First things first: what is Tesla and what is a Model S?
Tesla Motors is an electric vehicle manufacturer based in California, headed by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. The company is headquartered in Palo Alto (the same Silicon Valley city that is home to HP, neighboring Stanford University and Google), while their sole vehicle assembly facility is across the San Francisco Bay in Fremont. That factory was formerly part of a joint venture between GM and Toyota.
Tesla is also building an enormous facility in the Nevada desert named Gigafactory 1. The Gigafactory is meant to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for Tesla vehicles and energy storage solutions.
Wait, batteries? Is the Model S electric?
It is! The Tesla Model S is the first of Tesla's "second generation" of electric vehicles — the first was the Tesla Roadster (a heavily-modified Lotus Elise). It's a five-door luxury electric sedan, and unlike many other electric vehicles that are offered, it's designed from the ground-up as an electric car. Unlike a hybrid car, which uses a gas-powered internal combustion engine to generate electrical power to turn a generator and power the electric drive motor, Tesla cars — the Model S included — are 100% electric.
So there's a battery, and it's huge. Plenty of traditional internal combustion vehicles have been adapted for electrification, but they're always with compromises. Toyota's Prius houses its bateries under the second row seats, while the battery in the plug-in hybrid Ford Fusion Energi takes up half the trunk. That's on top of the existing internal combustion drivetrain, all of which takes up enormous space.
The drivetrain of a Model S is entirely different — there's no driveshaft, no transmission, and no gasoline engine under the hood. Instead there's a single massive battery pack under the floor, stetching from side-to-side and axle-to-axle, with electric motors and a simple gear reduction transmission placed between the wheels. The arrangement is both simpler and more efficient than the complicated mechanics of an internal combustion vehicle, opening up a huge amount of space and flexibility while simultaneously improving performance and handling.
So the Model S is electric... it has terrible range, right?
Nope! Tesla approaches electric vehicles unlike any other car manufacturer, with their entire design and engineering process centered around that giant battery pack slung under the cabin. As such, that huge battery provides substantial range — the base version of the Model S gets 240 miles on a charge, while the highest capacity battery can run as far as 294 miles on a charge. This is no Nissan Leaf or BMW i3.
Now, there's no denying that even a 300-mile range doesn't compare to what you can get with a gasoline-powered car, but it is far, far greater than any other electric car. The next closest is the 2017 BMW i3, which (1) will get a mere 114 miles per charge and (2) is tiny.
Eventually the Chevy Bolt will be on the market, but even its 200-mile range will pale in comparison to the capabilities of the Model S. And really, that car's going to go up against the Telsa Model 3 anyway. The Model S is a significantly larger and more expensive vehicle.
How much more expensive are we talking?
The Tesla Model S is not a cheap car. This is partly due to technological restraints, partly because Tesla designed it as a luxury car, and partly due to economies of scale. Technology constraints and economies of scale are the biggest factors at play here. Simply put: batteries are expensive, and the batteries you need to get a 300-mile range are definitely not cheap.
Tesla is building the Gigafactory in Nevada to bring down the cost of batteries, but for now they simply do not have the manufacturing capacity to produce battery cells at a low cost. Tesla's battery cell costs are among the lowest in the industry — they do produce more electric cars than anybody but Nissan — but the overall size of the batteries still drives up the cost.
And then there's the matter of luxury. Tesla could have sold have sold the Model S with all its electric car technology and an economy car interior, but that would have led to truly miserable sales. Nobody wants to pay an exorbitant amount of money for cutting-edge tech that's wrapped in a mediocre package, and so the Model S is essentially a luxury car. That said, the Model S isn't as nice of a luxury car as you might expect for the price — a good chunk of the sticker price goes into the technology.
A bare-bones Model S 70 starts at $71,500, while a full-optioned Model S P90D hits $147,500.
