clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
tesla lead
tesla lead

Filed under:

Going the distance: driving the Tesla Model S in the real world

Elon Musk's first sedan can take you on an adventure, for better and worse

It’s difficult to get comfortable in the driver’s seat of a $100,000 car that isn’t yours.

The particular Model S I flew to Los Angeles to sample last week was a Signature Performance model. That means that it was one of the first 1,000 to roll off the assembly line (indicated by the “Signature” designation) and is fitted with a high-output electric inverter that can propel the car from 0 to 60 in just 4.4 seconds, a key metric that slots it in with some of the fastest production sedans in the world. It’s a stat I would come to test on numerous occasions over the following 36 hours — within the bounds of the “no street racing” clause I agreed to upon taking delivery, of course.

But I arrived in LA fully expecting to hate this modern marvel of a car. I was raised in Detroit, the son of a woman who has worked at General Motors for nearly half a century. Tesla’s emergence was, perhaps, a little uncomfortable for someone who’d grown up surrounded by the infallible Big Three. I felt a little bit like former Palm CEO Ed Colligan in his infamous (and ill-fated) takedown of the iPhone: “they’re not just going to walk in,” I thought. The regulatory and financial hurdles are enormous just to make a single terrible car, let alone a good one that people will actually want to buy.

This is the same market that has chewed up and spit out pillars of the industry like Saab. It has bankrupted GM and Chrysler, sent Ford to the brink. Fisker Automotive — a Tesla competitor with similar ambitions — is on the ropes, desperately seeking a buyer and a cash infusion. How can billionaire Elon Musk’s venture possibly amass the money, know-how, ingenuity, and quality to shake up the automotive world? And just as importantly, do it profitably?

Those aren’t easy questions to answer. Tesla hopes for its first quarter of black ink this year after a decade of operation, but make no mistake, it’s still in the throes of startupdom. Much of its working capital has come from nearly half a billion dollars in low-interest rate government loans. It has just a few dozen dealers around the world. Even Tesla’s choice of Palo Alto for its headquarters — some 2,000 miles from the Motor City — is a little audacious. This isn’t your granddad’s car company; it’s a child of the Valley.

The design studio

The design studio

But I wasn’t in Palo Alto. I started my journey in Los Angeles because that’s where Tesla’s design studio is located, a corrugated metal hangar just steps from the single-runway Hawthorne Municipal Airport where military contractor Northrop once designed and built iconic aircraft like the T-38 Talon. Next door, Musk’s other big venture, SpaceX, occupies a giant ex-Northrop building. As I pull into the corporate park driveway that the two companies share, I see what appears to be a space capsule peeking through an open cargo door. Musk himself is very actively involved in both companies; a Tesla spokesperson tells me that he switches between the two on a daily schedule, traveling constantly between facilities in Northern and Southern California. I like to imagine him flying directly into Hawthorne rather than LAX about ten minutes away, perhaps in a futuristic aircraft or spacecraft of his own design.

Inside the lobby of the cavernous Tesla hangar, a tall wall keeps prying eyes out of the studio area, where loud whirring sounds give the impression of a staff hard at top-secret work — most likely on the upcoming Model X SUV, which Tesla wants to launch next year. There’s a concept Model X sitting in the lobby, but it’s obviously not a driving prototype; the interior appears to be a mockup carved out of foam.

This isn’t your granddad’s car company; it’s a child of the Valley

Apart from the Model X and a few paint samples for prospective buyers to peruse, there isn’t much for the public to see at the design studio (that’s one thing Tesla has in common with the Old Guard car companies it’s trying to displace: R&D secrecy). Out front, a prototype Supercharging station serves as the reference for Tesla’s vision of a nationwide network of ultra-fast chargers that can give its cars half a charge in about 30 minutes — and more importantly, do it on renewable power alone. It doesn’t look much different than a typical gas station, except that you won’t find any attendants or payment systems here — the chargers are free — and, of course, there’s no gas available. It’s open to Model S owners, who occasionally pull up, plug in, and hang out with other owners and Tesla employees in the lobby for a few minutes while they’re waiting for the battery to top off.

