I got my Tesla Model S on January 3, 2013 — 3 years (to the day!) after I pre-ordered it in 2010. After driving it for the last 2 1/2 months, here’s my review.
Let me start by giving you the bottom line: I’m a big fan of the Tesla Model S. First and foremost, it fulfills the basic promise of any car: getting me from point A to point B. Beyond that, I’m able to get around without ever going to the gas pump and my first 1000 miles of travel cost me about $36 of electricity vs. the approx. $240 the same distance would have cost me in my previous gasoline car (16-20 mpg). And the computer in the car is superb — apart from the car being 100% electric, this feature is the most exciting to me. Finally, the build quality is very high so everything about it feels luxurious. The more time I spend with the car, the more I feel like Tesla built a list of stereotypes of electric cars (1. they’re small 2. they’re slow 3. they have limited range and 4) they’re not luxurious) and then set out to build a product that disproved each of those stereotypes. The good news (for me! and for Tesla!) is I think they succeeded.
After driving it for 8 weeks, I absolutely love my Tesla Model S and my only question is, “How will it hold up over time?”
I bought the non-performance model S with the 85 kW-hr battery, the tech package, the 21″ high performance tires and the rear facing seats. I didn’t get the sun roof. If colors matter, I bought the grey with grey leather interior and obeche wood matte. Side note: the obeche wood matte is absolutely gorgeous.
Interior, doors and mats
The leather and stitching on the front dash, the steering wheel and the seats all feels very high quality. I drive two children (ages 4 and 8) around in the car and I have so far managed to avoid shoe prints, food/drink stains and what-not on the seats. We’re generally pretty laissez faire about things like this in our family — things are meant to be used! — but I’ve asked the kiddos a few times to be a little more careful in my car and so far they’ve obliged me.
Seats are very comfortable. The front cockpit is sparse — which I like. Not a lot of compartments to fill up with random junk and periodically clear out. The cupholders in the car comfortably hold my occasional morning tea or coffee, though their location is a bit off. To grab my coffee I have to reach back to my waist instead of being more naturally positioned at my thigh or knee. So far, I’ve survived this indignity.
The slide-out-and-back-in door handles definitely get the “oohs” and “aahs” from other people and more importantly, they “just work” as a way to get in and out of the car. Once they slide out, one different thing about the door handles is they don’t mechanically trigger the door unlatch mechanism. They seem to sense when pressure is applied (ie when you pull the handle) and then they actuate the door unlatch mechanism. It’s a small difference — not much more than that. It’s one of the many things in the car that is electronic instead of mechanical. And I guess if I was in the habit of making quick getaways, I might complain that this creates a slight lag to opening the door– maybe half a second.
Also, people I show the car to wonder what happens if your hand is inside the door handle when it retracts into the door. This happened to me once and my fingers are fine — they must have considered this possibility (surprise!) and have designed the door handle to avoid any injury.
One actual complaint I have is with the front passenger door — all the other car doors close like any normal door but the front passenger door takes extra force to close from the inside or from the outside. Most passengers don’t get it completely closed on the first try and I have to point it out to them. This a total killjoy during car demos. I brought this up with a Tesla service employee who came to do a service check on my car and he sort-of acknowledged the issue. I’m hoping they’ll be able to fix this. It’s just a small hitch that I’d love to see go away.
Also, the doors don’t have a self-closing mechanisms and I wish they did — maybe just because of the issue above. But apart from the front passenger door issue, it’s just a nice luxury to have the car take care of completely closing the door for you. And given the Tesla’s price range, it’s something that should be there — heck, Tesla should just throw it into the “tech package” (which I doubt anyone has opted to not purchase).
The car comes with mats for the front driver and passenger seats but nothing for the back bench or the trunk. I think they should include mats for the entire car, but I picked up some Firestone mats for the backseat for $35. And I also splurged on the official Tesla backseat mats for a ridiculously-priced-accessory price of $250 (and they are still on back-order).
