In an earlier blog, my dh, Matt, and I, gave the Tesla Model S a spin as we waited for ours to be built. Now that we’ve picked ours up, how do I rate the brand new 2013 Tesla Model S all-electric plug-in sedan? It’s fantastic! It’s stupendously awesome, outrageously superb, and simply one-of-a-kind. I think everyone should own one. If that were the case, we’d have much less dependency on oil, especially once we have better solar and wind infrastructure. With the Tesla, the future is alternative.

What makes the Model S so special? First, the S is one of only three plug-in only, mainstream electric vehicles (EVs), with the Nissan Leaf and Toyota RAV-4 being the others. All the other more familiar cars on the road, like the plug-in Prius and Volt, are hybrids, which means that they not only plug in but also use gasoline. You don’t put gas in the S–the only consumer-supplied liquid the Tesla takes is windshield wiper fluid. And whatever beverage you choose to bring along.

  

 

The S goes a long way before you need to plug it in. The Leaf has an EPA rated range of about 75 miles on a full charge. The RAV-4 has an EPA rated range of around 103 miles before needing to be plugged in. The EPA has not yet tested the smallest Tesla battery, but the medium battery (60 kWh) gives a range of about 206 miles; the largest battery (85 kWh) pack lasts 265 miles. While none of these cars makes for spectacular cross-country traveling vehicles just yet, they’re more than adequate commuter cars and the Tesla has a range that allows you to go farther than the others in more luxury.  Tesla has an ace up its sleeve to help with that problem, which the family successfully used to drive home to Las Vegas from the Bay Area (for free), but more on that later.

The car drives as you would expect any luxury car to drive: handling is taut (and the steering adjustable, from feeling like a Cadillac land yacht to a sports car) and the leather seats are comfortable and highly adjustable. The ride is smooth and since there’s no transmission, there’s no waiting for gears to change as you accelerate. The interior is just as streamlined as the exterior. It’s sparse—extremely sparse by our American standards. There are two cup holders in the center armrest for the entire vehicle and exactly 2 buttons on the dash. The only storage compartment is the average-sized glove box. There also aren’t any grab handles in the ceiling for when drivers take a turn too fast and no coat hooks. But the molded door armrests with sleek ambient LED lighting underneath are comfortable. The sun visors are small and the mirrors not lit; Tesla has suggested replacements are on the way.

While it’s lacking in spots to stash things to junk up the interior, it’s definitely not lacking in high tech. A huge 17″ color touch screen fills the center dash and it’s the control center for the car. This is where the climate controls, energy consumption, Google map with Tesla navigation overlay, web browser, media display (no DVD player, sorry!), Bluetooth phone controls, and backup camera are housed. You choose which applications show on the screen; either two in a split screen or one taking up the whole thing. One nifty thing you can do is keep the backup camera going while driving forward; it’s a bit nauseating to have on constantly, but if someone is tailgating or something interesting is happening out the back, you can keep track of it that way. Firmware updates are set to occur, by default, at 2:00 a.m. while the car, and you, are asleep, though that time will be changeable to suit your schedule once a firmware update is finished rolling out. You read correctly–one of the best things about the S is that because the car is so software driven, as owners give more feedback Tesla makes updates to the vehicles. Early on, owners missed the “creep” forward (or backward) that gas-powered automatic transmission vehicles give when you let up on the brake at a stoplight or when backing out of a parking space. Tesla added an option to enable or disable creep with a software update. Try that in any other car.

  

The dash in front of the driver can be customized as well to show energy consumption, climate controls, turn-by-turn navigation, trip odometers and media controls.  The center of that dash has the speedometer, with an energy meter showing how much energy you’re pulling from, or putting into, the batteries.

Why Go Green?

First and foremost, global warming. Greenhouse gases are causing our planet to warm at an alarming rate and causing changes to our environment that affect our food, our seas, and our lives. I know not everyone buys into that theory but I do and it’s my blog :). Plugging in gives you a sense of being independent from big oil. We have limited roof space due to a solar pool heating system, but we will soon be investigating solar panels alongside our pool heater to hopefully at least cover the cost of charging the car and providing some power for the house. Plus if your employer provides a plug-in station, you might be able to charge for free while you work!