It’s here that I meet Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer and an auto industry veteran who has prolific stints at Volkswagen Group, Mazda, and General Motors under his belt.

"I think that’s one of the things that sets us apart a little bit […] we’re very much designing for production," he tells me. "We’re designing with a vision of getting this product to the road and into people’s hands as fast as possible. Our concepts are always with the idea of making it to the road." That includes the SUV’s exotic "falcon wings," which open straight up to make it easier to get in and out.


The first impression

Eventually, von Holzhausen bids us a pleasant trip, and we get down to the nitty gritty of strategizing a cross-country stint in a vehicle that can’t take gasoline. Our plan was to meander up the Pacific coast from LA to San Francisco, stopping to recharge both the car and our bodies in Morro Bay, a sleepy village on the ocean known for its giant rock. Morro Bay lacks one of Tesla’s ultra-fast Superchargers, but it does have a so-called Level 2 charger; it takes a lot longer to top off the battery with a Level 2, but if we let it sit there overnight, we figured it should be good by morning. For comparison’s sake, you couldn’t make the trip from LA to the Bay Area on a single tank of gas in most cars, but finding a gas station is very rarely a problem. There are a number of apps like PlugShare that help EV owners track down available chargers, but the Model S itself doesn’t yet include a built-in charger directory.

With that, we set out onto Interstate 405 to meet up with US Route 101, which we’ll end up taking most of the way from Southern to Northern California. Though Tesla had given me a comprehensive walkthrough of the car in preparation for the journey, this is the first time that I’m actually behind the wheel and in motion. It’s a trip, both literally and figuratively.

Mashing the pedal of the Model S is a sensation that takes some getting used to

Once you’re rolling, the Model S quickly seduces you. It’s the accelerator: it responds instantaneously, smoothly, and effortlessly, as if you have nearly limitless power at your disposal. Someday, humans will all drive electric vehicles and this bizarre, science-fiction sensation will be completely normal. For those of us who’ve driven cars powered by controlled explosions of fossil fuel their whole lives, though, mashing the pedal of the Model S is an eye-opening sensation that takes some getting used to. Before long, I was rocketing down El Camino Real with no real sense of speed, only astonishment that electric motors and a battery pack alone could propel this 4,600-pound vehicle at a rate that made everyone around me look like chumps.

To be clear, the kind of white-knuckle acceleration offered by this vehicle doesn’t come cheap. Though a base Model S can be had for as little as $52,400 after a $7,500 federal tax credit — still more money than most of us have ever paid for a car — the Performance model starts at a sobering $87,400. Fully equipped, the price can climb just north of $100,000. At that point, you’re dancing with supercar territory.

As the curb weight suggests, this is not a small car. At 196 inches long, the Model S is only 3.8 inches shorter than BMW’s stately 7 Series (in standard wheelbase trim). It’s deeply handsome from every angle but doesn’t stand out in a crowd; if you squint your eyes, it could look like anything from a $25,000 Toyota Camry to a $200,000 Aston Martin Rapide. Even Tesla’s relatively muted color choices for the car — there are no fluorescent yellows or oranges available like on the old Roadster — tell the story that it wanted to make something that regular people would feel okay buying. "I felt it was really important to make sure that the first product, or the first few products, were desirable right out of the gate. Not quirky, not unique, not strange," von Holzhausen told me.

And yet the Model S doesn’t actually blend in at all. What struck me throughout our entire trip was how many random passers-by — how bloody many — would stop us to ask about the car. What is it? Is it Italian? Is it for sale yet? Can my son sit in it? It’s electric? Some would drive by on the highway, grinning ear to ear with a thumbs-up and an approving honk.


The touchscreen

Settling in for the 200-mile drive to Morro Bay (with plenty of stops in between for lunch in Santa Barbara, coffee, and gratuitous video and photo ops), I realized that I finally had to contend with the Model S’s unprecedented driver controls.

Or rather, driver control, singular: in place of an average car’s array of buttons, knobs, and small displays, the Model S has an enormous 17-inch capacitive touchscreen mounted vertically down the middle of the dashboard, angled slightly toward the driver for viewability and ease of reach. Perhaps more than the newfangled electric drivetrain, nothing worried me more about the Model S — nothing brought out more of the curmudgeonly "get off my lawn" mentality — than this touchscreen. Nearly every component in a modern car is designed to enhance safety and keep drivers better focused on the task of driving; traditional knobs and buttons help drivers keep their eyes on the road because they instinctively come to know where things are. They can feel out a volume control here, a temperature control there without having to look down.

