Ride The Lightning - 2012 Tesla Model S Review

The newest bit of kit in the Classic Car Club is something different. It's the American-made, all-electric Tesla Model S. We've all heard the reviews, but after 500 miles of polar-bear friendly motoring, Classic Car Club can finally tell you what it's REALLY like.

Before we put any car into the fleet, new or old, it's our job to learn its quirks and uncover its weakest point so you, the member, don't have to.

The responsibility of finding the limits of the S landed on me (Mike P) first, in the form of a trip way upstate one weekend for a 550 mile round-trip electro cruise. Let's see what this luxury thing with a motor from a refrigerator can do.

Ride The Lightning - 2012 Tesla Model S Review

THE OVERVIEW:

Tesla, the automotive division of Elon Musk's portfolio of sci-fi contraptions has been around for 11 years now. Their first release, the Tesla Roadster (which, was obviously an internal project name that stuck) was more of an experiment in consumer interest rather than engineering. It was essentially a bastardized Lotus Elise with a pile of laptop batteries in the middle. It proved that an all-electric luxury car had a market. It was fun, it was novel, it produced a lot of rattily noises when driven. It was a fantastic little hooligan for electro power drifts and silent stalking. It was also uncomfortable, and you couldn't shake off the Silicon Valley nerd stigma even if you were driving in Bergen County.

Fast forward a few years and behold: the Tesla Model S—the company's first vehicle built entirely in-house. In the 85 spec trim, as ours is, it's a rear-wheel drive, seven-seat sedan with an 85kWh electric motor capable of propelling it to 60mph in 5.4 seconds and, not to get ahead of myself, I'll say it's stunning. Mostly stunning, anyway.

Ride The Lightning - 2012 Tesla Model S Review

FIT AND FINISH:

A few years ago, you'd never think an American brand, new or old, would win high marks here, but the Tesla S is a testament to pride in design.

The exterior is an aquiline shape designed to have as little air drag as possible. When building an electric car, efficiency is the name. So, while the S's shape cuts through the breeze like an arrow, it's managed to do so with a lot of Lexus-ness. The profile has the ability to look sleek and racy, like a Maserati GranTurismo or an Aston Martin Rapide, but it seems Tesla thought it better to go a touch more conservative and hold back. Less Fisker, more Toyota. This isn't to say the S is a pile of boring, however. The turbine style wheels, low stance and strung body all sits in wonderful balance, but I'd rather see it wearing a crazy cravat, not a neatly folded pocket square.

Where the exterior disappoints, the interior covers all bases. There are impressive touches everywhere, from the thinly sculpted, swooping seats to the wood trim that runs north south, rather than east west. The cabin is a monument to high design, luxurious finishes and mastery in subtle touches, like the ambient mood lighting. But the thing most notable in the interior is the massive touch screen center console, which acts as the command center for the entire car—my first big gripe.

Get into any car, and you can acclimate yourself rather quickly. Most things you need are tactile, like the tuning knob on the stereo, the slider for the fan control, or the button to activate the navigation. You don't have to look and read, you just have to reach and touch. In very well designed cars like the Cadillac CTS, for example, the right buttons and switches seem to fall into your hand, but not in the Tesla.

Literally EVERYTHING you want to do requires reading. Want to change the radio station? You have to press the entertainment button, then scroll through stations on the screen. Want to open the sunroof? Again, go through the menu, drag the slider to the desired opening. Same goes for air conditioning, lighting, navigation, anything and everything.

My problem with this is the screen has no knobs or widgets to feel for, click through or press. Everything requires the driver to read and search for with their eyes. The screen does everything it can to keep your eyes off the road. Pair that and the massive range indicator on the instrumentation cluster, with the colossal orange needle that records your instant electric consumption, and there are a heck of a lot of shouty bits of data all competing for your attention when it should be squarely focused on the bend ahead... Tesla, if you're reading this – give us a call. We have some ideas.

Ride The Lightning - 2012 Tesla Model S Review

Speaking of fit..... The Tesla S has no tunnel running through the car for the drive shaft – that's done digitally, so there's no big hump inside. Since the motor is about the size of a watermelon, there's a trunk up front – a frunk, as we call it, and the lack of a gas tank means a huge, deep trunk in the rear too. On my journey, the Tesla S held me, the missus, a brother-in-law, four bags, CCC's mascot Monkee, tools, and two glorious carbon fiber road bikes - all without a roof rack. Should we have found hitchhikers en route, the Tesla would have obliged with two jump seats that fold out from where the gas tank would traditionally be. Seven seats in all. Amazing.

