First drive: Tesla Model S
The all-electric Tesla Model S has been a long time coming.
For more than eight years the still-fledgling Tesla Motors has been planning ''the most advanced car on the planet'', a vehicle being re-thought from its Silicon Valley base from the ground up, with pioneering laptop-derived batteries, an all-new drivetrain and untried packaging.
Tesla founder Elon Musk promised it would provide the vehicle architecture for ''the most compelling cars in the world''. And instead of pushing the eco-credentials, the Model S is designed to challenge combustion-engine luxury sedans by seducing the customers who like to drive.
It's an audacious plan, but since the Model S Performance launches from 0-100kmh almost as fast as a Mercedes-Benz F63 AMG, it puts the electric car squarely on the map for anyone who wants some stonk with their five seats. Or, in the case of the Model S, seven seats, because this unique sedan design comes with the option of two rear-facing children-only seats in a sleek, aerodynamic form that belies its Porsche Panamera-esque width and length.
That's because, unlike most electric or hybrid cars adapted from petrol-powered underpinnings, the Model S has been designed from the beginning as an electric-only vehicle. That gave the designers and engineers a clean slate with which to work. An aluminium-intensive chassis is stiffened by underfloor lithium ion batteries and the light side rails have hex sections to absorb accident forces.
The S is a rear-wheel-drive, sandwiching the gearbox between electric motor and circuits in a space just large enough for a medium-size toolbox. With the extra space, the S gets a traditional boot in the back (provided you're not using the rear-facing third row) and one in the front. They add up to 894 litres of cargo space, plus a centre-rear seat that rivals the front for legroom.
Chief designer Franz von Holzhausen oversaw every aspect of the S, from body through to interior, graphics and branding. The ''Nagare'' design philosophy he helped develop at Mazda is evident in the Model S lines, along with the bold, planted stance of American muscle cars.
Approaching the car, the recessed door handles extend, and when you slide on to the driver's seat and put your foot on the brake a sensor starts the engine.
There are only two buttons in the S - for the glovebox and the hazard lights. A 17-inch touchscreen, operated via an app bar, governs the car's systems. There is no start-up note, no engine noise, no pedestrian warning hum - no sign the engine is on other than icons. I check the surrounds in the bevel-edge mirror and it's time to drive.
With direct steering and competent dynamics courtesy of its low centre of gravity and the extremely stiff frame, the S handles like a low-slung coupe. Not a hint of two tonnes of weight in the handling or acceleration.
It takes off from the lights with a heavy helping of torque and no sound - and keeps climbing. Take your foot off the accelerator, though, and the regenerative braking is quite aggressive, like a regular car stuck in low gear.
The driver can reset the braking to low but the beauty of this system is that your regeneration is directly related to the power you are using, so knowing you will generate 20 per cent back into the system justifies a playful squirt, or two, down the highway.
Nosing into corners and haring out the other side, the danger of this nimble ride and seemingly endless acceleration is its silence. Without the audible spool of an engine, it takes a moment to self-edit and check the speedo - something the owner of an electric vehicle would get used to quickly.
Tesla claims a range of 480 kilometres. This car is optioned with twin chargers, meaning it can replenish 257 kilometres of travel in half an hour at a fast-charge facility.
Musk's model is to sell cars remotely, using touchscreen technology and swatches to tempt customers virtually. Ironic, when a single drive would set anyone straight on the viability of the Model S Performance as a major player.
On sale in Australia from mid-2013;
How much?: TBA (As tested US$90,150, (NZ$108,732) including Tech Package US$3750, Twin Chargers US$1500 and less US government rebate);
Engine drivetrain: Rear-wheel drive, liquid-cooled 85kWh electric powertrain with 310kW/600Nm;
Transmission: Single-speed fixed gear;
Consumption: 855kJ/km or 2.64L/100km (US EPA estimates);
0-100kmhh: 4.4 seconds.
Sydney Morning Herald