I challenged von Holzhausen on why he went with this configuration. He’s prepared for it, pointing out that the car can evolve over time because it’s not locked into physical controls: as Tesla rolls out software updates — which are downloaded over the air, just like a smartphone — the UI can get better and offer more features. Knobs can’t. "We actually built into the UI in the whole development process this idea of muscle memory, too," he continued. "It was important that we kept, in some areas, some easy to reach and persistent pushes." He noted that things like temperature controls and music volume are permanently docked in the same location at the bottom of the screen.

The gadget nerd in me wanted to love this giant glowing rectangle in the dash, obviously, but the driver in me wanted it gone and replaced with more traditional controls. To be fair, the display is undeniably cool: Tesla clearly put a good deal of thought into the Nvidia Tegra 3-powered user interface, which includes a strip of functions along the top that can be dragged into either of two panels (each of which is still larger than an average high-tech car’s display). That means you can show, say, navigation and music controls at the same time. Or a graph of energy consumption and a live view of your rear-view camera. Or a web browser.

Nothing brought out more of the curmudgeonly "get off my lawn" mentality than this touchscreen
I don’t want a web browser in my car, and more importantly, I don’t want the drivers around me to have one

Yes, the Model S has a web browser. But it shouldn’t. It doesn’t even lock you out while driving, a design decision I cursed when my Reddit-addicted video producer seated next to me started browsing "Malicious Advice Mallards" uncontrollably while I was flying down the 101. Tesla insisted to me that it thinks drivers should be responsible enough to decide when and how to use the controls of their vehicles, but the temptation for a news junkie to load up, say, CNN at 80 miles per hour could be far too great. And you think texting while driving is distracting?

I was actually surprised that existing US or European regulations don’t prevent something like a giant touchscreen with a full web browser in a dashboard from being sold in the first place, but I think the Model S is a case where private industry has simply run circles around the molasses-esque bureaucracy of our government: in three, five, or ten years, I would be shocked if this kind of hardware and software configuration was legal. I don’t want a web browser in my car, and more importantly, I don’t want the drivers around me to have one.

Pulling into scenic Santa Barbara for lunch, I noticed a few touches that will freak out drivers experiencing the Model S for the first time. For instance, there’s quite literally no ignition, nor one of those start-stop buttons that have become popular in recent years. There’s no power switch at all. As long as the key fob — shaped like a Model S — is on you, you just get in and start driving. When you’re done, you just get out. It’s a weird thing to get used to, because you feel like you’re missing a step somewhere.

The key fob has some other tricks up its sleeve, too. Walking away automatically locks the car, which causes all four door handles to retract flush with the body — it made me feel like I was in a sci-fi movie every single time it happened. When you walk back up to the car, the handles extend. But these aren’t mechanical handles: pulling on them detects your touch, which triggers a motorized latch and allows the door to be opened. Besides being wicked cool, the motorized handles give the Model S an ever-so-slight aerodynamic advantage when it’s in motion.

The near-disaster

After lunch, we returned to the car and set out for Morro Bay. We intentionally didn’t seek out a charger in Santa Barbara because we wanted to push the Model S’s battery to its limits: the Performance model is rated for 265 miles, it’s about 200 from LA to Morro Bay, and Tesla warned us that we’d lose a little range with a car full of equipment and people, perhaps getting 250 miles out of it. Also, we were being generous with the accelerator and running up and down some fairly hilly terrain, another knock on our total range.

By the time we passed San Luis Obispo on the highway, it was no longer clear whether we’d actually make it the next dozen-odd miles to Morro Bay, and I needed to make a call on whether we’d chance it or cry uncle and find a charger in town. I kept going, partly out of stubbornness — I’d set out earlier in the day running the numbers and never doubting that we’d be able to make it all the way — and partly out of the masochistic belief that running out of power would make for a good story. Admittedly, I hadn’t really thought through the drama and strife that could come from being stranded on the side of Highway 1 with a dead Tesla.

