The 2013 Tesla Model S is the second year of the electric sport sedan that went into production last June. Silicon Valley startup carmaker Tesla Motors is now producing a few hundred of the cars each week, and rolling out additional versions with different battery pack sizes.
The sleek lines of the Model S seem to remind many of the Jaguar XJ and XF, hardly a bad thing. The interior is simple and straightforward, well made, and dominated by the 17-inch vertical touchscreen display in the center console. Its size, graphics, and speed of response instantly relegate any other car's touchscreen to last year's technology. The size of the Model S display's icons and fonts, along with lightning-fast response, make it as good a system as we've seen.
Though it's considered a sport sedan, the 2013 Model S is actually a large five-door hatchback. Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] offers a pair of rear-facing jump seats in the load bay as an option, suitable only for small children who are willing to wear a four-point safety harness, though they give the car its nominal seven-passenger capacity.
With its lithium-ion battery pack housed in the floorpan, the Tesla Model S has a center of gravity as low as most sports cars. The battery, as well as the motor and power electronics, is liquid-cooled, to keep temperatures within an optimal range for best performance and longer life.
Tesla began Model S production with the largest of three battery-pack sizes, the 85-kilowatt-hour option. The next size down, 60 kWh, was expected to start deliveries very early in 2013, with the smallest size (40 kWh) to follow a few months later, once the company had worked through the backlog of more than 13,000 orders that it had accumulated by late 2012.
The largest battery pack is rated by the EPA at a range of 265 miles, with the two smaller ones not rated as of November 2012. Remember that like all electric cars, real-world range can vary greatly depending on driving style, speed, acceleration, temperature, and other factors.
The 270-kilowatt (362-hp) electric traction motor in the rear powers the rear wheels through a single-speed gearbox--leaving the area under the hood open for the storage compartment that the company insists on calling a "frunk" (for front trunk). With a more powerful 301-kW (416-hp) motor, the Model S Performance version has a 0-to-60-mph time below 5 seconds, on a par with any number of vastly more expensive sports cars.
All Model S cars hold the road well and corner flat, due to their low center of gravity. While small road imperfections are transmitted through the suspension--this is emphatically not a cushy, soft-riding sedan--the larger dips, bumps, and potholes are handled remarkably well by the car's air suspension.
Tesla has already made a number of running software updates to the 2012 Model S--adding, for example, the ability to set "idle creep" that simulates an automatic transmission--and the company expects to do more of this, including retrofits of new features to older cars. That may make Model S model years less relevant than they are for companies whose cars change colors, trim, or sheetmetal every few years.
While the 17-inch touchscreen dominates the interior, the 2013 Model S is still relatively light on the kinds of electronic equipment and safety systems that are a hallmark of the luxury class in which it competes. Possibly some of these can be retrofitted, but as one example, the Model S has no adaptive cruise control, which would require significant additional hardware and integration.
The Model S battery is recharged through a Tesla-specific charging station (and connector), and can charge at 10 or 20 kilowatts, up to three times as fast as most plug-in cars. (A second 10-kW onboard charger to deliver the fast 20-kW charging is an option on certain models.)
Tesla is also rolling out its "Supercharger" network of fast-charging stations along highways throughout 2013, by which time it expects to have at least a basic network in place across the country. The first two city pairs to get Supercharger stations were Los Angeles-San Francisco and Boston-Washington, which begins to make intercity travel possible in a zero-emission electric car.
The 2013 Tesla Model S starts at $57,400 for the 40-kWh version without any options, and rises to $87,400 for the 85-kWh Performance version. Heavily optioned high-end models can reach $100,000, but the extra-cost Signature Series of first-production Model S cars were limited to the 2012 model year and will not continue into 2013.
All Tesla Model S variants qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit, plus a wide array of state, local, and corporate incentives--including single-occupancy access to California's carpool lanes on freeways.