There’s a mystique about Tesla Motors’ electric vehicles that borders on the cultlike. People believe the upstart, high-tech automaker’s EVs are different from other cars on the road.
They are. But a big part of the Tesla difference isn’t so much about what these cars have as it is about how they are built and, believe it or not, what they don’t have.
The foundation of that difference is that Teslas — the Model S sport sedan, the Model X crossover and the upcoming Model 3 family sedan — have been designed and engineered from the start to be electric vehicles. Tesla didn’t have to make all of the compromises other car companies have made in order to squeeze EV bits into a package never intended to hold them.
Tesla also was founded and is run by a team of people committed to the idea that the passenger car can be both exciting to drive and friendly to the environment, that performance and environmental sensibility aren’t mutually exclusive. And while the cost of a Tesla isn’t low, it’s a price that fans are willing to pay.
There’s a lot of technology on board a Tesla, but remember: Much of the stuff is also available or coming soon on top-tier models from other major luxury carmakers.
The Tesla difference is that all that technology, power and environmental friendliness —and a few things no other carmaker offers — comes in one package.
Here’s a rundown of what makes Teslas special.
Not so much the exterior — Teslas are modern, sporty cars, but they still look like cars. The foundation of the Tesla difference is what’s underneath the sleek skin.
Because Tesla designers started with a clean slate, they were able to develop the car around its electric powertrain and battery. The battery pack didn’t have to be squeezed into spaces previously occupied by a gasoline car’s trunk, rear seats or engine bay. And there’s no transmission hump or drive shaft tunnel.
If you look at a bare Tesla platform, you’ll see that it looks a lot like a flat skateboard. That gives the Tesla a fairly roomy interior and lots of cargo space, behind the rear seats as well as up front.
2. The ‘frunk’
The engine bay is where most other electric carmakers put the charger, power inverter, electronic controls and, sometimes, the electric motor. But Tesla integrated all that into the parts of the car you can’t see. That left room under the “hood” for a storage compartment the company calls the “frunk,” or front trunk.
3. Fuel storage
There’s no fuel tank on a Tesla. There is a very large battery pack, which contains the energy storage cells as well as a cooling system and some electronic controls. All that is packaged into a flat box between the frame rails, under the floor pan a few inches above the ground and protected from objects in the road by a titanium shield. This gives the 4,600-pound Tesla a tremendously low center of gravity: The battery pack weighs about 1,200 pounds. That helps it stick to the road on corners or when you are hurrying through the twisties on your favorite mountain road.
4. Instrument panel
Other cars give drivers lots of knobs, switches, soft-touch buttons and even joysticks to contend with.
Tesla puts almost everything onto a massive, center-mounted, 17-inch display screen that provides clear, easy-to-use, on-screen touch controls. The only buttons on the dash are for the glove box release and the hazard lights.
The speedometer and energy systems information are digitally projected onto a driver-facing screen where conventional cars keep their analog and digital dials.
5. Propulsion system
Most cars use internal combustion engines and multispeed transmissions. They have hundreds of moving parts, require regular maintenance and can’t be adjusted without a trip to the shop.
Teslas use electric motors that have two moving parts and single-speed “transmissions” that have no gears. The company says its drivetrain has about 17 moving parts compared with about 200 in a conventional internal combustion drivetrain. The Tesla system is virtually maintenance-free. And because it is controlled by electronics, many adjustments and even repairs to the Tesla system can be made through software adjustments (more about that later).
6. Design (Part 2)
The Teslas’ exterior designs are those of conventional — albeit quite shapely — cars. But because the designers didn’t have to provide space for an engine — which typically results in a larger, wind-resisting front end — they were able to pen a shape that is among the most aerodynamic ever for a four-door passenger car.
That means the Teslas slip through the air rather than bulldoze through, and that helps with faster acceleration time and, more importantly, longer travel distance between battery charges.
7. Electric drive
The mere fact that it is a battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, makes a Tesla different from 99% of the cars sold in the U.S. today.
8. The batteries
Tesla’s battery system sets it apart from all other BEVs. The other guys all use large flat or pouch-format lithium-ion battery cells, while Tesla uses cells made in the common 18650 cylindrical format. That’s the same format, but not the same chemistry, as used in most laptops and tablets. Tesla cells, which use a nickel-cobalt-aluminum-lithium chemistry, have about 50% more energy density than other BEV cells, which helps account for a Tesla’s long range and high performance.
9. Charging speed
BEVs can charge only as quickly as their charging systems — and battery chemistry and heat management systems — allow. Most BEVs use a 6.6-kilowatt charger, which means they can take on juice from a Level 2, 240-volt home, workplace or commercial charging station at a maximum rate of 6.6 kW per hour. Teslas come standard with a 10-kW charger and can be ordered with a double charger rated at 20 kW.
With a properly sized electricity supply, a standard Tesla takes on power at a rate that equates to 30 miles of range per hour, versus no more than 20 miles of range per hour for other BEVs’ chargers. Teslas with 20-kW chargers can gain up to 60 miles of range per hour.
10. Wireless updates
Pretty much alone among all automakers, Tesla regularly provides software updates for its cars and delivers them wirelessly at the driver’s convenience. Most are free and upgrade various functions on the cars. One of the most recent is supposed to improve operation of the Model X’s unique but oft-criticized “falcon wing” doors.
As most Teslas are produced with all the hardware necessary for functions such as the Tesla Autopilot driver assistance system, the company also sells wireless software downloads to activate them. Most other carmakers would require a visit to the dealership, at least, and most likely an expensive vehicle modification along with any new software.
John O’Dell is a longtime automotive writer who has covered alternative-fuel cars for the Los Angeles Times and Edmunds.com. He now runs the website The Green Car Guy and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.