We were pushing our luck, but we didn’t realize just how far we were pushing it

There were some tense moments on that final stretch, culminating in a painfully long hill leading into Morro Bay that I was almost certain would do us in. The estimated range on my instrument panel at that point was one mile. I needed a charger immediately. I turned off the radio and climate control to save power, fogging the windows to the point that I nearly couldn’t see.

Fortunately, we had one of those strokes of luck on that chilly evening in Morro Bay, and our chase car rooted out the location of the one charger in town before our $100,000 toy died. But had we needed even another five minutes to find it, we could’ve been in a world of hurt. Pushing a two and a half-ton car up a hill doesn’t sound fun.

Out of a rated 265 miles of range, we got well under 250 from an effectively full charge provided by the Supercharger in LA to empty. I can't say that the battery was charged precisely to 100 percent capacity when we departed LA — and we spent plenty of time messing around in Santa Barbara along the way — but if not, it was close. We'd been plugged into that Supercharger for a long time. It's reminiscent of The New York Times' somewhat controversial experience with range anxiety, and a reminder that a built-out network of Superchargers are going to be crucial to making cross-country travel a practical reality for the Model S.

Because this was an industry-standard Level 2 charger that we'd arrived upon in Morro Bay, not a Tesla Supercharger, we needed to use an adapter which is supplied with the car to connect. We knew it’d take several hours to fill the enormous 85kWh battery with enough juice to make it to our next destination the following morning, Tesla’s Supercharging station in Gilroy (by comparison, Chevy’s Volt launched with just a 16kWh pack). The company supplied us with an iPod touch loaded with its iOS app that can monitor the car’s charging status, so we grabbed it and headed to our hotel several blocks away.

The app is cool: it gives you a precise map of your car’s location — convenient for parking in the vast tarmac expanse of a megamall — and lets you honk the horn, change charging modes, and see how long you’ve got to a full charge. It takes advantage of the Model S’s built-in 3G connection that uses AT&T’s network; you pay Tesla a monthly fee to use it, and it lets the car download software updates, connect to the web, use Slacker, and so on. If you’re a Model S owner, it’s an ongoing expense that you’re going to want to pay.

Range Anxiety

There is a phenomenon among electric car drivers known as "range anxiety." It’s a well-documented problem, and it’s not without merit: stories of dead Nissan Leafs and dead Teslas from overly optimistic drivers are all over the internet. At an event in Chicago last week hosted by Cadillac to demonstrate the new ELR, which runs on the same gas-electric hybrid platform as the Chevy Volt, chief engineer Chris Thomason drove the point home. "Not to take anything away from Tesla," he said. "I just drove 1,000 miles in this car. There is no range anxiety." Thomason noted that GM has full electric vehicles in its lineup, too — the problem is that the charging infrastructure simply doesn’t exist yet to take an EV on a cross-country trip without planning it with extreme precision, care, and a stroke of luck or two.



We woke up the next morning, checked the Tesla app, and discovered that our ride was nearly topped off. We thought we had more than enough in the metaphorical tank to make it to Gilroy, but we’d said the same thing the day prior and nearly had heart attacks trying to get to Morro Bay, so it was really anyone’s guess whether we’d actually survive the mountainous 160-mile journey along the gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway.

As we drove deeper and deeper into the wilderness, our phones stopped working one by one

Cruising along this beautiful stretch of Highway 1 through Big Sur is incredible in any car, much less an electrified one capable of doing fairly stupid things on long stretches of straight, empty, flawless asphalt. It was here that I really felt that I’d become one with the Model S’s suspension and drivetrain: the motor all but defies the car, which weighs nearly a ton more than the sprightly Roadster that preceded it. The battery pack is mounted at the lowest point, below the axles, which contributes to an extraordinarily low center of gravity (CG), which makes the Model S feel glued to the road no matter how many Big Sur twisties you take at high speed. The height of the suspension can be adjusted (through settings on the big touchscreen, of course) to accommodate steep driveways and other obstacles, but at speed, it automatically sinks to a fierce stance that further contributes to a low CG. Rear-wheel drive — the preferred drivetrain of many driving fanatics — also helps to tear up curves, though it’s a problem in snowier climes than California. There’s no all-wheel drive configuration available yet, though it’s coming on the Model X next year.

