Forget everything you once knew of electric cars. The 2012 Tesla Model S has rewritten the rule book and may have even set the bar higher for conventionally powered cars.
Unlike other EVs currently out there, the Tesla Model S is not a podlike transport, nor is it based on an existing economy car. It's a large sedan with luxury leanings, eyebrow-raising performance and stunning good looks. By all accounts, it's one of the best cars you can buy, electric or otherwise.
The 2012 Tesla Model S isn't a bank-account-emptying toy for the ultra-wealthy, either. With a starting price right around $60,000 (not including the $7,500 federal tax credit), the base model is surprisingly accessible. That 40 kWh model is, however, the least powerful (235 horsepower) and has the shortest range (we'd guess just over 100 miles). For another $10,000, you can upgrade to the 60 kWh battery pack with 302 hp and a 208-mile range. With yet another $10,000, the 85 kWh pack kicks power to 356 hp and 265 miles of range. There's also the $87,400 Performance version, boasting 416 hp and identical range.
Regardless of which model you choose, the 2012 Tesla Model S is thoroughly modern inside and out, fulfilling our childhood dreams of what a 21st-century car should be. The sleek body is a pleasure to look at and even the flush-mounted door handles kick the cool factor up as they deploy when unlocked and require a minimum of effort to access the cabin.
The love affair continues inside, with a modern and tasteful interpretation of what a car interior could be. A massive central touchscreen replaces conventional knobs and buttons and the simple elegance of the cabin design is the epitome of tech chic. None of this sacrifices usability or utility, either, as the systems actually work as you'd expect and there's a wealth of cargo space.
Even without the electric drivetrain, the 2012 Tesla Model S is unique among all other cars. Understandably, competition is slim, if not nonexistent. So not only has Tesla rewritten the rule book, they may have tossed it into the shredder.
The 2012 Tesla Model S is classified as a large sedan and is available in four trim levels: base, Performance, Signature and Signature Performance.
Standard features for the base Model S include 19-inch wheels, LED daytime running lights, keyless entry, full power accessories, cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 17-inch touchscreen, cloth upholstery, heated 12-way power front seats with memory functions, 60/40-split-folding rear seats, a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and streaming audio and a seven-speaker sound system with dual USB ports and HD radio.
Besides an increase in power output, the Performance models add the ability to use twin chargers, an active air suspension and leather upholstery.
Since the Model S features mobile Internet connectivity, access to rudimentary Web-based navigation and maps is possible, but turn-by-turn guidance is only available as part of the optional Tech package. Other Tech package features include xenon headlights, LED foglights, auto-dimming exterior mirrors, a power rear hatch, automatic keyless entry, a universal garage door opener and a high-definition rearview camera. The Sound Studio package includes a 12-speaker surround-sound audio system. Stand-alone options include 21-inch wheels with performance tires, a panoramic sunroof, rear-facing third-row seats, a cargo cover and additional charging units.
Signature and Signature Performance trims included the Tech and Sound Studio packages along with twin charge capability.
The 2012 Tesla Model S features a cabin that is as modern and classy as you'll find in any segment. Almost all knobs and buttons are absent, replaced by a sleek 17-inch vertical touchscreen that controls almost all onboard systems. It is essentially a big and beautiful iPad. Besides looking good, the system actually functions well, too. Users can configure the placement of audio, navigation and climate controls to their liking on the screen and we experienced few, if any, flaws.
For the directionally challenged, however, we would recommend springing for the expensive Tech package which includes a turn-by-turn navigation system that is more like the units found in conventional cars. The standard system can access online maps for viewing, but that's about the extent of its function.
In terms of comfort, both front and rear seats offer ample legroom for adults, though taller rear-seat passengers may run out of headroom. The optional rear-facing jump seats, on the other hand, are almost comically small. Only small children would be willing or able to sit back there. These third-row seats do fold flat into the foot well, allowing for a capacious 26.3 cubic feet of cargo space, which is significantly more than other large luxury sedans. Folding the middle row flat expands that space to 58.1 cubes. There's also a secondary trunk under the hood that offers 5.3 cubic feet of storage.
