Practically Perfect

Forget what you read in the New York Times: The Tesla Model S is a fantastic car for a road trip.

Tesla Model S’s poor road-trip reputation has been greatly exaggerated.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The conventional wisdom on the Tesla Model S—the most hyped, decorated, and controversial new car in memory—is that it’s a technological marvel, but prohibitively expensive and ultimately impractical, especially for road trips. For all the accolades (Motor Trend Car of the Year, Automobile Automobile of the Year, the highest rating in Consumer Reports history), the review that sticks most in people’s minds is the one by the New York Times’ John M. Broder. You know, the one where the car ran out of batteries on the freeway and had to be towed to a charging station.

Lots of adverse factors conspired to create the Times’ road trip from hell, including cold weather, poor planning, and driver error. But the image of a shiny-red Model S strapped to a mechanic’s wrecker was indelible. Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed it led “hundreds” of buyers to cancel their orders. Even after CNN and others retraced Broder’s route from Washington, D.C. to Boston without incident, the taint lingered, because it seemed to confirm what skeptics had suspected all along: The Tesla hype was too good to be true. An electric car might make for a snazzy toy, but if you want a workhorse to get you from point A to point B, you’d better stick with pistons and gasoline.

But when I took the Model S for a weekend road trip recently, I found I didn’t miss the internal combustion engine one bit. The Tesla wasn’t just the smoothest, fastest, and most technologically advanced car I’ve ever driven. It was among the most comfortable and practical. And it was—counter to everything you’ve heard—ideally suited to a road trip.

The car makes things easy on you before you even get inside. There’s no key to speak of: Just approach the driver’s-side door with the Tesla-shaped key in your pocket, and the car wakes up automatically, its retractable door handles sliding out to greet your hand. Inside there are no knobs or dials, just a massive, 17-inch central touch screen and a smaller driver’s-side display controlled by buttons on the steering wheel.* Unlike in most other cars, the touch screen remains fully functional while you’re driving, so you can adjust your route on Google Maps, check out the view from the rear-facing camera, or even browse the Internet while you’re cruising down I-95. Should anyone do such things while driving? Of course not—but a passenger can. Tesla may be risking a lawsuit by allowing this, but it comes in handy on a long drive.

Once you’re in the car, you don’t have to turn it on—just put it in drive and go. Neither do you turn it off—just put it in park and get out. The interior is spacious and minimalist, the fit and finish as sound as you’d expect in a luxury sedan. There are a couple of minor annoyances. The Daimler-made turn-signal stalk is unusually low, practically enforcing a 9-and-3 hand position. The voice-command system doesn’t work particularly well. And the lack of “creep”—the car acts like it’s in neutral rather than in drive when your foot is off the gas—can be unnerving at first if you’re used to an automatic transmission. Tesla has addressed this last complaint by adding an optional “creep” mode via software update—a testament to the wisdom of controlling a car via software rather than having everything hard-wired.

The ride itself is flawless. My fiancée and I picked up the Model S at a Tesla Store in Manhattan on a Saturday morning, threw a couple of bags in its cavernous trunk, and headed northeast to a friend’s house in New Haven, Conn.—about 80 miles away. As in my first brief Model S test-drive last year, I was awed by the quality of the handling, the suspension, and the acceleration. If you’ve always driven fossil-fuel-guzzlers, it’s a ghostly feeling the first time you floor it in a Tesla. With no transmission and no engine noise, you’re simply pinned to your seat as the scenery flashes by. My co-pilot reached for a Star Trek analogy: “It’s like warp drive.”

The car’s virtues aside, it was a typical weekend jaunt, only with more friendly gawkers involved. Teslas are becoming a common sight in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but they’re still a novelty on the East Coast. We smiled and waved as fellow motorists craned their heads and flashed thumbs-up signs. A big tattooed guy in a vintage BMW M5 rolled down his window and actually began applauding as we passed him on I-95. A kid in a backward baseball cap and a Dodge Stratus R/T tried to out-accelerate us. He failed.

