We drove the Tesla Model S P85+ on an intrastate tour of superchargers in Illinois. Our route bisects a green-gold sea of soybean fields, blows by endless rows of withering corn crowned with green husks, and passes broccoli forests bunched on muddy rivers. The heartland in September is beautiful; as we cut a 350-mile triangle from the Chicago suburbs to Normal, then due north to Rockford, I keep hearing the phrase "amber waves of grain."
That singular lyric so perfectly captures the Midwest. It's elegant and evocative, full of form, motion and harmony: All the parts work together to make the whole better than any individual element. That same sense of awe is what Tesla has inspired with the Model S.
"If perfection is a 10 then this car is a 10," says Robert Dew, co-founder of Tesla Owners, an international social site for Tesla owners.
Most everyone who has driven a Model S would agree with Dew, despite the owner bias. Since its launch in June 2012, the Model S has captured 8 percent of the luxury performance market share; it has been crowned the Motor Trend 2013 Car of the Year and Automobile magazine 2013 Automobile of the Year; it has earned Consumer Reports' highest score ever given to a car and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave it a five-star safety rating. The company's stock price is off the chart, jumping from $37.89 in late March to a high of $173.70 in early September.
You've likely heard all this before, as did my road partner, Bob Duffer. My father is a 71-year-old semi-retiree who has been a car nut since he was 15 years old, when he worked at his uncle's Standard Oil shop at Pulaski and Diversey in Chicago. One half of his garage acts as a turnstyle for whatever new car hasn't bored him within a year; the other half is for his precious, a '68 Ford Mustang convertible. He's an internal combustion engine (I.C.E.) kind of guy and he is an electric-vehicle skeptic.
He was, that is, until Tesla delivered the Model S P85+ in metallic blue.
The mode: Model S Performance Plus
Tesla began selling the top-of-the-line Performance Plus in April of this year. The 85 kWh Performance Plus has upgraded dampers, bushings, stabilizer bars and Michelin Pilot Sport
If you say so. The 21 inchers with gray turbine wheels look great, sporty and intelligent like the rest of the Model S, and improve range 6 to 12 miles over regular 21-inch wheels.
There were additional upgrades to our Performance Plus tester, including rear facing seats that made the kids warn me to stop driving backwards, a panoramic roof, ultra-high-fidelity sound and four-zone front and rear parking sensors. The base price of the P85+ is $100,320, including delivery fee and the $7,500 federal tax credit; ours cost about $120,000. (The base model with the 60 kWh battery starts at $63,570 after the $7,500 tax credit.)
The means: Supercharger network
The heartland supercharger triangle took us from the northwest suburbs of Chicago to the supercharger in downtown Normal, then due north to Rockford for the opening of the 21st supercharger in North America and the second in the Midwest. The supercharger in Normal, opened in late June, was the first between the coasts and a vital component in developing coast-to-coast travel for Model S owners.
The superchargers are unique to the Model S because of the massive battery packs, which come in 60 kWh or 85 kWh. The Model S 60 has a range of 208 miles; the Model S 85 series (85, P85, P85+) have an EPA-estimated range of 265 miles. (Telsa says you can get over 300-mile range at 55 mph.)The superchargers are 10 times more powerful than most public charging stations, providing over 120 kilowatts of power. Even Tesla Roadster owners can't use the superchargers.
By 2015, Tesla expects that 98 percent of the North American population will live within Model S range of a supercharger. In late August, on a much smaller scale, Tesla built six superchargers in Norway; 90 percent of the population lives in Model S range to a supercharger.
So even though the popular Nissan Leaf electric gets an estimated 75-mile range, Tesla's North American supercharger network is a model for overcoming range anxiety, which remains the enduring stigma for the EV industry despite the growing network of Level 2 and DC quick chargers. Could the industry take off if 98 percent of the population lives within 70 miles of a conveniently located quick charger?
The town of Normal is helping the cause. Long identified as an interstate hub at the confluence of I-74, I-55 and I-39, the town of Normal built EV chargers into its plans for a revamped uptown connected to the train station, city hall and local and big business, like the Marriott Hotel.
The Uptown Station Parking Deck, located in walking distance from the campus of
On the next level are the four Tesla superchargers, sleek and sharp as anything Tesla. They look like the shell of a gas pump with a hollow interior, a veritable window into the future.
Fully funded by Tesla, the superchargers are free to owners in all but the Model S 60; supercharging is available for a $2,500 upgrade for the life of the 60.
The manner: performance, style and charge
We had traveled 147.5 miles to Normal, and though we started with about 217 miles of range, we only had 35 miles of range left when we plugged in. Obviously, the range is affected by how you drive, same as for an internal combustion engine. I had the cruise set at 74 mph for most of the way but there were times, especially at on ramps and passing situations, where I gave I.C.E Dad a boost from his muscle-car days. How could I not? The instantaneous and linear acceleration from the electric motor begs to be tested. At one straighter on-ramp from a rest area, we hit 75 mph before the ramp merged onto the highway. "It's like a roller coaster," I.C.E Dad said, with awe at the rear-wheel drive electric beast and a bit of fear at the operator. "Now take it easy."
I hadn't floored it. The Model S P85+ goes 0-60 in 4.2 seconds; at 443 pound-feet of torque, the rate of acceleration is stunning. The 1,300-plus pound battery pack produces 416 horsepower. It maxes out at 130 mph, but we never came close. Aggressive regenerative braking, enough to feel a slight lurch when you let off the accelerator, helps put a charge back in the battery. If it's too unfamiliar, you can switch it to "low" on the touchscreen to get the more familiar coasting sensation.
