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The Tesla Story, Part 3 – The Model S

by Stephen Fogel

On To The Next Challenge: A 4-Door Sedan

It was June of 2008, just three months after the Roadster had gone into series production. Elon Musk announced his next automotive project to the world. It would be an all-electric four-door sedan that could hold seven people and their luggage. The new car would be designed by Tesla from the ground up. And it would have a starting price of $50,000, less than half of what the Roadster was selling for.

The Design Of The Model S: A Crucial Element

In August of 2008, Tesla hired rising star Franz von Holzhausen away from Mazda to be its chief designer. von Holzhausen had been part of the team that created the Volkswagen New Beetle. His own designs include the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars while at General Motors, and the Furai, Kabura, and Nagare concepts during his time at Mazda.

Meanwhile, The Future At Tesla Was Anything But Assured

Elon Musk took over the Tesla CEO role from Ze’ev Drori in October of 2008. He then divorced his wife Justine. The stock market had just tanked, thanks to the financial crisis. At this point, he had $70 million of his own cash in Tesla. Things looked bad.

In November 2008, Tesla was able to raise $40 million to finance their debt. This staved off bankruptcy. Then two major influxes of cash saved them. In May of 2009, Tesla and Daimler entered into a strategic partnership, in which Daimler acquired ten percent of Tesla’s stock for $50 million. Tesla then received a US Energy Department loan for $465 million in June of 2009.

Exactly one year later, on June 29, 2010, came Tesla’s IPO. The stock was offered at $17 per share. This raised a welcome $226 million for Tesla. It was the first time that an American carmaker had gone public since Ford did it in 1956.

Four months later, in October of 2010, Tesla took possession of the 5.4 million square foot former General Motors/Toyota joint venture plant in Fremont, California. This is where the Model S would be built.

The Model S Design Inspiration

The Model S would be von Holzhausen’s first design for Tesla, and the start of the company’s new design language going forward. Holzhausen’s inspiration was the professional cyclists of the Tour de France, whose athletic bodies are lean and muscular, with zero body fat. They are precisely tuned for winning the race, with the ability to go long distances, but also to sprint at high speeds when necessary. These athletes are the essence of efficiency and performance, the two outstanding qualities that Tesla represents. The design and styling of the Model S reflects this ethos.

The Tesla Model S is the result of both its designer and its unique architecture. Because it is a clean-sheet electric car design, it incorporates all the efficiencies that its drive system provides.

It Looks Like A Four-Door Sedan, But…

In terms of its proportions, and so consumers would accept it, the Tesla Model S follows the form factor of a traditional four-door sedan. The car’s low nose and long hood are followed by a roomy passenger compartment and a spacious trunk. But things are not exactly as they seem.

Because the motors of the Model S are small and placed next to the car’s axles, the batteries are in the floor, and there is no gasoline tank, a great deal of space has been freed up inside for passengers and cargo. The total load space is 63.4 cubic feet. The Model S features a good-sized front trunk, or “frunk.” The rear trunk space is deep. And the car’s hatchback design adds extra space for a rear-facing, optional third-row seat that can fit two children.

Unique Features On The Model S

The Model S has several “surprise and delight” features built in. The exterior door handles remain flush with the car’s body, popping out as you approach with the key fob. Software updates are done over the air, while the Model S is parked.

A large, 17” iPad-like internet-connected touchscreen fills the center of the dash and controls most of the car’s systems. The sunroof, the headlights, climate control, navigation, ride height, drive settings, trip computer, charging locations, and battery level can be controlled and monitored from the screen.

The battery pack is placed under the floor of the Model S, resulting in an extremely low center of gravity. This contributes to the car’s exceptional cornering and handling properties. Dual motors in front and rear provide all-wheel drive and all-weather capability to the Model S.

