by Gerhard Horn
It doesn't matter who you are or what your feelings about electric vehicles are, it's hard to disagree with this statement: in terms of its contribution to the automotive world, the Tesla Model S is right up there with the Ford Model T. Ford perfected mass production and made cars affordable, while Elon Musk and his team finally convinced the world that the future was electric.
Sure, there were electric cars before the Model S, but they were pretty horrid across the board. Now, you have an electric sedan with more than 400 miles of range on a charge, a 3.1-second 0-60 mph time, and more tech than even an S-Class had several years ago. What makes this all the more impressive is that the Model S is officially going on nine years in production, which is why 2021 has seen its biggest update yet. The most recent round of upgrades has made it better than ever, but is the electric grandpa still good enough to beat the new kids on the block in the Porsche Taycan and Lucid Air?
The 2021 upgrades are substantial. There are three models to choose from, with the new Tesla Model S Long Range being the only option slotting in below the Plaid. The latter is so savage that we decided to review it separately. The standard Long Range received a noticeable facelift, along with some interior upgrades that will undoubtedly be at the center of many internet debates. The latest Long Range now gets to 60 mph in only 3.1 seconds and has a 412-mile range - these are some phenomenal specs.
We'll start with the least controversial and work our way up. First, the rear passengers now get a screen mounted to the center armrest's rear between the two front seats. Rear passengers can use it to watch movies, series, and even play games. In the front, you'll still find Tesla's minimal dash design, but the large tablet infotainment system is now mounted horizontally. This opens up space underneath for two smartphones that can be wirelessly connected. The old digital instrument cluster has been ditched in favor of a new sleeker interface. In terms of design, the new interior looks like it was designed by the person with the thinnest spectacles at Ikea. Finally, and most controversially, is the new steering wheel. Tesla is redesigning the steering wheel, replacing it with a steering square with the top half removed. This particular feature was either designed by a massive Knight Rider fan or somebody who wanted to incorporate some Formula One into the cockpit.
See trim levels and configurations:
You'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between last year's Tesla and the facelifted model. The haunches are more aggressive and the hood is sleeker. The taillights are a bit darker at the rear, and the chrome strip that used to run between the light clusters is now black. Overall, the Model S is still a handsome vehicle, but it is beginning to show its age. Porsche's Taycan offers a wide variety of customization options, not to mention interesting styling that moves away from the now almost-defunct saloon. The lights are LED all around, as are the fog lights. 19-inch alloys are standard, and there are two styles to choose from.
Porsche had the Model S squarely in its sights while designing the Taycan. The dimensions are extremely close, with the Taycan only being 0.6 inches shorter in length than the 196-inch Model S. The Tesla has a longer 116.5 inch wheelbase, which is more important in the grander scheme of things, as a longer wheelbase usually translates into a more interior room. It's 77.3 inches wide excluding the side mirrors and 56.9 inches tall. What used to be known as the Long Range Plus has now become the new Long Range model, and it has a curb weight of 4,561 pounds. If that seems heavy for a sedan, it is. One of the main downsides of an EV is the sheer weight of the batteries, but in the case of Tesla, they're mounted low down in the wheelbase to create a low center of gravity.
When it comes to exterior color options, Tesla keeps it simple. There are only five colors on the palette, and all of them do an excellent job of highlighting the exterior design elements. Pearl White Multicoat is the only no-cost option, while Solid Black, Midnight Silver Metallic, and Deep Blue Metallic cost $1,500 each. The $2,500 Red Multi-Coat looks sensational, contrasting nicely with the black exterior accents. For the full red/dark contrast effect, you have to pay an additional $4,500 for the 21-inch Arachnid Wheels.
