Tesla’s updated Model S sedan looks a lot like its old Model S, until you look closely.
The popular electric car now features eight cameras, upgraded ultrasonic sensors, and enhanced radar all connected to a new central computing system to provide enhanced active safety. Tesla says those features combine to improve the car’s ability to assess its surroundings, and one day, they will allow the car to drive itself.
But for now, the car lacks some basic safety features like automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and blind-spot monitoring. The reason? Tesla says it needs to put the cameras and sensors on the road to validate that they work reliably, but plans to turn on the features incrementally over time by way of over-the-air updates.
We knew the safety system activation would be delayed when we bought our new Model S 60D in December for $83,670. (We pay for every product we test to make sure we get the same versions and buying experience as any consumer would.) We wanted to be in a position to test these updated semi-autonomous driving features as soon as they were available. Advanced safety features are becoming increasingly common, but the Tesla set-up promises to be on the leading edge for such technology.
At Consumer Reports we believe these potentially collision-avoiding devices should be treated as aids and not replacements for the human driver. Further, their function should be communicated that way to customers to prevent people from using them for hands-free distracted driving.
In particular, CR has expressed concerns over the deployment and marketing of Tesla’s Autopilot, the company’s suite of semi-autonomous features, and how the company communicated Autopilot’s limitations to consumers. While Tesla did roll out improvements to Autopilot in the fall, we are anxious to see how its latest iteration performs with the newest technology in our new car, and if it addresses the issues we’ve raised. But we’ll first need to wait until all the features are beamed to the car.
The Model S is one of two vehicle lines Tesla currently produces. (The other is the Model X SUV.) The S comes in different levels, denoted by numbers reflecting the battery capacity in kilowatts. Those names also point to their range and performance.
The 60 on our new car means that it is equipped with a 60-kWh battery (the smallest offered by Tesla), and the D indicates that it’s all-wheel-drive. The Environmental Protection Agency pegs the 60D's cruising range at 218 miles.
Our car’s range predictor typically estimates 220 miles when fully charged. But colder temperatures reduce any electric cars’ range mainly because of the need for cabin heat. With temperatures in the 40s and 50s, we’ve observed a typical range of 175 miles of mostly highway driving.
If Model S 60 buyers want more range, the battery is upgradable to 75 kWh at any point. The 75-kWh battery brings a 259-mile range (per the EPA), which, we think, makes the car more usable and less susceptible to range anxiety. No need to swap out the battery, it’s a matter of unlocking more of the existing battery’s capacity through a wireless update. But that upgrade will cost you $7,000 after delivery, or $6,500 when you buy the car. Tesla will even send you a new 75 badge to replace the original one.
With Tesla’s high-power wall-mounted connector, we found it takes 4.5 hours to charge the car from empty on a 64-amp current.
The 60D's driving experience is quite similar to the previous Model S cars we’ve tested. Acceleration is swift, immediate, and eerily silent. The 60D is plenty quick, and the front and rear motors working in tandem, delivering all-wheel-drive capability. The electric drive provides gobs of torque, which delivers the power early on and instantly for thrilling acceleration.
Handling is nimble, with quick turn-in response, and sharp steering. With no engine on top of the front axle, the Tesla remains flat in corners, with virtually no body roll. The ride with the 19-inch tires is compliant, but unlike previous Model S test cars fitted with air suspension (air cushions instead of steel springs), the 60D has a slightly jittery feel.
The interior is is pretty much the same as it has been for Model S, modern and uncluttered but not overtly luxurious. We welcome the new console, new to all Teslas, that allows you to have legitimate cupholders or the ability to hold items in defined places rather than have them slide freely in an open tray, as in earlier models.
Tesla initially promised all of its active safety features would be wirelessly delivered to new Model S’s by the end of 2016. But as of the beginning of March, nearly three months after we first took delivery, our Model S still lacks some of the active safety features we paid for. Since delivery, our car was beamed Tesla’s three software update, including Version 8.0 (17.7.2), on February 27. One of those updates turned on forward-collision warning. That system can alert a driver of an impending rear-ending someone in front. But Tesla has yet to activate automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and blind-spot monitoring.
The fact that the new Model S shipped without auto emergency braking is no small omission. This technology is considered to be the most effective active safety feature when it comes to preventing crashes—reducing rear-end collisions by about 40 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Lane-departure warning lets you know when you begin to drift out of your lane. Blind-spot monitoring system warns you when there’s another vehicle potentially hidden at the car’s rear flanks.
It’s a disappointment for a brand that promotes itself as on the bleeding edge of technological sophistication to ship an $80,000 vehicle without critical features that are standard on a $20,000 Toyota Corolla. And Tesla’s deployment of those features has been consistently behind schedule.
As we log break-in miles ahead of formal testing, we're enjoying Tesla’s electric performance and high-tech surroundings that are packed into the lowest-cost version of the Model S. We look forward to the eventual software update that will allow us to assess the car’s full capability.
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