Test-driving Tesla Model S on Summit County’s toughest stretch of interstate
October 4, 2013
I love cars.
Ever since I became conscious of the world around me I developed a deep appreciation for the classics, especially old-school trucks and SUVs.
Over the years I've owned and driven all types of vehicles, from my treasured 1998 Jeep Cherokee to a less-than-exhilarating 2000 Subaru Outback. But no car owns a larger place in my heart than my currently immobile 1968 International Harvester Scout 800.
Just before I moved in June from Craig to Summit County, I embarked on a brash experiment to rebuild my Scout's 345 V8 motor. Although I've learned a good deal about cars as a result of this ongoing experience, I wouldn't call myself a gearhead or the least bit knowledgeable about the inner workings of the modern automobile.
My love of cars stems from the driving experience and I've developed some serious skills during my almost 17 legal years on the road.
On Wednesday I put those skills into practice when I received the rare opportunity to test drive the fully electric and highly touted Model S sedan, which is manufactured by Palo Alto-based Tesla Motors. It would be my first time behind the wheel of an electric vehicle of any kind and I went in with every intention of pushing the machine to its limits, to challenge the claims and dispel the myths; or set my hair on fire trying.
Below is a narrative of my brief time in the cockpit of the Model S, but I think it's important to note that I am not a professionally trained driver nor am I an expert mechanic. In fact, I've never written a vehicle review until now.
If you're looking for an English translation of what a "single speed fixed gear with 9.73:1 reduction ratio" means and why it's beneficial, I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place. If you're searching for scientific analysis weighing the positives and negatives of alternating current battery technology versus direct current, turn the page now because you're about to be disappointed.
The sole purpose of this experiment was to answer one question that has been on my mind and I think on the minds of a lot of Summit County drivers:
Can a battery-powered vehicle, boasting a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency range of 275 miles per charge and enough torque to test the boundaries of the space-time continuum, maintain those industry-shattering performance standards at altitude, under variable weather conditions and on roads infamous for cutting down normal diesel and gasoline engines long before their time?
As you're about to find out, the answer to that question is a thrilling, bold-typed and resounding yes — at least in my opinion.
But before we get into the car, I feel compelled to try to justify my being picked for this story beyond the simple fact that I was available.
Although I didn't coin the phrase, "drive fast, take chances," I've put those words into practice so many times they no longer represent a fashionably accurate account of my capabilities behind the wheel. In short, I'm a speed freak and an adrenaline junkie.
I received these traits from my parents who took very different approaches to driving, but were nonetheless two of the best drivers I've ever seen in my life.
My father practiced "offensive driving" and was a firm believer that the accelerator, not the brake, could serve as a lifesaver in more cases than not, particularly in today's brake happy society.
My mother on the other hand was the creative type. There was no street too congested to prevent her from flipping an unexpected U-Turn to snatch up a highly coveted downtown Chicago parking spot. She would also routinely drive the wrong way down a one-way street to bypass traffic caused by an accident or construction, but she would do so in reverse — with the nose pointing in the appropriate direction of traffic — to keep passing cops from raising suspicions.
I consider myself blessed not simply because I inherited these skills, but because I can think of no better classroom to practice my craft than my native Chicago.
In my hometown there is no such thing as "rush hour;" it's rush day. The traffic in Chicago is so notoriously bad it can spin even the most mild-mannered individual into a fit of near murderous rage.
And it was among these maniacs that I first flirted with the line that separates those who drive with purpose and creativity from others guilty of outright criminal recklessness. It was on Lake Shore Drive and the Edens, Eisenhower and Kennedy expressways that I perfected the teachings of my parents before breaking into my own rhythm.
The fond memories of my younger years flooded my brain as I set out Wednesday on the short drive from our office in Frisco to the soon to be unveiled Tesla Supercharging station at the Outlets at Silverthorne. Waiting for me was Patrick Jones, with Tesla's communications department, who set up the test drive and agreed to be my Model S tour guide.
When I pulled up I found Patrick buffing a black P85 performance Model S. That's right, the one with an estimated range of 275 miles and acceleration of 0 mph to 60 mph in a fraction over 4 seconds.
Immediately I was struck by the sedan's tough, yet sleek and aerodynamic design, and as Patrick began to explain all of the features I found myself more and more impressed with the Model S's power, safety and technological features.
Patrick started with the sedan's key fob, which I admit is the least significant aspect of this review, but I found it innovative nonetheless because it was a matchbox-sized replica of the Modern S. To open the front or rear trunks all you have to do is touch the corresponding areas on the key.
Furthermore, the Model S does not have traditional keyholes. The car simply unlocks — and it's door handles extend from their tucked away home, when the driver approaches.
Inside, this particular Model S boasted all of Tesla's premium features including everything from luxurious Nappa leather trim to a 17-inch iPad-style touch screen. The touch screen houses all of the car's controls, from the radio, windows and panoramic sunroof to several options to customize how the Model S handles.
The Model S also is web and Bluetooth-enabled, allowing easy syncing of music from an iPod and contacts from a driver's cell phone. Owners can even surf the web while powering up at a Supercharger, but that feature is disabled when the sedan is in motion for safety reasons.
As impressed as I was with all of the bells and whistles, Patrick could tell I was anxious to get the Model S out on the road to test its transmission-less direct drive system.
We departed the Outlets and jumped on I-70 heading westbound, a brutal incline I travel everyday on my way to work. I held back at first and accelerated slowly, anticipating a lag in power that would almost surely come, but it didn't. Within moments we were cruising at a respectable 60 mph.
For comparison, my current car — a Volkswagen Jetta equipped with a four-liter engine and a standard five speed manual transmission that I purchased more out of necessity than true love — can accelerate to 60 mph in about the time it takes to travel from Silverthorne to the Frisco/Main Street exit. I can shave off some of that time by keeping my car in third gear, but I've already dropped one engine and I don't have the time or inclination to take on a second rebuild.
As we continued west I slowly coasted up to 75 mph, which the Model S reached long before we crested the top of the hill and began our descent to the Frisco/Breckenridge exit. I kept the car right at 75 mph as we neared the Frisco/Main Street exit, an area I know to be a popular speed trap point for local law enforcement.
As we passed the second Frisco exit and continued west I looked at Patrick and asked if I could "open her up?" He nodded in approval.
With that I touched the pedal to the floor and the Model S exploded into action, the power generated by this little battery feeling more like the thrust of an airplane on take off than any car I had ever driven.
I felt glued to the driver's seat as the speedometer climbed to 100 mph.
Had my eyes not been blown wide open from sheer thrill and excitement, I may not have noticed that within a blink I had exceeded the 120 mph barrier, a first for me behind the wheel of a car…at least when traveling uphill.
I steadied the Model S at 120 mph, weaving in and around other motorists and hugging those few beautiful curves between Frisco and Copper Mountain, my predetermined destination.
What happened next is a bit of a mystery.
It's possible I experienced a Will Ferrell-type blackout like in the movie "Old School" or maybe Patrick and I truly did travel through time because the next thing I remember I was back at the Outlets, the thrill fading rapidly as I shifted the Model S into park.
With all of the premium options, this particular P85 Model S carries a price tag of $105,000, a bit out of my price range. But that doesn't preclude me from giving the Model S my ringing endorsement and, for those of you who have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.
I, on the other hand, have already begun socking away my pennies in anticipation of the generation 3 edition of the Model S, which Patrick said is due to be unveiled in three or four years and will feature an estimated list price between $30,000 and $40,000.
Or maybe Tesla Motors will develop an electric conversion kit, so I can finally breathe new life into my 1968 Scout 800.
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