It's difficult to describe electric car performance to anyone who hasn't experienced it yet. We can tell you that Tesla claims a 0-60 mph sprint time of 3.1 seconds, but even this archaic performance metric doesn't do the ferocity of the forward momentum justice. To explain how it feels, we have to create context. A Porsche 911 Carrera 4S will sprint to 60 mph in a best time of 3.2 seconds. To do that, it has to go through the entire internal combustion process and change gears at least twice. In an electric car, you just climb on the throttle, and the system's entire output is available immediately. In the case of the Model S Long Range, that output is 670 horsepower. Tesla claims a 0-60 mph sprint time of 3.1 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph. The all-new Plaid model, which we review separately, has a claimed 0-60 mph time of 1.99 seconds. We get the feeling Tesla is currently held back by tire technology, which hasn't caught up with EV performance yet.
While this is impressive, it's important not to get caught up in the 0-60 mph times. In-gear acceleration is even more impressive. Once again, an ICE car driving at 60 mph in top gear would have to drop down a few gears, wait for the turbo to start boosting, and only then will it start accelerating. In an EV, the torque is there instantly. From 60 mph to 100 mph, the Model S will outsprint even a BMW M5 Competition. How angry are you going to be in the BMW, knowing that you just got your ass handed to you by the base-spec Model S?
Tesla set the EV standard that every other manufacturer and startup is currently following. It's colloquially known as a skateboard design and beautiful in its simplicity. You have a battery pack mounted low down between the front and rear wheels. In the case of the Tesla Model S Long Range, this battery pack powers two electric motors. Each axle gets its own individually-powered motor, making the Model S all-wheel drive without using the traditional mechanical components. In an ICE car, you'd have the engine mounted on one side and a prop shaft running from one end to the other.
The power is transferred to the road via a single-speed gearbox. Porsche equips the Taycan with a two-speed transmission on the rear axle for a higher top speed, but we reckon the Tesla's 155 mph is enough.
The Model S' skateboard design isn't just impressive for the new-age packaging reasons mentioned above. Battery packs weigh a lot, which is one of the main problems engineers face when designing an EV. Instead of seeing the weight as a negative, Tesla's engineers used it to the car's benefit. Placing the heaviest part of the car at the lowest possible point results in a low center of gravity, which is better for handling and cornering. From behind the wheel (or square in this case), the Model S feels perfectly fine. It turns in without protest, and the suspension copes well in its softest setting.
Unfortunately, we have to address the elephant in the room. The square steering wheel looks cool, but it is, to be blunt, stupid. Fanboys call it forward-thinking and edgy. They'll continue to think that way right up to the point where they have to use full lock to park or simply maneuver around tight spots in the city. Not to mention that it's impossible to follow the NHTSA's steering techniques guide with the square.
Others will point at F1 cars and say that they do just fine with a square wheel, to which we reply, have you ever heard of steering ratios? Have you ever seen Lewis parallel park? Will Tesla update the steering ratio to make it work? We doubt it. Having novice drivers with racing car steering ratios is a scary thought.
Let's just create a simple scenario to illustrate the point. To turn left/right at an intersection, you have to spin the wheel nearly one full rotation. Most drivers will instinctively reach for the top of the wheel so their arms won't cross. In the Tesla, you'll reach, and there will be nothing to grab onto. The best counterargument we've heard so far is that it's aimed at the gaming generation. New drivers coming in will be familiar with the setup and will enjoy using it. The problem is, real-life driving isn't a game. Real-life driving has consequences, and there's a good reason the steering wheel has been a wheel for more than a hundred years. It works.
Luckily, the facelifted Model S is still available with a normal steering wheel.
Tesla is the king of range, and the Model S Long Range can achieve 405 miles on a single charge at an EPA-rated 124/115/120 MPGe. Compared with the mpg ratings of ICE vehicles with similar performance, the Model S is amazing.
Tesla also has a large network of superchargers, and the new Model S can be charged at 250 kW, bringing charge times to an all-time low. Tesla claims 200 miles from a 15 minute charge at a Supercharger station. Equipping your home with a Tesla Wall Connector and you can recharge in six to 15 hours.
To make travel as easy as possible, the Model S's built-in navigation has a trip-planning function and will automatically calculate a route with superchargers. This system is now so advanced, it can even detect whether a spot is available at a Supercharger station. Other manufacturers have a lot of catching up to do in this department.