After a 45-minute charge, which included breakfast at the Coffeehouse, a staple from my Illinois State University days before it went vegetarian (it got a surprising seal of approval from I.C.E. Dad despite the lack of pork), we got back in with 239 miles on our battery. The supercharger can replenish 80 percent of the battery in 40 minutes, and 50 percent in 20 minutes. The rate of charge slows considerably as it gets closer to a full charge.
We had more than enough to make it the 131.6 miles to the Rockford supercharger, which is located in the southwest corner of the CherryVale Mall parking lot, about one mile from the intersection of I-39 and I-90.
The Normal supercharger connects St. Louis Model S traffic to Chicago, and the Rockford supercharger is expected to connect to Madison, Wis and other northern cities.
Out in the open for all the shopping mall world to see, the Rockford station feels less like the secret supercharger society of Normal and more like a club; over 30 Model S owners made it for the ribbon cutting.
Several of them lingered for hours afterward, including Dew, the co-founder of Tesla Owners. The software engineer originally from London was giddy about the supercharger, the service center and all things Tesla. "This car has changed my life," Dew said, citing how his group of friends has changed to Model S owners, many of whom were on hand. "We're enjoying the heck out of it and if it costs us a few extra bucks, I don't care because I love every minute of it."
Dew's stated motivation for buying the Model S 85 was for the environment, which is affirmed by his vanity plate "0 Gas." Dew is in the process of selling his Chicago condo because his condo board won't let him install solar panels on his roof.
It's a sentiment echoed by John Peggau, a Naperville resident who commutes to Rockford four days a week as part of his job as a clinical psychologist. Since March 2, he has put 18,000 miles on his P85. "My Honda Insight hybrid was my gas guzzler," Peggau says. He has solar panels on his house and is eager for a Tesla with a 450-mile battery range.
Considering the lifetime of automotive companies, Tesla is still in its infancy.
"Candidly, we're early adopters and some of the cars had some quirks which are well documented online," Dew says. The complaints include installing cup holders that could accommodate a wider range of cup sizes and making sun visors that weren't so slim.
Our test car had a notable quirk. Wind noise from the sealed sun roof was absent at 60 mph but noticeably loud at 70 mph. The rubber stripping may have been loose; minor fidgeting where the center flange on the sun roof locks in with the body of the car dampened the noise a bit.
Responsive if not sensitive to criticism, Tesla continues to make improvements on the Model S. What enables it to do so are software updates on the touchscreen. Of all of the distinguishing interior features of the Model S, the 17-inch touchscreen is the centerpiece, comprising the entirety of the center stack, aside from the small hazard button on the driver side and the symmetrical glove box button on the passenger side.
One of the earliest upgrades in the brief life of the Model S was the Creep function, which gives insight into Tesla's relationship with the consumer and how it has created a cult-like devotion. With the creeper turned on, the car inches forward in drive like an automatic transmission. Slide it off and the car feels as if it's in neutral even though it is in drive. This is not just to make the Model S feel more familiar: It was a direct response to early adopters in San Francisco who didn't want to worry about rolling backward when emerging out of a stop.
Software upgrade 5.0 includes similar responsiveness. Model S owners complained that if they took it for a car wash and kept the fob in their pocket, the Model S would lock down, as it is programmed to do for safety and efficiency. If the wheels don't roll, there's no way to guide it through an automated car wash. The simple response is to leave the fob in the car but I suppose it's difficult to convince someone to leave $100,000 in a car wash. Instead, Tesla created the Tow mode where, once engaged, the wheels can roll without the fob. Additional upgrades include screen-cleaning mode, where you can clean the screen without activating any buttons, and smart phone tethering, which means you can choose data plans from a smartphone, hotspot, the Model S, or even a home connection to access Wi-Fi.
If performance of the Model S is as near perfection as possible, then the interior design detail is elegance. The tan interior with Obeche wood in Matte finish is so streamlined with the car's interior landscape that it's easy to overlook, like those amber waves of grain.
On the floor beneath the touchscreen is essentially a shelf with rails that run up to the armrest console. The lack of a humpback center console creates an open, roomy space to put whatever you might need, albeit loosely. Some Model S fans felt the space wasn't compartmentalized enough and the Center Console Insert was borne by Teslaccessories, a father and son company specializing in Model S add-ons. This fall, Tesla will sell its own drop-in center console.
It only took about two minutes into our drive for I.C.E. Dad to become a believer in electric vehicles, though the electric part of the Model S had little to do with his rapture.
"Gas or electric, whether it's for the environment or independence from foreign oil, it doesn't matter," I.C.E. Dad said midway through our drive. "You buy this because the goddamned car is so great."
The culture that is forming around the company might be the clearest indicator of the brand's future, enduring success.
Carl Walters, a retired electrical contractor from Sun City in Huntley, was an early Roadster owner. He loved it so much he bought his wife, Joanna, a Model S for her birthday last month. Joanne's first supercharger experience was in Rockford.
Being a Tesla owner is the entire experience, from superchargers to service centers to forums.
"I couldn't wish for a nicer car," Dew says, then gushes about opportunities to take it into the service center when his girlfriend says something feels off. The Model S is covered by an eight-year warranty and a trip to the service center to clear out a bit of excess grease in the panel roof was exciting for Dew. "It's like, 'Can we just mess with your car and do everything we can to bring your car to perfect condition?'"