As Good as They Say: We Drive Tesla’s 2014 Model S

The Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) Model S has been lauded across the industry by critics as heralding in a new era of transportation. Electric cars long suffered a rather stodgy reputation as being frumpy, bland, impractical for longer distances, and expensive. Virtually all of those factors — save for the last one, anyway — have been done away with in Tesla’s groundbreaking electric sedan-hatch, and on Memorial Day weekend, I was able to get a taste of what everyone was discussing as I took a 2014 Model S for a cruise around the suburbs of Chicago.

Let me start off by saying that in my past coverage of Tesla’s Model S, which has been rather plentiful over the past year, I have summed up others as making the argument that the Tesla is a luxury car first and an electric car second. That point of view was confirmed this past weekend, as in many ways, you forget you’re in an electric car at all (unless you’re actually driving it, naturally).

The model that I was able to slide behind the wheel of was an entry-level model, packing Tesla’s 60 kWh battery pack. It came equipped with the Tech Package (navigation, more LEDs, keyless entry, memory seats, the usual accoutrements) and wore an elegant coat of brown paint that could most accurately be described as a mocha-colored. Outside of the added tech bits and the more premium paint, it was a pretty standard Model S and quite representative of what the “base” model for Tesla is.

“But Justin,” you might be asking, “why didn’t you drive the 85 kWh model that’s more powerful?” Great question. First, the model I was able to drive was owned by a private party and was not supplied by Tesla itself. Second, driving the 60 kWh model affords the chance to really focus on the other aspects of the car — we know the 85 kWh battery pack is fast. We know it accelerates in the same manner as a Space Shuttle at launch. These things have been proven on the drag strip, on the track, and in virtually every comparison test that the Tesla has partaken in.

Don’t get me wrong: Even in its basic kit, the Tesla is quick for a car of its size. The 60 kWh pack packs quite a wallop, since its 317-pound feet of torque is available to you as soon as your toe hits the accelerator. Merging onto freeways and sliding between lanes at 60-plus miles per hour is effortless as a result. There is no pause, no split-second waiting for the engine to engage the transmission — and just because of that factor alone, it makes the Model S a totally different animal to drive.

I have been a fan of what Tesla is doing for a while now but nonetheless approached the Model S with a critical eye. Right off the bat, there were a couple of concerns I had prior to driving the car, and I am happy to report that both were proven to be baseless once I was behind the wheel.

First, the seats. Pictures of the Model S interiors show seating that looks flat and uncomfortable, and hardly supportive compared to the exceptionally sculpted sport-style seats that you might find in other luxury vehicles these days. In real life, Tesla’s front seats are in fact more supportive and softer than they appear, and up front, there aren’t too many gripes to be had in that regard. They are comfortable enough for long-distance driving and are sculpted just enough to hold you in place while taking a corner at a rapid clip.

The second concern I had was road noise: Without the familiar hum and pulse of a combustion engine under the hood, would the ambiance of the tires and the passing wind fill in? Again, the answer is no. Remember that this is a luxury car first, and as such, it’s pleasantly quiet inside, even at speed. The only perceivable “noise” was that of the A/C fan.

This is particularly disconcerting when the pedal is down and the car sucks you back into your seat, but without the customary roar of cylinders. The 60 kWh battery pack is good for 302 horsepower, but when the power and torque is available so instantaneously, it feels like much more. The range is rated at 208 miles, but as per recommendation of the company, charging was maxed out at about 80 percent — still giving us about 180 miles to play with, which for our purposes was more than adequate.

After an hour or so, we were down to 99 miles, but it’s worth noting that we were not driving conservatively by any means. As for the performance itself? Let’s just say the Model S makes a very strong case for the future of direct-drive cars. After driving a Tesla (or any electric car, for that matter) one can really start to appreciate how clunky a transmission is. Admittedly, it’s something that had never occurred to me prior to my drive in the Model S. Think of the smoothest transmission around — the Tesla is almost guaranteed to be smoother than that.

We also had the regenerative braking set on its lowest setting. When your foot is removed from the pedal, there’s a noticeable slowing as the system engages, but compared to the more aggressive settings, it’s quite mild. In the highest possible regen mode, it’s akin to an engine brake on a large truck — the car slows considerably before the brake is even touched.

Steering the Model S is effortless — there is virtually no resistance in the wheel. This may be good or bad depending on your driving preferences. Some people, myself included, enjoy a heavier steering feel, but when moving between lanes on I-94 outside of Chicago, the lighter touch was welcome. The brakes are firm but responsive and fairly unremarkable (which is a good thing).

Perhaps the largest complaint I had about the Model S is the rear seat, which is not exactly accommodating for large-statured individuals. At 6-foot-3, I was able to easily slide into the car, but headroom was cramped due to the sloping nature of the roof. People with smaller frames would likely find the back pleasant and comfortable, but taller folks would be well advised to stay up front as much as possible, where the car is exceedingly comfy and more on par with its peers like BMW and Mercedes.

However, this could be a concern as Tesla develops its Gen-III vehicle, which is said to be 20 percent smaller than the Model S. Hopefully, this downsizing won’t come at the detriment of the already somewhat limited rear-headroom. Legroom, although arguably smaller than Tesla’s German counterparts, was perfectly adequate — but then, that might depend on who’s sitting up front. Further, the headrests in the rear are really little more than small nubs protruding from the seat itself, and they were designed as such likely to allow for better visibility. Again, the passenger sitting in back is the one who suffers.

Sitting in the Model S is like sitting in a modern art gallery. The attention to detail inside is evident: the fit-and-finish is excellent, and the materials feel worth their premium. The bezels on the rearview mirror are clean, and unlike the traditional black plastic frame, the mirror floats free from that convention and as a result appears somewhat border-less. The door handles — not the latch, but the heavier grips for opening and closing the doors — offer a soft but elegant touch that sets the tone for the graceful, gentle lines that define the entire cabin inside.

Of course, in the midst of everything is Tesla’s fabled 17-inch touchscreen, which replaces every button and dial that drivers have long been accustomed to. It’s easy to see right away how this system changes how we interact with our cars — the amount of information that is able to now be displayed is enormous, and it takes some practice and discipline to not be glancing over at it repeatedly while in motion. However, despite the colossal potential of the system, it’s a clean interface and easy and intuitive to use.

Cargo space is one area where the Tesla really excels, helped in no small amount by the “frunk,” or front-trunk. Since there is no engine and the motor is mounted on the rear axle, the front is opened up for storage. We were able to nestle two decently sized suitcases and three bags and backpacks in the rear with room to spare, and that’s before you even consider the front storage area. The hatchback design of the rear lift-gate certainly makes loading and unloading a breeze, albeit to some detriment of rear-seat headroom.

At the end of the day, the Tesla really is as good a car as the media have said it is. Take aside, for a moment, the electric powertrain, no gas, no oil changes, no transmission issues or concerns — the Tesla is just a good car by conventional measures. The added bonus of the torquey electric motor and the low cost of ownership takes a backseat to the dynamics and abilities of the car. It’s a car for driving, not so much for riding, but all around, it’s an exhilarating experience. I can only imagine how much better the 85 kWh model would be.

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