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Top Tech Cars 2013: Tesla Model S

? Every electric vehicle comes freighted not only with batteries but with political baggage, too. Saviors to some, scapegoats to others, their honeymoon period is clearly over.

But in wintry Chicago, the Tesla Model S sedan managed over two fast-paced days to reaffirm the e-car’s potential—not as a political chip but as a means of transport. And judged on its lofty technical achievement alone, the Tesla is the year’s most significant automobile.

“We built a compelling car that just happens to be electric,” says Ted Merendino, product planner for the California-based Tesla Motors. “And we think the Model S is the first alternative fuel vehicle that’s done that.”

The Tesla isn’t the tiny, sluggish short-ranger that some people have come to expect EVs to be. With the largest of three available battery options, this swift, alluring sport sedan can cover an EPA-certified 265 miles (426 kilometers) on a charge, although Tesla claims 300 miles. In either case, it’s easily a new high for electric cars. It comes at a price: US $94 900 to start for the Model S Performance edition, rising to $101 600 for the version I tested. (From that, deduct $7500 in the form of a U.S. federal tax credit.)

On an opening drive, the Tesla’s enormous 85-kilowatt-hour battery indeed has me on pace for at least 426 km. The current flows from an under-floor sandwich of roughly 7000 Panasonic lithium-ion cells weighing some 590 kilograms (1300 pounds).

On a second-day run to Wisconsin, I nearly drain the battery after 320 km, but that includes two brutal, crawling hours in a Chicago traffic jam. That hard-charging day was also more about testing performance than range, including the Tesla’s stealthy, 4.4-second blasts from 0 to 97 km/h (0 to 60 mph) and a 210 km/h top speed.

Did I mention that the 310-kilowatt (416-horsepower) Tesla will beat the monstrous, gasoline-powered 413-kW (554-hp) BMW M5 from 0 to 100 mph? Credit here goes partly to the 600 newton meters (443 foot-pounds) of torque available instantly from the Tesla’s synchronous AC motor. Flick the Tesla’s throttle like a light switch and maximum torque is on tap from 0 to 5100 revolutions per minute. The rear-mounted, liquid-cooled motor can hum to 16 000 rpm, linked to rear wheels by a single-speed gearbox.
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