To start off, let’s see a show of hands for how many of you have watched both of Chris Paine’s EV documentaries, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and “Revenge of the Electric Car”? I’m going to turn on your computer’s Web cam for a moment and take a count.
Hmm, that’s not very many.
If you’re one of the few who have seen them both (like me), then you might be getting the idea that the battery-electric car’s storyline has now pulled out of its post-EV1 nosedive and is winging its way toward a sky-blue future, with squadrons of Nissan Leafs coming to the rescue as “The Ride of the Valkyries” blares in the background, “Apocalypse Now”-style.
Reality check: The Leaf’s sales have been as brisk as soggy leaves on a damp lawn. And the electrified versions of the Ford Focus, Honda Fit, and Toyota RAV4 — despite incremental improvements — aren’t likely to fare much better. If their project managers were interrogated with the aid of smoldering cigarette butts, they’d confess that these cars are basically money-sieves necessary to satisfy the influential Golden State’s zero-emissions vehicle mandate. Meanwhile, the controversial growth of fracking is pushing the electric car’s peak oil justification farther into the future. The headwinds are strong.
But before anyone demands a refund from Mr. Paine, let me direct you to the following spider graph, plotting a few of the more significant attributes of battery-electric cars: their range, recharge rate, cost, 0-60 mph time, and gas-equivalent mpg. The better the car is in each attribute, the farther out it goes on the graph. Other than price, the Tesla gets out to the edges.
As you can see, there just might be a revenge of the electric car after all (the revenge of the revenge?), courtesy of the only major electric car builder producing EVs without being forced to: Tesla.
Last month, our technical director Frank Markus took the 2012 Tesla Model S out for a spin in the environs around Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory and walked us through the car’s technological particulars. Now, I’m standing next to the dragstrip at Auto Club Speedway and across from me in a black Model S Signature Performance 85 (I’ll explain all that later) is Carlos Lago, who’s readying himself to put down our first official test numbers. Did I mention this is Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s personal car?
And just like that, Carlos and Musk’s car are gone. Like, gone. Without a tire chirp. I’m rotating my head at an unusual rate to track him. Were I in a dark, cool movie theater, I’d pass the spectacle off as Hollywood special effects. But looking around — yep, there are damp patches under my armpits and the sun overhead is like in an old Western where the lost cowboy drops to the desert sand in delirium. I’m definitely in Fontana in August. And that big sedan quietly teleporting itself to the far end of the dragstrip is actually happening. Moreover, had I been looking in a different direction I might have missed everything, because the car’s soundtrack is no more than a hushedssshhhhhh. It’s as if you’re listening to a fast gasoline car while wearing Bose noise-canceling headphones.
When we crunched the numbers (with no weather correction because the car doesn’t ingest air), the car’s 0-60-mph time was 3.9 seconds, and itssshhhhhh-ed past the quarter-mile mark in 12.5 seconds at 110.9 mph. We’re on the bleeding edge here, kids. Sedans of this performance caliber are as rare as netting Higgs bosons in the Large Hadron Collider — and in this case, all of them but the Tesla speak with German accents:
|Base Price||Weight||Power||0-60 mph||60-0 mph||Lat grip|
|BMW M5||$92,095||4384 lb||560 hp||3.7 sec||110 ft||0.94 g|
|Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG||$96,805||4256 lb||550 hp||3.9 sec||113 ft||0.92 g|
|Porsche Panamera Turbo S||$176,275||4388 lb||550 hp||3.5 sec||105 ft||1.00 g|
|Tesla Model S P85||$105,400||4766 lb||416 hp||3.9 sec||105 ft||0.92 g|
And were we to have measured those 0-60 mph times from the first twitch of accelerator movement instead of after the standard 1-foot roll-out, the Model S would be already off and away while the gas cars were still reacting to their suddenly opened throttles. It’s a startlingly instant shove into the seatback. Measured by our classical methods, the Model S P85 is now the fastest American sedan, and close to the fastest anywhere. And in the real-jousting that sometimes erupts on highways (you know what I’m talking about), it’s probably the quickest.
Maybe you’ve also noticed the Model S’ 400-500-pound weight penalty over those Germans. Its lithium-ion battery pack, which resides like a great slab beneath the car’s floor, is enormously heavy. The car’s maximal use of aluminum partly mitigates this, but one senses that Model S’ interior materials (door panels, in particular) are deliberately lightweight. They don’t have the solid heft of those German sedans’ baroquely detailed, old-world cabins, but on the other hand, you might picture the design as an ascetic, Apple-esque absence of unnecessary adornment, too. After Carlos finished his brake stops (great grip with no oddball shuttering or fade), the Model S was handed over to me and our 1/3-mile figure-eight handling test.
Building up speed around the infinity-symbol course, the car’s minimal roll isn’t surprising, what with its low-slung battery. But its 0.92 g of grip is great for a 4766-pound sedan. As I mentioned, this is a top-drawer Signature Performance version, meaning it carries the big 85-kW-hour battery (the upcoming entry 40-kW-hr car will be $57,400; the 60 kW-hr version, $67,400; and the 85-kW-hr basis for our test car is $77,400 — all before the $7500 federal tax credit). The SP model we’re testing adds extra power (416 hp and 443 lb-ft versus 362 hp and 325 lb-ft), sport-tuned traction control, nicer interior materials, and carbon-fiber aero trim. Add to that two significant option boxes checked for our test example: a $1500 giant glass sunroof and no-cost Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires wrapping 21-in wheels — hence that lateral grip.
