2012 Tesla Model S
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As clean-sheet designs go, this one was penned on a bleached Pantone 9010 Pure White satin king-size. It’s Silicon-Valley fresh — no precedents or paradigms to shift and the air is filled with fresh thinking. Elon Musk’s goal in founding Tesla here in 2003 was to hasten the transition to affordable carbon-free transportation. His foundling company learned to crawl and walk first, bolting electric drivetrains into some 2250 Lotus Elise rolling chassis, and now with the 2012 Tesla Model S, the pace is picking up to a healthy saunter, leading up to next year’s production “run” of 20,000 cars. Musk’s goal for the Model S? “To be the best car in the world and to show that an electric car can be the best car in the world.”
You’re probably snorting and rolling your eyes at the hubris of a guy who daisy-chained a bunch of laptop batteries together to make a Lotus run silently, but trust me — after a walk through the factory, a visit to a dealer showroom, and an hour-and-a-half spent driving the car on a mix of roads, my eyes are wide and my jaw has dropped. Remember, Musk’s Space-X operation just launched a commercial rocket that successfully docked with the international space station. Don’t underestimate his determination, or his ability to lure talent. Examples? In the chassis department, Huibert Mees did the Ford GT’s suspension and Graham Sutherland spent 23 years tuning Lotuses. Manufacturing boss Gilbert Passin ran Toyota’s North American manufacturing engineering operations, and sales veep George Blankenship designed the Apple Stores.
This team has conceived a different kind of car, one that has more than 250 patents issued for it already with more pending. It’s a hatchback sedan with an optional ($1500) third-row of child seats, that can still accommodate 8.1 cubic feet of luggage under its “hood”– a difficult task for many three-row SUVs, but not for an EV with a 4-inch-thick battery pack under the floor and an its electric motor tucked between the rear wheels. There’s no engine-start button — climb aboard with the key and it’s ready to go; walk away and it powers down and locks up. There’s no parking brake handle or switch, it just automatically engages when you select park. A gigantic vertical touch screen uses Navigon/GoogleMaps with a browser interface, and as browsers evolve so too will the downloadable software, so your car always looks current. A built-in SIM card allows web surfing, and yes, it works in motion so the passenger can operate it (and as Musk points out, if a driver is determined to surf while in motion, it’s safer to do so on a 17-inch screen than a 3-inch one).
Design chief Franz Von Holzhausen’s shape is not as “disruptive” as the rest of the car’s technology. He opted for classic beauty along the lines of the Ford Fusion and Aston Martin Rapide, though neither had appeared when it was first drawn. It does, however, boast the lowest drag coefficient (0.24) of any current production car.
The aluminum structure of stampings, die-castings, and extrusions utilizes expertise from the rocketry division. Extruded rear suspension links (as strong as forgings) and hollow-cast front knuckle designs are claimed automotive innovations, each of which also lowers unsprung weight. Double-octagon extrusions form the front and rear crumple-zone structures, which are claimed to outperform federal standards, especially in back, where the car was impact tested at 50 mph as well as the mandatory 35. The roof crush resistance is also double the requirement (it broke the crush machine), and the rigid battery pack greatly restricts side-impact intrusion.
Tesla acquired the 5-million-sq-ft former NUMMI factory in Fremont, California, that GM and Toyota once occupied — complete with conveyor equipment and stamping and injection-molding machines — at a yard-sale price during the economic downturn. Other machinery was nabbed from ailing automakers and suppliers so that now the vast majority of the stamped and die-cast aluminum parts are made on site. To make these tools pay off on a low-volume product like the Model S, the Tesla team has had to develop quick die and tool change processes that allow one tool to make many parts in smaller quantities. Similarly, the robots that frame the unibody structure are all multi-taskers that can spot-weld, MIG-weld, bond, rivet, and even move parts around. Owning all this tooling favors in-sourcing over out-sourcing. Over 90 percent of all the plastic parts in the Model S are made onsite. More of the Model S’s parts are made in the building than was the case with the Corolla that was made here previously.
Okay, so it’s cleverly conceived and safe, but you’d be forgiven for remaining skeptical of that world’s-best-car claim. Humor me a bit longer. Performance-wise, that rear motor makes 362 hp at 6-9000 rpm and 325 lb-ft at 0-5000 rpm in the base model. Performance versions make 416 hp at 5-8600 rpm and 443 lb-ft at 0-5100 rpm. A front-mounted motor as found in the forthcoming AWD Model X would fit but is not yet planned for the sedan. By using an AC-induction type motor (which Nicola Tesla helped develop) instead of the typical permanent magnet type, Tesla needs not fret about rare-earth metal supplies and prices.
