Tesla’s Model S sedan was the first mass-market car to prove that electric vehicles could be fun-to-drive, eco-friendly, viable as everyday transportation, and even useable for long trips. The Model S does all that even better for 2021. Depending on which trim you choose, the Model S can travel between 348 and 520 miles on just one charge and deliver blistering acceleration performance that rivals some of the world’s best supercars. Tesla now sells more practical and more affordable models such as the Model Y SUV and the Model 3 sedan, but the Model S remains the flagship of the brand. Its interior is spacious for four adults but doesn’t live up to the luxury price tag. With increased pressure from rivals such as the Porsche Taycan and the upcoming Lucid Air, the Model S is no longer in a class of one, but for some buyers the car’s athletic chassis, Ludicrous driving mode, and exceptional range are enough to sell them on the Tesla EV lifestyle.
What’s New for 2021?
For 2021, Tesla is introducing an even more performance-oriented Model S than the one the company calls Performance. The top-spec model will be called Plaid, will boast 1100 horsepower from three onboard electric motors, and is said to be capable of a zero-to-60-mph time of less than two seconds. In addition to its impressive power and speed credentials, Tesla also says it’s capable of providing up to 520 miles of driving range.
Pricing and Which One to Buy
We’d choose the mid-range Performance model over the base Long Range Plus. Doing so unlocks the Model S’s Ludicrous driving mode, which provides effortless and insane sub-3.0-second zero-to-60-mph runs. The 1100-hp Plaid model does sound compelling, but its six-figure asking price represents diminishing value—unless you must have a car with the performance of a Top Fuel dragster.
Engine, Transmission, and Performance
With an electric motor dedicated to each of the front and rear axles, the Model S offers full-time all-wheel drive no matter which version you choose. Acceleration of the various models ranges from outstanding to ferocious. We haven’t tested the Model S Long Range Plus yet, but our 2020 Model S Performance test vehicle delivered a blistering 2.4-second zero-to-60-mph time and proved endlessly entertainment thanks to its immediate power delivery. If that’s not enough for you, the Model S will now be offered in an even more insanely (ludicrously?) powerful Plaid model, which adds a third electric motor to boost combined output to 1100 horsepower. Tesla hasn’t released that beast into the wild yet but claims it’s capable of a zero-to-60-mph time of less than two seconds. That would make it the quickest car to 60 mph we’ve ever tested, so we’ll obviously have to take it to the track to see if its performance matches the hype. The standard Model S has proven itself an agile sports sedan with well-controlled body motions and direct steering. Two different settings allow drivers to choose heavy or light steering effort, but neither of them enable more feedback from the road. Ride comfort is good, the handling is crisp, and it’s confident and almost tranquil on the highway.
Range, Charging, and Battery Life
Under the Tesla’s floor lies a battery pack that yields a low center of gravity and evenly distributed weight from front to rear. Driving range and acceleration performance varies from model to model, with the Long Range Plus version’s battery providing up to a 402-mile range while the Performance model offers up to 348. The new Plaid model may be interesting to those hoping to extend the range even further, as Tesla claims it is capable of up to 520 miles of driving between charges. That number narrowly beats upstart Lucid Motors and its Air luxury sedan which is rated for up to 517 miles per charge.
Fuel Economy and Real-World MPG
While EVs such as the Chevy Bolt and Polestar 2 deliver serviceable driving range the Model S remains an impressive alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles when it comes to long-distance usability. The base Long Range Plus model receives the highest MPGe ratings at 121 city and 112 highway. Going with the Performance model drops those numbers to as low as 98 MPGe city and 96 MPGe highway when paired with the car’s optional 21-inch wheels. The EPA has not yet released fuel economy estimates for the new Plaid model. In our real-world, 75-mph highway fuel economy test, a 2020 Model S Performance we tested posted a 222-mile highway range number against its 326-mile EPA estimated driving range.
Interior, Comfort, and Cargo
With Model S prices starting at close to $80,000, buyers would be reasonable to expect a certain amount of luxury inside the car. The cabin’s atmosphere is nice enough, but it’s not nearly as plush as those of our favorites such as the Mercedes-Benz E-class and the Volvo S90. A few missteps, such as poorly aligned interior panels, remind us that Tesla is still working through some growing pains as a new carmaker. The Model S’s sloped roofline cleverly hides a rear liftgate that opens up to reveal a huge 26-cubic-foot trunk. We managed to stash eight of our carry-on-size cases without folding down the rear seats. Paltry small-item cubby stowage throughout the interior—especially in the back seat—is offset by a large underfloor bin in the rear cargo area.
Infotainment and Connectivity
Fans of modern minimalism will adore the Model S’s cabin, which comes standard with a giant infotainment screen that controls almost all of the vehicle’s functions. Technophiles will be in heaven, but we’re not completely sold. The screen’s positioning on the dashboard will require some drivers to lean forward in their seat to reach certain icons, especially those near the top right of the display.
Safety and Driver-Assistance Features
Although the Model S has sparked a nationwide conversation about the safety of partially autonomous vehicles and has been reported to catch fire after certain types of high-speed impacts, its safety credibility is buoyed by decent crash-test results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the knowledge that car fires aren’t uncommon, either in electric- or gasoline-powered vehicles. Key safety features include:
- Standard automated emergency braking
- Standard lane-departure warning
- Available adaptive cruise control with semi-autonomous driving mode
Warranty and Maintenance Coverage
Tesla offers a comprehensive warranty package to protect the Model S’s powertrain and hybrid components but lacks the lengthy bumper-to-bumper coverage and complimentary scheduled maintenance packages of the Jaguar I-Pace.
- Limited warranty covers four years or 50,000 miles
- Powertrain warranty covers eight years and unlimited miles
- No complimentary scheduled maintenance
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