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Test Driving the 2012 Tesla Model S

When the manager of a Tesla retail store tosses you the keys to a Tesla Model S—the company’s brand spankin’ new all-electric sports sedan—and asks if you want to take a test drive, you say yes.

Which is how we found ourselves easing onto the Edens Expressway in Chicago’s northern suburbs in what is likely one of the rarest cars on the road right now, at least in this part of the Midwest.

The Model S replaces Tesla’s first car, the Lotus-based Roadster, and unlike that expensive electric two-seater, the Model S has four doors and a backseat, and it’s also Tesla’s first design from scratch.

It comes in several variations—base, Performance, Signature, and Signature Performance—and depending on trim, it’s priced anywhere from $49,900 to $97,900, before options.

Base models offer a choice of 40, 60, or 85 kilowatt-hour battery packs, with charge time and range varying accordingly. The low-end for range is 160 miles for the 40 kW battery pack, while 85 kW battery packs promise a range of up to 300 miles. Performance models like the $84,900 example we test drove offer a 4.4-second 0-60 time and a 130 mph top speed, thanks to what Tesla calls a “high-performance drive inverter.”

Up close and personal, the S is a handsome sedan with slick, sleek looks that show its sporting potential. Inside, the traditional center stack and console are gone, replaced by a vertical computer split-screen that houses various infotainment menus. Although the car is a clean-sheet design, some parts are familiar—the steering-column stalks for turn signal windshield-wiper controls are straight out of the Mercedes-Benz parts bin, as is the steering-column mounted transmission shifter.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about starting the Tesla and putting it in gear is how unremarkable the experience is, minus the sound of a gas engine. The 416-horsepower electric motor gets the car moving silently, and the interior surroundings are comfortable, befitting the car’s price.

The rearview camera display is huge, which is helpful, and overall the large center-stack screen is useful. It will likely get dirty over time, since all sorts of controls (including the sunroof control, for example) are integrated, but there are handy-dandy screen wipes on board.

The Tesla comes alive when the go pedal is pushed hard—the instant torque (443 lb-ft) available from the electric motor translates into neck-snapping acceleration. Our test model was governed at 80 mph (uh, not that we’d know, or anything), but we think it will have no problem reaching the claimed 130 mph top speed, based on what we felt.

We didn’t have any real chance to test handling—the closest we came was attacking one squiggly off-ramp—but we did get enough to notice that the car sets up corners well enough, although the steering did have a strange numbness just off center. The ride is firm and smooth, and it’s competitive with other sports sedans in this price range.

The car’s regenerative braking kicks in whenever one backs off the gas, but a setting can change that for freeway driving. Despite our rather aggressive driving, the range meter in the customizable gauge cluster stayed around 223 miles during our 15 minutes or so behind the wheel.

Other than the regenerative braking kicking in while coasting, the right-damn-now nature of the instant torque provided by the electric drive unit, and the utter silence of the car, the Model S mostly feels like what it is—a luxury sports sedan.

Because of its hatchback design, rear-facing child seats can be installed, increasing seating capacity to seven. There’s no motor up front—the electric motor sits between the rear wheels—meaning that there’s more cargo space under the hood.

The Tesla offers a couple other cool tricks. The key fob is shaped like the car, and when it’s time to shut down, all the driver has to do is get out of the seat, and a sensor shuts the car down. The door handles slide flush into the door when the car is parked, popping out as the driver approaches.

The car is also a rolling 3G hot spot, which allows it to stream internet radio, and it offers standard features like Bluetooth and a navigation system. It also has screens that monitor your energy usage while driving.

We also spent a few minutes in the rear seat, and found it to be roomy enough for most adults.

Overall, the Tesla Model S is one interesting ride. We enjoyed the car’s acceleration, its stunning styling, its cool computerized center stack, and its comfortable interior. Three hundred miles of promised range is nothing to sneeze at, either, although one still has to take time to charge the vehicle when that range is exhausted.

The car is pricey, and the unusual buying and servicing experience will likely be welcoming to some customers and off-putting to others. Still, this might be the best all-around all-electric car we’ve driven.

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