Driving the Tesla Model S

by Timothy Lutts

Do you remember the first time you fell in love?

The first time you had sex?

The birth of your first child?

That’s the feeling I have right now, a week after taking delivery of my new red Tesla Model S.

my-tesla

Admittedly, some of the pleasures of driving the Tesla are slightly more intellectual than those earlier pleasures. But they’re no less enjoyable!

For example, one of the pleasures is showing people what’s under the hood. There’s nothing there, just a big empty carpeted space that could easily hold a ten-year old child. Then I show them the trunk in the back, which has even more space than the one in my last car, an Audi A6. That’s when they ask, “Where’s the engine? Where’s the battery?” Because none of that stuff is visible. The battery is entirely under the floor, between the four wheels, yet the car sits as low as a normal sedan. And the one big motor that drives the rear wheels sits right above the real axle. Somehow, it’s under that great carpeted trunk.

The best comment I’ve had yet after this show came from my nine-year-old nephew Peter, who commented, “This car should have wings.”

And it’s not just kids who are impressed.

A few days after I received the car, I took it to my local garage for the state-mandated inspection. You would think a guy working in a garage would know about Tesla. But this guy, who was perhaps 35 years old, had no clue! He asked if Tesla was a new company. He asked if the car was purely electric, like his computer said it was. And then he affixed the inspection sticker, without inspecting anything! Not even the brakes, horn or lights!

Tesla Mileage StickerHere’s the Federal-mandated sticker that came on the car.

It’s nice to think about saving $8,100 in fuel over five years—and the $7,500 Federal Tax Credit is nice, too. But the truth is, the car was expensive, and I know too much about investing to even pretend this car is a good investment. If I wanted fiscally sensible, I’d buy a three-year-old Toyota.

But here’s what I get with the Tesla.

The ability to never pump gas again, especially in inclement weather. All I do is plug it in every night (in my garage), just like I plug in my phone and my iPad.

Simplicity. I’ve been maintaining gasoline-fueled cars for nearly four decades, and it’s nice to have a car that’s so simple, the only fluid it will ever need is windshield washer fluid!

A 17-inch touch screen that controls all of the car’s functions except the windows the brake and the accelerator (I’ll get to that key item in a moment).

Those functions include:

Navigation by Google Maps, with live traffic updates showing where traffic is and isn’t.

An energy graph showing energy use over the past 5, 15 and 30 minutes.

A web browser, using the car’s 3G Internet connection.

Music, from either my phone—via Bluetooth connection or the built-in USB port—or old-fashioned AM/FM radio or my new favorite, Slacker Radio, which comes in over the Internet connection. I push a button on the steering wheel, say “Play The Rolling Stones” or “Play Beethoven” and that’s what I get. It’s almost magical.

Best of all, however, is the driving experience.

Like the Toyota Prius, the Tesla starts out quiet. (In fact, the Tesla’s coefficient of drag is even less than that of the Prius.) But unlike the Prius, which has its engine kick in eventually, the Tesla stays quiet, with only wind and tire noise growing as speed increases. I like quiet, because my music sounds better, and I really like to listen to music when I drive.

The Tesla feels really solid, in part because it’s heavy, 4700 lbs, and in part because it was designed to be stiff and strong. No doubt that helped it get the highest crash test rating in history from the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration.

Because the heavy battery pack is under the floor, the car’s center of gravity is extremely low, which makes it feel extremely stable, with very little body roll, even in tight corners. The guys at National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration couldn’t flip it.

Yet because all that electricity is on tap to drive that motor as quickly as your foot can give it instructions, the car’s response to the accelerator pedal is almost instantaneous. Zero-to-60 is 4.2 seconds, and even at highway speeds, you can mash the pedal and the vehicle will leap ahead. And that’s really fun. It’s also really different from any gasoline-powered car, which is hampered by combustion cycles and gears and all that outdated internal combustion machinery. Furthermore, the car not only accelerates really quickly if you ask it too, it also decelerates fairly quickly when you ease up on the accelerator, taking the kinetic energy of the car and turning it back to electricity to put back into the battery! This regenerative braking takes a little time to get used to, but it’s a lot of fun when you master it, and it’s a key factor in the car’s rating of 89 miles per gallon equivalent.

Earlier this year, Motor Trend named the Tesla Model S the 2013 Car of the Year and Automobile Magazine named it the 2013 Automobile of the Year.

They did the right thing.

Related: Buying a Tesla

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