One cool and different thing about the backseat is since there is no transmission axle, the floor is flat all the way across– this makes it feel a little more spacious back there. Overall, there’s plenty of room in the back, slightly more than average four door sedan and less than the most spacious four doors (can’t compete with the “long” edition of cars, obviously).
I’ve ordered the rear facing seats (the “jump seats”) but they haven’t come in yet — they’re evidently back-ordered and I’m told that I might have them before the end of March. With my 4-year old and 8-year old, these seats are going to add a lot of utility to the car for me and my family. If someone from Tesla reads this and it helps me get my jump seats faster, I’ll tell you that my children cry to sleep every night because they don’t have their jump seats yet.
Photo above shows where the jumpseats will go once they are installed (photo taken by our local paper for a story they ran about the car)
I took a Tesla factory tour a little over a year ago and this is a photograph of the jumpseats from that.
The key for the car was a bit odd at first (it’s in the shape of the car with three “hidden” buttons — one at the front that controls the “frunk”, one at the back that controls the “trunk” and one in the middle that locks/unlocks the car), but now it’s perfectly intuitive and I like it a lot. One complaint I have is the key fob doesn’t fit on any traditional keychain. There’s a huge thread dedicated to this on the Tesla forums with suggestions on which SKU to buy on amazon that makes this work (buy this one, if you’re a Tesla owner, it’ll take a week or two to come in, but it works). Anyhow, this is just plain silly and Tesla should provide a means by which you can easily and out-of-the-box attach the key fob to a keychain.
The seatbelts in the backseat need some work. They don’t have a rotation mechanism in them so unless you pull them out with the belt at just the right angle they feel like they are catching against something. And if the “right angle” happens to work for you, then you must be Flat Stanley. I’m concerned that the belts in the backseat are catching on something and that, over time, the belts will fray. And apart from that concern, they just don’t feel that well designed.
Finally, there aren’t any “oh shit” handles in the Model S nor is there any place to hang a jacket in the back seat. Just a small thing, neither is very important to me. My Dad wears a suit jacket or blazer everyday and its something he’d really miss if he didn’t have a Tesla.
Charging the car
It’s pretty simple– I had a 240 volt NEMA 14-50 outlet put into my garage. This is the same type of outlet that your washer/dryer plug into. Almost every night — whether I’ve driven 15 miles or 150 miles — I plug my car in. The charge port is on the rear driver side of the car, behind a panel that opens by waving the charging cable handle near it. The car won’t move while it’s plugged in and there’s a nice alert on the dashboard that tells you when you are driving off with the charging port panel open (which I’ve begun to do more often than I’d like to admit).
I haven’t used any public charging stations and since there aren’t any supercharging stations (yet) in Texas, I haven’t used one of those either.
The Car’s Range
There’s a charge setting for “Standard” (the default) or “Max Range”. At standard, my car charges to a rated range of about 240 miles. From my driving habits and the car’s feedback mechanisms, I think on average I could probably take the car 220 miles with this “standard” charge. I think “Max Range” would probably get me to 250 miles or so of real range, but using the “Max Range” setting comes at a not-quantified-by-Tesla reduction in overall battery life. With my weekday driving patterns (approximately 25 miles a day), I usually leave the setting on “Standard”. Even on the weekends when I might drive 100 miles, I can comfortably leave the setting on “Standard” and I just plug it in every night. I have missed plugging it in at night and it works just fine the next day– I could probably go a few days without re-charging the car, but they recommend charging it every night for better battery longevity.
The rated range indicator is very prominently displayed on the front dash (right below your current speed) so it’s definitely something you’re trained to think about whenever you get in and out of the car and it becomes second nature to think about this when you’re planning a drive.
How the car drives
First a disclaimer: I’m not a car aficionado. I never had a poster up in my room as a kid with a long garage full of sports cars and the title, “JUSTIFICATION FOR A HIGHER EDUCATION” and I’m not a speeds and feeds kind of guy where it comes to cars. The most expensive car I had owned before this one cost about $40,000.
