A Week With the Tesla Model S

October 21, 2012

I received my Model S Friday, October 12th.  I’ve put about 700 miles on it (400 miles the first weekend), given lots of rides, and taken copious amounts of video.  I’m ready to comment on the car itself.

I rode in the Model S twice last year, several more times a few months ago, and I’ve test-driven it.  Now, having owned a Roadster and being fanatical about keeping up with what there is to know about the Model S, I mostly knew what to expect.  And the rides and test drives were no doubt really good.

However, none of that prepared me for driving my own in my own familiar territory.  Since I traded in the Roadster for the Model S and since Tesla can’t sell directly in Massachusetts yet, I was driving a rental Nissan Versa for 9 days in between (to make a long story short).  In the back of my mind, in a very non-serious way, I was beginning to tell myself that I could get used to driving a car like the Versa … no bells and whistles, no pickup, putting gas in it, having a transmission, etc. etc.  I had somehow managed to start forgetting how much I disliked driving a combustion-engine vehicle.

The raw comedy in my head started seconds after I drove my Model S about a tenth of a mile from where it was delivered back to my apartment (so I could go deal with paperwork and other delivery-related stuff).  My soul was catapulted to a place I didn’t know existed.  I couldn’t believe it — I’d already driven one for 8 minutes, rode in several for at least 30 minutes, owned a Roadster for two years — yet I dropped my jaw and left it behind me when I casually drove the car to my apartment for all of a tenth of a mile.  “OH … MY … THIS … YOU … WOW!”

The car is indescribably smooth.  And it’s impossible to capture why that’s so important.  I’ve told countless people about how awesome the instant and smooth continuous torque that the Roadster has is — yet they never get it until they’ve ridden in one.  Let alone drive one.  This takes that aspect of the Roadster and magnifies it ten-fold or more.  It’s truly surreal.  You might as well have stepped into a time machine before getting into the car.  I’m not kidding, and I’m not exaggerating.

So lets transport our thinking past the delivery and into the week of driving (yes, that first bit was just a tenth of a mile).  I’m driving a fully-functional, full-size, gorgeous, fast, refined futuristic car — a car that really goes 265 miles (at 65 MPH) on a full electric charge.  That electricity (at my home) costs me about an eighth of the cost of gasoline.  That charge is free when I do it at one of Tesla’s Supercharging stations.  Let me say that again.  When they’re fully  deployed, I can take a 6,000-mile road trip to California and back for free.  No gasoline.  Nothing.  Zip.  Oh, and it’s solar-powered.  Yeah.

I have the performance edition of the car — which means I go from 0-60 in 4.4 seconds.  It means I stay with (or beat) an M5 doing 0-100 MPH.  It means your face melts into the back of your head when I floor it.  It means that some of my passengers scream and grab on to me and beg me to stop when I floor it.  It does all this effortlessly (I don’t have to be a Nascar driver and shift like a pro to get these numbers … or use “launch control” or risk breaking my transmission) and silently.  You’re thrown back into your seat, and you stay there until I let up.  There’s no intermissions during that run to 100 MPH.  No shifting.  Nothing.

I can also drive the car like a normal human being — e.g. when I have eggs from the grocery store in the car somewhere.  And it’s pure grace.  I still can’t get over it.  And that’s after having owned a Roadster for 2 years.  The Model S takes that and refines it so much that you need an electron microscope to find any imperfection.  And I have one (figuratively speaking of course).  So if you’re starting to gag from the gushing on this side — know that I will be covering the issues with the car down below.

The car has 21″ wheels (optional).  They’re … huge.  But they don’t affect ride quality at all; this is probably in part thanks to the air suspension.  The car sticks to the ground like it’s on rails.  It puts down 416 HP (443 lb-ft of torque) and gets it all to the pavement.  It brakes exceptionally well.  The traction control is amazingly fast and accurate.  Much faster to respond than the Roadster.