When it comes to charging times and infrastructure, other manufacturers have a lot of catching up to do. When it comes to the business of building cars properly, Tesla still has a lot of catching up to do. At some point in the future, these two things will overlap, and the result will be the best EV ever made. For now, back to the Model S interior.
The interior upgrade is a huge improvement. We love the mix of complex advanced features mixed with simplicity. The new infotainment layout is more traditional, but works a charm. Still, we prefer to have some features apart from one central interface, if only to decrease the amount of time your eyes are off the road. We firmly believe that climate control should always be a separate feature with its own buttons, and the same goes for a volume dial that also allows you to switch it all off with a simple press. Having said that, we do appreciate the shortcut buttons located at the bottom of the touchscreen.
Other than the silly square wheel and the iffy build quality, the interior is quite nice. The quality seems to be good, but given Tesla's poor history in this particular department, we'll reserve comment until it has been on sale for a while.
This is yet another department that benefits from the skateboard design. Having a flat floor and a 116.5-inch wheelbase results in a lot of room to play with, and Tesla makes the most of it. Thanks to minimalist design, the Model S feels roomy. You can create the illusion of even more space by opting for a lighter interior color.
Front passengers get 42.7 inches of legroom, but the rear legroom is a bit tight at 35.4 inches. Front headroom is adequate at 38.8 inches, but taller passengers will struggle with the 35.3 inches of rear headroom, which is surprisingly less than you get in the smaller Model 3.
Like the exterior color options, Tesla keeps it simple on the inside. There are three trim options to choose from, with Ebony and Ash Wood inserts being the default option. In this trim, the Tesla feels a bit too Germanic for our liking. Why go the alternative route, and have an interior that's so similar to what we've come to expect? For an additional $2,000 you can upgrade to Black and White synthetic leather with Walnut trim. It looks spectacular, but is perhaps not the best option if you're transporting messy kids. The Cream leather with Walnut trim is perhaps the best of both worlds. We would have liked more options. Where's the red leather, Tesla? All performance cars should have the option of a red leather interior.
Over the years, people have generated a lot of content that focuses on Tesla's blistering performance in a straight line. Yes, it can outrun a Lamborghini, but did you know it can also do it while carrying enough luggage for a family of four to go on an extended holiday? The power liftgate reveals a trunk measuring 26.3 cubic feet in size, which puts its ICE rivals to shame. A small frunk also adds a handy few cubes extra for a total of 28 cubic feet. Fold down the rear seats in a 60/40 split and the available space grows to 58.1 cubes. Because there's no engine up front, you also get a 2.1 cubic feet frunk, which is useful for quick trips to the shop
Tesla's have always been a bit gimmicky, but we'll gloss over those particular features and focus on the things that impact day-to-day comfort. The 2021 Model S Long Range comes as standard with a tinted glass roof, tri-zone climate control, a phone key, wireless and USB-C charging for every passenger, 12-way power-adjustable front seats with a memory function for the driver, heated front and rear seats, ventilated front seats, a power-adjustable steering column and heated steering wheel, a driver information display with critical driving information, and a rear-seat entertainment system that's powerful enough to rival modern gaming consoles. The safety spec includes a rearview camera, blind-spot monitoring, and automatic emergency braking.
The Tesla packs a serious punch in this department. The updated model S comes with a 17-inch central touchscreen that controls everything. You can also use it to watch movies and for gaming. Tesla doesn't say whether this system deactivates once the car is on the go, which is worrying considering how much faith some Tesla owners put in Autopilot. Underneath the new main infotainment system you'll find two neat upright smartphone wireless chargers.
The rear entertainment system has up to 10 teraflops of processing power, which Tesla says is good enough to rival the newest consoles. Rear passengers get wireless controllers and can play games via Tesla Arcade. A 22-speaker system sound system is standard, as is Bluetooth connectivity.