Tesla provides a nifty website to determine how much carbon you save depending on where you live. If you’re in Idaho, for example, where 80% of electricity comes from hydroelectric sources (and, oddly, 4% from burning wood), the carbon footprint of the car is 93.5% lower than a typical internal combustion engine vehicle (ICE, for short). But if you’re in West Virginia, where 96% of electricity comes from burning coal, the footprint is only 22% smaller. Washington, D.C., may be one of the worst places to live for clean electricity, with 100% coming from burning petroleum. There is also some controversy over the effect of mining lithium to manufacture the battery pack. But unlike the typical ICE vehicle, which emits more pollution as it gets older and is not tuned properly, the Model S will get cleaner over time as our electricity production gets cleaner. And charging overnight, when the load on the power grid is lower and more efficient sources of power are used, helps further.

As of right now, a gallon of premium unleaded is $3.91 where I buy it for my MDX that gets around 17 mpg if I drive mostly on the freeway. According to the Tesla Motors webpage where it compares gas savings to electric savings, my total fuel cost for the year (if gas prices stay at a constant $3.91) is $2300 vs. $311 for the Model S. That doesn’t include oil changes (the S takes none), yearly smog checks (not required for EVs), and other maintenance required for the hundreds of moving parts in an ICE. The S’s electric motor has precisely one moving part.

There are also financial incentives such as a $7500 Federal Tax Credit and there may be more locally depending on your state’s tax structure. Our local electric company offers an EV rate to owners if we sign up for their off-peak use rate and plug in then (which is overnight when we plug in anyway). You also get special parking spots in some places and, if you’re so lucky, you get to use the HOV lane on the freeway with a single driver.

Space Design

It’s a hatchback sedan, so you’d think that there’s not much storage room, right? The trunk is very spacious, and overall there is more storage space than a BMW 5 Series. The car itself is very heavy because of the battery, so to keep things light, Tesla doesn’t include a spare tire. Instead, there’s a covered deep well that easily holds a carry-on size suitcase. The back trunk space is also designed to hold Tesla’s specially designed 5-point harness child seats, which seats up to 2 children facing backward. We didn’t purchase this add-on accessory because our kids are too big for the seats, but for the younger crowd, it’s a great way to add on and make room for more adults in the front. With those seats, the 5 seater Model S becomes a 7 seater. The child seats fold down flat into the storage well when space is needed to transport other items. The back seat also folds flat—not nearly flat—but completely flat.

  

 

Tesla Rear Facing 5-Point Harness Child Seats Specs

For children over 37” tall

Weight: 35-77 lbs.

 

Thanks to Car-Seat.org member, Andrew Eitingon and his cute 4 year old son, Felix, we have some great pictures of the child seats in action! Andrew says that Felix loves his seats in the back, but that because there are no direct air vents, it will probably get hot in the summer. He also says he sometimes can’t hear Felix talking and can’t see him because his head is below the top of the child seat. But Felix enjoys the view!

  

Since there’s no engine up front, there’s storage space there in the “frunk.” OK, technically it’s called the front trunk, but frunk is such a better term for it, don’t you think? It’s a secret storage spot that’s hidden from view from prying eyes and holds an equally impressive amount of stuff. Even better? It holds items out of the passenger cabin so they won’t become projectiles and hit the people inside.

I can’t leave the Space Design section without mentioning the back seat headroom. It’s a bit on the short side for taller passengers because of the sloping design of the car. In the model with the panoramic sun roof, dh’s head sticks up into the sun roof area and with our son expected to be over 6’ as well, I anticipate I’ll be relegated to the back seat in the next few years.

App

The Tesla S has an app available for Android and iPhone users that gives owners battery status updates, control over locking and unlocking the doors, honking the horn and flashing the lights, remote climate control, and car location and speed information via Google maps. We’ve had vast amounts of fun with the app randomly honking the horn while it’s been parked in parking lots and I’ve had fun irritating dh as he’s been driving by turning the air conditioning on. It’s probably a good thing that the horn controls are disabled while the car is in motion or I’m sure there would be road rage incidents reported. But from a practical aspect, it is nice to come back to a completely toasty vehicle on a cold night and to monitor the charging when it’s parked at a charging station. And as a wife, I always know where dh is and how fast he’s driving ;).

  

Safety Items

The Model S is built for safety; Tesla Motors aimed high and wanted to make sure the car gets 5 stars when NHTSA tests it sometime this year. It has the standard front, torso, and side curtain airbags, along with knee airbags. There are 3 full pages in the manual discussing the airbags and how they work. Go Tesla Motors!

