“Check this out, AJ”
My head pinned back against the seat, and John laughed when he saw my eyes widen. John knows I’m a big car guy, and was excited to see that he was able to surprise me. John is a higher-up at the company I work for. He was simultaneously nice/supportive enough to take me out for a spin in his 2015 Tesla Model S, and friendly/trusting enough to let me drive it. John is a good guy. I quickly realized that “check this out,” would be a recurring theme of the drive, as John was genuinely eager to share every feature and quirk that he’d discovered, and was quick to admit that there were many things about the Tesla Model S, a 70D model, with which he was still unfamiliar.
I’ve wanted to drive a Tesla Model S since the concept was first showcased in 2009. That’s eight years ago. What else was happening eight years ago? The iPhone 3GS was a hot commodity, and Yahoo! Mail was the most popular email client. The idea that tech would converge with the automotive market was a pipe dream. Saturn still made cars.
I recognize that my excitement could lead to hyperbole, so I’m going to do my best to refrain from using some of the common language that most reviewers have pigeonholed Tesla with since the car was released in 2012. I already failed with the first sentence. I’m not going to discuss the styling; the car has been around, relatively unchanged, for nine years. Surely you’ve seen one. I spent my time in this car looking for faults. I wanted to find original points to make, opinions to hold, and stellar, shocking observations.
I also specifically wanted to drive it within the confines of its primary use-case: downtown Austin, a short commute, stop and go traffic. The ideal Tesla owner is one who doesn’t mind the compromise of a shorter “tank,” because they don’t need to drive more than 200 miles at a time. And if they do, they probably have another car with which to fulfill that need. Novelty is still a very real undertone of this car, so I wanted to experience that, while using it in a realistic fashion.
My experience ended up being underwhelming, but in the best possible way.
Before I talk about the experience of actually driving the car, let’s think about the environment in which the Tesla steps into. Because of it’s unique fully-electric (yet relatively utilitarian: I’m looking at you, Fisker Karma) construction, it has no direct competitors. No other regular-sized sedan has an option for rear-facing jump seats to create a 5+2 layout. The flip-side of that is that no other car in its class can only travel 250 miles on a ‘tank’. Maybe if you drive flat-out for all 250 miles. For that feature, the direct competitor is my friends dad’s old Volvo. But that’s not the important part.
The buyer of this car in theory – large five-seater, quiet, luxurious, full of tech, about $70,000 brand new – would probably be cross-shopping it with a well-optioned BMW 5-Series or Mercedes E-Class. Maybe a Cadillac CTS if you were in the military or listen to Bruce Springsteen a lot. That’s the competitive landscape in which this car makes sense. And here’s the thing: it may not be any better than those cars, depending on your needs. But if you fit the target audience, it’s probably perfect.
Onboarding the Tesla Model S
Is that astronauts call it when you board a spaceship? Onboarding? Dammit. That’s another piece of hyperbolic language. That’s what it felt like, though. The first thing to note was the door handles; they sit flush with the body until the car senses the key. They then gracefully extend to acknowledge the owner, and offer entrance into the car. While I knew this was coming, the magic of it still threw me off. It made so much sense. It’s tough to steal a car that you can’t get into.
Tesla is big on aerodynamics and efficiency of design, and I’m sure this plays a role in the car’s insane drag coefficient of .24. That said, I didn’t love the feeling of the handle in my hand. It was very square and edged, and easiest to grip top-down, counter-intuitive to the typical palm-up grip required for 99% of car doors. Reinventing the wheel is not always a good use of energy.
The layout of the interior was simple, energetic, and pleasant. Dark wood accents offer contrast to an otherwise light and open space. The seats are thin, comfortable, supportive, and soft. My first turn-off was the center console, or lack thereof. It has an almost Scandinavian finish to it. Everything is minimalist and functional. Slick but not showboating. Unobtrusively classy. I really dig it, and I think they did a good job of creating art with the relatively mundane spaces that they had.
I wouldn’t say that it’s inherently better design than its competitive set, but it’s deliberately different, while being executed well, and I appreciate it for that reason. My only gripe is the wide, open space that extends under the dash that frankly looked unusable. It was too small for a laptop, too shallow for a purse, and way too big for a pair of sunglasses. It fit my camera and lenses perfectly while I was driving, but that doesn’t fit my narrative, so please disregard.
