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.