The front seat belts both have locking latchplates (lightweight for those of you who still keep track of such things) and the passenger side has a switchable retractor too. Having this dual locking system on the seat belt has better testing results on crash dummies. There are pre-tensioners on the front seat belts only.

The back seat belts have switchable retractors only. The outboard seat belts in the back seat are awkward to pull from the wall of the car. It’s as if the opening isn’t large enough so the edge of the seat belt catches on the side of the plastic bezel; the belt is harder to pull out when you pull it toward the front of the car as opposed to the opposite side of the car. I wonder when the seat belts will start to fuzz on the sides like we see carseat harness adjuster straps fuzz when parents don’t pull them straight.

Head restraints for the seats are unimpressive, which will make those of you who hate the new active head restraints in new cars happy. The head restraints are essentially flat, almost stick-like, and do no coddling of the head. My first thought when I saw the back seat was, “What cute little nubbins. I wonder if they do anything.” I’ll be curious to see the results of the IIHS Rear Crash Protection tests, specifically the seat/head restraint geometry portion. It may be the one area of the car that does poorly.

The Model S and Carseats

I had the first hint of trouble when dh mentioned a thread about booster seats he had read on the Tesla forums where he’s a member. There are outside bolsters on the outboard seats that can cause some problems. The seat belt anchors are 12” apart and the buckles are flush with the seat bight (crack). Most boosters on the market are wider than 12” at the back where kids are trying to buckle themselves. Toss in very slippery leather and the results are frustrating. If you want your own child to buckle himself while using a booster, only the narrowest booster will work in the outboard positions. I did an exhaustive search and the backless boosters I found that worked best for my 10 yr old dd, in order, are:

Cosco Top Side
Graco Connext
Harmony Youth Booster
Harmony Cruz
RideSafer Travel Vest

You’ll notice right off with these boosters that with the exception of the Cruz, they all have the same shape of narrowing at the back. If your child is larger in the bum area, this can be a problem especially in the Top Side. I’m 5’6” and of normal weight and fit into both Harmony boosters to give you an idea of fit for bigger kids. I also mention the RideSafer Travel Vest; since it’s a vest, it’s as wide as the kid wearing it and only takes a minute to route the seat belt through it.

  

  

 

A solution I saw mentioned on the Tesla forums is an aftermarket buckle extender. I ordered one that had a webbing-style stalk and another that had a twisted wire stalk, otherwise known as a stiff buckle stalk. Neither of these buckle extenders is recommended for two reasons: it’s not mentioned in the S owner’s manual nor is it allowed by any carseat manufacturer for use with any booster. It is an easy fix for sure and the webbing stalk extender does set the buckle at a reasonable length, but will it really hold in a crash? We don’t know for sure and who really wants to find out using their own kid.

 

Upon reading the online manual, I noticed a paragraph in the section titled, “Safety Seats for Larger Children,” that needs to be addressed.

Secure booster seats using the seat belts only. Do not use the LATCH system to secure booster seats, even in situations where the booster seat is equipped with the LATCH system. Carefully follow the booster seat manufacturer’s instructions to secure the booster seat using the seat belts.

I followed up with Tesla on this one because there are several boosters on the market now that use LATCH to secure them to the vehicle and because it was such a staunch statement against using LATCH for boosters. I was intrigued. Turns out that this question and another I asked were fairly high level questions. I was so impressed that the Tesla representative followed through with the proper people and got back to me so quickly! The engineer doesn’t like LATCHing boosters. It’s as simple as that. But the representative did say that it’s caused some discussion within the company, so it sounds like it’s possible that may change in the future. Bottom line is that of this writing, don’t LATCH your boosters in and as you can see in the following picture, the Clek Olli, one of the narrowest rigid LATCH boosters on the market, covers up the buckle altogether.

I installed both a Diono Radian RXT and a Britax Advocate 70 rear-facing and forward-facing using the seat belt and LATCH to test both systems. If you look at the back seat, it appears to have 2 bights, but there’s really only one and it’s located 3.5” above the bottom seat cushion. Having the lower LATCH anchors there didn’t affect installation at all. The only problem I had with the lower anchors were that they sat right on top of the stiff leather so I had problems attaching both push-on and clip-style LATCH connectors.

  

Of note is that there are 5 lower LATCH anchors. Carseats may be simultaneously installed using the lower LATCH in the passenger and driver’s outboard positions OR in the passenger and center positions. Here—a picture from the manual is worth 23 words.

