The future of automotive transportation is here, and it’ll take less than you might think to adjust to this paradigm shift.
This is a 2015 Model S 85. The 2016 Model S had a modest facelift that dramatically improved the car’s front-end styling, removing the “grille” that was an attempt to make the car look less alien. Not that the Model S’ styling was ever that controversial – with its muscular flanks and smooth detailing, it’s upscale and distinctive but avoids the old electric car trope of looking like some strange space pod. Nevertheless, it has a drag coefficient of just 0.24.
The styling has aged well, though inevitably it’ll need a more extensive refresh or redesign if it’s to keep looking fresh against insurgent rivals from automakers like Jaguar and Porsche. Where the Model S still looks utterly cutting-edge is inside.
The Model S’ enormous 17-inch central touchscreen looks as fresh as the day it was first turned on. Should the user interface ever start to look too old, Tesla can easily remedy that with an over-the-air software update. For now, though, it’s extremely clear and no problem to navigate for anyone who regularly uses an iOS or Android device. Turning on the fog lights or changing the air suspension setting is as simple as switching your iPhone to airplane mode.
Interior quality isn’t quite at Mercedes-Benz levels – there’s some hard plastic on the lower half of the doors and on the floor console – but there are plenty of soft-touch surfaces and a clean, uncluttered design. Everything seemed well screwed together, as well. Personally, I love the look of it but for the door panels. There have been various tweaks to the interior since 2015, including new seats. The Model S interior will receive more substantial changes soon with a Model 3-style, horizontally-oriented touchscreen.
The ambient lighting improves the ambience at night.
The cabin is spacious and, as the Model S uses a column-mounted shifter, the space between the front seats has a practical console raised slightly above the floor. If Tesla wanted to, they could easily introduce a bench seat option.
The bucket seats hold you in place relatively well but they’re not the final word in support, being relatively flat and shapeless. And though I eventually got used to the Mercedes shifter, it still doesn’t feel as intuitive as a regular shifter. Fortunately, it feels high quality. The optional dual moonroofs make the cabin even more light and airy; 2015 was the last year for this option, replaced the following year with a proper panoramic roof. Unfortunately, rear visibility is poor.
The trunk is enormous at 26.3 cubic feet and has a power tailgate, while there’s also a 5.3 cubic foot “frunk” where a typical ICE car’s engine would be.
Tesla is a tech company as much as it’s an automaker but that doesn’t mean their tech is infallible. Fortunately, only one example comes to mind: the rather unreliable speed limit recognition on the 12.3-inch screen in the gauge cluster. Most of the technology works seamlessly, however, including the remarkably accurate range meter. This came in handy when I took the Model S across the Golden Gate Bridge out to Mt. Tamalpais.
In day-to-day traffic, the Model S is remarkably unremarkable in that it feels like a regular luxury sedan with an internal combustion engine. The steering feels relatively weighty and, well, normal. The same applies for the brakes. Acceleration off the line is quick (5.4 seconds) but not interstellar, though overtaking on the freeway will push you back in your seat. Some outlets have recorded even quicker times depending on battery charge. It’s worth noting that for absolutely insane levels of thrust, a Model S Performance with the optional Ludicrous mode can slice that 0-60 time in half – just 2.4 seconds!
Where the Model S differs from an ICE luxury sedan is in the noise it makes. It doesn’t make any to speak of, really. The lack of a conventional mechanical symphony means tire and wind noise is somewhat more pronounced, though it’s nothing too objectionable. The ride quality could be better, the Tesla having a rather firm suspension tune, but again it’s nothing unpleasant. Tesla will have to be mindful of such issues, however, as rival automakers belatedly enter its territory.
Measuring two inches longer than a Mercedes E-Class and almost three inches wider than an S-Class, the Model S is a big car. It certainly feels it on the road. On a twisty road like Mt. Tamalpais, the Tesla fails to shrink around you. However, it’s remarkably competent. Grip levels are high and the car stays flat on snaking country roads. The Model S might not be designed as an M5 rival but it has absolutely no troubles tackling winding roads and has a well-calibrated traction control system. It’s a different experience from an ICE luxury sedan with conventional gears but it’s still fun-to-drive.
