In The City — 02 September 2016
Behind the wheel: The electrifying Tesla S 90D

By John Cutter

Fellow drivers, I need to apologize. Yes, that was me pulling into every space I could find and letting my Tesla parallel park itself. I was chasing away four decades of demons left after that maneuver doomed me on a Bronx side street and I failed my road test.

Oh, and, yes, that was me in an interstate traffic jam with a big smile because my Tesla drove itself, starting and stopping through the magic of autopilot. I was the first commuter ever to pray for bumper-to-bumper traffic.

And, no, it wasn’t necessary for me to punch the accelerator so often, but, come on, this Tesla goes from zero to 60 in 4.2 seconds, a push-you-into-your-seat feeling that erased many a four-cylinder nightmare merging onto highways.

My Tesla Model S 90D is an absurdly cool car. All electric with more than 275 miles range on a single charge. All-wheel direct drive with smooth, speedy acceleration. An iPad-sized computer-control panel. Autopilot. Autopark. Autosteer.

A Bio-Weapon Defense Mode and a Clean Up Breakfast Snack Crumb Mode. (OK, one of those is a lie, but perhaps Tesla boss Elon Musk can get working on that crumb catcher idea; the bio-weapon thing is a super air-filtration system.)

Tesla is the most innovative car company, pushing farther into the frontiers of clean-running, self-driving cars. The automobiles start at $70,000, before government energy incentives, so it is a niche product for a luxury market.

But the company’s strategy to build the world’s best car — not just the world’s best electric car — is coming closer to the masses next year when the Model 3 arrives. With a $35,000 sticker before incentives, the price is close to the average American car cost, which was $33,000 in 2015.

The hardest part about driving a Tesla is you have to fight your instincts about what driving is supposed to be. There is no roar of an engine — you approach the car with your key fob (which is shaped like a Tesla) and the handles slide out from the doors.

You get in and the car is running. You won’t know because it makes no noise. I don’t mean it is quiet. I mean it is silent. Even when you drive, the electric motor can’t be heard and there is no road noise, except a slight whoosh, like a sound effect in a futuristic movie. But the truly hard part is a glimpse of the future of driving — a car that more or less does all the work for you. Teslas come with an autopilot function, so the car can drive itself under many circumstances — steer by sensing the lane markers, brake by seeing the cars in front and around you, adjust speed, park. There’s even a feature that allows you to call your car to greet you at the door.

Autopilot is not designed to allow you to take a nap or text while driving. You keep your hands on the wheel, but the sensation of the car making small and not-so-small corrections to your direction and speed is, well, freaky. The feature works by using sensors to follow lane lines and vehicles around you.

For me, I simply had trouble trusting autopilot. I found myself regularly taking back control. I suspect if I had the car for more than three days, I would adjust, because it is a joy to watch.

Other things inside the car scream “not-your-father’s” automobile. There is a 17-inch touch monitor between the driver and passenger seats. It has controls for everything from the sunroof to navigation — and can even access the Internet. Best thing about this monitor for me is the size of the image when you use the high-definition rear-view camera — movie quality is not an overstatement.

I could rave about the cabin’s comfort and appointments, but the sticker on the model I drove was about $100,000, so it’s what you’d expect from a high-end car. (Although I would buy this car simply for the function that remembers how I like my driving position, and changes it from what my wife — about 9 inches shorter than I am —  likes.)

Funniest thing about driving the coolest car around? No one really notices it when you drive. The car’s lines are sleek and subtle, and because there are relatively few Teslas on the road, the reaction is more huh than ah.

If you want to feel the love of being a Tesla owner, stop at one of the supercharging stations spread across the country. These “pumps” are beautifully designed, futuristic but at the same time echoing an old-fashioned gasoline pump. They also are like a clubhouse — you meet other Tesla owners to swap stories and sometimes meet other luxury car owners wondering what all the fuss is about.

The superchargers are designed to fill your battery quickly — you can put about 170 miles of charge in your “tank” in about 30 minutes. That’s 10 to 15 times faster than the street chargers you see. (At home, you could charge a Tesla overnight, either with a high-voltage current — about 29 miles an hour, similar to what you have on your washer-dryer or you can put a high-powered Tesla charger in your home and put in about 52 miles of charge per hour.)

Tesla isn’t marketing the car as a status symbol. They aren’t even really marketing it as an earth-friendly alternative to fossil fuel cars — although you could drive this car a week and never recharge.

Check out the Tesla website and it is clear what they want you to feel. The site mentions “performance” and “safety” in many places. It has a 5-star safety rating overall and in all the sub-categories, which puts it in the top 1 percent of all cars. And the direct drive electric motor rockets you to 60 mph at roller-coaster speed — one Model S can do it in 2.8 seconds in something aptly called “Ludicrous” mode.

So, would I buy one? It is hard for me to imagine ever spending $100,000 on a car, even $70,000. Too many other plans for life and money, but if that was my price point, I’d drive a Tesla.

And when the Model 3 comes out at $35,000 next year, count me in as someone who will take it for a test drive. Or turn on the autopilot and let it take me for a test drive.

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