Spotted: 2012 Tesla Model S

What is the fastest American sedan you can buy today?

You might be surprised to learn that it’s not the twin-turbo Lincoln MK-S, the Dodge Charger SRT8 Super Bee, or even the mighty Cadillac CTS-V. The fastest American-made sedan is none other than the Tesla Model S – and it shuts these other cars down without using a drop of gasoline.

Just how quick is this car? Take a look at these figures:

2012 Tesla Model S P85
0-60: 3.9 seconds
1/4 Mile: 12.5 @ 110.9 mph1

2013 Lincoln MK-S EcoBoost Twin Turbo AWD
0-60: 5.2 seconds
1/4 Mile: 13.9 @ 100.8 mph2

2012 Dodge Charger SRT8 Super Bee
0-60: 4.4 seconds
1/4 Mile: 12.8 @ 112.6 mph3

2009 Cadillac CTS-V Sedan
0-60: 4.3 seconds
1/4 Mile: 12.6 @ 114.6 mph4

With numbers like these, you can understand why I was ecstatic to see a Model S Signature in real life the other day at the Scottsdale Pavilions car show.

The Model S is the all-new four door car from California-based Tesla Motors. The company is backed by billionaire and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. They build 100% electric cars which are made right here in America.

Starting in 2008, the company launched the Tesla Roadster. Built on the Lotus Elise chassis, this two-seater electric sports car was proof that Tesla’s EV drivetrain and quick-charge technology was viable. Now, Tesla’s taken what they have learned from the Roadster and produced an original design all of their own.

The Model S is a luxury sports sedan unlike any other. It costs more than a Chevrolet Volt but less than a Fisker Karma, both of which are plug-in hybrids that have onboard gasoline-powered generators to extend their range. The Model S has no combustion engine at all, just a 3-phase AC induction motor producing 362 horsepower in the base and Signature models and 416 horsepower in the Performance model.

This is a car for the Kickstarter generation.

This is a car for the Kickstarter generation. It’s beautifully designed, eco-friendly, and very expensive. It’s got loads of technology from its retractable door handles and push-button start to an all-digital gauge cluster and dashboard. Like a cheerleader who goes home and plays World of Warcraft, the car’s geeky personality is concealed by its goregeous body lines.

Inside the car, it’s hard to ignore the ridiculously oversized 17-inch screen in the dashboard. This multi-touch display controls everything including the radio, climate control, navigation and even web browsing. It’s like an iPad on steroids! The standard gauge cluster has also been replaced with an all-electronic display.

So what can Silicon Valley teach Detroit about making cars? Well, a couple of things. The Model S has a unique “flat” battery pack that comprises the floor of the car. This makes for better weight distribution and a lower center of gravity. Compare that with the T-shaped battery pack in the Volt, which sits in a tunnel in the center of the car.

The Model S also has a very low drag coefficient and a regenerative braking system that can add several miles of range in between charges. However, the majority of the car’s power will come from plugging it in for a recharge.

The car comes with a built-in charger that supports a standard 10kW connector and an optional 20kW Twin Charger. For road trips, Tesla have announced the rollout of high-speed “supercharging” stations which can recharge about half of the 85kW battery pack in as little as 30 minutes! A full charge will give you 160, 230, or 300 miles of range depending on whether your car has the 40kWh, 60kWh, or 85kWh battery pack.

I love the idea of the Tesla Model S, but it has a few glaring drawbacks. I think the 17″ touchscreen in the dash is a poor use of space – it’s just too large. A 10″ or 7″ screen would look a lot better aesthetically in my opinion.

I have to wonder why Tesla chose to use their own closed-source system instead of just using an iOS or Android powered tablet for their controls. Perhaps they do not want something that runs iOS in case drivers decide to play Angry Birds when they should be focusing on the road?

I also wonder how well Tesla’s proprietary system will stand the test of time. Can you be a good car manufacturer if you are also focused on rolling out software updates? Will users be able to update their own cars, or will they be required to visit a dealer? Will the interface look laughably out of date in just a few years’ time? How will that massive screen hold up to the sun and heat after being parked outdoors?

These are all good questions, and I’m sure Tesla has addressed them before putting the car into production.

Finally, there’s the issue of the car’s price. A Model S can hit you for anywhere between $57k and $105k depending on your performance level, which is a pretty hefty tag that most middle-class commuters will not be able to afford.

While it may not be the right car for everyone, I’m pretty impressed with the car from a technology and engineering standpoint. Will Tesla’s new Model S be a hit or a flop? Only time will tell.

1 Motor Trend, August 2012. Tesla Model S Test and Range Verification.
2 Motor Trend, October 2012. Lincoln MKS EcoBoost First Test.
3 Motor Trend, January 2012. Dodge Charger Super Bee SRT8 First Test.
4 Motor Trend, October 2009. Jaguar XFR and Cadillac CTS-V Comparison.