Game changer as electric car outpaces opposition


It’s the single most significant American car for decades, coming from Silicon Valley rather than Detroit, and it’s on its way to Europe, writes BEN OLIVER

In the back and forth of the first of the US presidential debates, Republican nominee Mitt Romney argued that President Obama’s grants and tax breaks to renewable energy companies equalled 50 years of the tax breaks to oil firms.

Romney then went for the electric car jugular, naming - and in his own way shaming - the electric car firms. Tesla Motors was caught in the spotlight. As far as Romney is concerned Tesla is a “loser”.

As we reported on these pages a few weeks ago, the advent of the electric car has lacked a charge. In that regard Romney might have a point. But then, not all electric cars are the same. The Tesla Model S certainly isn’t.

An electric car isn’t meant to feel like this. We come around the slip road onto the autobahn and immediately see the round white sign with five black diagonal lines that indicate there’s no speed limit. None.

So I floor the Tesla Model S. The response is – well – electric: supercar acceleration from the 414PS motor, eerie quiet and total composure as the speedo leaps three digits at a time to keep pace with the thrust until the car hits its electronic limiter at an indicated 213km/h.

October has been a quite the month for Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk. His Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.

He opened the Supercharger network of fast charging stations in the US that aims to make the Model S as usable across country as across town: they come to mainland Europe next year.

He also brought the Model S to Europe for the first time, and let The Irish Times witness the full, extraordinary range of its dynamic abilities, free of pesky US speed limits.

Tesla, the recipient of $465m of a low-cost Federal loan designed to jump-start the US car industry after the financial crisis, was branded a “loser” by Romney in the Presidential debate.

I don’t think Romney’s driven one. The Model S isn’t perfect. It won’t sell in vast numbers. But it’s also the single most significant American car for decades. Built in Silicon Valley, not Detroit, it concentrates so many innovations in one new design.

Viewed from the side, the electric motor and invertor are contained within the profile of the rear wheels, and the battery is just 10 centimetres thick and sits under the cabin and between the axles. So, other than the suspension turrets, the car’s mechanical package is as flat as a skateboard, and this brings a whole bunch of unexpected benefits.

Tesla design chief Franz von Holzhausen made the Model S good-looking, but conventional: it needs to be practical, and switching to a radical new drivetrain and a radical new look might be too much for some customers. But that flat drivetrain means future electric sports cars can have wild styling.

An electric vehicle also needs less cooling, and fewer open grilles in the front – along with the completely flat underbody made possible by the lack of exhausts – make the Model S the most aerodynamic car on sale today. Seems a pity that von Holzhausen has included a dummy grille at the front.

The drivetrain also makes for a flat cabin floor – no transmission tunnel – and a huge boot. Under the boot floor, where the fuel tank would usually be, there’s a deep recess for more bags, or legroom for kids in the two optional rear-facing child-seats: the ever-efficient Musk has five sons – twins and triplets – and wants to take them all on road trips.

In the main cabin the floor is completely flat, with no transmission tunnel. And under the bonnet there’s no engine, of course – just another huge front trunk, or frunk, as Tesla calls it. This also makes the Model S much safer in a head-on collision, with no big lump of iron trying to break into the cabin, and a front-end that is virtually all crash structure.

Inside, the big news is the vast, 43 centimetre touchscreen that dominates the central console, controls virtually all the car’s functions with a swipe, and makes your iPad look dim and small and slow.

You can split the huge screen any way you like, swiping functions such as Google maps or a web browser down from a menu at the top. In the vehicle set-up screen, there’s an image of your exact car: open a door or switch on the lights and it shows on the car on the screen. The reversing camera is high-definition, of course.

And just like an iPad, your Model S gets wireless software updates. They cover way more than just the look of that big screen: Tesla has already issued an update to allow the drivetrain to “creep” in traffic, something that would require serious workshop time in a conventional car. This is revolutionary: now your car no longer need be obsolete as soon as you leave the dealership.

Of course, an electric car doesn’t drive like anything else, but the difference is more pronounced in the Tesla, with its motor producing up to 416PS and delivering all its torque instantly for a supercar-standard 4.4-second sprint to 100km/h.

The transmission and brakes are very different, too: only one gear means that surge is seamless, and the way the electric motor recovers energy when you lift off the throttle means you seldom need to use the brake.

By concentrating all the car’s masses low in the chassis, the Model S has a centre of gravity just 45 centimetres from the ground.

So despite weighing a relatively portly 2108kg – the structure is mostly aluminium but the batteries weigh 450kgs – it handles astonishingly well, with little lean under cornering or dive under braking, and impressive stability at that electronically-limited 213km/h top speed.

The Model S is fast. It handles. US authorities give its official range at 427km on a five-hour charge, which is achievable, and it is a genuinely ground-breaking new car.

Even with prices expected to be between €50,000 and €80,000 when right-hand drive deliveries start late next year, it really, really doesn’t feel like a loser, Mitt.

Tesla Model S Performance

Engine: Liquid-cooled 3-phase AC induction motor, 416PS, 600Nm. 85kWh liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery.

Single-speed transmission

CO2 (at car) 0g/km

Range: 265 miles

Charge time: five hours at 240v

0-100km/h 4.4sec, 210km/h (limited)

Price: €50,000 (40kWh) to €80,000 (85kWh)

On sale: open for deposits now, deliveries late 2013

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