In summary: this car is so much fun to drive. It’s very quiet. It’s smooth. It’s fast. The steering is responsive. When you get in, there’s nothing to “start” — you just put it in drive or reverse and go. I’m used to it now, but people are caught off guard with how quiet it is. It’s not just fast going from 0 to 60, it’s also fast going from 60 to 90, something that happens almost too easily!
The car uses regenerative braking to maximize the car’s range — by default, whenever you aren’t putting energy INTO the motor to propel the car forward, it’s taking the motion of the car, generating electricity with it and recharging the battery with that electricity. This changes the dynamics of driving — your pedal foot ends up doing more work, so don’t be surprised if you feel a little bit more “pedal foot fatigue” than normal. The car has cruise control, but I haven’t used it for sustained periods of time (though I’ll tell it probably has the best user interface of any cruise control feature I’ve ever seen!)
Again, the Tesla Model S is really a lot of fun to drive and as someone that’s never regularly driven such a fast car before, I can tell you that the whole driving experience is pretty addicting.
Tesla doesn’t yet have a physical service center in Houston (I understand it’s coming soon– they’re just waiting on permits) but they already have a few full-time employees in the Houston area. I was given the cell phone and direct line for the Houston service manager and when he offered to send someone out to put my front plate holder on the car, I him up on it. He scheduled a date and a 4 hour window and one afternoon, one of the Tesla “rangers” came out to my office. The service person who came out was super knowledgeable and was fun to talk to about the car– prior to working for Tesla, he used to teach Society of Automotive Engineer (SAE) classes. So it’s a good sign in my book that they’re over-hiring for their service personnel. He also popped open a side panel near the front driver door and plugged his laptop into the car to download diagnostic data.
Update (4/1/2013): Tesla now has a service center here in Houston, it’s roughly located at Westpark and Beltway 8. I haven’t been there yet, but Tesla has now made good on this promise. (And now I can comfortably answer the second or third most frequently asked question of “how do you get the car serviced?”)
The car computer
Tesla needs to give this thing a NAME so everyone can effortlessly talk about it. The Tesla’s computer, the face of which is the touchscreen, is from the future and it’s AWESOME. First the key points on this massive car interface innovation:
1) The car is always connected on 3G so it can do things like bring in Internet music services (right now they support Slacker Radio and TuneIn Radio) while you’re driving. This also brings always-up-to-date Google Maps.
2) The touchscreen is a high quality capacitive touch screen — it supports multi-touch and you can swipe your hand across the screen and it responds. It’s not the crappy touchscreens you’ve seen in most cars where the only thing it responds to is a high pressure tap.
3) Like your smart phone, there are periodic software updates that Tesla pushes down to the car over-the-air. I’ve received two such updates since I’ve owned the car and each update has contained delightful new features and added capabilities to the car. One even made a subtle change to the cars driving dynamics! (I told you, everything in this car is electronically controlled)
Let me go through the various “apps” for the car:
Camera: the rear-view camera on the car is high-definition and it’s noticeable. To compare, my wife’s rear view car camera is akin to a dot matrix printer vs. the Tesla’s 1200 dpi laser printer. It can also be invoked and used anytime — it not only active when the car is in reverse (though it does automatically turn on when you put the car in reverse). I’m still waiting to get the ability to lay an oil slick with my Tesla, but meanwhile I have found one other practical use to the car’s “anytime” rear view camera… I drew a “registration” mark on my garage floor and when I’ve driving into the garage, I use it and the rear view camera to position my car in just the right place so a) there’s enough room to close the garage door and b) there’s enough room to walk in front of the car.
Here’s one practical use for the Tesla Model S’s anytime rear camera… Making sure I park the car right in the garage.
Media: the car has XM, FM and AM tuners built-in. I’ve used the FM radio a bit, and one really nice touch is when there is meta-data about the song (a feature of “HD” FM radio stations, I guess), it downloads and displays album art from the Internet for that song. I haven’t used the XM radio feature. What I’ve used the most are the Internet radio services– mainly Slacker Radio. My girls have gone bananas over this feature. I pay $4 / month for the “Plus” service (the least expensive service that works with the car) and it lets me search for any artist/album/song and it typically plays the selection and other songs like it. What Tesla needs to add is the ability for the system to be controlled from the backseat using an iOS / Android device (feature suggestion). This way, others can decide on the music themselves without the driver fumbling with the screen.