Yeah yeah, stop beating around the bush, we hear ya: how much does the Tesla Model S cost? That can vary wildly — a bare-bones Model S with a 70kWh battery and rear wheel drive is priced at $71,500, while a full-optioned Model S P90D with 90kWh battery, all-wheel drive, and various performance and luxury upgrades tips the scales at an obscene $147,500.
So, yeah, the Model S is not cheap. There are a bunch of option boxes that get ticked along the way, including leather seating, premium wheels, an all-glass panoramic roof, the increased battery capacity, performance boosts (including the insanely-named Ludicrous Speed Upgrade), cold weather heating, speaker upgrades, autopilot, and more.
There's one more thing to take into account when it comes to the price, and that's tax incentives. Tesla doesn't play the dealer incentives and sales and discounts game. But governments around the world have a vested long-term interest in getting more electric vehicles on the street, so they're offering substantial tax credits. In the United States, buyers of new hybrid and electric cars qualify for tax credits (money back regardless of how much you paid in taxes) up to $7500, and Tesla vehicles currently qualify for that full credit. The only issue comes in the structuring of the inventive — after Tesla has sold 200,000 cars the rebate drops significantly. Right now, Tesla has sold roughly 100,000 cars, so it'll likely be around the end of 2017 that the rebate is reduced for the Model S and other Tesla vehicles.
If the Model S is too rich for your blood, we totally understand. Consider the Telsa Model 3 instead — it's smaller and will cost less, but you'll be waiting until 2018 at the earliest to get one.
Okay, so they cost a bunch — what about charging?
Here's where it doesn't cost a bunch. In fact, electric cars like the Tesla Model S are cheaper to operate over the long term than an equivalent gas-powered car, and that's simply because there are fewer moving parts and electricity is cheaper on a per-mile basis than gasoline. Plug in, recharge, and be on your way.
There are three basic options when it comes to recharging a Model S, each has its own benefits and drawbacks.
Option 1: Plug into a standard outlet.
Option 2: Hook up to a public charging station.
Option 3: Superchargers!
Option 1: Plug into a household outlet. Technically this is two options in one — a standard 120v outlet (like the one you plug your phone charger into) or a 240v outlet (i.e. the kind a clothes dryer plugs into). Now, we're not saying not to use it, but charging off a 120-volt outlet would be our last choice if we had other options, because you'll get about 3-4 miles of range per hour of charging. If you have a Model S 90D, that will take roughly three days for a full recharge. Alternatively, if you can find and plug into a 240-volt outlet, you'll see substantially-faster charging — up to 29 miles per hour, good for a 10-hour charge time.
The 240v option is also what the Tesla Wall Connector runs off of. And if your car is equipped with dual chargers (that's an internal option, not double charging port connectors), it can recharge off the Wall Connector at 58 miles per hour.
Option 2: They're not quite yet everywhere, but they're spreading rapidly — public EV charging stations. For the average driver, even the 240-mile range of the base Model S 70D is more than enough for daily driving needs; the average commute distance in the United States is 25 miles. But if you happen to be away from your home charger and are seeing the battery gauge dipping to uncomfortable levels, you'll find public charge stations a helpful friend. They're compatible with the Model S via an adapter (which is included when you buy the car), and most will provide about 20 to 30 miles per hour of charging — some higher amperage chargers will charge even faster.
Tesla has also partnered with businesses across the world to install "Destination Charging Stations". These 240v stations use the same Wall Connector chargers as mentioned in option one, so you can expect to plug in and get charged back up in no time — often at no cost (though they may be reserved for the use of the business's customers).
Option 3: Tesla Supercharger Stations. This rapidly-expanding network of high-voltage DC chargers across North America, Europe, and Asia (More than 600 Supercharger stations are installed globally) is meant to enable long-distance travel for Tesla owners, and that's because they are simply the fastest way to charge your Tesla.
