SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Tesla offered reporters only a 10-minute test drive of its Model S sedan at the press debut here -- a five-mile loop of nearby city streets and a quick freeway hop. But the first impression is of an electric vehicle that is ready for prime time.
The basics: Tesla executives believe that the Model S can go toe-to-toe with existing gasoline-powered sports sedans such as the BMW M5 and Porsche Panamera.
Depending on the battery pack chosen, Tesla claims the Model S can go 160, 230 or 300 miles on a single charge, assuming a 55-mph pace. Driving faster or more aggressively will reduce the range.
The first thing you notice is the acceleration. Since there are no traditional gears with electric motors, there is just an insistent pull of torque when you mash the accelerator pedal. Zero-to-60 is less than six seconds in the standard 85-kWh model and 4.4 seconds in the "Performance" version of the 85-kWh. The base 40-kWh model is a touch slower, but not much.
The acceleration occurs without any screaming engine revs or jarring shift shocks, which is what really gets your attention. There are many faster cars, but there's something about the odd whirring silence of the Model S that makes it feel even faster.
Notable features: The feature that will make most customers gasp is the 17-inch LCD center console display. The display, twice the size of an iPad, controls virtually every function, be it climate, audio, navigation, door locks or the myriad settings for regenerative braking or air suspension. The display is powered by Nvidia processors. The user interface feels like an Apple iPad, but the display uses Linux software.
What Tesla says: "Our best technologies are the battery technology, the motor and power-electronics design and the lightweight aluminum structure design and manufacturing, with in-vehicle infotainment coming up fourth," said J.B. Straubel, Tesla's chief technology officer.
Compromises and shortcomings: The EPA rates the claimed 300-mile range, 85-kWh version at 265 miles of range -- a little worrying because EPA mileage ratings are notoriously overoptimistic, especially for electric vehicles.
The car's heft and strong cornering grip likely means tearing through a set of Continental tires in short order. The sloping roofline means second-row headroom is limited. Those sent to the rear-facing third row will be baked under the rear glass. And while the center display is oh-so-cool, it requires a good deal of looking away from the road to control the various functions. So driver distraction could be a problem.
The market: For now, electric vehicles are a plaything for the well-to-do with an environmental conscience. That is the only demographic that can afford them. Model S pricing starts at $57,400 before federal tax credits, but the initial launch vehicles were the six-figure "Signature Series."
If you want the lower-priced model, you'll be waiting until May for delivery.
The skinny: It's quicker than most Porsches and corners flatter than roadkill without making the tires yowl in protest. It makes a heck of a competitor to the existing sport sedan segment. If the battery range is accurate, it can pretty much do everything a regular car can, except for a multistate road trip -- and quick-charging technology may soon make that possible, too. We look forward to meeting the first Tesla owner who will allow his car to be properly thrashed in a measured test situation.