Exclusive First Drive: Tesla Model S
Better still, this isn't a concept car. A right hand drive version will be available in the UK next year, priced to compete with conventionally powered rivals and with the fleet market firmly on Tesla's radar. With 20,000 global sales expected in 2013, and a European fleet department in the pipeline, this could really shake things up.
To date, California-based Tesla has operated in a niche. Its one-model range consisted of the Roadster, an electric sports car based Lotus Elise, held back to low volumes by a high price and low space.
Model S is different. This was designed as an electric car from the start, and uses a new platform developed in-house. Laid out like a skateboard, it houses a flat lithium ion battery under the cabin floor, which powers a compact electric drivetrain between the rear wheels.
Visually, though, it's designed to look as conventional, and as desirable as possible. Roughly the same size as an Audi A7, the flat cabin floor offers space for five occupants, and the compact drivetrain leaves almost 50% more boot volume than anything else in its sector. Under the bonnet is an additional "trunk", facilitated by the lack of front-mounted engine.
Tesla prides itself on doing things differently, and the attention to detail throughout makes this feel closer to a concept car than a production model. The door handles retract flush with the bodywork when not in use, and there’s no starting procedure. Get in, and if it detects the key it’ll start with a press of the brake pedal. Select park when you’re done, get out and walk away, and it disables and locks itself once the key is out of range.
But the big revolution is the dashboard. Everything, including this climate control settings, is controlled via a 17-inch touchscreen. It’s incredibly intuitive, too, with a simplistic iPad-like drag and drop operation to select what's on screen, and how large it should be. New features are downloaded automatically, via its built-in data connection, which means functionality will continue to grow as Tesla develops its own software.
Model S launches with a single battery option, and it's the most powerful version with a 300-mile range. But this will be extended to include two lower-capacity units shortly after launch, with the mid-range 230-mile unit expected to be the most popular.
None of the options make the Model S a slouch, but with the most powerful battery and optional Performance pack available to drive at the press launch, this is a real driver's car. All of its 416bhp and 442lb.ft is available instantly, not only from a standing start but at any speed. Acceleration is smooth and relentless, with on-paper figures befitting a V8 performance saloon rather than an electric car. All you'll miss is the soundtrack of a big engine to go with it.
And, just like a performance saloon car, it's got two personalities. Ease off a little and the ride quality is firm, but not uncomfortable, the steering mechanical and the stiff body and low centre of gravity means the handling is entirely predictable too.
So where's the downside? Well, as a newcomer Tesla doesn't have a dealer network, but it's not much of a handicap. The same mobile servicing as offered on the Roadster will be extended to the Model S, and will be done via shop-fronts located in malls around the UK. It’s all part of offering a different service to customers.
The deciding factor will be pricing. Transportation costs mean European models will be priced higher than in the United States, where the range starts at $50,000, but this is still expected to be competitive with a conventionally-powered executive car and high production volumes are available if needed. With the tax benefits and ability to travel conventional distances for a half-hour fast charge, Model S has the potential to lay some strong foundations for the sector's most radical newcomer.
Model S is a giant leap in the right direction for electric vehicles, with the lack of a snarling high performance engine the only reason to overlook it altogether. Low BiK liability and high driver involvement means all Tesla has to do is get people behind the wheel to get them converted.
Sector: Large executive
Type: Battery-electric vehicle
Electric range: 150-300 miles
CO2 (tailpipe): 0g/km
Charging port: Type 2 (Europe)