What It's Like Ditching A $19,000 Compact Car For A $100,000 Electric Rocketcar From The Future, The Tesla S

Tesla S exterior

Photo: Business Insider/Nicholas Carlson

I spent most of last week in a 2011 Ford Focus.My wife and I had rented it for our vacation in California.

The average price paid for a Focus is $17,000 to $22,000, and it’s a nice little car: probably not ugly in the right colour (our rental was a disastrous sea-foam green), not slow in a passing lane, and not clunky to steer up a winding mountain road. 

But as decent as that Focus was, there is no comparing it to the car I got to glide around Palo Alto for a quarter of an hour last Friday: a $100,000+ Tesla Model S.

The most notable thing about the Tesla S is that it is an electric car, which you can charge in your garage and drive 300 miles at a time.

But what I will remember best about the Tesla S is how solidly it shoved me into the back of my seat dashing from 0 to 60 in about 4.5 seconds – and how it did this in near total electronic silence, a sound that felt imported from the future.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said you could get 400 miles per charge. You can only get 300.

This is the the Ford Focus I drove all week. Aside from its awful colour, it's not bad looking.

The interior has a pleasant design. Solid, with a cockpit feel that doesn't go too far.

But it's not in the same league as this car…

…a $100,000+, full-loaded…

…Tesla Model S.

It's a stunner from every angle.

Look at those lines and curves – the long rear window, the wide wheel well.

…previously flush-to-the-body door handles pop out.

This is the interior. When you sit in it, the overwhelming sensation is a pleasant, spacious airiness.

For comparison, look at the Focus interior again. Much denser, right?

There is a reason for this! Because the Tesla is electric, its drive-train is very small. This is the whole thing.

This is the rear, where the motor goes.

This is the only moving part in the motor. It's about the size of a mini beer keg.

Because the motor is so small, the trunk is pretty big.

This is the car's battery.

It's heavy, but wide and low to the ground, which explains why the car tacks to the road on curves

This is the front of the car. There's no engine, of course. So Tesla can arrange things like the AC system more carefully.

This means the storage space in the front of the car is big, too.

Back in the car, the most dominant feature of the interior is a huge touchscreen

The car I drove had a fairly standard luxury trim to it. Lots of leather, dark colours and touches of chrome. These are the AC vents.

It's about the size of two horizontally-oriented iPads on top of each other. The screen is impressive.

There's a rear view camera you can leave on.

You can adjust how open you want the sunroof with a touch.

The audio system includes inputs from the Internet.

The car is dominated by screens. Instead of normal dials, there is this high-resolution display.

It turns into a speedometer when you start the car. (You start the car by putting the fob inside the car, and putting it into Drive. There is no key.)

When you step on the gas, the speedometer shows your power consumption in orange.

When you brake, it shows your power generation, in green.

And now a word about driving this car.

Tesla let me drive the car for about 15 minutes. My minders in the passenger seats encouraged me to have fun driving it. Boy did I. Four major impressions.

This car handles extremely well. The Tesla S is a much bigger car than the Focus I had been driving all week, but the Tesla's grip to the road -- in turns and over hills at speed -- made the compact car feel like like a spring-y Crown Vic. The steering was pleasantly heavy for my taste, but it's adjustable for drivers less interested in performance.

At all speeds, stepping on the pedal moved me firmly into the back of my seat. The Tesla S moves from 0 to 60 very quickly, but it also accelerates dramatically at all speeds. Because it only has one gear, it doesn't need to downshift when you pass at 60 to 80, so it accelerates the moment you touch the pedal.

The car's sound is silence. I've been in a Tesla roadster before, and those cars accelerate with a sound similar to the speeder bikes Han Solo, et al, fly around in through the Ewok forest in Return of the Jedi. The Tesla S is different. It's silent. This may be off-putting to some, but for me, the silence made the car feel incredibly futuristic: clean, fast, and straight from a sci-fi movie.

The car's power cord is stored under a panel in the trunk.

It connects to a standard wall outlet…

…but if you want to charge it fast, you have to connect it to the kind of outlet you use for your washing machine.

So, do we want to buy one?


No $100,000 car is actually worth the money -- these days a Hyundai has all the same important features as a BMW 7-series -- but at least the Tesla S is actually dramatically different and better than most lower cost cars. It uses no gas. It's got great interior software and physical design. It's very fast. It handles well.

There are Tesla Model S versions that do not cost $100,000. But we didn't get a close look at any of those.

One thing we're really excited about is that Tesla is rolling out a new product: charging stations it will locate along major transit routes across the USA, enabling road trips in electric cars which only have a 300 mile range on each charge.

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