THE DRIVE:

As the interior makes up for the exterior, the drive makes up for the instrumentation. First off, the Tesla Model S is fast. F#*$ing fast. While 5.4 to 60 doesn't sound all supercarish, it definitely feels it. The nature of an electro drive train is quite different than that of its combustion cousin. There's only one gear, so you don't experience that moment to catch your breath as you row up the gears. There's also no powerband to speak of. Electric motors produce all their torque at every RPM, so on the graph, it' just a straight line pointing to the top right corner. No curves, like in the petrosexual world. This means acceleration comes on hard right off the line and keeps its fury up for as long as you're brave enough to keep your foot on the accelerator. The power never lets up. It's disorientating.

But I think the most impressive part of the S is its chassis. For Tesla's first crack at building a car, it's astonishing, actually. The S has the same crisp feel and communication you get from a BMW M5. You can feel the weight, but it never overwhelms the drive. To see exactly what's what, I brought the S through some upstate switchbacks over notable elevation changes. Full disclosure: for almost all of the ride, I was carrying hand-cuff worth speed. But the Tesla handled it beautifully. At any obnoxious velocity, you can still bring the front of the car to the apex of the corner with confidence. The rear offers as much drive as it does traction and is happy to push the Tesla through any bend. Letting off the gas fires up the regenerative breaking to create a few more electrons for your mission. It's akin to heavy engine breaking or squeezing on the brakes hard. By just modulating on and off the accelerator and not using the brake, you can control the balance of the car, the turning radius, and traction. The suspension compliments the ride by keeping the cabin relatively flat with minimal roll to instill confidence while steamrolling the bumps into an iron-fresh flat surface. It's racy, and it's fantastic.

Ride The Lightning - 2012 Tesla Model S Review

THE EXPERIENCE:

Here's the most important thing to know about the Tesla Model S. If you're going on a long journey, it's more like sailing into the ocean than driving down the Thruway. Everything has to be mapped out and you NEED your route plotted.

I left CCC with a 90% charge, giving me about 240miles of range, as indicated by the instrumentation cluster. More than enough to make the 159-mile trek to the Tesla Supercharger in Albany. But a true sailor can't go by the numbers alone. I learned that a Tesla isn't much different than the iPhone in your pocket. It might say you have a day's worth of power, but start watching back to back episodes of The Americans and that power starts to drop off the proverbial cliff.

In my case, Independence Day creates traffic of monumental levels. It took more than an hour of start-stop, start-stop driving. By the time I crossed the George Washington Bridge, I was down 60 miles of range. Next came the rain. Buckets of it. This increased my rolling resistance on the Thruway, taking bigger and bigger bites from my pile of electrons. With the rain comes windshield wipers set at full tilt and the long wait in traffic introduced darkness. So now I'm driving through heavy rain, wipers a blast, rolling resistance at full bore, headlights a blaze and heading continually uphill, as Albany has about 1,000 feet of altitude above NYC.

What's worse if you run out of power, there's no going down the street to pick up a five gallon jug of electricity. If you run out, it's game over. We made it to the supercharger, but we drove a quarter mile with "0" reading on the range indicator. That was a long, long quarter mile.

The Supercharger was a unique experience. There I stood in a rainy mall parking lot in the middle of the night with my car plugged into a space-aged looking white sculpture that produces power and does so quickly. I kept looking over my shoulder for Marty McFly to drive by with Iranians en route. A quick coffee break and a visit to Whole Foods for a sixer of Hitachino Next Beer and there was 190 freshly-made miles back on the ticker. Life was good again.

To drive distance in the Tesla is a tense experience if you let it. You have to chart the course and then practice the art of driving efficiently. Don't mash the gas, don't brake if you don't have to, look down the road so you can go around obstacles without slowing, build up your momentum before hitting an incline, use regenerative braking going downhill to create more energy. It could be maddening, if you let it, but it's best to approach it as an adventure. This takes the edge off and turns the stress into a bit of a game. The other thing you need to do is arm yourself with information. PlugShare makes a cool app that shows where all the EV stations are on your route, and there are quite a number of them out there.

SUMMARY:

Classic Car Club is so achingly cool because it serves up an extremely wide variety of driving experiences from a wide variety of eras. The Tesla S just blew that spectrum wide open, allowing us to sample the future, too. Take it for a spin and marvel at its drivability, power and eerily silence. Then, test your navigating skills and take the Tesla future thing for a 200-mile jaunt. Just don't call us when you run out of battery.

Text: Michael Prichinello

Photos: Michael Roselli

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