Feeding electrons to that motor is a choice of three lithium-ion battery packs (using Panasonic cells with nickel-cobalt-aluminum cathodes) sized to assuage differing degrees of range anxiety. Range is money, how far do you want to go? For $58,570 before tax credits, short-haul drivers can get a 40-kWh pack good for about 140 miles of EPA 5-cycle range (official numbers are not yet available). By comparison a Nissan Leaf’s 24-kWh battery propels the 1300-pound lighter car 73 miles. The 60-kWh battery should take you 200 miles on a charge for $68,570. The 85-kWh pack has just been EPA-rated at 265 miles and 89 MPGe and costs $78,570 (the Performance package adds $15K, the Signature package, built on the first 1000 cars, adds $18K). As for charging, the 10-kW 110/240-volt charger lives in the Tesla, not on the wall. An identical second charger (nestled beside the first under the right rear seat costing $1200) allows 20 kW to flow into the battery pack via Tesla’s unique connector from a special 100-amp wall charger. Tesla’s charging socket is smaller than the SAE J1772-spec socket (adaptors are provided) but can accept up to 90 kW from roadside Supercharger units Tesla will install between key cities capable of putting 150-miles worth of range into the battery in 30 minutes.
Before we buckle in for a romp through the hills above the East Bay, let’s talk chassis. The under-floor battery is a stressed member, and helps lower the center of gravity to just 17.5 inches high with two occupants — about the same as the Ford GT’s. The front control-arm rear multi-link suspension is nearly all aluminum. Performance and Signature cars get a four-position height-adjustable air suspension (down 0.8 inches at speed or for egress, up as much as 1.2 inch for clearing steep driveways). The anti-roll bars are solid steel and look surprisingly thin, but that low CG means the body mass never gets much leverage for body roll. In the rear, a wide control arm includes a curious vertical link to the knuckle at the rear. This provides caster control and distributes the brake-reaction torque among the control-arm bushings for greater comfort.
Alright, time to put this world’s-best notion to the 100-mph highway and twisty-road tests. The Model S bolts away from a stop like any EV, but it accelerates from 60 to 80 mph like a big gasser, continuing to pull strongly past 100 mph (top speed is 130 on Performance models). Sound levels are amazingly low, with just a whisper of wind at the pillars. The heft and communication coming through the electrically boosted steering does a Rich Little-grade impersonation of an Audi helm. As we head up and over the hills the brake pedal feel stands out as better than most Toyota hybrids, with no obvious handoff from regen to hydraulic retardation. The 48/52-percent front/rear weight distribution, low polar-moment of inertia (all the heavy bits are between the wheels) rear-drive, and aggressive Michelin Pilot Sport rubber help this 4650-pound sled corner sharply with no squealing. Ride quality is also impressive, in that it traverses bumps smoothly with no head toss. The Tesla team iterates at a blinding pace by car industry standards: Just six weeks ago independent evaluators complained about the car’s flinty ride, and in response the nimble team made over 100 tuning changes to the tires, bushings, anti-roll bars, shock valving, and more.
So is it the best car in the world? This fourth production example built may not be, but I’d rank it among the top few percentile and at the rate these automotive greenhorns are improving things, it might well be the best car in the solar system by version 2.0. I’d advocate for a bit more rear seat space, comfort, and lateral support, and of course more range for less money would be nice. But the dynamic performance, equipment level, and style nearly justify the price — even if you don’t care about the electric drivetrain. I don’t. And I want one.
Charge Port is concealed in driver rear side reflector lamp, like 1950s GM cars.
Flush handles pop out when the key approaches, or when shifting to park, or when pressed.
Finishing Panels for both B-pillars are made of glass.
No seams in upper chrome daylight-opening molding for luxury look.
Choice wheels. 21-inch slicer wheels shown are for Performance models (dark gray finish is standard); others get 19-inch design for better ride (19s are 4.4 pounds heavier).
Flat underbelly pan smoothes airflow, contributes to record low drag coefficient of 0.24.
Panorama roof boasts industry’s largest opening (at least until Lincoln MKZ arrives).
Familiar Switches for the power windows come from the Daimler bin, but nearly all other functions are controlled by the touch-screen.
Dashing display in front of driver shows speed and power use in center digi/analogue gauge, and your choice of navigation, energy use, audio track, or phone info on either side.
Steering column and stalks are familiar pieces purchased from investor Mercedes Benz.
Console bin shown is open and flat on the floor—no drive shaft or exhaust pipe tunnel needed, but cubbies for iPhones and other personal items are in the works.
Largest ever 17-inch automotive touch screen controls headlamps, trunk/hatch releases, sunroof, seat heaters, suspension height, steering effort, regenerative braking strength, audio and climate systems.
Décor Accent options include Piano Black, Lacewood, and Obeche Wood (shown).
|2012 TESLA MODEL S SIGNATURE|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Rear-motor, RWD, 5- or 7-pass, 4-door hatchback|
|MOTOR||362-416-hp/325-443-lb-ft AC electric|
|CURB WEIGHT||4650 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||196.0 x 77.3 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.4-5.6 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||88/90 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||38/37 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0 lb/mile (at car)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|
|*Before $7500 Federal Tax Credit|
By Frank Markus