And by fast, we mean fast. 480 volts and 200 amps fast. 170 miles in 30 minutes fast — which Tesla says should be enough to get you to the next Supercharger station. That first half hour is when the car will charge fastest; the engineers at Tesla want your battery pack to last as long as possible, and while a depleted pack can take energy at a high rate, once it is closer to full they have to be smart about how quickly additional energy is added. Taking a 90kWh Model S as an example, Tesla touts 40 minutes to get the battery pack to 80%, after which point the remaining capacity will take another 35 minutes to charge.
Owners of Model S cars have an added bonus: Supercharger access is free. That's right, free. So while you'll pay to charge at home or with a public charging station, traveling cross-continent on a Supercharger won't cost you a dime. That's not to say that charging is expensive, because it is not. The average cost per kilowatt-hour in the United States is just $0.12; recharging a 90kWh Model S would cost roughly $10 for 294 miles of range, or $0.034/mile. Consider that the average personal vehicle in the United States manages around 25 miles per gallon of gasoline, which works out to $0.08/mile at $2/gallon. Unless your internal combustion car gets 60mpg, charging a Tesla will cost less than fueling a car.
Though that does point out one other disadvantage to electric cars versus gasoline, and that's the time to refuel. Completely filling the tank on a gas-powered car is relatively quick — in just a few minutes you can pump several gallons of gas, take a bathroom break, grab some snacks, and be on your way. If your Model S needs a full recharge to get where you need to go, it'll take over an hour. Thankfully, Tesla is attempting to place their Supercharger stations within walking distance of things to do and places to eat, so at least you won't be stuck fiddling your thumbs while you wait.
An electric car couldn't possibly be as great to drive as a gas car, right?
You're right, yes. It's better. We know what you're thinking, there's no way it could be better. But it is. Tesla cars are fast, the accelerate like nothing else, and the have unrivaled handling — and all of that comes down to the nature of electric vehicles. And the Model S can be ludicrously fast. We'll break it down into the two available battery pack options: 70kWh and 90kWh, because that impacts the the speed and acceleration of the car.
The Model S 70 and 70D both have a top speed of 140mph. If you opt for the rear wheel drive only version you'll see a 0-60 time of 5.5 seconds, while the dual-motor all-wheel-drive 70D hustles there in 5.2 seconds.
As for the 90D, its top speed is 155mph with a 4.2-second 0-60 time. And opting for the performance-enhanced P90D will cut that to 3.1 seconds — and then the $10,000 Ludicrous Speed Upgrade (yes, that's the name) will shave the 0-60 time down to an absurd 2.8 seconds. For cars that weigh over two tons, that's frankly inconceivable acceleration, but it's real.
The difference in top speeds and acceleration comes down to the discharge capacity of the battery pack. In essence, the larger the battery, the more it can discharge at once. For a 4-door sedan even the 5.5 seconds of the Model S 70 is pretty darn quick, and that's thanks to the electric motor driving the wheels. Unlike a gas engine, which has a torque curve where it gets more powerful at higher RPMs, an electric motor offers maximum torque from the moment you press down on the accelerator — you'll feel constant acceleration with linear speed gains, and no jerky transmission shifting to boot.
While the 70kWh and 90kWh batteries are the only current options for the Model S, Tesla has offered a number of battery pack sizes in years past, including 60kWh and 85kWh. Early Model S cars were also offered only in rear wheel drive configurations, with the dual motor D versions arriving in late 2014.
The layout of Tesla cars also helps with the way the car handles. Because the heavy battery is the floor of the car, stretching long and wide, it brings the center of gravity down much further than on a standard gasoline car. This reduces body roll when cornering, which means the car can take turns faster and with more confidence. The downside to that heavy battery is that it makes the car harder to bring to a rapid stop.
The Model S looks fast too
Well, we wouldn't want it to look slow now, would we? The current look of the Model S is actually an evolution, though it's largely similar to the previous iteration. In automotive parlance it's what's called a "mid-cycle refresh", a nip-and-tuck meant to give the car a freshened but familiar look while making other improvements and tweaks. The 2016 refresh of the Model S ditched the glossy black plastic grille-aping nosecone of that had been on the front of the car since its prototype unveiling in 2008 and the start of production in 2012.
