Test Driving The Super-Connected, All-Electric Tesla Model S [TCTV]

TechCrunch is by no means a car blog, so automobile test drives aren’t normally in our wheelhouse. But when it comes to Tesla Motors, the electric car company led by PayPal founder Elon Musk, we make an exception. Tesla is doing some groundbreaking things from a technology perspective, on both the “hardware” and “software” sides — in a lot of ways, its cars are just really big, really expensive consumer electronic gadgets.

So it was cool to have the opportunity to head down to Tesla’s Silicon Valley headquarters and take the new Model S sedan for a spin along with Dan Myggen, a training director at Tesla. You can watch our drive in the video embedded above. Below are some more thoughts on the car.

Punching below its weight

As I mention in the test, I’ve always preferred to drive small manual transmission cars, as larger automatic transmission cars make me feel like I don’t have enough control over the vehicle. Electric cars, of course, have motors instead of engines, so it’s not possible to have a stick shift at all. But the Model S, even at 4700-some pounds and the capability to seat five adults plus two children, felt totally different — it felt as responsive and tightly controlled as a manual transmission car nearly half its size and weight.

According to Tesla’s Myggen, that’s mostly because of two things: The placement of the battery very low in the chassis in the middle of the car, rather than in the front, and also because of how electric motors work. He explained how the car was put together purposefully to give that kind of feel:

“We’re a company full of car guys, and [the Model S] is built for somebody who really enjoys driving. The steering is so responsive, the accelearator is so responsive… I drive nothing but manual transmission cars, and we’ve had a lot of people be skeptical over the years especially with the Roadster, that you couldn’t get a manual version of it.

But it really is like a manual in that there’s no torque converter, so there’s no delay in the power delivery. And what you’re looking for in the manual is the control over the power train, and you have that in spades with this.”

A different feel on the brakes

Another thing that gives more of a feeling of immediacy and control than you typically find in automatic transmission or hybrid cars is the way that the regenerative braking feature works in the Model S. Myggen explained:

“In hybrids [the battery regeneration function] is typically built into the brake pedal, so it’s sort of a synthesized brake pedal feel where the first portion of that is regenerative braking, then it winds in hydraulic brakes on top of that. We actually keep the brakes totally separate. When you lift off of the accelerator it behaves more like a manual transmission car; it slows the car down, braking using the motor, and that recharges the battery.”

A simple interior with lots of tech

The interior of the car is ridiculously simple, with hardly any buttons or dials to be found. Most everything is controlled by a touch-screen in the middle of the dashboard, the software for which runs on top of a Linux operating system completely built in-house at Tesla.

The screen and software is really impressive, but this is actually one of the Model S’s bigger downsides for me. I think I prefer more analog ways of controlling the radio and other aspects of the car through dedicated physical switches and buttons, as opposed to swiping through a touch-enabled computer screen (which even has a web browser.) This feature is something that I think has the potential to be hugely distracting. But then again, it may be something you get used to after a day or two.

Shipping slowly

The Model S started shipping last month, but Tesla is ramping up production very slowly to make sure there are no glitches — right now about 12 cars have been delivered, and the company is putting out about two a week. But by the end of the year, it is targeting to have that weekly production number up to 500. If you reserved a Model S today (pricing starts at $49,900) you could expect to have it in your garage in June 2013.