The Tesla tailgate test

Just before kickoff, someone outside Worsham Field at Lane Stadium was earning as many cheers and high-fives as the football players streaming onto the field: me.

Not that I was in traditional gladiator uniform. My armour was the Tesla Model S, the sensuous, celebrated electric car that began sales late last year in the US. The slippery sedan could be mistaken by the casual passerby for any number of prestige cars, but at the wheel I could have been the starting quarterback, for all the attention the car steered my way.

Vital Stats

Tesla Model S P85+

  • Base price: $94,900, excluding tax incentives
  • Price as tested: $117,520
  • EPA fuel economy: 89 miles per gallon equivalent
  • Powertrain: 416-horsepower, 443 lb-ft electric motor, 85 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, rear-wheel drive
  • Standard equipment: 17in capacitive touchscreen display, 200w seven-speaker sound system, automatic climate control
  • Major options: Performance Plus package with air suspension, 21in wheels, panoramic sunroof, Tech package

College students and their parents thought the Tesla hit like a star linebacker rocking a skinny tailback. Their enthusiasm was not unfounded.

Consider that it had driven to Virginia Tech from Washington DC under purely electric power. Rival schools are fond of saying “All dirt roads lead to Blacksburg.” That may be a cruel caricature of my alma mater, but Virginia Tech is definitely off the beaten track – and 240 miles from the Tesla showroom near the US capital. A Nissan Leaf might have made the trip with stops for two full recharges. Might.

Tesla said the tested Model S P85+ – the number referencing the car’s battery-pack capacity of 85 kilowatt-hours – would travel 300 miles on a full charge under ideal conditions, which made the drive look like a slam dunk. After charging at home, the car’s computer reflected enough juice for 270 miles. Not quite 300, but still plenty for the drive.

Motoring westward for a day of pre-game revelry known in the US as tailgating, driver and front passenger appreciated the Model S’s cyborg-chic appointments, but our three-abreast rear-seaters complained that the padding on the outer edges of the back seat funnelled them together towards the middle. And while shoulder room is ample, the seat cushion is low and thin, leading to sore spots after hours on the road and leg discomfort from sub-par thigh support.

To maximise the S’s range, Tesla recommends using cruise control at a steady 55 to 60mph, a lesson that initially fell on deaf ears, given our route included the truck-heavy Interstate 81 and its 70mph speed limit. Locking in cruise at 60 would have tried the patience of all occupants, saying nothing of the highway’s big-rig captains.

Driving without cruise control engaged, however, drained the battery too quickly, so we exited to a two-lane road and set the cruise for a more sedate, scenic drive, stopping for a battery top-off at Staunton Nissan, about 150 miles southwest of Washington, during which we broke for dinner.

For a car that all but requires reliance on cruise control to replicate its range claims, it is surprising that the Model S is not equipped with a radar-enabled adaptive cruise control programme –now common in the full-size German luxury sedans that the S is priced against.

Traffic forces the driver to disengage the S’s system when the car encounters traffic.

Adaptive cruise is a technology tailor-made for the Model S, as it would encourage all but the most speed-obsessive S drivers to use it, and with much less hassle, thereby maximising range.

Similarly, the Model S packs a quality GPS navigation system into its 17in centre display screen, but the programme does not serve up routes based on distance or a desire to avoid toll roads, or any number of navigation options typical of systems in luxury sedans. The ability to prioritise roads that have speed limits below 65mph, for example, might be helpful. Better still, once Tesla gets on the adaptive cruise bandwagon – as numerous reports suggest – why not have the ability to program a destination and target arrival time, and let the navigation system sort out the optimal route and speed?

With the S having topped up at the Nissan dealership the previous evening, we rolled into the alumni parking lot on gameday with a coveted Lot 1 tag dangling from the S’s mirror. On most new cars, such an elegantly simple function would be impossible, given the inherent rearview-mirror bloat required to house cameras and sensors. The mirror on the Model S is beautifully unencumbered by such gadgets, but for a car billed as the future of motoring, it really ought to have those collision avoidance and lane departure sensors crowding its mirror housing.

The Model S is a stunning technological achievement, and the car amply deserves its numerous awards, but it is surprising to find a product born of Silicon Valley – where scalable innovation is prized – with a bottom line as tested of $117,000, especially when it lacks most of the convenience and safety features available on a $26,000 Mazda 3. As far as drivetrain technology is concerned, the Model S is a decade ahead of its would-be rivals. In terms of active safety features, it is a decade behind (though that didn’t prevent the US’s crash-safety body from awarding the S its top rating).

Once settled into our spot, the Model S’s rear hatch proved ideal for hosting a tailgate picnic. The storage area easily swallowed food and a folding table, while overnight luggage for five was wedged into the front trunk. The rear-facing jump seats obviated the need for extra chairs, but occupants felt somewhat excluded from the parking lot goings-on, given how deeply nestled the seats are.

All the while, I was entertaining questions from other alumni about the S. Considering their presence on this prized parking real estate, there was every likelihood that they were potential buyers, and they made little effort to hide their interest.

Just before game time, as everyone headed to the field, I drove the Model S out of the lot to a nearby charging station. This short amble was my high-five moment, with fans streaming past openly ogling the S, peppering me with questions and singing their approval as I maneuveured out of the lot. Having spent a recent week in a brand-new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray painted a shocking yellow, I did not anticipate the S would provoke similar passions.

More importantly for Tesla, though, was that while the Corvette turned plenty of heads, the Model S  seemed to command downright reverence from the college students it encountered, especially among female students. “A Tesla!” was a common exclamation, and un-ironic observations about saving the planet also came through the Model S’s open windows. It follows, then, that Tesla’s future is bright if it can deliver products that these potential customers can afford.

Other game attendees clearly had encountered no such barriers to purchasing this piece of rolling future-think. Of the nearby charging stations, only one was open. The others were charging a pair of Model Ss.