Cliffs Notes: My wife and I were able to test drive a Tesla Model S today, at long last, a 85 kWh Performance but non-Signature model, to be specific. The quick summary of my review is that both she and I liked it, with only mild reservations. Read on for the full story.
Pre test-drive impressions:
Having the Tesla Store in a busy mall is great for foot traffic--the employee helping us out said they have logged over 5,000 visitors per day at peak and routinely see more than 3,000 on a weekend day--but is not so great for those customers only interested in seeing Teslas and not the rest of the mall's flim flam. It's a crazy mall to begin with, and in the post-Thanksgiving Saturday night rush it was especially insane, auto- and foot-traffic-wise alike.
Once in the Tesla Store it was easy enough to get checked in with an employee, and in the 10 minutes or so during which we waited for the car to be brought out in front of one of the mall's entrances we played with the configurator and range estimator on one of the multiple large touchscreen kiosks on the wall. Would I rather the store not be in a mall? Sure, but if this is the price to pay for a very low pressure test drive experience (the employees don't sell cars, per se, and don't work on commission) then I'll live with that.
The styling is handsome, in my opinion. Derivative? Perhaps. Judge for yourself. The headlight/foglight treatment works well at night, with a striking appearance when approaching the car. The frunk is big enough to be useful for groceries. The rear trunk is larger yet. Quite a practical car, this would be. 21" wheels fill out the wheelwells very nicely.
Interior materials felt good. Door panels are plain, by design: The "two button" interior (glove box release and hazard light being said two buttons on the dashboard) is minimalistic, almost austere, per the intentions of Elon Musk. I think the overall look of the interior works well enough, with enough different lines and colors to not seem bland. It certainly didn't feel like a penalty box, even if not as baroque as, say, the Mercedes from which the switchgear was borrowed. (On that note I have to say that the shifter isn't my favorite. Not Tesla's fault and not a huge deal, but it requires more visual attention than such an interface should warrant.)
Interior room was adequate. I had enough headroom up front and almost enough in the rear thanks to the cutout for the full-length two panel moonroof. (Without the moonroof there'd be no hope for me in the back, so that's a mandatory option, in my opinion.) Legroom was ample, and actually better than would be expected from the specs in the rear. Rear facing child seats wouldn't be an issue at all with average-leg-length drivers. The only sore spot is the oddly low rear seat cushion, noted by both me and my wife, leading to a mild "knees up" feel.
The giant touchscreen in the center console was as smooth and slick in real life as in the demos. The moonroof, suspension, auto-mimicking creep at "idle", steering effort, and regen level controls were especially cool. There were a few flies in the ointment, however: There needs to be an option to turn the giant center console display off, or, at the very least, have it be dimmable separate from the similarly-LCD-and-backlit instrument panel. There was also a lot of wasted space on said instrument panel: When navigation is active then the space lateral to the instrument "cluster" is useful but otherwise it just sat there blank.
Visibility outwards was a mixed bag. Forward visibility was excellent, aided by a low cowl height in turn possible due to not having an engine up front. The somewhat high beltline did cause views out the side, and, especially, over the shoulder when head checking, to be suboptimal. Deal breaker? Hardly, but something to keep in mind. The rear window is small and useless, but there's a backup camera, of course. Such is the way of modern designs with a high tail for aero reasons and a high beltline for style and safety.
The powertrain is simply superb. The model we tested was a "P85", which means that it had the Performance package (0-60 listed at 4.4 seconds per Tesla) and the 85 kWh battery. It is a very quick car at all speeds. The immediate response and linearity of response both jetting around town and when merging on the freeway was like nothing else I've driven. Well, perhaps my old RX-8 had a similar linear feeling, only with half the power and torque...
Both my wife and I felt the strong default regen setting was a bit unnerving. We typically drive her Prius, which has the opposite behavior, of a very free coasting sensation (0.26 Cd on the Prius will do that) without any regen when one lets off the accelerator. In the Model S with the standard regen setting there's enough regen that it feels a bit jerky when one lets off the go pedal abruptly. I imagine that we'd get used to it in time and learn to modulate our right-foot inputs more smoothly (or would simply choose the lower regen option), but coming from a "normal" car this was definitely the weirdest thing.
Handling was good, too. I can't speak to at the limit behavior as I didn't have the chance to autocross the car, of course, but I did push it a little on a few on-ramps and didn't experience much body roll or tire squeal at all. The sensation of a low center of gravity is strong, and, as visible from the rolling chassis on display at the Tesla Store, having good suspension geometry with double wishbones front and rear does wonders. Ride comfort was good as well, despite body motions being well damped. Our P85 tester had the air suspension, set at normal height, and Long Island's various and sundry road imperfections were heard through those low profile 21" tires more than felt.
I didn't track Wh/mi figures during my highway + city streets spin in the car, but the log for the day, including a trip to and from Riverhead with a private test drive in between per the Tesla employee along with us, showed an average of 367 Wh/mi. That sounds about right to me. The battery was at about 80% SOC with around 200 miles estimated per the instrument panel readout, again around what one would expect for an 85 kWh model.
The Model S has racked up its share of accolades--see the Motor Trend COTY award at the top of this post--and it has my official stamp of approval now as well, for what little that's worth. It's not a perfect car, by any means: It's expensive, looks like a Jaguar XF crossed with an Aston Martin Rapide, can't be one's sole vehicle barring fanaticism and extreme patience (even with the Supercharger network, yes), and has a smallish greenhouse with resultant par-for-the-modern-car-course outward visibility as a result. On the other hand, it has a highly entertaining, fast, near silent, and linear powertrain in tested Performance model guise, has good packaging in terms of luggage capacity, and looks modern both inside and out.
Both my wife and I came away from the test drive more impressed with the Model S than we thought we'd be, and that's no faint praise as we we came into it well informed. She wants to wait for the Model X for herself, in hopes that it would address her concerns (low back seat cushion height, "3rd row" jumper seats only good for pre-teens, outward visibility) but thinks that a Model S would be a great car for me: Rewarding on the daily commute, big enough to ferry the imminent kid/future additional kids in a pinch, and unique enough to tickle my funny bone.
We would also have to bank on having something large and fossil fueled available for long trips with the whole crew, of course, but after driving the Model S I think springing for such a garage might just be worth the price of admission (at least at the $60k before tax credit level of the base 40 kWh car).
A Model S with the small battery pack would be twice the price of, say, a Nissan Leaf--a car that I have test driven and like in its own right. The long and short of this review is that the Model S indeed feels like twice the car.