As we drove deeper and deeper into the wilderness, our phones stopped working one by one. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of miles along the California coast that are essentially untouched, which makes cellular signals hard to come by. Problem is, the Model S’s navigation system relies on its 3G connection to download Google Maps. 95 percent of the time — when you’re within shouting distance of civilization — that’s a good thing, because it means your maps are always up to date. But when you get out in the sticks, thing start to fail. The basemap started turning solid gray so we couldn’t see where we were or where we were going. When we pulled over to shoot some pictures, our preprogrammed navigation route to Gilroy was gone and we couldn’t bring it back without a signal. It seemed like a strange oversight that the car wouldn’t cache the map and the route for situations like this; fortunately, there’s only one Pacific Coast Highway, so I wasn’t too worried about getting lost.


Back to the beginning

We made it to Gilroy with about 20 miles of range left, low enough to feel a pang of concern but not outright panic. Calling Tesla’s Supercharging station here a "station" is being a little generous: it’s really just four chargers mounted in the far corner of a strip mall’s parking lot, a few feet away from a pair of Level 2 chargers that were being used by a plug-in Toyota Prius and a beautiful white Fisker Karma. I was surprised to discover that three of the four Supercharger units were in use, two by brand new cars that hadn’t yet gotten license plates and a third by a black Tesla-owned vehicle with "PROTOTYPE CAR" labeled across the side. We slid into the fourth spot and paid a visit to a nearby In-N-Out. And that’s exactly what Tesla expected us to do: "Superchargers are located at places you’ll actually want to stop, like roadside diners, cafes, and shopping centers. So pull in, plug in, and grab a bite to eat. Model S will be ready when you get back," reads the company’s Supercharging site.

We expected to spend about half an hour charging; it’s only about 90 miles from Gilroy to our final destination in San Francisco, so we didn’t need to top it off, which would’ve taken a couple hours. But when we returned to the car, we met up with Mark, an engineer from San Diego who’d just picked up his Model S from Tesla’s Fremont factory after joining the waiting list in August of 2011 and was charging in preparation for the trip home. We spent a few minutes chatting, during which several other owners pulled up, waited for an open charger, and plugged in as they freed up. I was fascinated to see how many people were already taking advantage of these stations — which can only be used by a single car model from a single manufacturer — and we’re just a few months into production. By the time the Model X is on the road, Tesla could need significantly more of these to keep up with demand, lest we end up with huge crowds of nearly-dead EVs queued up at strip malls around the country. The company is currently planning to deploy around 100 of the stations by 2015, which should lessen (but not entirely eliminate) the need to carefully plan cross-country EV journeys like we did.

Maybe a decade from now, all these cars could be electric...

But after an hour, we were back on the road with about 200 miles of range back in the battery; it’s remarkable how much faster these Superchargers are than the Level 2 system we’d used in Morro Bay. My drive to San Francisco was bittersweet, knowing that I was just a couple hours away from relinquishing a very special car that I can’t afford — and even if I could, I’d be staring down the barrel of a multi-year waiting list with a $5,000 deposit. [Editor's note: Tesla tells me in a follow-up email that wait times have improved to 3-6 months.]

No road trip to San Francisco would be complete without a ceremonial drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, and that’s where we wrapped our shoot: on the scenic turnout, surrounded by tourists taking in the magnificent view. Maybe a decade from now, all these parked cars could be electric, I think to myself. Maybe not. It hinges on a lot of money, a lot of infrastructure, and the ability of firms like Tesla to succeed in the face of a brutal auto industry that has a reputation for eating businesses alive.

The Model S isn’t perfect. Far from it — and I think that Elon Musk would be the first to admit it. But for a company only ten years old to produce an automobile good enough to convince a Detroit native that this might be the future of transportation? Well, that’s pretty amazing.

Video Production Team: Stephen Greenwood, Sam Thonis, and Jordan Oplinger
Editing by: Jordan Oplinger
Additional Editing by: Billy Disney, Ryan Manning, John Lagomarsino