A morning with Tesla’s Model S

Test drive or amusement park ride? Chris Sorensen on his spin in a $77,800 electric car

Maclean’s has done a few stories on Tesla and its founder Elon Musk. But none has involved driving one of their cars. It was a bit of an eye-opener.

Unlike other electric and hybrid electric vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf, Tesla resisted the urge to make the $77,800 Model S sedan appear overly futuristic. It’s certainly eye-catching—there were several double-takes when a Tesla representative parked a bright red Model S outside Maclean’s offices in Toronto—but only to the extent it looks like a drool-worthy luxury sports car. A stealth EV, if you will.

Equally impressive are the little details: the door handles that pop out when the keyless entry is engaged, the charging port hidden under the left tail light and the rear-facing jump seats in the trunk to haul kids. The car’s fit and finish are also top-notch. It’s easy to see why Consumer Reports magazine recently handed the Model S its highest-ever rating for a vehicle.

Pulling out of a parking spot, the Model S mostly drives like a regular car, with the one rather glaring exception of being almost totally silent. Shanna Hendriks, the Tesla spokeswoman along for the ride, said the company’s engineers struggled to sufficiently sound-proof the cabin so the road rattle wasn’t too distracting. Also strange is the regenerative brakes, which starts slowing down the car as soon as a foot comes off the gas, although this can be turned off on the Model S’s giant dashboard touchscreen (the screen can also be used to surf the Web while driving, although Tesla has wisely disabled video streaming).

Where the Model S starts to feel like a different beast is when you merge onto a highway and punch the “gas.”  The acceleration the Model S delivers feel almost un-car like—more like an amusement park ride that pins you to your seat. The power is instant, thanks to the high torque that comes with an electric engine (apparently the Model S that was offered to Maclean’s had even more torque than normal because it was outfitted with a “performance” package, pushing the MSRP over $100,000). On the highway, it’s tempting to keep pumping the pedal to re-live the moment. Hendricks says the feeling is even more impressive when starting from a dead stop, with the Model S boasting a zero to 60 mph time of 4.2 seconds.  Once up to speed, though, the Model S handles pretty much like a regular car. And the same goes for driving around the city.

The question, of course, is whether the Model S’s punchy accelerator and handsome looks is enough to make consumers abandon the internal combustion engine. Electric car concepts have been around for decades, but have proven unpopular because of a lack of necessary charging infrastructure and the relative affordability of gasoline. Tesla is trying to satisfy concerns about the former by rolling out a network of “super charger” stations in North America, including Canada, that will be free for Tesla owners. Hendriks says there will be stations along the busy Highway 401 corridor between Toronto and Montreal by 2014. Depending on the size of the battery pack, the Model S is capable of achieving between 370 km to 480 km on a single charge, according to Tesla’s website.

As for the economics of owning an electric car, Tesla encourages customers to consider they will never buy another tank of gas. But it’s not clear whether most people think about the total cost of ownership when contemplating a big purchase. If they did, they would be reluctant to take on mortgages with extended amortization periods, or agree to long, multi-year contracts in exchange for a discounted smartphone. Musk seems to understand this aspect of human nature intuitively. It explains why he started by building a high-performance $108,000 roadster aimed at wealthy gear-heads and then followed it up with a luxury sedan. Tesla’s next project, an SUV with gull-wing doors, promises to be similarly aspirational. The idea, it seems, is to build cars that people simply want to drive, regardless of the price or powertrain. It’s not unlike the strategy Steve Jobs used to resurrect Apple by building premium-priced computers, music players and phones.

Driving a Model S for a few hours on a sunny, summer day isn’t sufficient to determine whether it’s worth owning. But it quickly erases lingering doubts about the viability of electric cars—at least from the perspective of the driver’s seat. Even more amazing is that Musk managed to develop and manufacture such an impressive mass market electric vehicle in just a few years. No wonder GM chief executive Dan Akerson recently cobbled together a team to keep its eye on Tesla, calling its cars a potentially disruptive force in the industry. He must have taken one for a test drive.