Tesla had a big weekend. Some 1,500 Model S hand-raisers and their +1s descended on the company's recently acquired NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA to see where their $5,000 deposits have gone. The event, which served as both a product extravaganza and a subtle reassurance, sought to prove that the Model S is well on its way to production. And part of the program included rides in three Model S betas.

As Tesla was keen to point out, showing off a prototype – even one that's 80-percent complete – is relatively unheard of in the industry. Regardless, the EV upstart invited a handful of journalists to go for a brief spin in the passenger seat of the betas. How brief? Less than five minutes.

So... don't expect to find any mind-blowing revelations, 10/10ths impressions or thorough interior dissections. Here's all you need to know: It drives, it steers, it stops, it's practically – and predictably – silent and the interior tech is enough to make gadget nerds forget about the lack of an iPhone 5.

Of the three betas on hand, two were developed for fine tuning the interior and one was set up for rides. There are currently five betas undergoing testing, all of which were built at a contract plant in Detroit and not at the newly refurbished, ex-Toyota plant in Northern California. That said, an extensive tour of the facility revealed that Tesla is almost completely set up to begin Model S production this January before deliveries begin in the middle of next year. The plant currently employs around 180 people, with that number set to hit 250 by the end of the year and then swell to 500 when at full capacity. All in, 300 to 400 people will handle drivetrain production and by 2013, roughly 1,000 people will work between the powertrain and chassis facilities.

So yes, Tesla can build them. And after spending a few hours around the Fremont plant, much of our skepticism about Tesla's abilities to bring the sedan market were laid to rest. They've pulled in equipment and talent from around the world (Germany in particular) to make a modern, world-class facility. And now we get to sample what they'll be building.

Considering this is a prototype, we're suitably impressed with the fit and finish both inside and out. We're sure that Tesla was sweating the details in the run-up to this past weekend's festivities, and the tight gaps in the body panels and general exterior polish of the betas was proof the Tesla can at least get a handful of sedans ready for the spotlight.

Inside was just as refined, save for a few crudely fashioned, but barely noticeable, bits of trim and a transmission stalk and window switchgear pulled from Mercedes-Benz. The backseat proved to be both comfortable and spacious enough to enjoy a 15-minute presentation on the infotainment system, and while our request to sit in the rear-facing jump seats was denied, we were just pleased to see them included on one of the testers.

On the infotainment front, Tesla is using a 17-inch multitouch display, with a persistent climate control interface at the bottom (good for muscle memory). It's just as massive in person as it is in photos – it's essentially two iPads worth of screen real estate – and provides drivers with Google Maps navigation, streaming Internet radio, local music playback, web browsing (HTML5/Webkit-based) and sunroof controls through an infrared touch system. Just like everything else with the Model S, it's still in prototype form, with a capacitive screen set to replace the IR version and the Linux-based OS and its proprietary user interface skin to receive more tweaks between now and the on sale date next year.

That said, it's largely glitch-free, and you can check out the video below for a full walk around of the system, including the configurable instrument panel behind the steering wheel and iPhone app that keeps track of charging and location, along with the ability to control the EV's climate remotely.

So what about the ride?

When we initially walked up to the passenger-side door, we tried to push in the flush, chrome door handle as we would open an Aston Martin. Nothing. A second later, the motorized handle slowly protruded from the door. A neat – if superfluous – party piece.

We quietly pulled away from the staging tent as our engineer-turned-chauffeur attempted to shove a fistful of wires behind the panel in the center compartment. "Obviously customers won't see this." Fair enough. Let's get underway.

The first run was through a coned-off section of the receiving bay (not fair to call it an autocross course) where the Model S resisted body roll thanks to a combination of its air suspension and low center of gravity provided by the flat battery pack spanning the passenger compartment. Our driver, who races Lotuses on the weekends, didn't push too hard, but wasn't afraid to mash the pedal as we eerily and rapidly accelerated towards a small, banked high-speed stability course, putting out all 306 pound-feet of torque to the wheels.

When the driver comes off the throttle, the brake regen is far more subtle than in the Roadster, failing to shove us into the seatbelt and doing little to upset the balance of the Model S when slowing in a straight line.

Out on the track inherited from Toyota, we kept a quick pace through the first section of the oval, and then accelerated fully down the back straight, hitting an indicated 103 mph before braking lightly into the next 180-degree bend. After three similar runs, we came away impressed with both the planted sensation afforded by the low CG and elongated wheelbase, the suitably smooth ride and the now-expected, yet still disconcerting, lack of racket inside the cabin. But naturally, until we can get some time off the test track and feel that wheel between our hands, we'll remain skeptically impressed from afar.

