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Why the Tesla S May Be a Game-Changer

Wednesday, 20 Feb 2013 | 10:51 AM ET
LeBeau's Long Tesla Test Drive
Phil Lebeau drives the Tesla Model S 430 miles from Washington D.C. to Natick, MA. He takes us along for the ride.

The Tesla Model S is a game-changing car.

After spending 8 hours driving the EV from Washington, D.C. to Boston, I am convinced that this car is proof a solely electric car can and ultimately will gain acceptance by American drivers, and not just for those looking for a second car just to run errands around the neighborhood.

So here's what I liked and didn't like about the Model S.

Giddy Up! Power, Agility and a Smooth Ride

From the moment I got into the Model S, I loved the feel behind the wheel. It has excellent handling, agility, and a responsiveness that will put a smile on your face.

(Read More: Behind the Wheel, Putting the Tesla to the Test.)

Admittedly, I did not put the Model S through a slalom obstacle course on a test track. Who cares. Neither will 99 percent of the people who buy it. What those people will find while driving is impressive, especially when you hit the gas. The acceleration kicks in thanks to the instant torque and when you want to get up and go, trust me you will.

Welcome to the Cockpit of the Future

The large center stack screen looks like a large iPod. While I loved the constant feedback it provided me in terms of battery life, navigation and entertainment I found it a little overwhelming.

Tesla Building Supercharger Network
CNBC's Phil LeBeau reports Tesla's Model S gets up to 265 miles fully charged, and Tesla is building a supercharger network along highways.

Did it bother me so much it would stop me from buying the Model S? No. It's a screen that I would probably have no problem with after driving the car for a while.

(Read More: Tesla Review Raises Questions About Reporter Test.)

By the way, while I had mixed thoughts on the center stack screen, I absolutely loved the main instrument panel behind the steering wheel. It was clear, easy to understand, and incorporated navigation better that any other new car I've been in.

Space! Give Me Space!

With no traditional center stack taking up space between the two front seats, the space is eye opening. The arm-rest compartment between the seats is adequate, but it's the open area on the floor that I loved. We took full advantage of it by putting our equipment, notepads and plenty of other stuff there. Also, the front trunk is a feature that makes the Model S much more functional than most other sedans.

Range Anxiety? A little

Driving a pure electric car means you need to adjust your expectations.

LeBeau's Tesla Model S 'Test Drive'
CNBC's Phil LeBeau reports how his test drive from Washington DC to Boston is going from Connecticut.

First, you'll know how far you can go thanks to the constant feedback on miles driven and how much battery life is left. So did I ever have range anxiety or a fear of running out of power? No. Though I will say that as we wrapped up our trip outside of Boston, we had just 11 or 12 miles of range left. That is entirely due to the fact that when we re-charged in Milford, Conn. we intentionally charged up to a point where we had just enough juice to reach Boston. If we had more time, we could have stayed hooked up to the charging unit longer to give ourselves more range.

(Read More: Tesla's 'Model S' Wins Car of the Year Award)

So knowing I had enough energy, why did I have a little range anxiety? As I watched the battery life count down there was a little voice in the back of my head saying, "Are you absolutely sure you aren't going to get lost going to the Tesla store outside Boston?" Of course, I knew we wouldn't if we followed the navigation, and ultimately we did have enough power.

The Bottom Line

The Tesla Model S is impressive and delivers a ride that will make even skeptics rethink their views on electric cars.

On the Road With Tesla's Model S
CNBC's Phil LeBeau reports how his test drive from Washington DC to Boston is going at around the midway point.

Is it the right car for everyone? No.

(Read More: Tesla CEO: New York Times Article Is 'Unreasonable'.)

That said, it is not a niche model for only those who want to make a statement going green. Will the Model S ultimately be a huge selling car where we look back in ten years and see 400,000 or 500,000 on the streets of America? That depends on a long list of factors including:

•Will the Model S have reliability issues three, four, five years from now?

•Will Tesla find demand remains strong with prices starting at $52,400 and stretching up over $70,000? What will happen to the price of gas?

•Will the growing supercharging network of Tesla re-chargers convince Model S buyers they can do lengthy road trips?

Nobody knows what will happen with those and other questions sure to come up. But I do know this after driving the Model S from D.C. to Boston: Tesla has built a car a lot of people will want to drive.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau; Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

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  • Phil LeBeau is a CNBC auto and airline industry reporter based in the Chicago bureau and editor of the Behind the Wheel section on CNBC.com.

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