Tesla Model S review: A good first impression

@PeterDrivesJuly 23, 2012: 5:29 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- I was never that impressed with the Tesla Roadster, the $100,000 two-seat sports car that so many people saw as the beginning of an electric car revolution.

The Roadster was a deft parlor trick, I figured. It's easy to make an exciting long-range electric car if you don't bother to making it affordable or practical.

Now comes Tesla's next trick. The Model S sedan, available with seating for up to seven, is now on sale. Once it's in full production, prices will range from $50,000 to roughly $100,000.

I have driven the $100,000 version of the car, albeit it briefly, and I'm amazed. The car would seem worth the price, or maybe more, if it were powered by a gasoline engine. (Cheaper versions will be largely the same but with shorter driving ranges.) If there's sleight of hand here, I haven't been able to find it yet.

I'd been in the Model S before -- Tesla (TSLA) chief executive Elon Musk took me on a test ride through lower Manhattan back in November -- but, even so, the view from the driver's seat was striking. Wherever possible, knobs and physical gauges have been replaced by computer screens.

There isn't even a "Start" button. If you have the Tesla's car-shaped key fob in your pocket and your butt is in the driver's seat the car -- quite reasonably -- assumes you want it to turn on. So it does.

It runs in "Accessory" mode, allowing you to use the computer screens and listen to the stereo, until you push down the brake pedal. Then the speedometer and other driving gauges appear and the car is ready to roll.

Move the gear selector stalk to Drive and off you go in near silence. (If the gear selector stalk seems familiar, that's because Tesla got it straight from Mercedes-Benz.)

At slow speeds the Model S feels disappointingly like a hefty, battery-laden electric car. With a light foot on the accelerator, it shuffles from stop sign to stop sign with all the eagerness of a fat man asked to change seats on an airliner. You can almost hear it sigh.

Then you get out on the open road and really step on the "gas" and.... Yowzah! It turns out that, when asked to, this car can move with astonishing speed. Fortunately, for me, the brake pedal works just as well as the accelerator nicely preventing me from rear-ending cars ahead after each startling burst of speed.

The Model S's steering feel and response are adjustable using touch screen "buttons." The steering can be changed from heavy and quick, like a sports car, to easy and slow, like an old Cadillac. The car's ride height can likewise be changed up and down to the wonderment of bystanders.

One thing our test drive route -- which included Manhattan back streets and a long stretch of the West Side Highway -- didn't include was any high speed curves, which was a shame.

The Model S's heavy battery packs are in the form of a flat sheet that takes up most of the underfloor of the car. That gives the car a very roomy interior as well as a very low center of gravity. Turns are accomplished (or so I'm told) with hardly any body lean and with alacrity that puts other performance sedans to shame. We'll have to see but, for now, it seems believable.

So now Tesla faces the mundane challenges of producing the car profitably in relatively high volumes while preventing quality problems that could damage the brand name. At the same time, Tesla is already preparing to sell its next vehicle, the Model X crossover SUV.

There's still a lot of work for Tesla ahead but, so far, the car itself looks good. To top of page

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