Alas, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto still aren't available. Tesla prefers you use its own app, which is quite comprehensive. There are numerous conspiracy theories about why Tesla doesn't allow third party apps to run in its cars, but we reckon it's just a case of Tesla wanting to be in complete control of its software. With advanced systems like Autopilot, it makes sense not giving any sort of access to a third party system.
The Model S sedan has been around long enough to have sorted out its teething and reliability problems. It has been recall-free since 2019, which is a nice change of pace from a car that suffered so many recalls in its younger years. There were 246 complaints logged with the NHTSA concerning unintended acceleration, but after a review by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that ran for a full year, it was decided that there was not enough evidence, and labeled it as driver error. Tesla offers a four-year/50,000-mile basic warranty and a warranty for the battery/drive unit that runs for up to eight years or a mileage of up to 150,000 miles.
Both local safety agencies have yet to conduct a full Tesla Model S safety review for the 2021 model. So far, the IIHS has only rated the Tesla's headlights and front crash prevention capabilities, and the results were mixed. The headlights were rated as poor but it ranked as superior for crash prevention. The NHTSA does not have a rating for the latest model, but all of Tesla's cars have consistently scored a full five-star safety rating in prior crash reviews, including earlier versions of the Model S. The Model S has a high-strength architecture, and numerous advanced safety features as standard.
The Model S's safety features remain a hot topic, but it does have a long list of stuff meant to keep you safe. It has stability control, ABS brakes, LATCH attachments, LED lights and fog lights, and eight airbags. Driver assistance features include active forward collision mitigation, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and lane-keep assist.
For an additional $10,000, you can upgrade to what Tesla calls Full Self-Driving Capability. Even though Tesla puts a disclaimer right underneath that particular segment of the website, stating that it does not make the vehicle fully autonomous, some people assume otherwise. Before we get to the implications, let's look at what you get. This system consists of navigation on Autopilot, auto lane change, autopark, summon, a full self-driving computer, and traffic light and stop sign recognition.
To be clear, we've seen Tesla's Autopilot doing some pretty amazing stuff over the years. There's no doubt that Tesla is way ahead of the pack and much closer to producing an autonomous car than anyone else. But the Model S is not fully autonomous. Fact. It says so on Tesla's own website. Yet many owners place too much confidence in the system, doing idiotic things like napping on the rear seat while they're supposed to be driving. You can't blame Tesla for Darwin's good work, but we also think Tesla shouldn't use phrases like Full Self-Driving Capability so fraglantly. The whole autonomous driving thing is still a grey area, and until the legalities around it are resolved, clearer language should be used so there's no doubt of what the car is legally allowed to do and technically capable of doing.
Despite all its flaws, and there are many, we can't dispute what the Model S started, and what it has become. There's no doubt that the Tesla Model S shook the automotive industry to its very core, and the result has been positive. Without this car, the Porsche Taycan might not exist.
Tesla remains at the forefront of EV technology as far as range and infrastructure is concerned, and while we have some issues with the wording, its safety systems are truly next-level.
For a car that was launched in 2012, the Model S remains highly competitive. Thanks to Tesla's constant over-the-air updates and this most recent revamp, it remains a serious competitor.
Having said that, we can't ignore Tesla's past problems with build quality. The square steering wheel reeks of a company that's all out of ideas, using whatever crazy thoughts the designers can think of. That steering wheel would never have made it beyond the concept stage at a German manufacturer, and for good reason.
Finally, we reckon the fanaticism has gone out of control. Did you know Tesla owners have their very own dating app? We understand loving cars and defending them, but limiting your dating pool to only people that drive the same kind of car as you is a bit cult-like. Of course it's not every Tesla owner, but some of them take the term "fanboy" to a whole new level.
The Model S range has been cut down to just three models, and we review the Plaid versions separately. The Tesla Model S has a price of $79,990 for the Long Range, not including the $1,200 documentation and delivery fee. Once you add a nice color, a black and white interior, and all of the advanced driving features, the Tesla Model S will cost $93,490. This used to be considered a bargain, and to a certain extent it still is. The Tesla still has an unmatched driving range of 412 miles, after all. But the USA's list of available EV models continues to grow, and now includes the Porsche Taycan. The base Taycan has an MSRP of just under $80,000, while the 4S retails for just over $100,000.
