for ease of use, intuitiveness, visual real estate and for making the user experience a painless one. Actually I would even go so far as to say it was enjoyable, which is more than I can say about 80 percent of the in-car touch screen systems currently in existence.

The Model S also provides range and power usage back to the driver via a histogram window located on the lower part of the screen. The energy and regenerative braking app shows how drivers can optimize range by adjusting their driving patterns and how much energy they've used over the past 5, 15 and 30 miles. This app puts a figure on the obvious, showing that driving at a higher rate of speed will reduce projected range by 70 percent, whereas driving at a more conservative pace would deliver optimal mileage.

Halfway through our test drive the display produced a histogram chart akin to an earthquake reading, which provided direct visual evidence that my more “energetic” driving style, with its Himalayan peaks, had reduced the car’s range from a 298 miles (480 km) to something very much lower. But regenerative braking did assist in bringing the range and charge up somewhat.

Speaking of regenerative braking, Tesla has configured the car with two options – standard and low. When set in low the car slows down at a less aggressive rate, providing less charge back to the battery pack. Standard braking, on the other hand, is similar to engine-braking in gas powered vehicles. This setting recharges the battery pack much quicker. The difference between the two is quite remarkable.

Word of an all-wheel drive version of the Model S continues to float about (as does discussion of a Tesla truck). The thought of an AWD Model S would catapult this brilliantly designed piece of electric ingenuity even higher up my wish list. It’s also worth noting that two Model S recently completed a trip from San Diego to Vancouver using only Tesla’s new Supercharger network, which provide a 200 mile (320 km) charge in 30 minutes. This feat makes the range argument significantly easier to counter when it comes to making the case for electrics.

Our P85 Model S priced out at around US$104,000 for the premium package and performance powertrain. Model S 60 kWh models start out at US$77,800.

Many thanks to Tesla for the drive opportunity, and to Elon Musk for failing to sit still.

Source: Tesla Motors