If you had watched a certain episode of the National Geographic series Megafactories, it offers some insight into one man’s ambitious dream to propel humanity away from fossil fuels into an electric future. That man: Elon Musk. That dream: Tesla Motors.
To Musk, hybrids are nothing more than a stop-gap measure. In the mind of the serial entrepreneur, the only way to hasten the arrival of the electric era is to dump legacy baggage, make a clean break from yesterday’s technology and start from scratch.
That takes guts. And lots of money. Musk has both.
The result was the Model S in 2012, the first all-new electric car from Tesla. Before this, it had produced an electric roadster but that was based on an existing car – the Lotus Elise.
After all the billions of investor dollars sunk into it, Tesla hopes to become profitable again by end 2016 (it was,briefly, in 2013). The listed company remains undaunted by sceptics and continues to build momentum with the Model X SUV and the upcoming Model 3 sedan that aims to compete with the Mercedes C-Class and BMW 3 Series.
Although Musk was one of several co-founders of the electric car maker, the Tesla CEO has emerged as the charismatic and very public face of Tesla.
Decade two of the 21st century is truly an exciting time for personal mobility. Despite a season of cheap oil, alternative propulsion still garners headlines. Lately, the buzz has been on plug-in hybrids, electric cars, fuel-cell vehicles and to a lesser extent biofuelled ones. Advances in driverless driving also promise to revolutionise automotive design and the way people interact with cars.
This is a period where new technologies and the upstarts that supply them promise to disrupt the global automotive industry and alter 100 years of traditional motoring. Fear – and opportunities – abound in such a climate.
Against these backdrop, the Model S arrived at CarSifu’s doorsteps recently, ready to be probed and prodded.
It came courtesy of Greentech Malaysia, a government agency that has been promoting green technology and sustainable mobility through electric cars, among others, as an alternative.
Greentech had shipped in two such cars through Tesla Hong Kong late last year. Both had identical specs having an electric motor to drive the rear wheels and 85kWh lithium-ion battery.
Tesla now only sells Model S with batteries in 70 and 90kWh capacities and there’s every likelihood a 100kWh battery could show up soon. The 85kWh battery, which can lasts up to 426km, was recently dropped in favour of the 90kWh for better range and performance. At present, the variant with the longest range is the dual-motored 90D with 460km.
The Model S is a big car, about the size of a Porsche Panamera and looks every inch a luxury sports coupe with a long body and soft curves to please the eye. It’s the best looking electric car we have seen locally so far and is certainly desirable on styling alone. Others like Nissan LEAF, Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi iMiEV look conventional, cutesy, or small and are mainly designed as city cars with limited range.
As for Greentech, using this Tesla as the poster child is an easier play to gain support – and tax breaks – for electric mobility from decision makers and influencers in government. Sex appeal works.
The Model S is the first electric car that aims to match or outdo internal combustion engined (ICE) cars in range and performance. Tesla’s goal, after all, is to make its cars so compelling that people would be willing to switch over.
The 7,000+-cell battery pack is laid on the floor and because the compact electric motor drives the rear wheels, there’s only a single-speed transmission to grapple with. The absence of an engine also frees up more storage space under the bonnet if the rear one isn’t enough.
To maximise range, the car is made of mostly lightweight aluminium. It also has far fewer components than an ICE car. The body is moulded to be aerodynamic; even door handles retract when the car is on the move to minimise drag.
The car was specified with two non-foldable rear executive seats with a fixed centre armrest. This option is no longer available. You could order the Tesla online and specify it with extras like you order a laptop. One of the options is the ability to turn the standard 5-seater into a 7-seater with two rearward facing child seats in the boot zone. (Or get the Ludicrous package for the P 90D that shaves off sprint times for an even more impressive turn of speed.)
Apart from four seats and a flat floor, the interior is very unlike an ICE car. Facing the driver is a clean and simple dashboard, dominated by a centre 17-inch tablet-like display, complemented by a fully digital meter cluster. The dual displays confer a futuristic look to the interior.