Who isn't skeptical? Hundreds of people from the Bay Area, along with hundreds more from across the country and around the world, all of which have put cash down to be one of the few with a Signature Series Model S. Potential buyers flew in from as far away as Tokyo, Denmark and Switzerland to be part of this weekend's event, including one gentleman from Iceland who inked a deal to purchase 100 examples for his car sharing service. Fittingly, he signed the papers on the hood of a Model S beta Saturday night – the same sedan we ran around the track less than 48 hours later.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      I just had a mind-screw over one of the pictures in the gallery. You open the hood ... no engine. Instead, just a LARGE secondary luggage compartment. Ok fine, so it's one of those cool rear-engined machines (and a SEDAN??) ... so you go around back and pop the lid. Still: no engine. The age of electric vehicles is already turning my understanding of everyday life upside down.
        Leather Bear
        • 3 Years Ago
        Back in the day, my mother's VW Type 3 fastback used to get the same reaction. She loved having a box boy load up the front trunk with groceries ("Ma'am, want the rest on the back seat?"). She'd pop the rear trunk lid and say "No, put the rest back there" and always get a laugh from the look on said box boy's face.
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Leather Bear
          Ironically, the VW Squareback, a wagon version of your mother's car, was a popular platform for electric vehicle conversions back in the lead-acid days because it was necessary to fill both of those trunks with batteries to get any range. Now we've come to the point where they can all go under the car.
      H.E. Pennypacker
      • 3 Years Ago
      a/c and audio controls should still be switches, dials and buttons. nothing is easier or more intuitive than cranking up the a/c or volume by turning up a dial.
      • 3 Years Ago
      how much does this thing weigh?
      • 3 Years Ago
      those last two seats are awesome :D
      Larz Larzen
      • 3 Years Ago
      Man that's a great looking car. I hope this knocks the socks off the doubters.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Don't you think the touch screen is not safe for when people are on the road...Maybe they already have a solution for this.. Using your phone, texting or browsing while driving causes so much problems already I don't know how this would help. I think they'll make it illegal while driving in a lot of places..
      • 3 Years Ago
      I own a Nissan LEAF. I would ***love*** to own one of these Tesla Model S vehicles. I believe there are a lot of oil era folks writing comments here. To all of you, your time has passed. The EVs will dominate the world now. Now if we could only get past this 12-21-12 date... lol
      • 3 Years Ago
      We visited the Tesla store in Santana Row in San Jose Monday morning. I was as impressed with the the sales personnel as I was with the S beta. Bought t-shirts. The entire presentation is breathtaking. They deserve to succeed!
      • 3 Years Ago
      Personally, I would like the interior if it didn't have such a massive, reflective touchscreen swallowing up the dashboard. And despite the "night mode", I still think the glow from such a large touchscreen would be annoying. They should shrink it a bit and replace the touchscreen HVAC controls with some tactile buttons. The interface for the touchscreen seems really well done though, so props to Tesla for that. Hate the extreme glossiness of the wood trim and gimmicky motorized door handles but love the surprising amount of cabin and cargo space. Overall, I'm pleasantly surprised by the progress of this car. It looks promising but it needs some more refinement in its engineering/design before it hits showrooms.
      • 3 Years Ago
      i like the earlier front end and grill much more
      • 3 Years Ago
      I am not interrested to buy but i am interrested to see it on the road.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I think the Model S is both a BEAUTIFULLY sculptured car along with a groundbreaking technical array of wizardry. I intend to get in line early in January. I do have a few comments, but please don't take the negatively, they are just "from my perspective". 1) I agree that motorized door handles are a bit over the top. A simple spring loaded mechanism that allowed you to open the door after depressing the outer panel would suffice. What I am really concerned about is how it will react after being rained/snowed on in freezing weather. Have they conducted any tests around this scenario? They do have a Tesla Dealer in Boston so this will be an issue that will arise. 2) Being a rather tactile person myself, I agree that using a touchscreen for too much will make operation difficult while driving. I have noticed the same thing about my Droid 3. My older cell phone that had a (IMO) much better tactile keyboard was much easier to make calls and text with. 3) Lots of these "issues" could be dealt with if they have a decent voice activated command system. A button could be used to activate/deactivate the voice command system and from there, no need to look down at anything, and the results could be "read" back to you. Just think how wonderful that would be. 4) There are TONS of other options/niceties/features that "could" be added, but all we can do is to provide constructive criticism and feedback to Tesla and let them choose which ones merit their attention. After all, once you have your car, no one is going to stop you from modifying it yourself. Maybe they'll even eventually provide an officially SDK for their system so we'll be able to write custom software and add our own features to it! Aside from any of this and any other criticisms, the Model S is indeed a ground breaking and breathtaking automobile. I have personally calculated that I can easily get by with the base model (160 mile range0 and that it will save me approximately $14,000 of gas in 5 years, not to mention any "maintenance" I would have had to pay for (e.g. oil changes/etc) that are no longer required. I typically keep my vehi I am glad that this is a "pure electric" car, unlike the Fisker Karma. It has none of the problems/issues/maintenance/etc that a hybrid does, meaning it is simpler, both electrically and mechanically. Remember the KISS principle! To those that would complain about the fact that our electricity comes from oil/coal/etc, I would simply respond "so what". An electric car decouples the energy GENERATION from UTILIZATION. So, once we get off our butts and start building ANY kind of OTHER style of plants to generate electricity, the utilization will already be at least partly there via the electric cars. Personally, I live near Seabrook, NH (a Nuclear Plant), so my electricity does not generate any CO2 or other air pollution) and, when the time comes and PV is economically viable, I will switch to PV to power my house and, eventually, my car.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Tactile; All important functions are duplicated on the steering wheel, with buttons. They also have voice activation. I too am concerned about snow and ice. However a "simple spring" is not the answer. Problems arising would be rare (2 or 3 days a year?) and a lock de-icer spray would be a quick fix.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Tactile; All important functions are duplicated on the steering wheel, with buttons. They also have voice activation. I too am concerned about snow and ice. However a "simple spring" is not the answer. Problems arising would be rare (2 or 3 days a year?) and a lock de-icer spray would be a quick fix.
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