So the car is a dream to drive.  OK.  You’ve heard enough of that.  Did I mention there’s a seventeen-inch touch screen for controlling virtually all aspects of the car?  That’s in addition to the beautiful LCD screen behind the steering wheel.  You aren’t lying if you said that this is a computer on wheels.  It literally is.  The touch screen lets you have an enormous Google Maps display.  It lets you browse the Internet.  What, what?  Yes, the car has built-in cellular data.  So that means you can also stream Slacker radio right in the car.  It also means Tesla can give you software updates remotely.  It means they can remotely diagnose your car.  Chew on that for a while.  Chew on what software updates means on a car that’s controlled by a touch screen.  A system without physical buttons.  They can (and already have — several times since they started shipping) make your car better over time.  They can add features to your car.  For free.  This thing is so extensive that the instructional video I made of it is 55 minutes long (and I skipped a couple features)!  But don’t let that scare you.  It’s pretty intuitive.  And my trepidations over not having physical buttons were unfounded.  I’m quickly getting used to it.  And I know Tesla has the ability to refine it further as time goes on.  They already have a proven track record for doing this.

Using media in the car (FM/AM/XM/Streaming/Bluetooth) works out relatively well.  I’ve had a few bugs in this area (choppy bluetooth streaming, not connecting to my phone, FM not working at all) — and sometimes I have to reboot the system to clear it out (note that you can reboot that system while driving.  It’s completely independent).  It also sounds pretty good to my ears.  Best stock system I’ve personally had.  The browser is more like a gimmick right now.  It doesn’t work particularly well, but it’s fun to pull up cnn.com on it.  I assume this will be improved — but there are more important things to improve first.  The backup camera (HD quality, comes with the tech package I believe) is ridiculous.  Very high resolution and works quite well in the dark.  Very nice.  Google maps is fantastic to have in the car in that large format.  Unfortunately it’s slow to download the image tiles so if you’re using it to browse the area, it can be a little painful.  It keeps up with driving (if you have it following you) just fine.  I blame the 3G speed and poor reception.  I hope 4G (real 4G — as in LTE) comes soon.  The turn-by-turn Navigon GPS (which interfaces with Google maps in the car) works very well.  The only nit I have about it is that the volume for it is independently adjustable — which  makes it difficult to keep up with changes in volume from the media you’re playing, or from road/wind noise (especially if you roll the windows down).  But hey, that’s just a software update away from being fixed.  Controlling the car (opening/closing the sunroof, turning lights on/off, etc.) is also straight forward.  And I don’t often visit those screens except  for the sunroof.  And that’s my last nit for now on the 17″ screen.  It needs to be easier to get to the sunroof control, especially if you’ve selected something else in the controls screen before (software update can … oh, you get the idea).

The interior is Spartan.  It’s sparked quite a bit of debate.  “Not enough cupholders!”  “Where do I put my cellphone?  My change?  My sunglasses?”  etc … So this is a personal taste thing for sure.  And I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it.  I like it.  A lot.  It reduces the sense of clutter or being cramped.  It opens the car up.  I feel … cleaner.  And that’s even without the cubby area under the 17″ screen that I’m waiting to have installed (because it wasn’t ready for production when my car was built).  The two cupholders in the car (yup, only two) function relatively well.  But they’re awkwardly placed.  Given that I’m not trucking a family around or taking road trips with 4 other people in the car, it doesn’t bother me.  But I can definitely see it it would bother others.  Tesla’s working on a solution, but it’s not clear what that the choices will be.

The visibility from inside the car is limited — though coming from a Roadster, it’s fantastic to me.  It’s all about perspective.  The one thing I will say is that the top-to-bottom rear field of vision is ridiculously narrow.  I have to drop my head down (and I’m short!) when looking in the rear-view mirror in order to see more than 3 cars behind me.

The cabin lighting is reasonable.  It’s all LED-based and I personally like the way it looks.  It might be too dark for some — e.g. if you’re trying to read.  I’ve not tried that yet.  The lighting in the rear trunk is completely useless, however.  It’s impossible to see anything in the dark.  The front trunk may also be equally poorly-lit — I haven’t checked yet.

