One month driving a Tesla Model S

posted by Jeff | Monday, September 14, 2015, 7:46 PM | comments: 0

It has been about a month and 1,500 miles since we drove home the new car, a Tesla Model S 70D. It has been a pretty huge adjustment for me, being the guy who has always viewed cars as a necessary but purely functional thing. And I have to admit that my friend Gonch was right when he suggested that every time I sit behind the wheel I would smile.

We are not generally people who want or need nice things. We do have nice tools for our work and hobbies (sewing machines, computers, cameras), but we don't buy stupid huge TV's, expensive clothes or have an excessively large house. But we were motivated to buy this expensive car for science, and it also happens to be really nice. A part of me still feels a little guilty about that, knowing that it was money we could have spent on travel, philanthropy or investment. It's a little incompatible with humility. Whatever. This is my midlife thing, and it beats seeking out hookers and blow. And it's really fun to drive.

Not being a car guy, I don't really know what makes a performance car a performance car. My Tesla fetish comes from the fact that it's electric, and my electric lust started two and a half years ago when I rented a Nissan Leaf. But electric cars have some advantages when it comes to performance, starting with the instant gratification that comes from electric motors. Even the best combustion engine has the slightest hesitation when it comes to acceleration, but electric motors do not. The torque comes instantly, and it comes at any speed. Yes, the launch from a dead stop is like a launched roller coaster, and if I'm first up at a red light, you can bet I'll do it. I giggle every time. The 0-60 in 5.2 seconds is no joke (I can only imagine the 2.8 seconds of the ludicrous mode P90D). But even when you're passing on the freeway, already going over 60, the ability to make the car go, instantly, is ridiculous. That precision is just as obvious when slowly maneuvering into a parking space. Everything about moving the car feels precise and smooth.

One minor complaint: I'm not a fan of the arrangement of the control stalks on the steering column. They're just not as well arranged as those on a Japanese car. My understanding is that these are actually Mercedes parts. I have pushed the park button on the end of the shifter a few times, meaning to squirt the wipers. Fortunately, the car isn't dumb enough to put it in park at speed (or put it in reverse, which I've also done).

While the frame and body panels are aluminum, it's still a heavyish car at 4,800 pounds, more than 50% heavier than the Prius V we were driving. I hate big cars, even if they have big engines, because they don't feel particularly nimble. That's certainly not the issue with this car. As I said, the acceleration is nuts. Also consider that the battery is in the floor of the car, putting its center of gravity 18 inches from the ground, while motors on both axels turn the wheels, and you can honestly say that it "corners like it's on rails." It does what you ask, without so much a lean or tire squeal. The one thing you have to get used to is having the regenerative braking on (it does have a setting to turn it off, but I wouldn't). Instead of coasting, the car starts to reclaim energy when you pull your foot off of the accelerator, and you really only need to use the brakes in the last 5 or 6 mph of speed. Legend has it that Tesla has never replaced the brakes on a Model S.

In addition to the regenerative braking setting, there are some other things you can tweak as well, though Diana and I have left the defaults on. You can turn on the "creep mode," which causes the car to roll forward a bit when you have your foot off of the brake, similar to a gas car. I don't like the idea of that, as it's inefficient and lacks the precision I was talking about. You can change the steering to make it easier or more stiff, but we use the middle. There's also an energy conserving range mode that you can turn on to keep you from doing nutty acceleration and blasting the air conditioning, but I don't imagine it would be needed very often.

The basic features that come with the autopilot hardware are a little gimmicky, but still pretty neat. It uses a combination of a camera behind the rearview mirror and a bunch of radar sensors to know what's around the car. It reads speed limit signs and puts a notch on the speedometer to remind you if you're speeding, along with a picture of a speed limit sign. When someone is sitting in your blindspot, a visual indicator appears around the speedometer, and it turns red if they get way too close. If you drift out of your lane, the steering wheel vibrates and there's a chime. When you're moving slowly, it warns you of stuff near the car, and visually shows the proximity with the number of inches and a phantom wall that goes from white, to orange, to red (then it shows a big STOP). For an extra $2,500, or $3,000 after the fact, they'll give you the autopilot software, which keeps you in your lane, does adaptive cruise control, parks the car, etc. That seemed a little unnecessary.

Indeed, this is a fly-by-wire car, and everything you can do with it you do with the touch screen. I worried that this meant lots of screen tapping, but the things you use the most are actually all on one screen that you can easily tap to and from by pushing the bottom left corner at any time. It's where you find the sunroof control, door locks, trunk popping, etc. There are further tabs for things you'll set less often, like the child door locks, door locking behavior in terms of your proximity with a key, etc. I like physical buttons and knobs and things, but in this case the very simple controls on the steering wheel do most of the things you want, and muscle memory gets you there. The right scroll wheel, for example, can do a lot of things like open the sun roof, but mostly we just use it to change the climate fan speed.

The different "apps" available on the touch screen vary in quality, though we tend to leave the navigation on top and the rear view camera on the bottom. I suspect I'll leave up the energy on the bottom for long trips, because it gives you estimated range instead of rated range. Starting with the media app, you use that for music. It's kind of clunky, and I'm not a huge fan. Fortunately, we mostly just keep it on XM, and can use the steering wheel to cycle through presets. We did have to buy the upgraded audio to get XM, which is not a good deal at all, but I admit it's the best sounding car audio I've ever had. It's actually a little embarrassing to have a subwoofer. Matt & Kim's "Get It" comes on and we sound like the kid down the street you can't stand.

The calendar app isn't useful without an iOS or Android phone, not to mention giving a shit about your calendar while you're driving. The energy app will do some cool things about estimating your energy use when you have trips set up, but we haven't done that. The web browser is, well, a web browser (Tesla pays for your cellular connection). The phone app isn't something I've used much either, though we do pair our phones for calls.

