A lucky 25 customers received Tesla’s redesigned Model S “Plaid” at an event hosted by CEO Elon Musk in Fremont, California on Thursday night.
The Silicon Valley automaker has billed this new $130,000 version of the Model S — first announced in January and originally slated to ship in March — as the “quickest production vehicle ever made,” with the ability to go from 0-60mph in under 2 seconds. Its name is a reference to the unthinkable speed beyond “Ludicrous” in the comedy classic Spaceballs. It’s also expected to get around 390 miles of range. (Tesla is selling a less powerful version of the redesigned Model S with more range — 412 miles — that starts at just a hair under $80,000. Deliveries of those start later this year.)
Why so fast? “We’ve got to show that an electric car is the best car, hands down,” Musk said at Thursday night’s event. “It’s got to be clear [that] sustainable energy cars can be the fastest cars, the safest cars, [and] can be the most kick-ass cars in every way.”
“This car crushes,” he said.
On June 6, Musk announced Tesla had canceled the most expensive version of the new Model S, which was called Plaid Plus. That version, which had a starting price of around $150,000, was supposed to go 520 miles on a full battery. It was also supposed to be powered by the new 4680 lithium-ion battery cells that Tesla is developing. A redesigned Model X was also announced in January, but deliveries of that new SUV have been pushed back months, and Musk didn’t mention the updated SUV Thursday night.
Musk once shot down rumors of a Model S and Model X redesign in 2019, saying there was “no ‘refreshed’ Model X or Model S coming.” Instead, Musk said Tesla was always making minor improvements to both vehicles. But sales of both vehicles have stagnated in recent years as Tesla focused on the more affordable Model 3 sedan and Model Y compact SUV. The redesigned versions are a chance to boost sales of these older cars. The company seems confident enough in the new Model S Plaid that it raised the starting price by $10,000 earlier today.
Musk got deep into the weeds about Tesla’s “practically alien” engineering, but he was also light on details about execution. Musk said that Tesla plans to deliver “several hundred [Model S Plaids] per week soon,” and will “probably” ramp up to around 1,000 per week next quarter. But he made almost no mention of the Model X Plaid, the dual-motor “long range” Model S, and he didn’t expand on his reasoning for canceling the 520-mile Plaid Plus. Earlier this week, he simply that “more range doesn’t really matter.”
“There are essentially zero trips above 400 miles where the driver doesn’t need to stop for restroom, food, coffee, etc. anyway,” he said.
The new Model S is the first major overhaul for the sedan since it launched in 2012 and set Tesla on its path to its current status as the world’s top electric vehicle company. The exterior design is largely unchanged (though it has a super low drag coefficient of 0.208) and the interior has received a big facelift.
The Model S now has a horizontal touchscreen like the one found in the Model 3 and Model Y, but with a bigger 17-inch version with smaller bezels. Unlike the Model 3 and Model Y, there’s a digital instrument cluster behind the steering wheel. A third screen is found behind the center console for rear passengers. Tesla showed off a new UI for the screens on Thursday night, which features drag-and-drop elements and other refinements. Musk even capitulated to shouts from the crowd of fans at one point and agreed to finally add a waypoint feature to Tesla’s navigation system.
There are other upgrades, too, such as more room for rear passengers, as well as rear-seat wireless phone chargers. “The current Model S, the backseat is not amazing. But the new one — it’s actually a legit backseat,” Musk said.
The Model S Plaid has extremely powerful processing that can run AAA games on the car’s screens at 60 frames per second, in addition to powering all of the other services Tesla allows, such as Netflix, Spotify. “Really, it’s like a home theater experience,” Musk said.
Tesla has also changed a lot under the proverbial hood. The Model S Plaid is powered by a new tri-motor drivetrain that Tesla originally started developing for the forthcoming second-generation Roadster. (The company tested the Plaid powertrain in a Model S sedan at famous racetracks: Laguna Seca and the Nurburgring.) Those three motors collectively put down around 1,000 horsepower, and the car can reach a top speed of 200 miles per hour — though only when outfitted certain wheels and tires that won’t be available until later this year. “It hits you right in the limbic system,” Musk said.
Earlier Model S sedans weren’t exactly slow, but the new one will be more capable of repeating that performance thanks to some new tech Tesla developed. The company has been working on new heat pumps starting with the Model Y, and in the Model S Plaid Tesla says the pump improves cold-weather range by 30 percent and reduces the energy consumption of running the HVAC system by 50 percent. The radiator is also much bigger in order to help cool the battery pack during demanding drives. Tesla even developed new carbon-wrapped rotors in the electric motors that power the Plaid system in order to keep them from breaking apart at high RPM.
Repeating high performance runs was a tricky prospect in older Model S sedans, so much so that Porsche made sure to market the Taycan’s ability to make lots of fast runs without losing performance when that EV launched. All of those changes should help Tesla answer Porsche. Musk claims the new Model S will be safer than most other cars on the road based on Tesla’s internal data. The car has not yet been tested by safety regulators.
One possible hiccup in safety: the striking, U-shaped “yoke” steering wheel. It was reportedly a surprise to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. When Musk was asked by Joe Rogan in February whether he thought the new steering wheel was legal, the CEO said “they use a yoke in Formula One.”
“Yeah, but you’re not on the highway in a Formula One car,” Rogan responded. Musk answered that he believed Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system “is getting good enough that you won’t need to drive most of the time.”
Tesla not only changed up the steering wheel design, but it also got rid of all of the stalks on the steering column. There will be an option on the touchscreen to select drive modes, but Tesla sees that as a backup. Instead, the car will default to automatically shifting between park, reverse, and drive.
“I think, generally, all input is error,” Musk said Thursday night.