 

The rear-facing Diono Radian was easy to install with both LATCH and later the seat belt. I installed it behind the passenger seat and without an optional angle adjuster, there wasn’t enough room for the front passenger to sit comfortably. Installed in the center position with the seat belt, the front seats would have to be moved up some, but with the angle adjuster, there would be plenty of room. Using the off-center LATCH, the Radian would most definitely touch the driver’s seat without an angle adjuster.

The Britax Advocate also went in easily with using either LATCH or the seat belt and because of its shorter shell, there was plenty of room for front passengers. At the base, it took up the same amount of room as the Radian, but because of its side impact cushions, it takes up more shoulder space.

 

Can rear-facing carseats touch the front seats? Yes! Tesla uses a bladder system in the front seat to determine airbag force, so it’s OK for carseats to touch that front seat. I asked twice. He laughed.

Can I tether rear-facing carseats in the Model S? Good luck. The front seat belt track is bolted down tight. There’s a crossbar under the front seats, but it moves with the seats, so it’s not usable as a tether point. The front seat belts are anchored to the B pillar and could be considered an option if you really want to tether. I think at that point I’d leave the carseat untethered.

 

Forward-facing, both the Radian and Advocate were rock-solid installs. The integrated head restraint on the back seat poses little problem for tethers. Simply route a single strap tether over the top and snug it up. Since the head restraint is well-padded, it’s easy to over-tighten a tether on top of it and I did find that I should have tightened the Radian’s tether first before installing the Radian because the adjuster got buried behind the seat. When installing a carseat with LATCH in the center position, because it’s offset, the tether will also be offset over the head restraint. I’m including a picture of the Radian from the back to show how that looks since it’s at an angle. The Advocate’s V-shaped tether went around the sides of the head restraint.

  

  

I also tried out a Frontier 85 to see if the seat belts could handle the approved long belt path, which first comes in front, then wraps behind the seat, then comes in front again before buckling. It’s also known as a serpentine belt path and I love it because if your seat belts are long enough, it means the carseat is in rock solid! However, the S seat belts fall far short of being long enough. No amount of Tigger bouncing on that Frontier was going to make it work. The short belt path (or regular carseat install) yielded a very tight installation, though, and that made me happy!

  

 

Pros

  • Awesomely fast acceleration: Yes indeed, 0-60 in 5.9 seconds (with our 60 kWh battery), though some owners have rocketed to 60 from a stop in 5.6 seconds
  • Instantaneous whips-your-head-back power when accelerator is depressed
  • Smooth ride
  • Easy-to-use 17” display
  • Spacious design with tons of big stuff storage
  • Vast battery range with Supercharging stations located in busy corridors with more planned
  • Useful app that’s also great for annoying spouse

 

Cons

  • The back seat outboard seat belts catch on the bezel
  • Lack of small stuff storage inside
  • Self-retracting door handles buggy from time to time
  • Buckles are flush with the seat bight in the back seat making buckling difficult for booster riders
  • Sharp-edged doors may catch you as you get out

My immediate impression after having the car for a few days was that it was designed to be a commuter car for Dad. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it has only 2 cup holders for the front seats only and no other real cubbies for storage aside from one just under the dash. It’s an intelligent car designed for a changeless world driven by credit and access cards. However, Tesla Motors has shown that it’s a company willing to work with its owners and I’m sure that future versions of the Model S will incorporate creature comfort improvements. And we did manage to get Graycie (yes, we’ve given her a name already) home from the San Francisco Bay Area to Las Vegas–read about our trip in the next blog.

So far carseat installation has been a dream in the back seat of the S and the only trouble I’ve had is getting the carseats through the narrow opening of the door. The good things so far outweigh the bad things in the Tesla Model S that I can hardly wait for my Model X to be built. I hope the designers working on the Model X take what they’re learning from the Model S and make the X a more family friendly vehicle. I don’t think it necessarily needs 10 cup holders, but buckles that aren’t flush with the seat bight, pouches on the backs of the front seats and on the doors for storage would be pretty high on my list of pretty-pleases. With the success of the Model S so far, Tesla Motors should be proud and continue on their upward trajectory of fine products.

Have I talked you into buying a Tesla Model S sedan or the upcoming Model X crossover? Reserve yours today for a $5000 refundable deposit. Prices on the Model S range from $52,400-$87,400 and pricing hasn’t been set yet for the X.