A Quick Review of the Tesla S

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(Note: when I gave this review a title, I intended to write up a few paragraphs, but it got a little out of hand; sorry for the misnomer above.)

My relationship with cars started thirty years ago. As a high school junior, I was already earning enough money to afford my own car, and I can clearly remember all the details: it was a 4-door, 5-speed (manual), Lindsey Blue (whatever that is…..) Honda Accord. It was $14,192, if I recall properly, and I just about counted the days until it arrived. I had a vanity license plate for it (K S I for Knight Software Incorporated), and I felt incredibly free and independent to have a car of my own that I earned myself.

By my senior year, when I was making more money (to waste), I upgraded to a Guards Red (I tend to0324-logoremember this silly manufacturer names for the paints) Porsche 944. It was, again, a manual transmission – I thought anyone with an automatic was a limp-wristed douchenozzle – and, in the many years that followed, I steadfastly bought cars that were (a) foreign-made, (b) manual transmisisons. I had a Toyota MR2, a Porsche Carrerra, a Volvo V70, a BMW Z8 (now that was a gorgeous vehicle), and, as fatherdom completely set it, a beige Toyota Sienna with – sigh – automatic transmission.

So, being a combination of older and cheaper, I decided I was find driving a piece o’ crap beige van until it fell apart, but for a variety of reasons, I decided to take the plunge and sign up for a car with a one-year waiting list: the all-electric Tesla Model S. After putting in the $5,000 deposit, I took a quick tour of their headquarters and test-drove the car, and I was stunned. I had never felt a car so powerful. Although the decision was already made to buy the car, I was convinced I had made the right choice after that test drive last summer.

Tesla has made no secret of the fact that the Tesla doesn’t have to be extremely expensive can have been made for as little as $52,400. This is a bit disingenuous for three reasons: (1) They are taking into account the $7,500 federal tax credit, which is a bit presumptuous, since they are subtracting that right out of the retail price; (2) the low price is based on getting the lowest-level battery which not only isn’t in production yet, but no one is going to want; most folks are going to get the car that has plenty of range; (3) the add-on features of the car are actually fairly important, and they add up really, really fast.

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Let me save you a bit of time and tell you this: it’s a six-figure car. Period. Once the retail price, tax, and all the bells and whistles are done, it’s a six-figure car. End of story.

I took delivery of the car last month at their factory in Fremont, which was the site of a huge General Motors plant that was built in the 1980s and had been shuttered for years. The plant and land were on the books at $1 billion, and Tesla picked up the entire package for $45 million (how’s that for a discount?) They are using barely one-quarter of the plant as it is, and there is a ton of room for growth. There are robots everywhere, and it was amazing to see the giant coiled rolls of aluminum and know that in a week’s time those sheets would be finished cars.

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So now that I’ve driven my fancy new car for a month and put about 1500 miles on it, what are my impressions? I’ll be lazy and express this in bullet form:

  • It’s fun to drive. That seems trite, but let be me clear: I actually like driving now. I have never owned a car where driving was such a pleasure. And, given the amount of driving I have to do for my over-scheduled children, this is a very good attribute.
  • It’s easy to drive. Not that I had difficulty driving before; indeed, I went out of my way to get manual transmission cars for decades. However, given sufficiently-long legs, an 8-year old could drive this thing. It took me a while for me to finally understand why the car seemed so familiar, then it finally struck me: it’s like a bumper car. Press the pedal, and it goes; stop pressing the pedal, and it doesn’t go. Simple as that. No need to depress the brake pedal at the stop light. If you’re not pressing go, it doesn’t go. Period.
  • It’s more like a computer with wheels than a car with a computer: This is a very sophisticated device, right down to the iPhone app that lets you control all kinds of aspects of the car from anywhere in the world. (“Gee, I wonder if the car is locked? Whoops; it’s not. I’ll lock it now. And I’ll make it 70 degrees so it’s comfy when I get there.”)
  • It has the advantages and disadvantages of being software-based: This is a relatively new product, so there are minor bugs here and there, and there are even occasions when you have to “reboot” the thing I(I’ve only had to do so once, and that was because Bluetooth was stuck). But it also means that the car gets improved on a regular basis without you even knowing anything is happening.
  • I get to flip off gas stations with impunity: My family has two cars now, and they’re both electric. They can make gas $20 a gallon, and I don’t care. And, by the way, I don’t ever have to get a smog check again ever in my life………or an oil change, for that matter. And if you feel like eating scrambled eggs off the service floor at the Tesla dealership, you can probably do so without getting sick. Try that at your local mechanic’s.

For some reason, most folks are buying these in red, which I think is a poor choice. I bought a silver, which must be very unpopular, as I haven’t seen a single other one in town (and, being Palo Alto, there are many, many Teslas being driven). I personally think it’s a gorgeous vehicle.

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As for the interior, it feels great, and the gigantic iPad-like device is terrific (It strikes me as weird that Tesla hasn’t come up with some cool, easy-to-remember name for this thing; no one knows what to call it; even professional reviews call it something like “the giant iPad-like device.”) It has a web browser, Google maps, a media/entertainment panel, controls for all aspects of the car – – the works. It has outstanding voice recognition (e.g. I can say “Play…..” followed by any song name, and it’ll search for it from the web and, bang, play it for me). Although Tesla hasn’t really told anyone yet, it also has a built-in hard drive that’s going to act like a gigantic iPod once they finish the software for it.

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It also occurred to me after I bought the car that this was the first American car I had ever owned. And, believe me, I had avoided American cars in the past, because I believed they were all crap. But after giving it some thought, I still have never owned any “American” car in the Detroit sense of the word. Detroit still doesn’t have one iota of design sense; just take a look at the U.S. stab at the electric car market – the ungodly-subsidied Volt – and you’ll see what I mean. It looks like a slab of cow dung on four wheels.

So this is, more precisely, a Silicon Valley car, and in many ways, I consider Tesla to be the “Apple of automobiles.” The fit and finish of everything associated with the car – – right down to the fact that the representation of your vehicle on the screen and the app matches the color that your particular car happens to be – – demonstrates an unwavering attention to detail that would have made Steve Jobs pleased.

In summary, I have no regrets about my purchase. I think Tesla as a public company (symbol TSLA) has a great future ahead – I hope they do, at least – provided that the world embraces electric vehicles and the de factor more modest infrastructure for this kind of car. I’ll also mention that the new Slope of Hope (coming soon!) looks gorgeous, particularly in a vehicle being zipped around the Bay Area at high speeds. Elon has another winner on his hands.

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