- The Tesla Model S is one of the most influential, important vehicles produced this century.
- The car suffers from a cheap interior and a lack of physical buttons for essential functions like climate control.
- Driving a car that's quicker than a Buggatti, but with no engine noise, is a surreal experience.
Remember 2012, when electric cars were commonly derided as highway-legal golf carts? When electric cars were reserved for the eco-obsessed loonies? Nobody who wears a tie to work would have been caught dead in one.
Then Tesla's Model S came a' knockin'.
People may forget this history, but the truth is the Model S was the first car that showed us that our battery-powered future could still be cool. 5 years later, the landscape of the market is unrecognizable. Electric is the rage, crossovers are the craze and minimalism is the prime directive.
One thing remains, though: the Model S is, without a doubt, the coolest car you can buy.
Part of the brilliance of the original Model S was that you didn't have to drive around in a rolling billboard for "ZERO EMISSIONS" just to save some money on gas. The Tesla, sleek and modern though it may be, is in total just a regular-looking car.
Of course, after five years there have been some changes. Namely, the faux grill has disappeared, further cleaning up the lines. In fact, the absence of a grille and tailpipes are your only real clues to this car's environmental mission. Ignoring the "Z E R O EMISSIONS" front plate, which I'd take off as soon as I had the keys, it's a pretty generic sedan.
That's not a bad thing, as the car is well proportioned and conventionally handsome. The Model S P100D got a lot of attention everywhere I took it. Of course, I live in Columbus, OH, not the Bay Area. Your mileage may vary.
Rest assured, pulling up anywhere in a Tesla will at the very least get you approving nods. So call the exterior a win, if only for your own reputation.
Tesla's interior game is weaker than nearly every rival.
The design is almost entirely based around a center 17-inch tablet, not so much integrated as stuck into the dash. It's quick to respond, intuitive and well designed. Software menus are simple to navigate, and nothing is more than a few clicks away.
Essential functions like climate control are put on the bottom of the screen, deeply below the beltline of the vehicle. This means you have to take your eyes off the road to adjust the temperature. Unlike knobs, which you can memorize and use by feel, the car requires your visual attention. Good thing it has Autopilot, I suppose.
Now, Tesla defenders will likely point out that most essential functions can be performed through steering wheel buttons. They're right, but you have to click on the scroll wheel, scroll to what you'd like to adjust, and scroll to adjust it. Turning off the air conditioning or opening the sunroof just became a three step process.
I understand that this is all done through software to cut costs and make it easier for Tesla to upgrade the car after you buy it, but it still feels like a step back. So, too, do the seats. In a day where I spent 8 hours driving to and from Detroit, including Supercharging stops, I emerged from the Model S with my butt feeling like stone and my legs like Jello. I've done that trip quite a few times in a variety of cars, and I've never felt that broken afterward.
Add in synthetic leather that doesn't feel particularly soft or high-quality, cheap faux-carbon fiber trim, and a decent amount of questionable plastics and the $157,700 price tag becomes questionable.
The Model S wasn't quite the most comfortable place to spend 8 hours round trip to and from Detroit. But my goodness does the driving experience make up for it.
Brutal. Painful. Mind-boggling. Perception-warping. Straight-up stupid. That's how it feels to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 2.4 seconds.
The Model S P100D with Ludicrous Speed Upgrade is the only production car ever made that can give you that experience. No Buggati, no Ferrari can match that off-the-line savagery.
That's not to say the Tesla is a supercar. I see that word thrown around a lot, and it's not accurate. Drive longer than a quarter mile and the red-blooded supercars of the world will beat the Model S as the speeds pick up. Toss in corners and it'll look like the Tesla's standing still. The Tesla is simply too big and heavy to be any fun to chuck around, but that's not what it's for. It's a dragstrip fiend with heated seats, the muscle car of the 21st century.
You can enjoy that acceleration and brutality, but then settle in for a long comfortable cruise. Standard air suspension quiets the ride on the freeways, and the lack of combustion means the wind is the only thing making even a hint of noise at 70 miles per hour.
Equally as eerie as the silence is the guiding hand of Autopilot, Tesla's innovative suite of advanced driver assistance technology. On a divided, well-marked highway the vehicle is capable of fully controlling its own throttle, brakes and steering to maintain your set course. Flick the indicator stalk, and your robotic butler will even make the lane changes for you. It's not perfect, frequently appearing too confident in its own limited abilities, but it adds to the other-worldly driving experience of the Model S.
At $157,700, this car doesn't come easy. For that price, true supercars like the Acura NSX come into focus. On the flip side, the Tesla also has to contend with super-sedans from Mercedes and BMW.
The value proposition against the true supercars is good, as the Tesla comes with five seats and two trunks. Against a BMW 7 series or Mercedes S-Class, though, it's a harder argument.
A Mercedes S550 can be had for cheaper, has an interior leagues above the Tesla, is bigger, offers more comfort features like massaging seats and can drive across the country with only 5-minute fuel stops. The Tesla devastates the Germans on straight-line performance and wrecks them in terms of cool factor, so it comes down to what's important.
If you want a big sedan to get you to work, a German luxury barge is probably better for you in almost every way. The money you save on gas doesn't come near to offsetting the price premium of the Tesla for similar equipment.
But if you go that route, you're driving something with an expiration date. The big, V8 sedans are on their way out. The Tesla Model S is the future, with its minimalism and it's upgradability and touch screen. It's the new age of luxury, and it feels different for it.
Something about driving a gas car after the Tesla felt old. In the Tesla you don't start the car, you get in and put it in gear. It's ready when you are. Pushing a button or — gasp — turning a key feels barbarian. Waiting for a transmission to shift so you can pass feels idiotic, the Tesla has power always. Not being able to set the climate control from an app seems tremendously archaic, and driver assistance systems that aren't Autopilot seem a bit dimwitted.
And that's the power of the Model S. Every logical fact should point you far away from it. Dozens of little things about it probably will annoy you. But there's something about it that makes you despise the old way. It's the reason that everyone who buys one says they'll never buy anything else. From the moment you sit in it, you know you're driving the beginning of something better. It's not perfect, it may not even make sense. But if nothing else, the Tesla Model S is the start of something new and exciting. I can't help but love it for that.
Driving Experience: 5
Price as configured: $157,700