The controls are housed within the giant touchscreen display which is responsive to the touch but tends to pick up fingerprints and dust.
The rear seats offer generous legroom but headroom is limiting for taller folk who will also find thigh support lacking. For the driver, rear-ward visibility isn’t that great either.
Like smartphones, software updates are done over the air to remove bugs or add new features to the car’s electric core. In the latest update, the car is able to auto-park itself.
A wide and open centre console storage area offers plenty of space to place assorted belongings. Door pockets would have enhanced practicality.
We decided to drive the car to Fraser’s Hill and back one sunny February day to find out how well it performs when driven like an ICE car at sustained high speeds, and powering up and down hillslopes every now and then. There was no pussyfooting around with the accelerator except in the last leg home when we almost bled the car dry. When the need for speed came, we floored the car and sped off as and when the mood arose. Which was often.
The motor makes 363hp and 441Nm of torque, allowing the car to go from zero to 100kph in 5.6s with a top speed of 230kph. Being all-electric, the Model S is a simple car to drive. Sensors in the car detect the key fob in your pocket the moment you sit at the wheel. Shift the column-mounted gear lever, derived from Mercedes-Benz, into drive, press the accelerator and off you go – silently.
It’s the way peak torque is dispensed instantly that astonishes newcomers to electric cars. The stupendous acceleration from the get-go makes the car feel like a rocketship on land and can be addictive. But this zest for speed always has to be tempered with the need for range to get to your destination.
That is not so much an issue in the Klang Valley where it is hard to use up all the battery power in one day but that is a possibility on out-of town trips where public chargers for fast charging are few and far between. Yes, like the trip to Fraser’s where such facility is absent.
The traction control ensures that the car takes off in a controlled manner even when planting the foot down to relay full power to the rear wheels. What you hear are the tyre noise at any speed above urban crawl.
The car is wide and low with the titanium-shielded battery pack on the floor providing a low centre of gravity, making for a stable car at high speeds. There’s lots of grip and speed even when attacking a series of corners on the ascent but the thick A-pillar tend to hinder the view in corners.
There’s not as much feel in the steering as we would like it but it’s precise nonetheless and adaptive air suspension made for a smooth and comfortable ride when we were not abusing the car.
Regenerative braking means that the car will retard its speed the moment you lift off the accelerator, similar to an ICE car with manual transmission that undergoes downshifting and engine braking.
After a few hours of rigorous workout, the floor of the car didn’t feel toasty at all, showing the battery cooling system worked well to regulate its temperature.
We reached the Gap of Fraser’s Hill before making a U-turn to Petaling Jaya as we didn’t want to risk running out of power for the 110km+ trip back. Even though there was a little over 200km range left, we wanted that buffer to cover for wayward driving behaviour.
At the time we started off to Fraser’s from PJ, the car had around 430km range. By the time it returned, it hobbled in with 9km left on the meter, and needed to juice up for three hours from a normal 3-pin plug point and a public charger to get back to its base in Bangi.
Energy consumption in the last 10km was recorded at 162Wh/km.
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On a day-to-day basis, the Tesla electric car would have no trouble doing the daily commute in the Klang Valley, which has an increasing number of free public chargers.
In most cases, an overnight top-up at home from the standard wall plug point would give the car enough reserves to last a day or two, depending on how much time is spent on the road.
While an 8-year battery warranty is reassuring, other nitty-gritty such as legislation, incentives, attractive pricing and pervasive infrastructure have to be in place before electric cars could be considered a viable alternative in the local context.
If anything, the Model S points to an electric future that is tantalising. It’s a future yet to be realised. But signs are it will not be thwarted.
> Tesla cars are not officially on sale to the Malaysian public. Greentech is allowed by the Government to import 100 Model S with duty exemptions for leasing to government-linked companies. Refer to Tesla website for pricing details.