The high-end auto world has never seen the like of this car.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I have now been able to drive the $87,900 (and up) Tesla(:TSLA) Model S in my
own neighborhood, on the same winding roads where I drive other
electric cars ever day. As such, this article is the first comparison
test for the Tesla Model S, where I compare it back-to-back with
Chevrolet(:GM) Volt and other cars.
Let us start with a basic review of the Tesla Model S itself. It is a large hatchback with a 362 or 416 horsepower electric motor, 440 or 600 nm worth of torque, sitting between the rear wheels. The 85 kWh battery is embedded in the floor of the car, just like a giant iPad that's as much as 5 inches thick. The EPA-certified average range is 265 miles.
The instrumentation is unique in the automotive world, as it consists of two LCD screens -- one in front of the steering wheel, but the entire center stack of the instrument panel is one big vertical 17- inch screen. Forget all other cars you've experienced to date -- this 17 inch screen feels like a 100 year jump in automotive technology. In an automotive first, it is also driven by Nvidia's(:NVDA) excellent Tegra 3 processor.
It is hard to get screen technology right in a car, and frankly I find that most cars are more or less outright failures in this area. Tesla has made the biggest gamble of them all, and in amazing feat they have pulled off a victory, sweeping the competition into the dustbin of history.
Suffice it to say that it will be a strong selling point for the car.
The stalk-mounted automatic shifter is taken from a Mercedes R, M or GL car, as are the cruise control and blinker stalks. I don't recall the existence of a single button anywhere near the dashboard. All you get are: two screens, a steering wheel, and three steering column stalks. The interior has the minimalist design of expensive modern furniture, combined with technology that makes an Apple iPad look out of date.
For seating, the car I drove had the leather-textile combo seats, which I found superior to the all-leather seats in this case. Unlike so many German sports cars in particular, they look nothing like sports seats, lacking visible bolsters. I found the seating comfort and position vis-a-vis the pedals and the telescoping steering wheel to be as flawless as the very best cars in the market.
The back seat was another matter.
The back seat has good foot/knee room, and the car is wide to fit three people there. However, the headroom is abysmal. I couldn't judge with perfection how short you would have to be to fit your head in the back seat, but I'm guessing you might be fine if you are 5 foot 8 or less.
The rear trunk is as large or larger than the largest sedans on the market, thanks to the absence of a gasoline tank and muffler. The rear seat folds to make into a station wagon, and you can even put two child seats in the trunk for those who are shorter than 5 feet.
The front trunk -- or "frunk" -- is in principle similar to that of a Porsche 911, although my vague memory of the 911's frunk is that it's smaller than the Tesla's. All in all, luggage space is a unique selling point for Tesla. Performance
If you have driven any other of the "full power" electric cars in the market, such as the Chevrolet Volt or equivalent, the basic nature of the acceleration in the Tesla Model S will not be a surprise. Everything is completely silent, totally smooth, without vibration, downshifts or any other disturbance -- except this car is faster. A lot faster! 0-60 happens in 4.4 or 5.6 seconds, depending if whether or not you spend the extra $10,000 for the more powerful motor.
As with the other electric cars in the market, the acceleration is front-loaded, so it's most impressive the first 2 or 3 seconds, given the immediate nature of the power. And that's where it counts -- all done in complete silence.
Beyond the initial acceleration comes the single most positive surprise of the Tesla Model S: The chassis tuning and lack of noise, vibration and harshness. Here is where the comparison with the Chevrolet Volt sets in with a very important point. In the Volt, while the electric motor is of course as silent and smooth as the Tesla, you hear sounds from the wheel wells.
In the Tesla Model S, the suspension, chassis and tires appear so amazingly tuned that there is absolutely no sound or vibration that I could sense. How does one explain this? First, the 5-inch thick battery constituting the floor of the car is like armor protecting a military vehicle from a roadside bomb: It's noise insulation, but in this case it also lowers the center of gravity.
With essentially all of the weight in the floor pan, no engine and transmission up front, and no full gasoline tank in the back, Tesla has the perfect formula for optimizing the suspension: The car can provide superior handling, while at the same time do it with a very soft suspension that makes a Bentley Mulsanne blush. In the comfort/refinement department, the Tesla Model S makes Buckingham Palace seem like a Burger King.
Having driven the Tesla Model S on the neighborhood roads back-to-back not only against most of the other electric cars in the market today, but also comparing it against other premium cars such as Rolls Royce Corniche, I came to this startling conclusion: The Tesla Model S is so superior that it seems that it's just a matter of time until all the other car companies will have to file bankruptcy.
In the area of automobile performance and refinement, the Tesla Model S is to other cars what a new iPhone 4S is to a Motorola StarTAC flip-phone from 1997. That's a strong statement, but what are the inevitable caveats? Price Comparison
The primary caveat is price. The current Tesla Model S costs $87,900, but by December Tesla will be building versions with smaller batteries -- and therefore less range -- priced as low as $57,400. Then consider a $7,500 Federal tax credit, plus state incentives that vary wildly, but in California is $2,500.
Obviously a Tesla Model S for, say, $87,900 is not a fair comparison with a significantly less expensive car. However, in my opinion, for many people in the market for cars priced $50,000 and up, the Tesla means that all other carmakers should be running scared. Competitors had better hope that prospective buyers don't get 30 or 60 minutes behind the wheel of a Tesla, because if they do, I can think of only very few people who wouldn't be lost to Tesla.
How does the Tesla Model S compare to the Chevrolet Volt? First consider price. A loaded Volt is around $44,000, but dealers sell it for $5,000 less. Then subtract tax credits and rebates depending on your state, and in California you can get a loaded Volt for $30,000 plus sales tax.
Is the Tesla 2x or 3x better than a Chevrolet Volt? For most people, no. But then some people are not most people. You can always make the argument that buying a premium car is irrational "because it's not necessary." A $15,000 Toyota Corolla will get you to the same place as a $90,000 BMW 750. Is the BMW 6x better than the Corolla? There is nothing new in this eternal debate.
The Chevrolet Volt fits only 4 people instead of 5, and has a lot less luggage space. In addition, the Tesla is faster and has the most superbly tuned chassis by far. In favor of the Volt is the headroom space for the rear passengers, the ability to travel beyond 265 miles and just keep filling gasoline after 340 miles -- as well as the inherent superior ability to generate heat in cold climates.
What is the bottom line on the Tesla Model S? First, if you haven't driven it, you don't know what you are talking about. Having driven almost all other electric cars to the tune of over 15,000 miles, plus so many of the other premium cars in the market, my recommendation is that if you are looking for a car in the $80,000 to $100,000 price range, you should put the Tesla Model S at the top of your list, by a wide margin. It's an eye-opener like the automotive world has never seen in its entire history.
In a few months, much of Tesla's appeal will hit the $50,000 car market, net of tax incentives. This will be even more devastating to other premium car makers, as a lot more people buy $50K cars as opposed to $100K cars.
If on the other hand you want an extended-range electric car and aren't willing to pay as much money, the Chevrolet Volt gives you some pieces of the Tesla Model S experience, plus its own advantages for only $30,000 plus taxes. You can't go wrong with either of these two cars, but if you have the extra money, the Tesla Model S is now the undisputed king of the automotive world.
At the time of submitting this article, the author was long TSLA, NVDA and AAPL.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.