Priuses Are for Losers

Introducing the Tesla S: It’s electric, it’s got great lines, and there’s a waiting list a mile long.

Tesla Model S Sedan.
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk drives the new Tesla Model S all-electric sedan

Photograph by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

Gliding up Manhattan’s West Side Highway in a Tesla Model S, I change lanes and see the traffic before me part as though for Moses.* I stab the gas pedal—er, accelerator—and none of the usual things happen—no noise, no downshift. The car, though, snaps forward like a rubber band, pinning the back of my head to the leather headrest as the scenery blurs by.

I prefer not to think of myself as the sort of person who would harbor feelings of superiority on the basis of a material possession. But it is extremely hard, as drivers in their BMWs and Lexuses crane for a glimpse of my ninja-quiet ride, to keep from thinking one thing: suckers.

Such is the insidious appeal of Tesla’s new all-electric luxury sedan, built from the ground up in the nation’s smugness capital, the San Francisco Bay Area. I don’t even own the damn thing. I was merely offered a 15-minute test drive. But in that short time I experienced a level of self-satisfaction that would make a Prius owner blush.

Apparently I’m not alone. The San Jose Mercury News’ Troy Wolverton began his Model S review thusly: “I am now a member of a select club: I’m one of the very few who has driven Tesla’s new all-electric Model S luxury sedan.” Well whoop-de-do for you, Troy. And for me. And for the thick-walleted Tesla fanatics who plunked down $5,000 sight-unseen to be among the first to own the new car, which began shipping in limited-edition form last month but won’t be available to the car-buying masses until December at the earliest. Whoop-de-do for all of us: Not since the Model T motored past rows of horse-drawn carriages has a new car offered its early adopters so many opportunities for smugness.

It’s not just the silence and the speed. The Model S, in its most expensive form—that’s a sticker price of $105,400 before a federal tax credit—accelerates from a dead stop to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds. (The one I drove, which retails for $77,400, gets there in 5.6.) It’s that there are no gears. No buttons. No dipsticks. When you open the hood, there are no 20th-century tubes, fans, pipes, or hunks of metal. Instead there is a “frunk”—a front trunk, just the place for stashing your reusable Whole Foods bags brimming with POM Wonderful and organic kale.

Instead of a bulky transmission console between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat, there is a nice empty space for parking your briefcase or purse. Instead of analog dials, there is a 17-inch Wi-Fi touchscreen display that handles everything from the navigation system to your MP3 collection to the suspension control settings. On the version I tested, there aren’t even door handles—until you touch the spot where they should be, which prompts them to emerge like the wings of a Golden Snitch.

Oh, and did I mention you’re saving the rainforests or something?

For those who concern themselves with cars’ sociocultural implications, the Tesla is unique in being a product, not of Detroit or Japan, but of Silicon Valley. Whereas its impractical predecessor, the Tesla Roadster, shared much of its frame with the Lotus Elise, the Model S is all-American (or at least, as all-American as any other domestic car these days). On the other hand, the car hasn’t gotten the warmest reception in Detroit, nor from conservative outlets, which tend to lead their reviews by mentioning the $465 million federal loan that Tesla got to help it build this luxury toy.

The Model S’s design reflects its Silicon Valley provenance throughout. With its aerodynamic lines and minimalist decor, it feels a bit like the automotive world’s version of an Apple product. And in fact, it will be sold not from sprawling lots on suburban Auto Rows, but at Apple Store-like boutiques in trendy shopping districts—shops designed for Tesla by former Apple retail executive George Blankenship. (If you sign up for a new ride while the hoi polloi gawk at you through the store’s glass windows, you can start smirking about your Model S before you even get behind the wheel.)

The new Tesla isn’t perfect. In fact, we don’t even know for sure yet that it’s well-made. The auto blog Jalopnik has for months been waging an admirable yet lonely crusade against the Tesla hype, partly on the grounds that the company has not let professional reviewers drive the Model S long enough to get a feel for its build quality or battery range. (The company’s reps claim that’s because it’s building the cars as fast as it can to meet demand, and hasn’t had any to spare for the media.) The Roadster suffered two recalls, and it’s possible that time will expose the Model S as a lemon.

So far, though, the defects catalogued by the car’s few detractors have been reassuringly picayune. One early buyer was frustrated that the car doesn’t creep forward when it’s in idle, as does a gas-powered car—which actually seems like an improvement to me. A post called “Where the Model S Fails” on one of Tesla’s customer forums points out that, in the version without retractable door handles, the chrome gets all smudgy when you touch it. My own most irksome finding was that the cruise-control stalk was where I expected the blinker to be, so that I failed to signal any of my turns until I was halfway through them.

The main obstacle, for those not blessed with great wealth in addition to taste and an environmental conscience, is the price tag. As I’ve pointed out, the widely touted base price of $49,900 will not get you the standout performance and battery life that set the car apart. In fact, that amount of cash will not get you anything until the company finishes building and shipping its first 1,000 cars, which start at $95,400 before a federal tax credit.

That’s bad news for most of us. But for the lucky few, it’s just one more reason to gloat.

Correction: July 25, 2012: This article originally misstated the name of the roadway that runs along the west side of Manhattan. It’s the West Side Highway, not the West End Highway. (Return.)