Tesla Model S vs. the Competition: Test Drive
08/16/12 - 07:53 AM EDT
NEW YORK (TheStreet
) -- I have now been able to drive the $87,900 (and up) Tesla (TSLA)
Model S in my
own neighborhood, on the same winding roads where I drive other
electric cars every day. As such, this article is the first comparison
test for the Tesla Model S, in which it goes up against the Chevrolet (GM)
Volt and other cars.
Let us start with a basic review of the Tesla Model S. It is a
large hatchback with a 362- or 416-horsepower electric motor, 440 or
600 nm worth of torque, sitting between the rear wheels. The 85-kWh
battery is embedded in the floor of the car, just like a giant iPad
that's 5 inches thick. The EPA-certified average range is 265 miles.
The instrumentation is unique in the car world, as it consists of two LCD screens -- one in front of the steering wheel, but the entire center stack of the instrument panel is one big vertical 17-inch screen. Forget all other cars you've experienced to date -- this 17-inch screen feels like a 100-year jump in automotive technology.
In an automotive first, it is also driven by Nvidia's (NVDA)
excellent Tegra 3 processor.
It is hard to get screen technology right in a car, and, frankly, I find
that most cars are more or less outright failures in this area. Tesla
has made the biggest gamble of them all, and in amazing feat they have
pulled off a victory, sweeping the competition into the dustbin of
Suffice it to say that it will be a strong selling point for the car.
The stalk-mounted automatic shifter is taken from a Mercedes R, M or
GL car, as are the cruise control and blinker stalks. I don't recall
the existence of a single button anywhere near the dashboard. All you
get are: two screens, a steering wheel, and three steering column stalks.
The interior has the minimalist design of expensive modern furniture,
combined with technology that makes an Apple iPad look out of date.
For seating, the car I drove had the leather-textile
combo seats, which I found superior to the all-leather seats in this
case. Unlike so many German sports cars in particular, they look
nothing like sports seats, lacking visible bolsters. I found the
seating comfort and position vis-a-vis the pedals and the telescoping
steering wheel to be as flawless as the very best cars in the market.
The back seat was another matter.
The back seat has good foot/knee room, and the car is wide to fit
three people there. However, the headroom is abysmal. I couldn't
judge with perfection how short you would have to be to fit your head
in the back seat, but I'm guessing you might be fine if you are 5 foot
8 or less.
The rear trunk is as large or larger than the largest sedans on the
market, thanks to the absence of a gasoline tank and muffler. The rear seat folds to make into a station wagon, and you can even put two child seats in the trunk for those who are shorter than 5 feet.
The front trunk -- or "frunk" -- is in principle similar to that of a
911, although my vague memory of the 911's frunk is that it's
smaller than the Tesla's. All in all, luggage space is a unique selling point for Tesla.
If you have driven any other of the "full power" electric cars in the market, such as the Chevrolet Volt or equivalent, the basic nature of the acceleration in the Tesla Model S will not be a surprise. Everything is completely silent, totally smooth, without vibration, downshifts or any other disturbance -- except this car is faster. A lot faster! 0-60 happens in 4.4 or 5.6 seconds, depending if whether
or not you spend the extra $10,000 for the more powerful motor.
As with the other electric cars in the market, the acceleration is
front-loaded, so it's most impressive the first 2 or 3 seconds, given
the immediate nature of the power. And that's where it counts -- all
done in complete silence.
Beyond the initial acceleration comes the single most positive
surprise of the Tesla Model S: The chassis tuning and lack of
noise, vibration and harshness. Here is where the comparison with
the Chevrolet Volt sets in with a very important point. In the Volt,
while the electric motor is of course as silent and smooth as the
Tesla, you hear sounds from the wheel wells.
In the Tesla Model S, the suspension, chassis and tires appear so
amazingly tuned that there is absolutely no sound or vibration that I
could sense. How does one explain this? First, the 5-inch thick
battery constituting the floor of the car is like armor protecting a
military vehicle from a roadside bomb: It's noise insulation, but in
this case it also lowers the center of gravity.
With essentially all of the weight in the floor pan, no engine and
transmission up front, and no full gasoline tank in the back, Tesla
has the perfect formula for optimizing the suspension: The car can
provide superior handling, while at the same time do it with a very
soft suspension that makes a Bentley
Mulsanne blush. In the
comfort/refinement department, the Tesla Model S makes Buckingham
Palace seem like a Burger King.
Having driven the Tesla Model S on the neighborhood roads back-to-back
not only against most of the other electric cars in the market today,
but also comparing it against other premium cars such as Rolls Royce
Corniche, I came to this startling conclusion: The Tesla Model S is
so superior that it seems that it's just a matter of time until all
the other car companies will have to file bankruptcy.
In the area of automobile performance and refinement, the Tesla Model
S is to other cars what a new iPhone 4S is to a Motorola
flip-phone from 1997. That's a strong statement, but what are the
The primary caveat is price. The current Tesla Model S costs $87,900,
but by December Tesla will be building versions with smaller batteries
-- and therefore less range -- priced as low as $57,400. Then
consider a $7,500 Federal tax credit, plus state incentives that vary
wildly, but in California is $2,500.
Obviously a Tesla Model S for, say, $87,900 is not a fair comparison
with a significantly less expensive car. However, in my opinion, for
many people in the market for cars priced $50,000 and up, the Tesla
means that all other carmakers should be running scared. Competitors had
better hope that prospective buyers don't get 30 or 60 minutes behind
the wheel of a Tesla, because if they do, I can think of only very few
people who wouldn't be lost to Tesla.
How does the Tesla Model S compare to the Chevrolet Volt? First
consider price. A loaded Volt is around $44,000, but dealers sell it
for $5,000 less. Then subtract tax credits and rebates depending on
your state, and in California you can get a loaded Volt for $30,000
plus sales tax.
Is the Tesla 2x or 3x better than a Chevrolet Volt? For most people,
no. But then some people are not most people. You can always make
the argument that buying a premium car is irrational "because it's not
necessary." A $15,000 Toyota Corolla will get you to the same place as
a $90,000 BMW 750. Is the BMW 6x better than the Corolla? There is
nothing new in this eternal debate.
The Chevrolet Volt fits only 4 people instead of 5, and has a lot less
luggage space. In addition, the Tesla is faster and has the most
superbly tuned chassis by far. In favor of the Volt is the headroom
space for the rear passengers, the ability to travel beyond 265 miles
and just keep filling gasoline after 340 miles -- as well as the
inherent superior ability to generate heat in cold climates.
What is the bottom line on the Tesla Model S? First, if you haven't
driven it, you don't know what you are talking about. Having driven
almost all other electric cars to the tune of over 15,000 miles, plus
so many of the other premium cars in the market, my recommendation is
that if you are looking for a car in the $80,000 to $100,000 price range,
you should put the Tesla Model S at the top of your list, by a wide
margin. It's an eye-opener like the automotive world has never seen
in its entire history.
In a few months, much of Tesla's appeal will hit the $50,000 car
market, net of tax incentives. This will be even more devastating to
other premium car makers, as a lot more people buy $50K cars as
opposed to $100K cars.
If on the other hand you want an extended-range electric car and
aren't willing to pay as much money, the Chevrolet Volt gives you some
pieces of the Tesla Model S experience, plus its own advantages
for only $30,000 plus taxes. You can't go wrong with either of these
two cars, but if you have the extra money, the Tesla Model S is now
the undisputed king of the automotive world.
At the time of submitting this article, the author was long TSLA, NVDA and AAPL.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.