2015 was the last year for the 85, replaced later that year with the 90. Tesla’s model designations were based on their kilowatt-hour capacity – those with higher numbers are faster and have greater range. They now designate their model variants by range (Standard and Long) and the Performance version.
The 85 cost, appropriately, $85,000 when new. Prices have come down since then, the current Model S Standard Range now costing $75k before credits and incentives and coming standard with everything including Autopilot. The only option is FSD (Full Self Driving) at $6,000 and alternative interior color/wood trim choices ($1500).
If you are concerned about the lack of Tesla Superchargers or other charging stations or how long it takes to charge an electric car, you can rest assured this is always improving. To charge from 2% to 80% at a Supercharger took around 45 minutes; 80% is the maximum charge permitted at certain Superchargers. The new V.3 250 kW Superchargers are offering significantly faster charge speeds. A Model 3 Performance can charge 75 miles of range in 5 minutes, and from 9% to 90% in just 35 minutes.
Most buyers, however, will likely charge each night at home. I would’ve driven around 150 miles or so in one day, likely longer than the average buyer’s commute. Will range anxiety continue to be a concern for rural motorists? Probably. For those in urban areas, however, the Model S has more than enough juice for a day’s worth of driving. This Model S 85 was rated at 253 mile (EPA) range. The current Standard Range Models S has a 285 mile (EPA) range, and the Long Range version has a 370 mile range, almost twice the EPA ranges of the Audi eTron (204 miles), Jaguar I-Pace (234 miles) and Mercedes EQC (∼200 miles) . Tesla has already announced a 400+ mile version is coming soon. It seems that, for a while at least, Tesla to tout better mileage than its rivals.
I did experience some range anxiety but, in the interests of full disclosure, I stress out when my phone is at anything less than 50%. I also stubbornly insisted on using a Tesla Supercharger, likely bypassing numerous other charging stations. The lack of a wall-charger at my Airbnb also necessitated my 1am pit-stop at an empty and surprisingly clean Supercharger station in a mall parking lot in San Mateo. Tesla would do well, however, to partner with fast-food outlets and cafes and use their parking lots as combined Supercharger stations. I would have happily bought a sweet tea to pass the time.
I rented my Tesla from Turo. If you’re not familiar with the site (which I used to rent a Cadillac CTS and a Lexus GS), it’s basically an Airbnb for cars. It’s a great way to try out cars you’re unlikely to find at a regular rental agency although you generally feel more obligated to treat your rental a bit better as it’s someone’s personal car. The downside? Many cars on Turo have mileage restrictions. I had only 150 miles to play with in this Model S lest I be charged $1 per extra mile.
Those expecting a review of the Model S’ AutoPilot functionality will unfortunately be disappointed. Given I only had the Tesla for 24 hours and wanted to actually drive it, I never activated the semi-autonomous driving feature. Frankly, I’m surprised I even stretched the Model S out as much as I did given how jet-lagged I was.
I’ll leave talk of Tesla’s financial situation to industry analysts. With the Model S and now the 3, X and Y, Tesla has developed cars that are devastatingly cool and lusted after by buyers the world over. They’re instantly recognizable and lauded for their impressive in-car tech and green technology. One thing Tesla must be wary of, however, is the arrival of competitors. Apple may have owned the smartphone market because of their cool image and smart technology but eventually rivals like Samsung clawed back. Rivals like Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are gunning for Tesla and this plucky start-up has a huge target on its back.
If they keep making cars as impressive as the Model S, they’ll weather the onslaught. The Model S is a comfortable commuter and a surprisingly adept canyon-carver with a spacious and stylish interior. Driving it isn’t as strange and unfamiliar as some may think. The biggest difference you’ll notice is that you have to switch a pump for a plug and a gas station for a charging station or, even better, your own home. Welcome to the future.