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Test drive: Tesla's Model S offers electrifying ride, high-tech interior

Tesla's all-electric sedan comes with a 17-inch touchscreen console and provides a smooth, powerful drive

If you want to impress people in technology-drenched Silicon Valley, you need a pretty special gadget. An iPhone 5 prototype would definitely do it, and something related to the Mars Curiosity rover would probably earn you some cool points. On Friday, I discovered something else: the all-electric Tesla Model S.

During a test drive along highway 280 near Tesla's Palo Alto headquarters, the car became the center of attention as driver after driver drew alongside and turned their heads to admire it. One even turned, pumped his fist, and shouted "Oh yeah!"

It's easy to understand why.

In the three years since Tesla first announced the car, excitement and anticipation for it have grown. That's illustrated by the thousands of reservations the company has taken for the sedan, a perhaps more sensible choice for many people than the company's first vehicle, the Roadster sports car.

(Watch an IDG test drive of the Model S with details on its high-tech systems on YouTube.)

Fun with the Model S starts with getting into the car. The door handles are recessed, but when you touch them, they glide out so you can pull open the door.

When you first sit in the car, sensors detect your presence and that of the key, and the car enters accessory mode. The dashboard lights up and a large flat-panel display that takes up most of the center console comes to life.

The 17-inch touchpanel screen controls almost everything about the car. It can be used to set and tweak the drive mode, monitor data from sensors throughout the vehicle, run the air conditioning and interior lighting, adjust the audio system, and a lot more.

It also has a built-in Web browser -- and not just the basic, feature-lacking browser sometimes found in consumer electronics products.

The Tesla's entire computer system is based on Linux, and a cellular connection ties the car to the Internet. When I fired up the screen it was on the home page of Space X, a second company run by Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk. A connection to Google Maps provides the basis of the navigation system.

But let's get on the road. That means depressing the brake pedal, tapping a gear lever on the steering wheel column into drive mode, and then switching your foot from the brake to the accelerator.

The car moves off smoothly and almost silently. There is, of course, no gasoline engine to silence, and the engineers have done a great job keeping road noise out of the car.

The ride is smooth and the car feels responsive on the twisty roads around Tesla's headquarters.

Tesla employs a regenerative braking system, which uses energy created when the car is slowing down to recharge the battery. The car begins to slow down as soon as pressure is removed from the accelerator. This is more pronounced than the coasting that a gasoline car would do and reminded me a little bit of controlling a car in a video game.

Taking the turns in the road, I didn't need to use the brake once. In fact, the only time I needed the brake pedal was when coming to a stop at an intersection.

As fun as the windy roads were, they prohibited high speeds, so I headed for the freeway and was briefly able to put my foot down.

In response, the car took off, pressing me back into the seat. Tesla says the car can go from zero to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and has a top speed of 130 mph, and while I couldn't test those, its performance and response shone.

Back at base, recharging is as simple as plugging a cable into the power port, which is on the left rear of the car where you'd normally expect the gas nozzle to be. A light around the recharging plug pulses green when it's being recharged, slowing from a fast pulse when the battery is almost empty to a steady green light when charging is complete.

The distance that can be traveled depends on the battery installed and, when driving at 55 miles per hour (88.5 kilometers per hour), ranges from 160 miles (257 kilometers) with a 40 kWh battery to 300 miles with an 85 kWh battery.

"Today, we're just at a tipping point where it's possible for the first time ever to build an electric vehicle that has a range similar to a gasoline vehicle," said JB Straubel, chief technology officer of Tesla. He estimates advances in battery technology are adding between 7 percent and 8 percent to the potential range each year.

"It's a very exciting time, and vehicles we'll build 10 years from now could have almost, potentially, twice the range of today, or a battery pack that weighed half as much as the battery packs we have today," he said.

(Click here for a Q&A with Straubel where he talks more about the Model S, the design of the car and its high-tech interior.)

The range offered by the Model S should be enough for all but the longest days behind the wheel. Several U.S. states are rolling out public charging stations. Tesla is planning a series of fast-charging stations that will replenish a depleted battery in about an hour, but the company has yet to start building those.

The base model costs US$49,900, and prices rise to $97,900 for the performance version, which is the model I drove in the test.

My time in the car was brief -- about 20 minutes -- but I came away very impressed with the Model S. Other reviews show I'm not alone. The car has received widespread praise and it will be interesting to follow Tesla's influence on the luxury car market.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com


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