The key fob is a fantastic touch to the car — it’s a scaled-down version of the car itself with no physically-apparent buttons.  Great out-of-the-box thinking there.  I love that I just leave it in my pocket when getting in and out of the car.  When approaching the car, I just gently press the door handle which causes it to extend and then I can get in.  Getting it to unlatch is little weird at first (though less so for me — the Roadster had a similar unlatching mechanism).  The car is now alive and in accessory mode.  The HVAC is already on (if you left it on) and your music is playing and the interior lights are on.  Simply sit in the car and press the brake pedal and the car is now fully on — it’s literally ready to go.  No ignition.  No keys.  No button-pressing.  Getting out of the car is similarly frictionless — just put the car in park and exit the car.  It shuts down and locks as you walk away.  I’m still getting used to that.  But boy did I start appreciating it when I was running errands the other day and constantly getting in and out of the car.  Pretty cool stuff.

The door handles.  OK, they’re neat.  They get lots of attention and “wow’s” and draw people in.  And for that reason, I’m happy they’re there.  But they need some work.  The handle will go on to a retract timer (5 seconds) when you shut the door.  And if you don’t immediately catch it (e.g. you just realized you need to open the door again), you have no chance.  You grasp the handle and tug but nothing happens.  You let up the pressure a little bit and you see that the car is trying to pull the handle in.  You freak out and rip  you hand away and the handle snaps back into the car (there’s no danger of losing fingers here).  Then you have to compose yourself and try the normal door-opening dance again.  And sometimes the tug won’t open the door and you’re left wondering how to get into the car.  Unlocking the car manually with the key fob seems to cure that condition.  And they collect fingerprints.  LOTS of fingerprints.  Best have a clean rag around at all times to shine them up.

So what’s wrong with the car?  There are several items on the list for service to look at (may turn into a software bug / fix).  Here are a few: day/night mode is over-sensitive, wiper (while set to auto) tends to wipe once when turning the car on, soft “whine” during acceleration that’s supposedly supposed to have been fixed from the beta cars, light buzzing (from the audio system?) when touch screen is dimmed (not audible while driving), and a few others — all pretty minor stuff.  As far as software issues — a few of those, too.  Some are a little more annoying but nothing debilitating.  For example, bluetooth streaming isn’t always stable (can cut out, and I’ve had it disconnect from my phone while streaming several times now), FM/AM radio audio stopped working, the driver door *opened* when unlocking the car, and losing data connectivity even though I showed 3-4+ bars of signal.  Most of these are cured with a reboot.  The good news is, I’m emailing the Tesla ownership team about them as I find them and I hear back usually within a business day.

Despite a long list of (minor) issues which I know are being worked on, I thoroughly enjoy driving the car.  The second day I had the car I took a no-reason random drive to NH and back (all highway).  While driving, I was constantly struck by how calm and serene the drive was; by the fact that I was driving a full-size, fully-functional, “normal” car for all intents & purposes — but it was an EV and has all the benefits that go with it.  I was emotionally moved by what it meant.  It’s real — this car is real.  I was driving it.  This isn’t ground-breaking — that was the Roadster; it’s world-changing.  What this car represents to us, to the world — to our children — is nothing short of a miracle.  I feel blessed to be more than an observer in this unfolding — I’m directly involved in it.  It’s why anything “Tesla” makes up 50% of my vocabulary and why I spend so much time not only learning what I can, but sharing what I can.  And in that vein — please find and subscribe to my YouTube channel where I have posted an insane amount of video of the car (and will continue to do so): http://www.youtube.com/goodwinb99  … You’ll also find photos here: https://plus.google.com/photos/102094971728636268612/albums/5798584842300227681

That’s it for now.  I’ll try to keep posting my “review” of the car as I get more time with it.  In the meantime, don’t hesitate to ask questions — I’ll try to respond to all of them.