Today, the already exceptional performance of the Tesla Model S can be enhanced with the available Ludicrous Speed Upgrade, which allows the P100D version of the Model S to go from zero to 60 MPH in 2.5 seconds. This is in the same league as top-of-the-line supercars from Ferrari, McLaren, and Bugatti. Head over to our Electric Car reviews page to read our Tesla model S P100D review.

The Model S Starts Out Slowly

The first ten Model S cars were delivered to customers at the Fremont factory on June 22, 2012 at the official launch. On August 7, 2013, Tesla delivered its first Model S to a European customer in Norway. The production rate grew from 15–20 cars per week in August 2012 to about 1,000 cars per week in 2015, and has stayed around that level.

An Award Winner From The Start

Starting early in its life, the Tesla Model S has received many awards, including:

  • 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year
  • 2013 World Green Car of the Year
  • Automobile Magazine’s 2013 Automobile of the Year
  • 2013 Consumer Reports Best Car Ever Tested (99/100)
  • 2013 NHTSA Best Safety Rating Ever
  • 2014 Car of the Year in Norway
  • 2014 AAA Top Green Car Award
  • 2014 The Telegraph (UK) Best Car of the Past 20 Years
  • 2015 Car and Driver Car of the Century
  • 2015 & 2016 AutoPacific Vehicle Satisfaction Award Overall Winner

Tesla Model S Global Sales Numbers

Model S production began during the third quarter of 2012. Total global sales for that quarter were only 250 units, but production steadily ramped up and sales followed. Model S sales reached 2,650 in 2012, 22,442 in 2013, 31,665 in 2014, 50,446 in 2015, 50,931 in 2016, and 39,515 for the first three quarters of 2017. Total Model S global sales to date are 197,639 units. Of these, 111,947 have been sold in the United States. Other important markets for the Model S are Norway, China, the Netherlands, Canada, Germany, the UK, and Switzerland.

Tesla Model S Price Trend: Up

Starting out with a price of $57,400 back in 2012, the least expensive 2017 model currently lists at $74,500. The top-of-the-line 2017 P100D starts at $135,000 before any options are added.

The Killer App: Tesla’s Supercharger Network

With the Tesla Model S, Tesla had built a longer-range electric vehicle. But there was still insufficient infrastructure in place to provide the fast and convenient charging that would truly enable long-distance travel in its vehicles. Tesla took matters into its own hands.

Tesla’s solution was the Supercharger Network, an ever-growing system of fast charging facilities that would serve Tesla owners exclusively. It was started in 2012, around the same time that the Model S started rolling off the production line. At the time of this writing, there are 1,025 Supercharger facilities with a total of 7,204 Superchargers worldwide. In addition to the United States, there are significant networks in Europe, Scandinavia, the UK, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Australia.

Supercharging was offered as a free benefit when ordering a Tesla Model S or X, through January of 2016. After that, new owners receive the equivalent of 1,000 miles of free Supercharging each year, after which a fee is charged. Tesla is in the process of rapidly expanding the Supercharger Network, in anticipation of large numbers of Model 3 cars using the system.

The Model S Gets A Facelift

After several years without any styling changes, the Model S Series 2 went on sale in April of 2016. The front fascia was redesigned to remove the faux grille/air intake, giving it a resemblance to the Model X. Adaptive LED headlights, a HEPA air filtration system, and a higher-capacity standard charger were also added. 

The Impact Of The Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S, currently in its sixth year of production, has made a huge impact in the automotive world. It has shown that a well-designed all-electric car can become a desirable object, unlike most others that have preceded and followed it. The Model S has demonstrated that long-distance trips can be planned and executed in such a vehicle without fear of running out of power. It has stolen many sales from and struck fear into the hearts of the traditional German luxury sedan makers. And most important for Tesla itself, the Model S has paved the way for a more affordable version of itself – the Model 3. Make sure to read our Tesla model 3 review.

Read all our  Tesla electric car reviews for additional information and check out our blog articles on what it really cost to own a Tesla.