Test Drive: Tesla Model S


November 28, 2013

The Model S in the California sun outside Tesla's Palo Alto headquarters (Photo: Angus MacKenzie/

The Model S in the California sun outside Tesla's Palo Alto headquarters (Photo: Angus MacKenzie/

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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

About the Author
Angus MacKenzie Born on the cold, barren Canadian plains of Calgary, Alberta, Angus MacKenzie couldn’t decide between marketing, automotives or an entrepreneurial path - so he chose all three. With an education in automotives and marketing, Angus has rebuilt the carburetor on his 1963 Rambler Ambassador twice, gotten a speeding ticket in an F430 once, and driven & photographed everything from Lamborghinis to Maseratis to various German and Asian designs. When not writing, Angus has for the past six years been Editor-in-Chief for elemente, an internationally recognized architecture/design magazine. All articles by Angus MacKenzie

Love to rent one anyplace that has recharging IE static plug in or Wi Fi style mode, any state in US.

Stephen Russell

LKT1, this car is compared to like vehicles, not 12k vehicles. Your vehicle is compared to a Civic.

Roberta Mangano

Would be perfect for me I only commute 5.6 miles to my shop one way, leaving me with a nice hot battery for proper thrashing both ways, and they just opened a tesla dealership 200 yards from my house, might come in handy for warranty.

Jay Finke

What did the range reduce to, and how much did the regenerative braking add?

Craig King

It certainly looks the part. So much better than all those silly looking 3-wheelers and odd-ball shapes. As the author hints at, it's made to look like a conventional ICE powered vehicle - rather unnecessarily perhaps. My question is: why does it have to be capable of 0-60 in 4.4 secs? If you have that power, you will surely use it and the range will be diminished accordingly. There's nothing wrong with 0-60 in 10 secs! A motor of 150 bhp , a smaller, lighter, cheaper battery would satisfy most people's needs and could perhaps even be affordable. Perhaps in time, Tesla will perceive a mass market and make a "people's electric car."


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

30 minutes is slow by gas station standards. Internal combustion engines use more gas when hard-driven too, but 70%? We also know that batteries aren't as efficient at freezing temps, so canadian drivers would have to consider that. There are still many hurdles to overcome for EV's but credit has to be given to Elon Musk's efforts. It's a beautiful machine and i see more of them here in Montreal.

The 4WD option may not be worth pursuing. I assume that the Tesla is a FWD. Adding a drive shaft and rear axle, or two motors to the rear wheels would bring the weight up to 5000 pounds. Ouch. That's a killer. The very low center of gravity and present weight are more than enough to ensure a good grip.

It's the batteries. Ones that can handle the cold, higher capacity, lighter weight, and faster charge times are the the main challenges that i can think of at the moment.


A lot of P85s in Vancouver these days. Luckily, I witnessed one driving right beside an Aston Martin a few days ago. That's a great comparison of form and function. I saw surprisingly little difference between the two as the Tesla pulled out in front and the DB9 followed.

I also had the opportunity to look one over and sit in it. I can say that the interiors of the established luxury performance cars are better executed and the seats themselves, more supportive. Maybe Tesla will catch up in this department, as they should for the price.

From the driver's position my only complaint was that the 17" display (a 17" touch-screen turned on its end and inserted into the dashboard) sits a little too close to the driver's right knee at the bottom. This would be a serious distraction on a longish trip. They should, at least, put a little padding around that area, either in the form of a stitched leather wrap-around or sculpted insert. Ideally, they could shape the screen so it becomes slightly narrower at the bottom.

One other observation: there is something wrong with the nose/grill of the car. It looks slightly cheap and a little bit like an after-thought. They need to get someone really talented to redesign it. This part of the car should be iconic and instill at least some emotion...


What a lot of people seem to forget, is that electric cars have "efficiency" ratings just as gasoline cars have MPG. If efficiency is really your thing, then you should look into mi/kWhr ratings.

What you will find is that lugging around an excessively large 85kWhr pack is detrimental to efficiency. If you want efficiency, AND you want a Tesla, then the 60 is the way to go, but even that thing is total over-kill for 95% of drivers.

Take Jay (above) for example, claiming his 5.6 mile commute would be perfect for a Tesla. I'd like to point out that if you have a 5.6 mile commute, an EV with a 200-300 mile range is total over-kill. And that's over-kill that you, the customer are paying for. So if I were Jay's buddy, and he asked me which car would be the most efficient for his daily commute, I sure wouldn't point him in the direction of a 300-mile range EV. Heck... with such a small commute, a golf-cart would easily get him to work and back with juice to spare. I'd probably point him int he direction of some less-expensive, lighter-weight, and smaller battery-pack EV's that have a higher mi/kWhr rating. (like the Leaf, Focus, Rav4, or for super-efficiency: the Chevy Spark) All of these EV's best the tesla for efficiency.

