Dan Nielsen: Behind the wheel of a Tesla electric car - First-person experience in Traverse City

BY DAN NIELSEN dnielsen@record-eagle.com Jul 17, 2016
TRAVERSE CITY — I mashed down the accelerator pedal on U.S. 31 heading up the grade south past McRae Hill Road. Hefty G-forces snapped my body into the seatback, the digital speedometer on the dashboard did some quick addition and buffalo pasture flashed by on my left. But my Tesla Model S cocoon remained basically silent.

The pedal never reached the floor. I had to release foot pressure immediately because we hit the speed limit, 100 mph below the car's listed maximum.

The test drive was courtesy of lobbyist Jeff Timmer, a partner in Two Rivers Public Affairs of Portland, Michigan. His firm is helping Tesla Motors try to convince Michigan lawmakers to change a state law that prevents the company from selling its cars directly to state residents, bypassing auto dealers. Four other states have similar laws, Timmer said. Tesla doesn't use dealers and sells directly to consumers.

Two Rivers' lobbying effort in Michigan includes offering test drives to lawmakers and members of the media.

The shape of the dark blue car Timmer drove to Traverse City reminded me of recent Jaguars. The low, curved lines make it look like it's hunkered down waiting for a chance to pounce.

The interior was delicious. Suede surrounded the sunroof and the dashboard of this top-of-the-line model, whose price tag was $135,000, Timmer said. The base S model costs $70,000. A 17-inch computer monitor dominates the center of the dashboard, but an electronic display in front of the steering wheel includes a digital speedometer, a real-time chart of battery drain/charge and a graphical lane position indicator that reminded me of the old Pole Position video arcade game.

The Tesla's controls are simple and should be no problem for anyone who has ever driven a conventional car. There's an accelerator and brake on the floor, a steering wheel, a turn signal stalk and a gearshift lever with just three positions — reverse, park and drive.

Timmer demonstrated the Google Maps readout on the computer screen that shows locations of all Tesla SuperCharger charging stations across the nation. As the car's battery is used, stations too far away to reach are grayed out. The car warns the driver when it's time to head to the nearest charging station. The car can go more than 200 miles per charge. A SuperCharger station can pack a full charge in about an hour, Timmer said. He had charged up in Cadillac, at the SuperCharger station nearest to Traverse City. Other charging stations can be used, but take longer to charge. Even home 110-volt outlets can be used, he said, but they take much longer.

A leadfoot driver will get less range. The word "swoosh" popped into my head every time I punched the "go" pedal, and it was hard to resist the desire to step on it. The Tesla Motors website says the car can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds.

I've driven a lot cars over the years, including several with big V-8 engines. The Tesla easily out-accelerates anything I've driven. And the car feels incredibly stable, perhaps partly because its heavy battery is under the floor, low to the ground. The Tesla's performance was particularly impressive because it is so simple to drive.

The luxury model I drove had a very comfortable driver's seat with excellent lumbar support, electric (of course) adjustments and leather upholstery. The car was equipped with electric motors in both front and back that powered all four wheels.

Cruising in heavy stop-and-go traffic along South Airport Road was effortless in the Tesla. Drivers of conventional automatic-transmission vehicles are used to a car inching forward when the brake is released, so the car offers a selectable mode that forces that to happen. The electric car normally wouldn't move when the brake is released.

The Tesla uses momentum to help recharge the battery. When the driver releases the accelerator while the car is moving, the motors become generators and the car slows noticeably.

Driving the Tesla was a personal revelation. Sure, I'd read about the car and its high performance levels. But the only other electric vehicles I'd previously driven were industrial forklifts and golf carts. None of those offered premium road performance.

Tesla has taken preorders for a less-expensive model that should be on the road in two years. A basic Model 3 is priced at $35,000, but government incentives would trim the price. Options would add to the price.

The test drive convinced me that electric cars have a big role to play in the future of commuting and highway travel. When the combination of price and performance reach a certain balance, Americans will gobble them up.