Tesla Model S: A Look in the Rearview Mirror

·9 min read

A retrospective of one of the most important cars of this century

By Keith Barry

The Model S moved Tesla Motors—and electric vehicles—into the mainstream with a breakthrough, battery-powered sedan that delivered sports car performance, record-setting range, and daring innovations. It pushed boundaries and sometimes stumbled, but its legacy is one that jump-started the electric car revolution, causing every established automaker to play catch up.

July 1, 2003

Tesla Motors is founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning as equal parts car and technology company. PayPal co-founder Elon Musk becomes chairman in 2004 and is later referred to as a co-founder.

February 2008

The Lotus-based Tesla Roadster debuts as the first mainstream electric vehicle powered by lithium-ion batteries. Musk, who led the design of the Roadster, becomes CEO in 2008. Under his watch, Tesla will grow into the first modern mass-market manufacturer of EVs.

CR's first Tesla Model S.

Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

April 2011

Consumer Reports tours Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. We see a concept version of the Model S and learn that it will come with three ranges: 160 miles, 230 miles, and 300 miles. By comparison, the 2011 Nissan Leaf had an EPA-estimated range of just 73 miles. ​​Peter Rawlinson, who was chief engineer of the Model S, tells CR that the new vehicle will be “appreciated by the driving connoisseur, yet isn’t off-putting for the nonenthusiast.” Rawlinson is now the CEO of Lucid Motors.

December 2011

Tesla releases pricing for the upcoming Model S: The base sedan with a 40-kWH battery (and a range of about 160 miles) will sell for $57,400 before a $7,500 federal tax rebate, and will go on sale in winter 2012. The 60-kWh Model S with a 230-mile range will sell for $67,400, and the 85-kWh version with a 300-mile range will sell for $77,400. A model S Performance with a 300-mile range and a 0 to 60 time of 4.4 seconds will sell for $87,400 before tax credits.

June 22, 2012

Tesla begins delivery of its new Model S sedan to customers.

CR taking delivery of the first Tesla Model S we tested in January 2013.

Photo: Gabe Shenhar/Consumer Reports

January 11, 2013

Our Model S, which we bought online, is delivered to our test track in Colchester, Conn. Testing begins in earnest. Thanks to a range of 265 miles (estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency) from the 85-kW battery and superb on-the-road performance, it earns Consumer Reports’ top score in 2013. We call the EV “groundbreaking” and “a revelation.”

April 2013

Tesla introduces a leasing program and guarantees that it will buy back a Model S for 50 percent of its original value after three years. This innovative program, known as the “resale value guarantee,” ends in 2016.

May 2013

Tesla says that it will expand its network of “Supercharger” rapid-charging stations to 27 from 8 by 2015, and that it will build enough Superchargers by that year for Tesla drivers to cross the U.S.

Tesla Model S vehicles parked at a Supercharger station in 2016.

June 20, 2013

Tesla demonstrates the ability to “hot-swap” batteries in a Model S in about 90 seconds—twice as fast as a comparable gasoline fill-up. The company suggests that owners will be able to swap depleted batteries for fully charged ones for $100 at Tesla stations that will be built across the U.S. But this strategy is abandoned for a focus on the Supercharger network.

The interior of a 2012 Tesla Model S.

Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

February 2014

Consumer Reports names the Tesla Model S a Top Pick: Best Overall.

March 28, 2014

After several highly publicized Model S fires, Tesla announces new added reinforcements, including a titanium plate, to protect the electric battery from punctures due to road debris.

October 2014

Tesla introduces the Model S P85D, which has dual motors and all-wheel drive. It starts equipping Model S sedans with automatic emergency braking (AEB), lane keeping assistance (LKA), and adaptive cruise control (ACC). It also includes hardware that will eventually be able to automate some steering, braking, and acceleration functions. Although the software isn’t active yet, it calls the feature Autopilot. We purchase an all-wheel-drive Tesla Model S P85D sedan, and it performs better in our tests than any other car before it. Our testers say that it pushes the boundaries of performance and efficiency while maintaining practicality and luxury, although it lacks the interior luxury of similarly priced vehicles, and its ride is now firmer and louder.

CR's Tesla Model S P85D on our test track in 2014.

Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

October 2015

The Consumer Reports annual automotive survey shows falling reliability based on reports from about 1,400 Model S owners. Based on that feedback, Consumer Reports stops recommending the car for the first time. Since then, the reliability of the Model S has been up and down.

February 2016

Consumer Reports tests the new “Summon” mode that allows remote operation of the vehicle from a phone app. Once we realize that the vehicle won’t stop automatically if the Tesla app closes, potentially leaving the vehicle out of the phone user’s control, we contact Tesla immediately. Musk agrees to provide over-the-air updates that require the user to hold down the onscreen button to move the car and prevent the vehicle’s motion if the app closes. We retest the system and confirm the fix. We’re impressed with the speed of the update.

Tesla updated its Summon app after Consumer Reports uncovered potential safety issues. Here, CR tests the app in 2016.

Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

April 2016

Tesla refreshes the exterior of the Model S, adding new trim elements and headlamps. The interior gets new optional premium finishes and an onboard charger upgraded from 40 amps to 48 amps for more rapid charging.

May 7, 2016

Joshua Brown dies while using Autopilot after his Model S crashes into the side of a tractor-trailer that was crossing a roadway near Williston, Fla. Brown was a Tesla enthusiast and Navy veteran who had previously made videos of himself using Autopilot—one of which was retweeted by Elon Musk. The crash is the first Autopilot-related death in the U.S., and both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigate. Afterward, Tesla updates Autopilot software to reduce the amount of time a driver can spend with their hands off the wheel before being alerted.

Joshua Brown is killed when his Tesla Model S drives into the side of a tractor-trailer near Williston, Fla., on May 7, 2016.

Photo: National Transportation Safety Board

March 2017

Consumer Reports lowers the ratings of the Model S and Model X SUV because Tesla has not yet enabled their automatic emergency braking (AEB) system, a safety feature it said would come as standard. Tesla rolls out an over-the-air update to enable AEB at the end of April. The rating is restored once the feature is restored.

October 2018

The reliability rating of the Model S drops to “below average” again this year, and its Overall Score is no longer high enough for the sedan to be recommended by CR. Owners reported suspension problems and other issues that included the power-extending door handle.

Just one of Elon Musk's attention-grabbing tweets—and promises about the future of self-driving cars. This tweet is from 2021.

Source: Twitter

Fall 2020

Consumer Reports conducts a series of evaluations of Tesla’s Full Self-Driving Capability features. We find that they work inconsistently. For example, Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control is designed to make the car come to a complete stop at all stoplights, even when they’re green, unless the driver overrides the system. In addition to the unusual behavior of stopping at green lights, our Tesla also drove through stop signs, slammed on the brakes for yield signs when merging was clear, and stopped at every exit while going around a traffic circle. There haven’t been noticeable safety improvements across further iterations of FSD beta software.

June 2021

Tesla unveils the ultra-high-performance Model S Plaid—yes, that’s a “Spaceballs” reference—promising a 0-to-60-mph time of 1.99 seconds, a 9.23-second quarter-mile time, and a top speed of 200-plus mph. These feats are achieved with the equivalent of 1,020 hp from its dual-motor electric drivetrain and an all-new battery pack giving this version a 396-mile range. The automaker also shows off an update for all forthcoming Model S sedans, including a yoke-style steering wheel, a touch-screen-based gear selector, and a turn signal indicator stalk that’s been replaced by a button on the steering yoke.

August 2021

After several widely reported crashes, NHTSA launches an investigation and orders Tesla to share information about the design of Autopilot and Full-Self Driving, any reports of crashes involving the technologies, and any marketing materials that state what the technologies can do.

February 2022

CR releases its review of the updated 2021 Tesla Model S, and says it “probably would have garnered the highest road-test score we’ve ever recorded if it weren’t for its new yoke-style steering wheel.” We were impressed with its 405-mile driving range, sporty handling, and thrilling acceleration. But the changes to the steering wheel, wiper and indicator stalks, and gear selector “bring major compromises in usability, maneuverability, and comfort,” we write.

The addition of a yoke-style steering wheel didn't improve our opinion of the Model S.

Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

June 2022

NHTSA announces that its preliminary investigation into Autopilot has been upgraded into an engineering analysis. That means the agency will look at additional data and perform vehicle evaluations, and explore how Autopilot’s design might increase the risk of a crash that happens after a driver stops paying attention to the road.

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