On the right, a drive selector offers simply D, R, and P, with an automatic parking brake built in, without any separate lever or switch for that. There's a small amount of idle creep built in, mimicking an automatic transmission car.
[UPDATE: After speaking with Tesla the next day, we learned that we were wrong: There is no idle-creep built into Model S cars right now. We're baffled as to what we experienced; the only thing we can imagine is that we were on an almost imperceptible downward slope when stopped, and the car has such low rolling resistance that it began to roll. In any case, we apologize for the error.]
But by far the most noticeable feature of the Model S interior is the giant 17-inch touchscreen display that takes up the entire center stack. The instrument cluster behind the steering wheel is entirely a digital display too.
The brilliant graphics, instant response, and easy-to-learn control screens of the central display immediately relegate any other car's system to second-class status. The Mercedes-Benz COMAND system, BMW's notorious iDrive, the mass-market MyFordTouch, and others are instantly outdated and primitive.
We were initially skeptical about having such a big screen to control most functions in the Model S. And, to be fair, an hour is nowhere near enough time to put it through its paces. But based on early use, we may become converts.
And Tesla's Silicon Valley roots show through in a high "surprise and delight" quotient in unexpected places.
Want to open the sunroof? Just swipe your finger along a plan view of the Model S, toward the rear. Or you can use a large slider to open it to any percentage you want.
Switch on a turn signal, and if you happen to be on the Lights screen, you'll see it flashing brightly on a photo-realistic image of your car. Ditto the parking lamps, the headlights, and so on.
You can connect a portable storage device to play digital music through the Tesla's stereo system, though such web apps as Pandora, Switcher, and Spotify aren't yet implemented.
You can likely expect those soon, along with voice commands, which haven't yet been activated.
Remarkably, there's also full web browsing via the built-in cellular connection. Or at least there will be until the Feds weigh in on that one.
Space for five
Inside, the cabin is wide, and five adults should be able to travel in comfort.
2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011Enlarge Photo
The front seats are supportive, the driving position is good, the controls are well-placed, and outward visibility is good to the front and sides--though the steeply angled rear window glass offers little more than a slit in the rear-view mirror.
The rear door openings are smaller than they look, and the windows slope inward as they rise toward the roof rail. That makes access to the rear seat more challenging than you might expect.
Once seated in the rear, outboard passengers will notice that that the cabin is wider at shoulder height than at head level and the rear seat back is angled a bit more steeply than customary.
Because the battery pack is in the floorpan, front and rear footwells aren't as deep as they would be in a conventional luxury sedan.
This means rear passengers are seated in a more reclined, knees-up position than in cars like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class or BMW 5-Series. It's not necessarily uncomfortable, but it's noticeable.