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 history. 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has the minimalist design of expensive modern furniture, combined with technology that makes an Apple iPad look out of date.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 Porsche 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.
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 StarTAC flip-phone from 1997. That's a strong statement, but what are the inevitable caveats?
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.