The 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year is one of the quickest American four-doors ever built. It drives like a sports car, eager and agile and instantly responsive. But it's also as smoothly effortless as a Rolls-Royce, can carry almost as much stuff as a Chevy Equinox, and is more efficient than a Toyota Prius. Oh, and it'll sashay up to the valet at a luxury hotel like a supermodel working a Paris catwalk. By any measure, the Tesla Model S is a truly remarkable automobile, perhaps the most accomplished all-new luxury car since the original Lexus LS 400. That's why it's our 2013 Car of the Year.
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Wait. No mention of the astonishing inflection point the Model S represents -- that this is the first COTY winner in the 64-year history of the award not powered by an internal combustion engine? Sure, the Tesla's electric powertrain delivers the driving characteristics and packaging solutions that make the Model S stand out against many of its internal combustion engine peers. But it's only a part of the story. At its core, the Tesla Model S is simply a damned good car you happen to plug in to refuel.
Tesla claims it has 250 patents covering the Model S, and more pending. The body is light, thanks to its all-aluminum construction, yet strong and stiff. The front and rear suspension are also mostly aluminum. At the rear are extruded rear suspension links that provide the strength of forgings at much lower cost, while up front are hollow-cast front knuckles that weigh 25 percent less than a conventional knuckle of similar strength.
The electric motor sits between the rear wheels, contributing greatly to the 47/53-percent front/rear weight distribution. The motor is an AC-induction type, the basic principles of which were demonstrated in the 1880s by Nikola Tesla himself, and it doesn't need expensive rare earth metals.
Tesla offers three lithium-ion battery packs for the Model S -- 40-kW-hr, 60-kW-hr, and 85-kW-hr -- that are claimed to provide ranges of 140, 200, and 265 miles, respectively. The base 85-kW-hr powertrain delivers a stout 362 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, while the performance version makes 416 hp and 443 lb-ft.The battery packs are assembled at Tesla's plant in Fremont, California, using Panasonic cells with nickel-cobalt-aluminum cathodes. Situated under the floor, the battery pack is a stressed member that further improves torsional rigidity, and helps lower the car's center of gravity to just 17.5 inches, about the same as a Ford GT's.
Advancement in Design
Refreshingly, Tesla designer Franz von Holzhausen resisted the temptation to make the Model S look different for the sake of being different to call attention to the fact it has an electric motor. Former GM design boss Wayne Cherry, a consultant judge this year, summed up the exterior design theme of the Model S as "somewhat safe and conservative," but noted the beautifully executed design-enhancing proportions, the excellent stance and gesture, and the harmony and grace of its lines. His only criticism? "The front end is a missed opportunity to establish brand identity."
The Model S takes advantage of the packaging opportunities afforded by the compact EV powertrain. The cabin is roomy, though the raked roofline impinges on rear-seat headroom. With no engine up front, the "hood" covers a useful luggage space, and the rear hatch opens to a cavernous load area that gets even bigger when you fold the rear seats flat. Total load capacity is 63.4 cubic feet, not that far shy of the 63.7 cubic-feet in a Chevy Equinox, and despite its rakish looks, the Model S is the first hatchback in the world to offer third-row seating.
A number of the interior design solutions need more polish. However, all judges were impressed with the Tesla's unique user interface, courtesy of the giant touch screen in the center of the car that controls everything from the air-conditioning to the nav system to the sound system to the car's steering, suspension, and brake regeneration settings. The system means the Model S interior is virtually button-free, and the car has been effectively future-proofed: More functionality is only a software update away.