But as I discovered on a recent test drive of the company’s high-performance Model S sedan, theory can be trumped by reality, especially when Northeast temperatures plunge.
Tesla, the electric-car manufacturer run by Elon Musk, the billionaire behind PayPal and SpaceX, offered a high-performance Model S sedan for a trip along the newly electrified stretch of Interstate 95. It seemed an ideal bookend to The Times’s encouraging test drive last September on the West Coast.
The new charging points, at service plazas in Newark, Del., and Milford, Conn., are some 200 miles apart. That is well within the Model S’s 265-mile estimated range, as rated by the Environmental Protection Agency, for the version with an 85 kilowatt-hour battery that I drove — and even more comfortably within Tesla’s claim of 300 miles of range under ideal conditions. Of course, mileage may vary.
The 480-volt Supercharger stations deliver enough power for 150 miles of travel in 30 minutes, and a full charge in about an hour, for the 85 kilowatt-hour Model S. (Adding the fast-charge option to cars with the midlevel 60 kilowatt-hour battery costs $2,000.) That’s quite a bit longer than it takes to pump 15 gallons of gasoline, but at Supercharger stations Tesla pays for the electricity, which seems a reasonable trade for fast, silent and emissions-free driving. Besides, what’s Sbarro for?
The car is a technological wonder, with luminous paint on aluminum bodywork, a spacious and ultrahip cabin, a 17-inch touch screen to control functions from suspension height to the Google-driven navigation system. Feeding the 416 horsepower motor of the top-of-the-line Model S Performance edition is a half-ton lithium-ion battery pack slung beneath the cockpit; that combination is capable of flinging this $101,000 luxury car through the quarter mile as quickly as vaunted sport sedans like the Cadillac CTS-V.
The Model S has won multiple car-of-the-year awards and is, many reviews would have you believe, the coolest car on the planet.
What fun, no? Well, no.
Setting out on a sunny 30-degree day two weeks ago, my trip started well enough. A Tesla agent brought the car to me in suburban Washington with a full charge, and driving at normal highway speeds I reached the Delaware charging dock with the battery still having roughly half its energy remaining. I went off for lunch at the service plaza, checking occasionally on the car’s progress. After 49 minutes, the display read “charge complete,” and the estimated available driving distance was 242 miles.
Fat city; no attendant and no cost.
As I crossed into New Jersey some 15 miles later, I noticed that the estimated range was falling faster than miles were accumulating. At 68 miles since recharging, the range had dropped by 85 miles, and a little mental math told me that reaching Milford would be a stretch.
I began following Tesla’s range-maximization guidelines, which meant dispensing with such battery-draining amenities as warming the cabin and keeping up with traffic. I turned the climate control to low — the temperature was still in the 30s — and planted myself in the far right lane with the cruise control set at 54 miles per hour (the speed limit is 65). Buicks and 18-wheelers flew past, their drivers staring at the nail-polish-red wondercar with California dealer plates.
Nearing New York, I made the first of several calls to Tesla officials about my creeping range anxiety. The woman who had delivered the car told me to turn off the cruise control; company executives later told me that advice was wrong. All the while, my feet were freezing and my knuckles were turning white.
After a short break in Manhattan, the range readout said 79 miles; the Milford charging station was 73 miles away. About 20 miles from Milford, less than 10 miles of range remained. I called Tesla again, and Ted Merendino, a product planner, told me that even when the display reached zero there would still be a few miles of cushion.
At that point, the car informed me it was shutting off the heater, and it ordered me, in vivid red letters, to “Recharge Now.”
I drove into the service plaza, hooked up the Supercharger and warmed my hands on a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.