Web browser: Every so often the web browser’s been used in my Tesla, but in general, the Tesla is a connected device where you want to be using experiences tailored for the environment — which mainly means apps. But it is a web browser. It doesn’t have flash, though maybe there’s a way to get this to work.
Energy: this app shows you how many watt-hours you’ve consumer per mile for the last 5, 15 or 30 miles (mine hovers around 350 watt hours per mile) and what your instantaneous or average range prediction is given how much juice is left in the battery. This a fun and useful app and it trains you to drive more efficiently to extend the car’s range. Very simple and useful.
Phone: The Tesla pairs well with Bluetooth devices (I’ve used it with my iPhone 5 and with my Nexus 4), it imports all of your contacts. You can cycle through your contacts by last name in a manner similar to the iPhone (there’s an A B C… vertical bar on the right side of the contacts screen).The microphone volume is great, everyone I’ve asked has reported very good audio quality when they’ve talked to me. You can control volume from the steering wheel’s left click wheel. The right click wheel can be used to dial numbers, hang up the phone and a number of other things. The phone APP itself is pretty raw. I don’t think there is a contact search and there aren’t contacts favorite (feature request). It shows previous calls — with filtering by missed calls and received calls, but somehow the year on all calls is 1969 in my car. In general, the phone APP itself needs some work, but the phone integration is solid.
Maps: It’s Google Maps data with navigation from Tesla. As an example of how much better Google Maps data is and how good a job Tesla done with the integration, when you search for a business, it shows you it’s location on the map and the address and it gives you a button you can use to call that business. Has any car navigation system offered this simple and useful function before? The navigation is great too. When you navigate somewhere, there’s the app display (which is on the 17″ center console display) and there’s the dashboard display. The dashboard display is most useful for the driver — it’s a 3D first-person view of the road and it has useful features like lane indicators. For example, let’s say I need to take 610N from 59S. It’ll show me an image of 7 highway lanes and show me that the right two lanes will take me to 610 N (and that the third from the right lane goes to 610 S and that the remaining 4 lanes continue on 59S).
Settings: Think of this like the settings screen on your iPhone. You get an image of your car (down to the exterior and interior color and overall configuration) and you can use it to adjust the suspension height, the ambient lights, the dome lights, the headlights, foglamps, the feel of the steering (from comfort to sporty) and everything in between. You can also control the car’s app settings from here — this is where you put in your slacker radio account information. You can program the car’s garage door / gate opener. There’s lots of stuff in here and it demonstrates how electronically configurable everything in this car is.
Miscellaneous: Click the Tesla T on the main screen and you get info on your firmware version and you can see what’s new in the current version of the Firmware.
Garage/gate control: Click the homelink button and you can trigger your home’s garage door to open or close. One of the cool things they’ve done here is they capture the geo-location of your home garage/gate when you program it. So when you approach your garage/gate, it automatically pops up the open garage button (Note: it doesn’t automatically open the garage/gate). I love little touches like this– it shows that Tesla is nimble and it demonstrates empathetic design.
The Tesla Model S app
About a month ago, Tesla began shipping an Android and iPhone app that lets you do a number of useful things with the car. It can be used to set the car’s A/C to pre-heat or pre-cool the car before you get there. You can honk the car’s horn or flash its lights if you forgot exactly where you parked it (I used this feature to find my parked car at the Rodeo last week). It’ll show you on a satellite map where the car is parked. And if someone is driving the car, it’ll show you their location and the car’s speed in real-time. It’ll also give you the car’s charge details (in case you’re using a public charge station and want to check on the progress of a charge) and with the app you can unlock and lock the car. To my knowledge, the one obvious thing that you CAN’T do with the app is start the car (which is a good thing — at least until they add some additional authentication to the app).
As I have more notes, I’ll add them to this article, but that’s all for now.