As I pour more of the car’s power into the figure eight’s corner exits, it becomes a little difficult to keep the steering corrections ahead of the tail’s waggings. The problem is a slightly aggressive accelerator response. For performance driving, this should be toned down a bit.
With answers in hand about the Model S’ performance, the other empty check-box to explore is just how far this big battery version can actually travel on a single charge. According to the EPA’s 5-cycle test procedure, it’s rated at 265 miles in its extended range mode, which fills the battery nearly to its brim. But after our testing wrapped, and we plugged it in to recharge, I happened to glance at the car’s big, 17-inch, multi-touch display and its energy-use data. Eeek — all of our testing, including a few dragstrip runs just for photography, had consumed 13 miles. And the car’s computer was predicting that at the abusive rate we were going, our Model S was only good for another…40 miles. A 265-mile range? Is this really possible?
Even with the A/C off (but with ventilation on), cruise control set at 65 mph, and the body lowered on its air suspension, the car’s range prediction quickly went sour. Out came the iPad and iPhone maps to nervously ponder shortcuts to the I-5 prior to San Diego.What was happening?
The passing tree tops were noticeably stirring and the occasional flag was pointing at us at three-quarter headwind angles. But there’s also something that’s underappreciated by these laboratory tests: the impact of ordinary driving chaos, even in moderate traffic. Time and again I had to override the cruise control and punch the brakes because of a lane-changing car or sharply accelerate to get around somebody who seemed to suddenly fall asleep directly in front of us. Every time, Benson, watching the numbers like a broker on the floor of the Stock Exchange, would admonish me, “smoother, smoother, don’t be so jerky,” but there was nothing I could do. Eventually, the car’s range prediction seemed to brighten and as we arced through San Diego, we even punctuated the point by dog-legging down the 163 toward downtown.
To break the tension, we discuss the car’s ride, which is firm but appropriate for a performance car like this. And it’s difficult to keep that in mind, since its quietness suggests more of a Rolls-Royce than an AMG Mercedes. Benson frequently asks if I’m braking. No, I’m doing lift-throttle regen, but it’s a strong enough tug to make him wonder if I’m touching the brake pedal.
The range number finally drops into the single digits. “How far do we have to go?” “Seven-and-a-half miles,” Benson reports. The display says we’ve got a range of six. I call Tesla and nonchalantly ask, “So, uh, I’m just curious — what happens when the car gets to zero miles?”
“It stops,” was the reply. Hmmm. We turn off the ventilation completely and dial down the instrument panel’s illumination until we can barely see the range number. I remind myself this is Elon Musk’s personal car. Do I want to be the famous bozo who conks out in it on Pacific Coast Highway in traffic? No way, brother.
With 4 miles of remaining range we pass a public ChargePoint station on the opposite side of the road. I grit my teeth, wheel around, and plug in. Benson is broadcasting telepathic messages I can’t repeat here. One lousy detour…
We’ve traveled 233.7 miles and wind up short by 1.7.
The total range — adding the unused 4 miles, would be 238. Yes, 238 is 11 percent short of 265. Moreover, it was done while being very stingy with performance (for the most part). Is that 265 actually valid? If you drive predominately at highway speeds, then probably not. But were we to have included more medium-speed roads (long stretches at 45-50 mph) well, possibly.
But the range that matters is really a psychological/perceptual one, not a specific number. Think about it: We drove from Fontana on the eastern edge of the L.A. basin to San Diego and all the way back to L.A.’s Pacific edge on one charge. Five hours of continuous driving. This is a breakthrough accomplishment that ought to knock down the range anxiety barrier that’s substantially limited EV sales. (Tesla is also preparing to deploy a network of super-fast chargers to supply some 150 miles worth of range in 30 minutes along many common long-distance driving corridors). Using Tesla’s home charger (240 volts at 80 amps) a full extended-range battery refill requires 6 hours (4 hours for standard-range recharge).
During our drive, we used 78.2 kW-hrs of electricity (93 percent of the battery’s rated capacity). What does that mean? It’s the energy equivalent of 2.32 gasoline gallons, or 100.7 mpg-e before charging losses. That BMW 528i following us (powered by a very fuel-efficient, turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine) consumed 7.9 gallons of gas for a rate of 30.1 mpg. The Tesla’s electrical energy cost for the trip was $10.17 (at California’s average electrical rate); the BMW’s drive cost $34.55. The 528i emitted 152 lbs of CO2; the Model S, 52 — from the state’s power plants.
We’ve got even more to come this week on the new Model S! Stay tuned this Thurs., Aug. 30, for another extended range feature here at MotorTrend.com, along with a special episode of Wide Open Throttle at our Motor Trend YouTube Channel at: motortrend.com/youtube.
|2012 Tesla Model S P85|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$106,900*|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Rear-motor, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback|
|MOTOR||416-hp/443-lb-ft AC electric|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||4766 lb (47/53%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||196.0 x 77.3 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.9 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||12.5 sec @ 110.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||105 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.92 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.3 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||88/90 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||38/37 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.00 lb/mile (at car)|
|*Before $7500 Federal Tax Credit|