Aside from the maniacal Plaid models, the Long Range is the only other Model S and there are not multiple trims with different features. It uses a dual-motor setup that provides 670 hp, which is good for a 0-60 mph sprint of 3.1 seconds. Yes, the Tesla Model S is a car that is fast enough to stun passengers into silence. It also has a class-leading range of 412 miles.
Standard equipment consists a tinted glass roof, tri-zone climate control, a phone key, wireless device charging, USB-C charging for every passenger, 12-way power-adjustable front seats with a memory function for the driver, heated front and rear seats, a power-adjustable steering column and heated steering wheel, and a driver information display.
The infotainment system is good, with a large 17-inch touchscreen and two wireless chargers doing duty up front. Rear-seat passengers also get a screen with a processor powerful enough to rival modern gaming consoles. You can play games on Tesla Arcade via wireless controllers. For sound, Tesla equips each Model S with a sensational 22-speaker sound system.
There aren't many options available for the Model S. Being fully stocked straight from the factory, you essentially just choose an exterior and interior color, and then you hit the build button. The only notable option is the Full Self-Driving Capability, with pricing for this upgrade pegged at $10,000. It consists of navigation on autopilot, auto lane change, auto park, summon, a full self-driving computer and traffic light and stop sign recognition. While you can't fully exploit these features yet, Tesla is able to make over-the-air updates to finetune them. Once the government gives the go-ahead to go autonomous, you'll be well prepared.
The 2021 Tesla Model S Long Range is the only option, with little in the way of packages or accessories. You can choose your color, your trim of choice, and the Full Self-Driving Package. If you want something even quicker, the best Tesla Model S is the new Plaid, but it comes at a substantially higher price.
One of the benefits of mass-production is a reduction in cost. After the Model S did the initial heavy lifting, Tesla built up enough cash to design and build the Model 3. It's exactly like the Model S, only smaller. It's down on range, but you get a similar AWD setup and blistering acceleration.
The Performance model sprints to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds and has a 315-mile range. The Long Range is $10,000 less, and offers 353 miles. In both cases, you're getting plenty of range and performance at far less than the cost of the Model S.
Tesla equips all of its models with the impressive infotainment system and safety gadgets, so you don't have to worry about that. In fact, the only real sacrifice is space, and only in the trunk. The front and rear legroom of the Model S and Model 3 are nearly identical. The Model 3's trunk is more in line with traditional compact luxury saloons, offering 12.3 cubic feet. Considering all of this, the Model 3 is the obvious choice. And it still has a round steering wheel.
Let's get the most obvious argument against the Taycan out of the way first. In terms of range, it's nowhere near the Model 3, let alone the Model S. The EPA claims the 4S can do up to 227 miles on a full charge, but this figure has been quite controversial. There have been independent tests that proved it can do more, but also a lot less. For what it's worth, Porsche claims between 193 and 195 miles. Tesla also has its supercharger network.
In terms of performance, the Tesla is ahead, but the Porsche beats it with consistent performance. A Tesla can only do so many blistering starts, while the Taycan will happily do it all the way down to a five percent battery. The Porsche also has a better interior and handles a lot better. The new 2021 base Taycan is $90 cheaper, but is nowhere near as fast as the Tesla.
What strikes us is what each company is good at. Tesla is good in the powertrain department, but Porsche has made some advancements. The Taycan's battery heating/cooling system is worth an entire article by itself, but suffice to say it's always prepped for maximum performance, no matter what the weather looks like. Tesla's decade-long headstart is proving to be a real headache for the likes of Porsche in terms of range. But Porsche's nearly 90-year head start in mass-producing cars also comes with its benefits.
Considering the average daily commute figures in the USA, we'd have the Porsche. The Tesla is the original, but Porsche built a better EV.
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