Test Drive: Tesla’s all-electric sedan is terrific

The Morning Sun

Friday afternoon I found myself behind the wheel of a $130,000, 762-horsepower four-door sedan that even when loaded with four adults will go from 0 to 60 mph in less than three seconds.

The car—rather the space rocket—isTesla Motors’ revolutionary, all-electric Model S P90D. The gentlemen riding with me were public relations specialists on a mission to change Michigan’s law preventing the sale or service of Tesla products in the state.

It all started back in October 2014 when Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law which prohibits Tesla from selling its cars straight to drivers. The bill was applauded by mainline automakers and dealerships, but called “anti-competitive” by Tesla, according to the Associated Press.

What this means is Tesla wants the law changed and is therefor working with a public affairs agency based in Lansing to introduce its product to legislators and news reporters to change perceptions.

With the basics out of the way, readers now have a semi-reasonable explanation as to why a 25-year-old reporter who drives an old Mazda sedan and shops almost exclusively in the frozen foods section was allowed to drive one of the most expensive, technologically advanced electric cars on the planet and drive it hard.

So as I said earlier, Tesla’s Model S P90D will reach 60 mph from a standstill in less time than it takes to say, “Goodness gracious. I think I need to change my underwear.”

What may come as a surprise is that’s not even the coolest thing this car has to offer.

In fact, for someone who has been reading car magazines like Motor Trend since elementary school and has already owned 11 cars, I’d call my experience with the Tesla one of the best and biggest surprises of my life.

An initial look at the car’s exterior won’t make anyone think ground-breaking design and it would easily blend in at a country club parking lot filled with the best from Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi.

That’s not a dis. All of those manufacturers are synonymous with elegant style and luxury that any car company—especially a relatively new one like Tesla—would be proud to join as company.

However, upon closer inspection it becomes obvious that the Model S is no ordinary car. For example, the door handles are flush with the body until the owner approaches with the fob, a small transmitter that functions as the key, and all the handles emerge from the doors.

Once inside, the interior will seem familiar for perhaps a brief moment until the occupant observes some minor details. For example, there is no hump between the driver and passenger seats as the Tesla doesn’t have a traditional transmission. This drastically improves passenger leg-room in both the front and back seats.

Instead, the Model S has two motors, one in the front and one in the rear, for an all-wheel drive system which is digitally and independently controlled.

Also noticeably unique for a car interior is a 17-inch touchscreen tucked into the dash that controls most of the car’s functions. It takes a bit to get used to as at first I felt like I was driving around with my desk monitor.

As was commonly the case during my test drive, Tesla’s Model S had a knack for making the foreign feel familiar in no time.

It’s an odd feeling to get in the driver’s seat of a car, not have to put a key in an ignition and turn it, and most of all to not hear any semblance of an idling engine.

That’s how it works though. As soon as you get into the car and have the fob in your possession the car is activated and ready to roll with no extra effort.

The steering wheel and controls were about the only “normal” feature on the car that I didn’t need to adjust to. Grasping my hands around the flat-bottom, suede-wrapped, heated steering wheel felt like shaking hands with an old friend. Finally, I felt like a driver compared to an abductee aboard an alien craft.

Putting the Tesla in reverse is the same as turning on a blinker with the wand branching out from the column. The massive screen in the dash displays the back-up camera and the section normally fitted with mechanical gauges instead features another screen that shows speed, battery life, location of objects around the car and other vital info.

Due to its electrical propulsion system, the Tesla Model S also uses the same energy to go forward as it does to stop and this is non as regenerative braking. Unless otherwise set to “creep mode”—yes, that’s a terrible name—the car will not move unless the accelerator pedal is pressed. This was a weird feeling to me because as long as I’ve been driving when you put the car in gear it moves unless you’re braking.

On the road, the car felt completely normal except for the amazing, instantaneous power on demand that simply isn’t possible in a normal combustion-propelled vehicle. You see, there are simply too many moving parts in regular cars that normally need input from the gas pedal to tell the motor to increase throttle to the transmission putting that extra power to the wheels and that actually seems like an extremely long process in the Tesla. Driving it feels like the car is an extension of you. It responds to the touch in every aspect—throttle, braking, steering, and especially the touchscreen controls.

Yet, even with all these amazing and truly unique features that only an electric vehicle can offer, the Tesla Model S still had surprises in store for me.

Cruise control has always been a good friend of mine, especially on the long trips to my hometown back in the Upper Peninsula. Over the years I’ve read about adaptive cruise control in cars, which allows them to essentially monitor its surroundings and maintain speed in freeway traffic and such.

Well, I’m about to tell you Tesla has that feature and so much more. The Model S actually has an honest-to-God “auto pilot” mode that allows the driver to set a speed, take their hands and feet off of the wheel and sit back as the car drives down the freeway on its own.

The moment I experienced this was life changing. Call that over dramatic if you must, but sitting there watching the car maintain speed and go around a corner at 80 mph with cars in the lane over and no input whatsoever on my part changed me. It was like using the Internet for the first time or a smart phone, and probably back when it was invented flying or seeing the first photograph. Even now I think back on it and I almost can’t believe it wasn’t a dream.

All of this is what makes Tesla’s cars and the company’s dreams so terrific, unique, innovative, exciting, and [insert any number of adjectives for awesome]. It is also the reason I very quickly understood why the public relations guys, Jeff Timmer, Keith den Hollander, and Casey Kreiner, were taking the time to travel around the state and show this car off.

Are there still a lot of questions when it comes to buying and owning this car? You can bet your butt there are, but lets run through a quick list of basic concerns.

Cost: The Tesla Model S starts at about $70,000 for the base model. There are a variety of options that can be added to that which can bring a buyer’s total up to around $130,000 for a top-of-the-line vehicle like the P90D. That’s a lot of money, but consider what is saved on never paying for gas again or what it could mean for the environment. If that doesn’t change much, consider the fact Tesla announced last year it will be making a $35,000 model that will go on sale in 2017.

Long-range trips: The Model S has a range of about 250-270 miles on a single charge. Electric car charging stations can be found all overincluding Mt. Pleasant’s Jockey Alley. However, they require several hours if not more. Tesla does have some “Supercharger” stations around the state in areas such as Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Cadillac to name a few. These are free and will charge in minutes compared to hours. In total, Tesla says it has 595 Supercharger stations across the country.

Dependability: One thing that it will be hard to argue is how well Tesla’s vehicles will stand up to the test of time and what repair costs will be. Regardless, Timmer said Tesla’s current warranty is for eight years with unlimited miles during that time.

Overall, my conclusion regarding Tesla’s Model S P90D can be summed up with the same word that describes the mode in which the car is transformed into a total performance freak—ludicrous.

Obviously I mean that in the best way possible, and honestly I don’t know if any thing I can write about this car will convey the legitimate physical and emotional feelings that it brought out in me.

I can only wish the gentlemen who gave me the chance to drive this brilliant piece of machinery the best of luck.

Jeff Timmer said it best when he told me: “This is the coolest car you’ve ever driven, and it’s not what you think of when you think electric car.”