Apart from the revised front-fascia, the rest of the Model S exterior is still the four-door "sportback" we've known for a few years now. Essentially, it's a really large hatchback with a long and sloping rear hatch. Thanks to its aerodynamic design the Model S also has a large and sloped windshield, with an optional all-glass two-pane panoramic roof.
Open the doors — which is accomplished via motor-retracted handles, by the way — and you'll find a modern take on a mid-range luxury car. For the price tag the Model S doesn't quite live up on the interior appointments, but it at least does so in a manner that's consistent with the futuristic look of the exterior.
All eyes, however, are going to land on the center console and its dominating 17-inch portrait touchscreen display. It is enormous and stands in place of every nearly every button control option you'd find on a car by another manufacturer. Opening the glass roof, changing radio stations, adjusting the climate controls, navigation, and every other car setting is managed through this mammoth screen. A second display sits behind the steering wheel, replacing the traditional dial-centric instrument cluster.
When it comes to cargo capacity, the Model S is shockingly accommodating for a sedan. The rear hatchback isn't permanently closed off from the cabin — drop the rear bench back down and lift out the parcel shelf and you'll have spacious 58.1 cubic feet of cargo space. And that's before we count in the frunk. Yes, frunk, as in front trunk. A benefit to the low-slung electric drivetrain is that there's not a big gas engine sitting under the hood, opening up another 5.3 cubic feet of storage space.
Options-wise, there are a few boxes you can tick. For the P90D there's the previously-mentioned $10,000 Ludicrous Mode upgrade, as well as red brake calipers and a carbon fiber trunk lid spoiler. All other trim levels have access to the Premium Upgrades Package, which adds advanced HEPA air filters and the silly-name-serious-business Bioweapon Defense Mode pressurized containment zone, as well as dynamic LED turning lights, LED fog lights, LED ambient interior lighting, a powered liftgate, leather accents, and a few other bits.
The smart air suspension improves handling and efficiency (it lowers the car at high speeds for reduced drag). Adding the subzero weather package puts seat heaters in the rear bench, as well as heating for the steering wheel, wiper blades, and windshield washer nozzles. Opting for the Ultra High Fidelity Sound package will up the speaker count to 12, including a rear-mounted subwoofer. The high amperage charger upgrade ups the charging speed when connected to a compatible charger, and the rear-facing seats option puts a pair of kid-sized jumper seats in the back of the car. Oh, and there's an Autopilot option too.
Wait wait wait... Autopilot?!
Yeah, Autopilot. If it sounds magical, that's because it kind of is. Except it's the confluence of technology making life easier. Tesla Autopilot is categorized as "Level 2 Autonomy", which is to say that it's essentially a highly-advanced form of cruise control. Tesla Autopilot consists of three functions working in tandem: adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, and lane changing.
Almost every car manufacturer today offers some form of adaptive cruise control. The implementation in the Tesla Model S isn't really any different than in any other such vehicle: you set your speed and forward facing radar will slow the car to match the speed of any obstructing vehicle in your lane. What makes Tesla's implementation better is that it will guide the car all the way to a complete stop in congested traffic, and then pick up when things start rolling again.
Lane-keeping tech is another feature that most car manufacturers have implemented in one form or another, but few seem to have done it as well as Tesla. Using the front-facing camera at the top of the windshield, an Autopilot-enabled Model S will watch the lane markings on the road and use them to keep the car in the center of the lane, even as the road curves. Combined with the adaptive cruise control, a Model S on Autopilot will cruise, follow traffic, and follow curves in the highway without fuss.
If that wasn't enough, Tesla Autopilot also supports changing lanes. This requires driver input — check your mirrors, tap the turn signal stalk to tell the car which lane you want to move into, and then using the 12 ultrasonic sensors around the car it'll look at that lane and move the car into it when it senses enough space.