I encourage anyone who is looking into getting an EV to seriously question just how much "range" you actually need on a daily basis. Chances are, 50 miles is all you need. Anything more and you are paying for it in price and weight.

I Love the Tesla. I just don't love the idea of paying for and carrying around an excessively large battery pack.


Edit: "torque not dominates" Sez wots?

The MS and its crossover cousin to come next year are stepping stones to the real market, a $35K family car, 20% smaller, but still with 200mi. range. About 2016-7.

ob....; No, it's RWD with magic Traction Control.

Brian Hall

"A motor of 150 bhp , a smaller, lighter, cheaper battery would satisfy most people's needs and could perhaps even be affordable. Perhaps in time, Tesla will perceive a mass market and make a "people's electric car."


There already is such a car like that. It is called the Nissan Leaf. nissan sells quite a few vehicles like that. Personally, I think they are what most people want, and they are nice vehicles from what I have heard, but personally, I would not be caught dead in one.

As an owner of a modified Awd Audi A6 twin turbo, a modified V70r and a heavily modified Volvo 940t (2jz swap) you can tell, I love performance vehicles, and I love what Tesla is doing. Mr Musk has his finger on the pulse of how you bring new technology to the masses. You do so by making sexy, exciting, appealing vehicles that beat the incumbent technologies at their own game; namely acceleration and handling and safety. The tesla does all 3, out-accelerating nearly all 4 doors in its class, being the safest car ever tested and also handling well to boot.

He's designing and building vehicles using very expensive technology and building it to stand up to world class auto makers, beating them at their own game. The average tesla owner cares little about making an environmental statement or what they "need". These people moved far past needs, as they're paying $100+k US for a vehicle! Once again, you sell the high tech toys to the rich and let them pay for your R&D, then after all the bugs are worked out of the technology, you build a detuned, cheaper version for the masses.

Michael Wilson

The current line of Tesla cars are place-holders. They are not viable until next-generation battery technology come on-line. Even then, the vehicles will primarily be powered by natural-gas...once removed.


The whine comes from the motors rather than from "generators".

Rodney Fisk

More than 90% of the electric grid power in the Western US is from renewable sources, especially hydro from the Northwest with considerable wind and solar added in California and the Southwest.

We just returned from a Sacramento-Portland (Or.) round trip with our Model S. It was no problem or inconvenience at all to stop every 2-3 hours for a Supercharger power up, as we needed that kind of break to stretch, have a drink, and/or use the nearby bathrooms. Driving the Model S, instead of flying and then renting a local car in Portland saved us about $500 total, and we further enjoyed seeing the countryside rather than from 35,000 feet up. The Model S was a dream to drive the almost 600 miles each way in single day travel, and the quietness and smoothness of power was MOST impressive.

George Parrott

"California where snow knows no name"? Are you from the East coast or just uninformed? "The current line of Tesla cars are place-holders"? If you prefer paying through the nose for fuel which will be owned, operated and overpriced by the oil companies be my guest, I will take electricity which is cleaner and cheaper, and not even taking into account the few remaining coal power plants electricity is cleaner and cheaper!

Jerry Peavy

The Tesla S is a beautiful car no doubt with stunning performance, however I would love to see it operate under long distance commuting conditions in the Midwest in the winter. I clock about 160 miles per day with my incredibly reliable Toyota Corolla and that's whether its sunny and nice or snowing with below zero conditions. It would be interesting to see how the Tesla would function in -15 F temperature with blizzard like conditions. Frankly with all of the hype I think it's only a fair weather car like all other electric cars.


California knows snow: there are many ski resorts up and down the Sierra Nevada range, for instance. Here at the coast, my home town of Santa Cruz has been known, once or twice a decade, to get a dusting of snow (or its close cousin, popcorn hail) in town and even ON THE BEACH. The mountains between us and nearby San Jose are often enough dangerous or impassable due to snow and sleet during the winter months. No, California in general is not a "winter wonderland," as Rocky Mountain States are famous for being. But they never have ocean beaches as we do, and nobody in California is more than a two or three hour drive from the snow during the winter, if that's what they want. About the only things we don't see around here are hurricanes and killer tornadoes. Blizzards are very rare in well-driven areas because most of the State's population and developed road network hugs the coast. But we do get them. California provides plenty of opportunities to try out (or routinely drive!) the Model S in all kinds of extreme weather conditions.

James Merritt
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