For more than eight years the still-fledgling Tesla Motors has been planning “the most advanced car on the planet”, a vehicle being rethought by Silicon Valley locals from the ground up, with pioneering laptop-derived batteries, a new, patented drive train and untried packaging. It’s a game-changer that Tesla Founder Elon Musk promised would provide the vehicle architecture for “the most compelling cars in the world”.

With Musk’s propensity to talk up his ventures in futuristic transport, players in the car industry have greeted Tesla announcements over the past few years with scepticism. Production delays and funding dramas seemed to suggest that the large sedan with fluid Maserati-like lines might head the way of the Fisker Karma, another Californian startup car with hybrid technology that looks the biz but has an unfortunate habit of bursting into flames at standstill. 

Tesla’s aim to produce its cars in California was questioned, and the longevity of its lithium-ion batteries was lambasted. But in late 2012 a slew of car awards and drive days laid to rest all doubts: the Model S is a game-changer: “hard-core amazing” (Wall Street Journal); “simultaneously stylish, efficient, roomy, crazy fast, high-tech and all electric” (New York Times); and, from Motor Trend, “for the first time since anyone can remember, this year’s winner was a unanimous choice. Not a single judge had any doubts about the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year”.

Musk was quick to accept the Motor Trend award as a validation of his Tesla plan “to show that an electric car truly can be better than any gasoline car, which is a critical step towards the widespread adoption of sustainable transport”.

The Model S is designed to challenge combustion-engined luxury sedans in seducing the customers who like to drive. It’s an audacious plan, but launching the weight of a top spec 7-Series at the speed of a V12 Benz CL with the torque of a DB9 puts the Model S Performance squarely on the map for anyone who wants some ‘stonk’ with their five seats. Or, in the case of the Model S, seven seats, because this unique sedan design fits the option of two rear-facing child seats into a sleek, aerodynamic form that belies its Porsche Panamera-esque width and length. Oh, and its lower than Godzilla.

An aluminium-intensive chassis stiffened by under-floor lithium-ion batteries begets a centre of gravity 
44 cm low. Engineering tricks abound: the light side rails have hex sections to absorb crush, and the multi-link rear suspension adds a vertical link to distribute braking torque on the wheel. The S is a rear-wheel drive, sandwiching the diff and gearbox between electric motor and circuits in a space just large enough for a medium-sized toolbox.

And that’s it – no transmission means that the area above this low-slung, lightweight frame is an open book for packaging. The S gets a trunk in the back and a “frunk” in the front for a whopping 894 litres of cargo space, plus a centre rear seat that rivals the front for legroom. More than 250 patents covering the technology and engineering of the Model S and the “Tesla Platform”, suggest the company has ambitions that rival Musk’s other transportation project, the SpaceX plan to fly to and colonise Mars.

Tesla Chief Designer, Franz Von Holzhausen, oversaw every aspect of the S, from body through to interior, graphics and branding. Von Halzhausen previously helped develop the “nagare” flow philosophy at Mazda and, shortly after joining Tesla in 2008, he poached Mazda co-collaborator Bernard Lee, with whom he had designed the Furai concept racecar.

Noting that “Tesla is a new brand (and) the last thing we want to do is alienate people from our unique drive 
train”, Von Holzhausen’s proclivity for sinuous curves and the bold, planted stance of American muscle cars creates a body that is exciting yet familiar. A swooping glass panoramic roof and glazed B-pillars belie its bulk but there’s no doubt the S is a family-sized, albeit sport-bodied, vehicle.

On approach the recessed door handles automatically extend, and sitting in the driver’s seat, foot to brake, 
sensors feel the weight of a driver and start the engine. There are only two buttons in this car – the glove box and the hazard lights. The interior is designed by Nadja Arnaout, a product designer ex-BMW Designworks, and it oozes luxury, technology and adventure.

A 17-inch touch screen, designed to be “better than your MacBook Pro” and operated via an app bar, governs the car’s systems and ambience. There is no startup note, no engine noise, no pedestrian warning hum – no sign that the engine is on other than icons.

Von Holzhausen notes that Tesla vehicles have what every conventional car company is trying to achieve: virtually no motor noise. He describes the sound from the Model S motor as it winds up from go as an intense whine similar to an F16 engine, and absolutely suited to the effortless acceleration that pushes two tonnes of metal and five to seven passengers forward with the speed and direct handling of a sports coupe. 

Despite a claimed range of up to 480 km, much has been made in the media of Tesla’s range capabilities, and cars running flat. In September 2012, Tesla revealed the location of six Californian “solar carports” in its SuperCharger network. Through a partnership with SolarCity, a builder and installer of photovoltaic equipment owned by Musk’s cousins, Teslas with the appropriate connection will charge for free, using emission-free, solar-generated electricity.

The Model S Performance can be optioned with Twin Chargers, meaning it can replenish 257 km of travel in half an hour at a Tesla SuperCharger facility. A committed survivalist could install 3.3 kilowatts of solar and charge for free year round. Otherwise the vehicle plugs into an open source 2AMP outlet and is monitored for power by the Tesla phone app.

Toyota and Daimler are both working with Tesla on electric options, potentially using batteries developed by Tesla and Panasonic. Tesla has garaged the Lotus-derived Roadster and now builds its cars in-house, in California, from the ground up. Even Musk’s selling model is controversial: asserting that “It is impossible for [existing franchise dealers] to explain the advantages of going electric without simultaneously undermining their traditional business (of gasoline cars)”.

Musk hired ex-Apple store mastermind George Blankenship to design an experience-based, standalone showroom where customers design the vehicle and then buy it online. And Model S is only the start of an aggressive rollout of electric vehicles based on the Tesla Platform: coming soon is the falcon-winged SUV with the moniker ‘Model X’.

Von Holzhausen likens designing a car to conducting an orchestra: “it’s a little bit of product design, graphic design, architecture, fashion, sculpture … it’s about bringing all the different disciplines and elements into one cohesive package that is also a container to keep people safe … designing a car is finding the best 
attributes out of all those elements … and making the song sound beautiful”.

With the absolute originality that benchmarks Model S and the upcoming Model X, Philip Glass should write the score.

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