Autopilot is smarter and faster to react than our feeble human brains and reflexes.
Tesla maintains that Autopilot is meant to make highway driving easier, and stresses that drivers should be attentive when Autopilot is engaged. It's smarter and faster to react than our feeble human brains and reflexes — Autopilot reduces accidents by 50% — but it's not full and complete autonomy. The driver can take control at any time by making a deliberate adjustment to the steering wheel or pressing the brake pedal.
It's worth noting that autopilot extends to parking maneuvers as well. The Model S can park itself — both in parallel and perpendicular spots — but what's really neat is "Summon". Either via the remote control fob (which, incidentally, is a small smooth touch-sensitive glossy black representation of the Model S) or the Tesla app (yes, there's an app) you can call a parked Model S to your location. It'll pull out of a parking spot or even a garage (it'll open and close the door) and slowly drive to your location.
Autopilot was added to the Model S in 2014 and today every Model S ships with the hardware for Autopilot — 12 ultrasonic sensors with a 16-foot range plus the forward-facing camera. Enabling Autopilot is a $3000 charge, but for the benefits of safer and less stressful highway driving, it's well worth the cost.
How reliable is the Tesla Model S?
This is the part where we note that Tesla is a young automaker. They've been in the car-building business for less than a decade, starting with the Tesla Roadster in 2008. The Model S was Tesla's first ground-up vehicle, and early on the car was afflicted with many issues stemming from poor quality control. Tesla has learned a lot as a company in the years since; today's Model S has a reliability record comparable to the industry average.
If your Model S does have an issue, Tesla offers a 4-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and an 8-year/unlimited-mile warranty on the battery and electric powertrain. An extended warranty, tacking on another 4 years or 50,000 miles, for $4,000 with a $200 deductible.
Servicing is conducted at Tesla Service Centers, which are located in most major metropolitan areas (often in conjunction with a Tesla Store). On the subject of servicing, when it comes to regular maintenance you can expect a much lower cost and far fewer trips to the Service Center than with a gasoline-powered car. On average, Tesla expects to see your car once a year or every 12,500 miles for a servicing that includes an inspection, tire rotation, wiper blades, key fob batteries, brake fluid, AC checks, and battery coolant, with the cost ranging between $400 and $900 (with the option to pre-pay up to 8 years for a 20% discount).
Alright, I'm convinced. How do I get a Tesla Model S?
Well, you can't just go to any old dealership to get a Tesla. In fact, Tesla has opted out of the whole old dealership arrangement, opening their own corporate-owned Tesla Stores instead. They believe this allows them to offer a better experience for customers, but in doing so they have gone up against entrenched interests across the United States: the dealerships and their ability to successfully lobby state legislatures for favorable legislation. Tesla Stores are located in 20 states, with "Gallery" locations in several more to offer customer education but not sales where they are prohibited.
Tesla Stores do maintain some on-site stock of the Model S (both new and pre-owned) for somebody that's willing to pick one out and drive away today, but for the discerning Tesla buyer (that's you), they offer custom ordering direct from the Tesla Factory. This system does mean there's a several-week delay in receiving your new car, but it will be exactly the one you wanted and not a compromise with what the dealership had in stock.
Ordering from a Tesla Store has the advantage of getting to know the staff at the location and getting to put your eyes on the actual look of the pain colors and feel of the leather and just somebody to talk to if you're not sure which option boxes to check. Tesla Store employees aren't paid on commission, so you won't find yourself pressured into opting for a more expensive feature — or the more expensive Model X — unless the think it would be the better car for you.
The fun part about ordering a custom car is that you don't actually have to go in to the Tesla Store to do that — you can do it from the comfort of your computer (or phone, if that's more your style). Tesla's Design Studio allows you to pick and choose every option for your car, from the paint color and wheels to the battery pack size and Autopilot.
Stop waiting, order your new Tesla Model S now. You won't regret it one bit.