Over the course of the weekend—which involved driving to breakfast, driving to dinner, driving to an Ikea, driving to the top of a hill, and driving back to Manhattan, all with the climate-control on and the Internet radio playing—we charged the car exactly once, for a grand total of 20 minutes: just long enough to stretch our legs, use the bathroom, and grab some food at a rest stop in Milford, Conn. We returned the car with some 70 miles of battery power to spare. Not for one moment did we feel a hint of range anxiety.

Here’s the trick: We didn’t set out, as the Times’ Broder did (with Tesla’s encouragement), to test the limits of the car’s range. We just set out, like any normal driver, to reach a reasonable destination without any danger of running out of juice. You might say that 160 miles is a short road trip, and I’d agree with you. You might point out that you can go almost anywhere in the United States in an internal-combustion car without having to worry about running out of juice, and I’d agree with you again. That’s not a function of the car itself, though. The Tesla goes almost as far on a charge—upward of 265 miles—as a BMW M5 does on a full tank of gas. The real difference is the vast network of gas stations that sprouted up around the nation in the decades following the introduction of the first commercially viable gas-powered car.

Tesla is just beginning the huge undertaking of dotting the country’s highways with its Supercharger stations, which can replenish a Model S battery in about 45 minutes. Right now it has just eight: two on the East Coast and six in California. Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced last month that there will be 27 by the end of this summer and enough to enable a coast-to-coast Tesla road trip by the end of this year. Meanwhile, he’s aiming to reduce the charging time to more like 25 minutes.

That’s still a pretty long stopover if you’re on your way to work, which is why Tesla owners are better off charging their cars in their garage on weeknights. But it’s not very long in the scheme of a road trip—just swap out the McDonald’s drive-through for a sit-down lunch. The best part: It’s free. Unlimited supercharging is included in the price of the car if you buy a top-of-the-line Model S, or you can get it as a $2,000 option on the base version. Either way, once you have it, you have it—so you can leave the “gas money” out of your road-trip budget entirely.

Nor should you anticipate a lot of trips to the repair shop. There is no oil to change, and there are few moving parts to wear out or break down. As I’ve pointed out in the past, we won’t know for a while whether the Model S is reliable in the long term, but so far its most significant mechanical problem has been a weaker-than-intended left-hand latch on the second-row seat. In typical Tesla fashion, the company is offering to come to owners’ houses to pick up their cars for the recall and return them within a few hours.

I’m not the only one who’s beginning to think that Tesla’s “road-trip problem” isn’t such a problem after all. “A lot of the owners I talk to are quickly realizing this is not just their urban-commuter car,” Edward Loh, editor-in-chief of Motor Trend, told me. “They’re finding out that with the range and the network of Superchargers, they can do that long trip to San Francisco, and it’s not only feasible, it’s really comfortable.”

None of this is to say that the Model S is an affordable vehicle. The sticker price remains a serious barrier, not only to the average car-buyer but to the company’s long-term success. Tesla ’s goal is to follow up the Roadster and the Model S with a mass-market electric sedan in the $35,000 range, but it won’t be easy. One big reason Tesla’s vehicles are so much better than other electric cars is that they run on big, state-of-the-art batteries that cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. That price will have to come down for Tesla to make good on its promise. Musk’s latest timetable for that long-rumored vehicle is “three to four years.” In the meantime the company is readying a crossover SUV built on the Model S frame for release later this year.

As for Tesla’s road-trip limitations, another solution may be on the horizon that doesn’t involve plugging in at all. Musk tweeted on Tuesday that he’s planning a demonstration of Tesla’s new “battery-swapping” technology, which would allow drivers to switch to a fully charged battery in less time than it takes to fill up a tank with gas. How exactly this will work is not yet clear—a Tesla battery weighs on the order of half a ton. It may require Tesla to develop a network of battery-swapping stations alongside its Superchargers, which would take time, money, and commitment. But as long as people keep lining up to buy the Model S, the company has all three.

Correction, June 21, 2013: This article originally misstated the size of the Tesla’s central touch-screen display. It’s 17 inches, not 16. (Return.)