The sheer intelligence of the Tesla Model S becomes evident when you adjust the seat (which you can do from the infotainment center, by the way). Memory seat settings have been around for years, but when I finished getting comfortable, a notification appeared on the gigantic center screen: “would you like to save this as your new default seat setting, or save it as an alternate driver?” I mean damn.
I asked John if there was a way to save full settings; a driver’s music preferences, seat alignment, temperature, etc, but he wasn’t sure. I forgot to google it. Since writing that drafted sentence, my boy Elon tweeted out that they will begin saving full-scale “driver profiles” so that any owner could climb into any Tesla and have it immediately feel like theirs. I’m pretty sure I gave him the idea.
The screen itself was pleasantly capacitive, and felt as capable as an iPad. That is high praise. For whatever reason, auto manufacturers are awful at designing or outsourcing touch screen controls in terms of both UI design and physical interaction with the driver. They really, truly suck. What dumb-dumb at BMW thought that it would be a good idea to bring back the clickwheel after the iPod was already fully touchscreen? I digress. The Tesla Model S excels in both areas. So where else does it clearly excel?
Our tour consisted of some downtown Austin, and some East Austin neighborhoods where we drove a little too fast. The goal was to experience how a Tesla driver would ideally travel day-to-day; they probably work downtown, commuting in the Tesla while having a two-car garage with an SUV like a Suburban for trips up to Colorado with the family. This is an imaginary marketing segment, but I’m assuming it’s roughly accurate. They will probably only charge their car at home (and maybe at work if technology allows), so most of their travel is done on a single tank.
So. Fantastically. Normal. I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It has a profile of being a little larger and thicker than a 5-Series, and it definitely feels more pinned to the ground. I don’t know if that comes from the battery-chassis center of gravity or the cush-ness of the air suspension, but it is a dense piece of equipment. You never feel in danger of leaving the ground, and because of the all-wheel drive, the car doesn’t lift a bit during heavy acceleration.
Said acceleration is smooth, linear, powerful, exciting, and addicting. I wanted to keep my foot buried in the pedal the whole time I was driving, but I exercised restraint because I am somewhat an adult. That said, a quick run alongside a railroad from 20mph to around 60mph leaves no doubt in your mind that the Tesla Model S will happily do whatever you ask of it, and you’ll sure as hell enjoy the journey. And keep in mind, this was not a performance model. I’m confident that I would get real irresponsible real quick given the opportunity in P-designated model.
Other than that, it drives like your standard mid-sized luxury sedan. It’s fun, exciting, and fast. And that’s perfect.
Let’s talk about the driver’s control center. If you’re wondering what that is, it’s the part of other cars that you would refer to as the gauge cluster. It’s not a cluster anymore, but roughly a 14-inch modular screen that displays anything potentially relevant to the driver, including an incredible infrared view that displays what other cars are doing around you in traffic. It’s an incredible answer to active blind-spot awareness.
This model wasn’t (yet) equipped with the Autopilot option for the Tesla Model S, but John said that it was fitted with the hardware, and that he hopes to add it soon. I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to experience that, but it still had access to excellent driving safety features like blind-spot awareness, adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure warnings. I love that stuff. My main experience with those features comes from newer Cadillacs, and this layout seemed more logical and like it was more capable of offering genuine value to the driver.
John’s naturally a talkative guy (and that’s not a knock, you know I’m the same way, John), but he seemed genuinely thrilled to discuss everything he’d learned about his new Tesla. Owning another car doesn’t come with the excitement of being able to install a dedicated charger in your garage for quick-charging, or the addition of potential solar panels to make your ride fully self-sufficient. You wouldn’t get excited about software updates for your new BMW. But that’s what Elon has accomplished with the Tesla Model S. Everything is exciting, constantly changing, and susceptible to paradigm shifts akin to Steve Jobs announcing the ability to multi-task on the new iOS update.
What makes the Tesla Model S truly remarkable is the utter placidity with which it shifts the automotive landscape. It is something completely new. The Telsa brings a shake-up that hasn’t really been seen since Honda and Toyota started importing small, efficient sedans to compete with the bloated American cars of the early 1970s. And the market is reacting. GM just announced that they plan to add 20 (TWENTY!) electric cars to their portfolio in the next six years. Interest has shifted away from hybrid technology, and hydrogen fuel cells have been almost entirely forgotten. And that’s just a single market. After the introduction of the more pedestrian Tesla Model 3, Elon has continuously stressed interest in moving into crossovers, pickup trucks, and heavy freight. I guess the craziest thing about the Tesla Model S is that it’s just the beginning.