Only six short years ago I found myself at the wheel of a prototype released to a small audience to gauge the functionality of the electric car by BMW. The prototype, the MINI E, was a leasing program whose participants, aptly nicknamed electronauts, were breaking new ground testing day-to-day life with the electric car. The vehicle in question was an R56 chassis MINI Cooper with a stack of batteries wedged in place of a turbocharged 1.6L motor.
Driving it was an interesting experience. It was quiet with the exception of a low pitched whirring of the batteries and electric motor working in conjunction to putter me along.
My time with it was brief but in hindsight I can see how it was a catalyst for what would become a technical triumph known as the i3. The i3, similar to the MINI E in layout and powertrain, progressed the game forward with a heavy reliance on carbon fiber-reinforced plastics to lighten the load on the battery. While BMW is breaking new ground with the i3 as one of the first mass-produced electric city cars, another brand has quickly begun to establish itself as the premiere luxury electric right of choice.
I’ll save you the superlatives but no doubt you know the name Tesla Motors. Elon Musk, a man who could be called a benevolent Bond villain, has made enormous strides in bringing a small California-based company into the spotlight as the face of the electric car and done so on the wide-body rear haunches of Tesla’s flagship Model S.
Recently, I had a chance for a brief test drive as Tesla is pulse-checking Jacksonville as a prospective market. When the opportunity presented itself to try out their wares – I jumped at it and reserved a spot.
The Model S I reserved was a Solid Black over black leather Model S 85 powered by an 85kW battery pack. Aside from Smart Air Suspension and Premium Interior Package, the car was stock and with minimal options. Even it fairly standard form, the Tesla S has a handsomeness that sets it apart from most other cars surrounding it in the parking lot. It carries the presence and stance of a German luxury car despite its California roots. Interestingly, the Model S is a 5 door that manages to very cleverly disguise its rear hatch, which can be converted for 2 extra, rear-facing seats, into the wide rear.
Unlocking the car, the recessed door handles protrude outward letting me into a very modern interior dominated by the massive center screen. In lieu of the navigation screen and a center console, Tesla has a Spartan yet, elegant dashboard reaching up from a somewhat nautical-themed tray sitting where traditionally a transmission tunnel would reside.
Slipping behind the seats of car – I began to try out the onboard systems that mirror anything you can do in a BMW albeit with virtually no buttons and all driven through a iPhone-like interface activated with the swipe of your finger. The only downside of the Tesla is the need to learn what menus hold what otherwise it is easy to find yourself poking around while on the road. Beyond the deep menu system, the binnacle in front of the driver has a litany of information from the radio station to speedometer to range and if the regenerative brakes are charging the batteries. The amount of data on display at any given moment is almost overwhelming.
With a quick tap of the right stalk, I backed up the electric car via its rear camera and we were off on the road test.
The Model S is, if anything, eerie to drive on the open road. There is virtually no noise beyond a whisper of air as it passes over the sleek body. In contrast to my 428i, it’s a bit shocking as to how little noise permeates the cabin even with the radio switched off in addition to the distinct lack of an engine note. Another shocking element to the Model S is the way in which it can apply its power. The rear-wheel-drive model at my control, the middle Tesla and one rung beneath the Ludicrous speed P85, surges down the road with a romp of the throttle. Where it deviates from a combustion-engined car is that the power curve is very linear – push on the right pedal and power comes on in a very smooth, straightforward fashion allowing the car to steam onto a very real 0 to 60MPH time a hair over the 5 second mark. It’s just so much more comfortable with its power delivery, no fuss of a gearbox kicking down, no hunting for revs to get into the power band, it is just pure straight-line performance.
While my quick test drive didn’t allow much for a handling overview, I found the steering controls, in Sport mode, to be well-weighted and comparable to my F32 428i in the same settings. Overall the wheel felt light to the touch in a parking lot but with a sense of heft to inputs when driving at speed; no doubt electric steering but one giving adequate feedback to know where the 19 inch front wheels are beneath the long hood. With the suspension set to its “Low” setting, I found the ride of the Model S to be comfortable and communicative if not a bit softer than a comparable 5 Series.
After a quick run on surface streets and a few highway on and off-ramps, the test drive came to an end. In my short time with the Model S 85 – I feel I didn’t scratch the surface of the capabilities of this electric car – light years ahead of the MINI E I drove almost a decade ago. However, it left me with the sense it is a very strong sense of completeness – this car isn’t a gimmick or a flash-in-the-pan technology. The Model S gives credence to the thought that an electric car can function as a daily driver and that it doesn’t have to be a miniscule hatchback that forsakes style and performance for range. Tesla, no doubt, has battles it must face ahead of it in terms of both growing competition and infrastructure but I am certain the car industry is a better place with Tesla in it.