The Model S is billed as a mid-size four-door sedan, but in fact it's a five-door hatchback, with a pair of optional rear-facing jump seats in the load bay that offer nominal seven-passenger capacity. To be fair, those seats are suitable only for small children--and their occupants may chafe at the four-point safety harnesses they'll have to wear--but short of large crossover utility vehicles, no other sedan this size even tries to hold seven occupants. We're skeptical about the safety implications, though.
The battery pack is housed in the floorpan of the Model S, both lowering its center of gravity and freeing up the front compartment, which contains a storage compartment that Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] insists on calling a "frunk," for front trunk.
Filled with thousands of commodity lithium-ion cells provided by Tesla investor Panasonic, the liquid-cooled battery powers a 270-kilowatt (362-hp) electric motor driving the rear wheels. Both the drive motor and some electric components are liquid-cooled as well, meaning that Tesla can "thermally condition" or control the temperature of its electric components for better energy retention and more predictable performance.
The 2012 Model S Performance model, with a more powerful 301-kW (416-hp) motor, sprints from 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds; the standard versions reaching the same speed in 6 at 7 seconds. Handling is flat, due to the low center of gravity, and while the ride is firm over small road-surface imperfections, it's remarkably good over larger bumps, dips, and potholes.
Styling is sleek and reminds many onlookers of the recent Jaguar XF and XJ. That's not a bad thing for an unknown brand entering the luxury field. And the interior, while relatively simple, is comfortable and well-made, in a straightforward way. The dashboard is dominated by the 17-inch touchscreen display, whose graphics, response speed, and simple size put any other car's touchscreen interface to shame. We worry somewhat about the distraction inherent in relegating all minor controls to that interface, but the size of the icons and fonts and its responsiveness make it as good as system as we've seen.
Tesla offers a choice of three battery packs--40, 60, and 85 kilowatt-hours--corresponding to stated ranges of 160, 230, and 300 miles. The EPA has rated the highest-range version at 265 miles, though like all electric cars, your range will vary considerably with driving style, speed, acceleration, temperature, and other factors. Battery recharging through a Tesla-specific charging station (and connector) takes place at 10 or 20 kilowatts, up to three times as fast as most plug-in cars, and Tesla plans to launch a "Supercharger" network of fast-charging stations at luxury destinations between city pairs--making intercity travel possible in a zero-emission electric car.
If the Model S has a drawback, it's that it's light on electronic equipment and safety systems for the luxury class in which it competes. That may not matter to early adopters, but we think the universally available adaptive cruise control found on German mid-size luxury and sport sedans is something Tesla would be well-advised to add.
The 2012 Model S is priced at $57,400 to $87,400 before incentives and options, depending on the version selected. Options can push the price of the top-end models toward $100,000, but operating costs on grid power are customarily just a fraction of those for its gasoline-powered competitors. And the Model S qualifies for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit and various state, local, and corporate incentives as well.
The 2012 Tesla Model S may just be the first electric car that's simultaneously good-looking, fully digital in the best tradition of Silicon Valley innovation, and requires very little compromise for around-town use. Assuming no major quality or safety glitches--and it's early days yet--the major worries for buyers are most likely battery-pack life ... and the lifespan and prospects of a startup car company as whole.