Tesla Model S: The Full Meta Review

Yesterday's launch of the Tesla Model S electric sedan was a highly choreographed affair, with most of the media merely happy pawns on Elon Musk's great chessboard. As we predicted, most media outlets got ten-or-less minutes to review the car.

However, a handful of the 47 or so media in attendance did get a little more time to test the vehicle. Not enough to check the range (unless they were driving 176 mph the whole time), but enough to get a rounder impression of the vehicle.

If we can combine a ton of these "reviews" together we can have the most thorough review of them all. It's simple math.

Some publications seemed to take our admonishment seriously and admitted to the limited time, while others tried to pass off ten-minute stints as full reviews without acknowledging just how short their drives were.

Since Elon Musk is reinventing the car, and reinventing the car media, we too plan to learn from his example. By combining a bunch of the reviews into one giant meta review we'll have the write up with the most amount of time.

It appears we really liked it:

It's been nearly four years since Tesla announced plans to expand its electric line-up from a singular sports car to a four-door, five-seat sedan. In the interim, the upstart automaker has grown its dealer network, secured more funding, revealed a crossover concept, and purchased and converted the former NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA to begin production of the Model S.

And that's where we're at today, joined by a smattering of press, investors, and a handful of EV early adopters who've plunked down deposits and are finally taking delivery of one of the first 10 full-size, fully electric, U.S.-built sedans.

Before we buckle in for a romp through the hills above the East Bay, let's talk chassis. The under-floor battery is a stressed member, and helps lower the center of gravity to just 17.5 inches high with two occupants — about the same as the Ford GT's. The front control-arm rear multi-link suspension is nearly all aluminum. Performance and Signature cars get a four-position height-adjustable air suspension (down 0.8 inches at speed or for egress, up as much as 1.2 inch for clearing steep driveways). The anti-roll bars are solid steel and look surprisingly thin, but that low CG means the body mass never gets much leverage for body roll. In the rear, a wide control arm includes a curious vertical link to the knuckle at the rear. This provides caster control and distributes the brake-reaction torque among the control-arm bushings for greater comfort.

Acceleration is where the Model S shines. The electric motor dishes out gobs of linear, head-snapping torque, quickly propelling you past the speed limit — you've been warned. A pleasant, muted whine accompanies the experience and serves as a reminder that you're driving the future. Unlike cars like theFord Focus Electric and the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, the Model S follows a similar strategy to BMW'sActiveE when it comes to regenerative braking. Instead of being triggered by the brake pedal, it only kicks in when you lift off the accelerator. As such, it's a lot like driving a manual transmission stuck in second gear and using engine braking to slow down. Where the ActiveE will turn the brake lights on as soon as you let go of the accelerator, the Model S relies on accelerometer readings to warn the vehicles behind you — clever.

Tesla Model S: The Full Meta Review

The dashboard was left very bare, the single 17-inch touch screen dominating the middle, with just one solid button for the emergency flashers. Other automakers have tried putting all cabin controls on a screen, but relented with things such as climate control and volume knobs. Tesla is sticking to the touch-screen paradigm, albeit with a row of climate controls always docked at the bottom of the LCD. And there is volume control on the steering wheel.

Even a luxury car like the Model S remains one of the larger purchases its customers will make, and the Model S carries a long list of risks, from the mundane to the serious. The Model S range will still depend on how you drive it, and needs a plug more powerful than a standard household outlet for any sizable amount of energy in under a few hours. Tesla has sold a total of 2,150 cars to date; it's never dealt with thousands of customers, nor run a high-volume factory. The launch of the Fisker Karma has been plagued by software bugs and battery recalls, and while Musk says the Model S passed all crash tests with flying colors, Tesla's customers — more than 10,000 of whom have already paid $5,000 deposits — will be the test bed of a new company with a new model in what's essentially a new factory.

The Model S starts at $57,400 for the standard 160-mile version. Add another $10,000 for the 230-mile battery pack or $20,000 for the 300-mile model. The first 1000 of the Model S will arrive in mid-2012 as a Signature Series with 300-mile range, specific badging and a host of options. Look for the others to arrive in the second half of 2012.

Photo Credit: AP