2012 Tesla Model S: First Drive Of All-Electric Sport Sedan

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After an hour in a 2012 Tesla Model S all-electric sport sedan, one thing became clear: It's a viable car.

The Model S gives Tesla Motors a shot at turning into a real car company.

That's a provisional judgment; as many journalists have noted, 10-minute drives or an hour driving and riding in limited New York City traffic hardly provides the time or mixed conditions for a proper review.

But the Model S can make the case for electric cars in a way that the odd-looking Nissan Leaf or the politically controversial Chevy Volt never will.

It's good-looking, in a Jaguar vein. The performance of the top-end Model S Signature Series Performance model we drove was quietly spectacular.

We saw no major quality flaws or obvious manufacturing defects (unlike the 2012 Fisker Karma we tested earlier this year).

And with EPA-rated range of 265 miles and an 89-MPGe efficiency rating, the Model S should eliminate any trace of range anxiety for regular daily use (outside of long road trips).

So the 2012 Tesla Model S sedan is about as promising a new product as the industry has seen for many years.

Now Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] has to get the car into volume production, fill the portion of almost 11,000 reservations that turn into paid orders--and generate enough cash to do all that plus develop its next models.

Sleek but not radical styling

If you're going to echo a luxury-car shape, you could do considerably worse than the profile of the Jaguar XF and XJ. Those were by far the most common comparisons from journalists and passers-by at this morning's Tesla event.

The proportions of the Model S are those of its competitors--the BMW 5-Series, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the Audi A6, and the Jaguar XF--though with a slightly longer wheelbase and shorter rear overhang.

Overall, the Model S isn't as noticeable on the street as the Tesla Roadster or the low, swoopy, curvaceous Fisker Karma. But it's also far more practical than either of those cars.

Deceptively fast

Tesla made its mark with the Roadster sports car. It was a crude, basic, all-electric open two-seater whose sins could be forgiven because its stunning performance was so addictive.

2012 Tesla Model S, brief test drive, New York City, July 2012

2012 Tesla Model S, brief test drive, New York City, July 2012

Embarrassing some supercars costing twice its $109,000 base price, the Roadster knocked off 0-to-60-mph times of less than 4 seconds, courtesy of a 53-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and a 175-kilowatt (248-hp) electric motor powering the rear wheels.

The 2012 Tesla Model S has a larger battery pack that forms the floorpan of its all-new design, but its 270-kW (362-hp) motor still powers the rear wheels. The Performance model has a more powerful 301-kW (416-hp) motor.

With a weight of about 4,700 pounds (a ton heavier than a Roadster), the Model S feels quite different behind the wheel than the attack-jet Roadster.

The Performance model we drove, with higher-spec power electronics and other modifications, is quoted at a 4.4-second 0-to-60-mph time (the standard Model S is quoted at 5.6 seconds).

We couldn't test acceleration times, but the Performance edition certainly offered the ability to surge swiftly away from any other vehicle on Manhattan's West Side Highway (sadly, we encountered no supercars).

Acceleration vs range

The deceptive part is that the Model S is so calm and quiet inside that there's virtually no mechanical noise on acceleration. Tire noise is obvious with the stereo off, and then wind noise kicks in above 40 mph or so.

Only once, on full acceleration from 0 to a high number, did we hear a high-pitched humming whine, presumably from the power electronics.

2012 Tesla Model S, brief test drive, New York City, July 2012

2012 Tesla Model S, brief test drive, New York City, July 2012

Just as in the Roadster, however, keeping your foot in the Tesla Model S will do a lot of damage to your range.

The car showed a maximum potential range of 290 miles on a fully charged battery, but based on the last 30 miles of driving, showed us a predicted range of 165 miles--meaning owners will rapidly learn to trade off the sheer fun of acceleration for longer range.

Air suspension

The air suspension provides ride quality that's firm over small road imperfections, with a little more feedback transmitted than might be expected. We didn't test the various suspension settings, including one that our Tesla minder candidly described as "mushy."

Over the bad stuff, including the uneven, potholed, cobblestone streets of Manhattan's West Village, the Model S rode superbly. 

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