Tesla Model S vs. the Competition: Test Drive

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I have now been able to drive the $87,900 (and up) Tesla (TSLA) Model S in myown neighborhood, on the same winding roads where I drive otherelectric cars every day. As such, this article is the first comparisontest 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 alarge hatchback with a 362- or 416-horsepower electric motor, 440 or600 nm worth of torque, sitting between the rear wheels. The 85-kWhbattery is embedded in the floor of the car, just like a giant iPadthat'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 findthat most cars are more or less outright failures in this area. Teslahas made the biggest gamble of them all, and in amazing feat they havepulled off a victory, sweeping the competition into the dustbin ofhistory.

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 orGL car, as are the cruise control and blinker stalks. I don't recallthe existence of a single button anywhere near the dashboard. All youget 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interior has the minimalist design of expensive modern furniture,combined with technology that makes an Apple iPad look out of date.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-textilecombo seats, which I found superior to the all-leather seats in thiscase. Unlike so many German sports cars in particular, they looknothing like sports seats, lacking visible bolsters. I found theseating comfort and position vis-a-vis the pedals and the telescopingsteering 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 fitthree people there. However, the headroom is abysmal. I couldn'tjudge with perfection how short you would have to be to fit your headin the back seat, but I'm guessing you might be fine if you are 5 foot8 or less.

The rear trunk is as large or larger than the largest sedans on themarket, 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 Porsche 911, although my vague memory of the 911's frunk is that it'ssmaller than the Tesla's. All in all, luggage space is a unique selling point for Tesla.

Performance

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 whetheror not you spend the extra $10,000 for the more powerful motor.

As with the other electric cars in the market, the acceleration isfront-loaded, so it's most impressive the first 2 or 3 seconds, giventhe immediate nature of the power. And that's where it counts -- alldone in complete silence.

Beyond the initial acceleration comes the single most positivesurprise of the Tesla Model S: The chassis tuning and lack of noise, vibration and harshness. Here is where the comparison withthe Chevrolet Volt sets in with a very important point. In the Volt,while the electric motor is of course as silent and smooth as theTesla, you hear sounds from the wheel wells.

In the Tesla Model S, the suspension, chassis and tires appear soamazingly tuned that there is absolutely no sound or vibration that Icould sense. How does one explain this? First, the 5-inch thickbattery constituting the floor of the car is like armor protecting amilitary vehicle from a roadside bomb: It's noise insulation, but inthis case it also lowers the center of gravity.

With essentially all of the weight in the floor pan, no engine andtransmission up front, and no full gasoline tank in the back, Teslahas the perfect formula for optimizing the suspension: The car canprovide superior handling, while at the same time do it with a verysoft suspension that makes a Bentley Mulsanne blush. In thecomfort/refinement department, the Tesla Model S makes BuckinghamPalace seem like a Burger King.

Having driven the Tesla Model S on the neighborhood roads back-to-backnot only against most of the other electric cars in the market today,but also comparing it against other premium cars such as Rolls RoyceCorniche, I came to this startling conclusion: The Tesla Model S isso superior that it seems that it's just a matter of time until allthe other car companies will have to file bankruptcy.

In the area of automobile performance and refinement, the Tesla ModelS is to other cars what a new iPhone 4S is to a Motorola StarTACflip-phone from 1997. That's a strong statement, but what are theinevitable caveats?

Price Comparison

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. Thenconsider a $7,500 Federal tax credit, plus state incentives that varywildly, but in California is $2,500.

Obviously a Tesla Model S for, say, $87,900 is not a fair comparisonwith a significantly less expensive car. However, in my opinion, formany people in the market for cars priced $50,000 and up, the Teslameans that all other carmakers should be running scared. Competitors hadbetter hope that prospective buyers don't get 30 or 60 minutes behindthe wheel of a Tesla, because if they do, I can think of only very fewpeople who wouldn't be lost to Tesla.

How does the Tesla Model S compare to the Chevrolet Volt? Firstconsider price. A loaded Volt is around $44,000, but dealers sell itfor $5,000 less. Then subtract tax credits and rebates depending onyour state, and in California you can get a loaded Volt for $30,000plus 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 makethe argument that buying a premium car is irrational "because it's notnecessary." A $15,000 Toyota Corolla will get you to the same place asa $90,000 BMW 750. Is the BMW 6x better than the Corolla? There isnothing new in this eternal debate.

The Chevrolet Volt fits only 4 people instead of 5, and has a lot lessluggage space. In addition, the Tesla is faster and has the mostsuperbly tuned chassis by far. In favor of the Volt is the headroomspace for the rear passengers, the ability to travel beyond 265 milesand just keep filling gasoline after 340 miles -- as well as theinherent superior ability to generate heat in cold climates.

What is the bottom line on the Tesla Model S? First, if you haven'tdriven it, you don't know what you are talking about. Having drivenalmost all other electric cars to the tune of over 15,000 miles, plusso many of the other premium cars in the market, my recommendation isthat 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 widemargin. It's an eye-opener like the automotive world has never seenin its entire history.

In a few months, much of Tesla's appeal will hit the $50,000 carmarket, net of tax incentives. This will be even more devastating toother premium car makers, as a lot more people buy $50K cars asopposed to $100K cars.

If on the other hand you want an extended-range electric car andaren't willing to pay as much money, the Chevrolet Volt gives you somepieces of the Tesla Model S experience, plus its own advantages for only $30,000 plus taxes. You can't go wrong with either of thesetwo cars, but if you have the extra money, the Tesla Model S is nowthe 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.

More from Technology

PayPal Wants to Consolidate the World of Rewards Points

PayPal Wants to Consolidate the World of Rewards Points

Apple Teams With Volkswagen for Autonomous Driving Gig

Apple Teams With Volkswagen for Autonomous Driving Gig

60 Seconds: What the Heck is GDPR?

60 Seconds: What the Heck is GDPR?

Jim Cramer: Why I am So Bullish on Apple's Services Revenue

Jim Cramer: Why I am So Bullish on Apple's Services Revenue

3 Red-Hot Chip Stocks Trading at Bargain Prices

3 Red-Hot Chip Stocks Trading at Bargain Prices