The navigation is where this computer-in-a-car shines. It's Google Maps, so for one, it's probably not outdated like the average GPS. You hold down the button, say, "Navigate to Fun Spot," and it shows you where to go. It will even let you know if you have adequate power left to go round-trip. Sometimes it picks some strange routes, but as soon as you go the "right" way, it finds the better route. It will route you to Superchargers, and indeed any place that you've plugged in. What I really like about it though is that while you have the big map on the touch screen, "north up" if you prefer, the turn-by-turn 3D view appears up on the dash next to the speedometer. That is completely badass.

The touchscreen also is where you can bring up the battery screen, where you can set the charging limit (Tesla recommends a 90% cap for daily use). It has the driver profiles too, which remember where you like the seat, steering wheel, mirrors and the various driving settings. That includes a valet mode, that PIN-locks the glove box and frunk, and restricts the car to 70 mph. There's a drop-down for activating HomeLink devices like garage door openers and gates (if you live in one of those communities), and it actually appears when the GPS detects you're close to it. So on approach to our house, it appears, eager to be touched and open the garage. You can name your car, view the release notes, and connect to your home WiFi up there as well (it downloads updates via WiFi).

Climate control is along the bottom, and always there, along with the controls button I mentioned and the volume control (you'll likely use the steering wheel instead). It does driver and passenger temperatures separate, plus seat heaters. You can do a full auto, but I don't like it. I'd rather just control the fan speed manually.

The interior of the car is very minimalist, but I love the simplicity. The headliner is made of Alcantara, which is kind of a fake suede. I like it. The trim is a matte obeche wood, which we chose over the default piano black (dust and fingerprint prone), glossy wood (looks fake) and carbon fiber (too expensive). I really like the way that turned out. The floor and mats are a durable black material. The seats are black leather, but not the superawesome seat option. I think they're pretty comfortable. It just seems very roomy on the inside.

We do have a couple of complaints though. There just isn't any significant storage inside beyond the small glove box and a small cubby under the touch screen. There is a big trough in the middle with rubber rails in it, so you can put stuff there, but I like to hide stuff. There are only two cupholders, both in a somewhat awkward position in the center console, revealed by pushing back the armrests. Also, in order to use Simon's booster seat, we need to put the belt into the center buckle, meaning the button is on the inside. It's awkward. Oh, and the seatbelt height isn't adjustable, which is a weird oversight. I've found a sweet spot finally, but it was by moving the seat around to a good position.

The exterior of the car is beautiful. I'm really glad we did the pearl white, as it looks amazing in the sun, and not like every other black Model S. I've had black and white cars, and unless you go for really long periods without washing, I happen to think white is better. It's a pretty car, and I've noticed that people look at it. (Attention I would rather not have.) For what is essentially the ultimate family sedan, it's low and aggressive looking. The recessing door handles might be a gimmick, but it sure looks cool. I like that the mirrors close in automatically, but it does detract from the appearance a little.

I'm not entirely crazy about the size. Like I said, I don't like big cars. It looks lovely, but it's long and wide. It's a tight fit in the garage, and I still can't really park it very well. On the plus side, the trunk is flipping huge, and with only the rear motor and inverter under it, there's an even deeper well. If that weren't enough, you can put stuff in the "frunk" as well. Because this is a dual-motor car, the front trunk loses some space to the front motor. Still, the front of the car is mostly crumple zone, thus has the best crash rating ever.

Charging and range are completely a non-issue. I mean, range almost doesn't matter in our Nissan Leaf, for 95% of our driving. Regardless, I think the perception of electric cars by most people is completely wrong. Having to charge a car isn't an inconvenience, it's the biggest win of EV's. You leave the house every day, completely ready to go, with the most range possible. You never have to stop at a gas station, ever. The 70D is rated for 240 miles, and my observation is that real life, when it's mostly highway miles, would be about 225 if I'm to believe the energy app.

We had a 240v, 50 amp NEMA 14-50 outlet installed in our garage, and it charges at 40 amps to put about 30 miles of range on per hour, though it runs slower in the last 10% of charge. We set our charging limit at 80% (about 191 miles), unless we're going to one of the coasts or to see my mom in The Villages. Public "level 2" chargers put on about 20 miles per hour. The Tesla Superchargers, which are free, do some insane 100 amps and when ramped up add 300+ miles of charge per hour. They do slow down in the last 10% as well. The distance between superchargers tends to be around 170 miles, so depending on the load at a typical station, getting up to 200 or so miles of range, around 85%, should take somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes. That should make road tripping practical, as one tends to make stops every three hours or less anyway. I'll write when we've done it.

Again, in practical terms, the car has more than enough range for most driving scenarios. There is no anxiety for us to drive to Port Canaveral, Tampa, The Villages, and I look forward to doing some longer trips. And by the way, the cost per mile for us has been around 3.8 cents per mile (averaging 13 cents per kWh between home, public charging and free at the supercharger). Even if your gas car gets 30 mpg and gas is $2/gallon, that's still 6.6 cents per mile. EV's are stupid cheap for energy. Heck, the Leaf costs 2.8 cents per mile to drive!

So me, the non-car guy, really likes driving all of a sudden. We don't have flying cars, but electric cars are definitely close enough. The Leaf already made it fun, but the Model S makes driving super fun. It's a ridiculous indulgence, sure, but I think it's exciting to be a part of this revolution. Electric cars are where we're headed, I can guarantee it. I find it exciting that an American company, a new company that's not in Detroit, is pushing the technology and getting us there. I look forward to many years with the space car!


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