Materials throughout the cabin are high-quality enough to be comparable to the typical luxury sedan, but those who purchase the range-topping $100,000-plus models might expect more than the Model S delivers. The leather upholstery is by no means a disappointment; it's just not up to premium luxury standards. Elsewhere, the typical window switches and driver controls have been sourced from Mercedes-Benz, making them hard to fault by any measure.
Four distinct powertrain choices are offered with the 2012 Tesla Model S, each with increasing levels of range and performance. All Model S powertrains are propelled by a single water-cooled electric motor, routing power through a single-speed transmission on its way to the rear wheels. Lithium-ion battery packs are also utilized throughout the lineup.
With the base 40kWh battery pack, the Model S can produce the equivalent of 235 hp and 310 pound-feet of torque. You can expect a cruising range of just over 100 miles. Tesla claims a 0-60-mph time of 6.5 seconds, which is comparable to a base midsize luxury sedan.
With the 60kWh battery, electric motor performance increases output to 302 hp and 317 lb-ft of torque. The EPA estimates a range of 208 miles, while Tesla expects it to reach 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. The 85 kWh model makes 362 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque with an estimated 60-mph run of 5.6 seconds and a range of 265 miles. Upgrading to the 85kWh Performance boosts output to 416 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque, with a range of 265 miles. In Edmunds testing, the Tesla Model S Performance accelerated to 60 mph in a very quick 4.3 seconds, which confirms Tesla's 4.4-second estimate.
In terms of efficiency, the EPA estimates the Model S will use 38 kWh city/37 kWh highway and 38 kWh combined per 100 miles driven. (Remember that here, the lower the number, the better.) In miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe), that's 88 mpg city/90 mpg highway and 89 mpg combined.
The Model S can be recharged from all standard 110- and 240-volt household outlets and from various public charging stations using the included Universal Mobile Connector and adapters. Figure up to 5 hours of recharging time at 240 volts for the 40 kWh pack with the base model's single onboard charger, and half that with the dual-charger system. The dual-charger system -- which needs a 100-amp circuit to operate at full capacity -- also is an option for the 60 kWh battery, halving the normal 7.5-hour recharge time. The system is standard on the Signature and Signature Performance models, giving them a potential 4-hour recharge time, despite their much larger battery packs.
Models equipped with the 60 and 85 kWh batteries can also use a nationwide network of "superchargers" that Tesla is building. Tesla says the industrial-grade, high-speed chargers promise to replenish 160 miles of range in the 85 kWh batteries in about 30 minutes, enabling long-distance travel.
The 2012 Tesla Model S effectively crushes every preconceived notion you may have had about electric cars. Unlike the quirky pod cars, golf carts or even economy car-based EVs, the Tesla drives just like a conventional luxury sedan. Our experience has been limited to the 85 kWh Performance model, and we came away utterly impressed on a number of levels.
Acceleration is eerily quiet and incredibly potent. With all torque being immediately available, it's like being shot out of a gun barrel -- with a silencer. Braking is also praiseworthy, not just because the pedal feels like one from a conventional car, but also because it gets the Model S stopped with linear authority.
The well-tuned steering and suspension further add to the experience, with a sharpness and accuracy that brought a smile to our faces on serpentine roads. This could be attributed to the larger wheels shod with performance tires, but even so, this unexpected level of athleticism was refreshing. Fortunately, the Model S's sporty capabilities don't come at the expense of comfort and compliance either, as we found the ride quality to be smooth and agreeable.
Standard safety features for all 2012 Tesla Model S variants include head, knee and pelvic airbags for the front passengers as well as front and rear side curtain airbags. Also standard on all models are stability and traction control, crash sensors for high-voltage disconnect, antilock disc brakes and a rearview camera.
In Edmunds brake testing, the Model S with optional 21-inch wheels and performance tires came to a stop from 60 mph in an impressive 108 feet.
The 2012 Tesla Model S is an all-new model.