Test-Driving a Tesla Changed My Life

A luxury car paves the way for the next generation of economy rides

Minnesota Monthly Senior Editor, Quinton Skinner test drives a Tesla; Video by Chad Holder

During the early stages of our in-house planning for the “Splurge” feature in Minnesota Monthly, we cooked up the idea of test-driving a Tesla. While there are luxury cars out there that will set you back more than the Tesla Model S and its $100K price tag (we featured one of them on our cover, in fact), the Tesla has a special cachet: eye-catching design, reputed performance, and the weird alchemical sorcery (for us, at least) of the car’s petroleum-free battery power.

My philosophy as a car owner has been consistent in its simplicity throughout my adult life: Acquire a car used (gently or otherwise), take care of it within reasonable limits, and drive it until it is essentially little more than a pile of parts held together by rust and optimism. And yet someone here at the magazine had to drive the Tesla, and the responsibility fell to me (there are occasional benefits to the title of senior editor).

In Eden Prairie, I met store manager Alex Liebl; he had come to the Twin Cities from a Tesla store in Chicago and oozed confidence in the company and its product. He showed me a diagram of the Tesla’s motor drive, which is powered in two banks of batteries and housed in the far front and back of the vehicle. Alex called the car’s technology “special sauce,” and shared little details such as the way the car captures kinetic energy when the driver applies the brakes, and returns power to the charging system.

Tesla Twin Cities Minneapolis
Photo by Chad Holder

Though I’ll admit not to keeping up on these things, I had no idea that a car requiring no gasoline or motor oil was possible at this point. Or if it was, I’d have assumed that it possessed the approximate power of the 1972 Super Beetle that I drove across the Sierra Nevada in 1987 while honking outraged truck drivers swerved around me on the uphill segments of the road not far from where the Donner Party expanded the palate of pioneer cuisine.

Alex walked me out to drive a car that seemed plucked from a quarter century in the future. Door handles sunk flush into the car body emerged automatically when they picked up a signal from Alex’s keys. I got into the driver’s seat and had to be told that the car had started itself for me—there was no sound inside, no sign that the Tesla was activated other than the huge tablet display offering me music, internet, the location of the nearest electric charging station, and probably my horoscope if I had asked it nicely.

Despite my rather humble personal automotive history, I have actually driven a number of high-performance cars (thanks, Dad). The Tesla immediately rekindled that feel, with precise steering without overreacting, great responsiveness to the gas pedal, and a revelatory feel to the brakes—the car started to slow down as soon as I let off the gas, a different feel easy and quick to master, with a palpable sense of the car using its complex software to conserve energy.

Then we got on the freeway entrance, a nice long straightway. Alex told me to punch it. This was the part I had read about: 0 to 60 miles an hour in three seconds. I pushed the accelerator to the floor, and the world blurred like the stars through the windows of the spaceships in Star Wars when they hit warp speed. I was indeed on the freeway in just a couple of seconds; then I let off the gas pedal and the car stabilized its speed. It didn’t feel remotely unsafe (though I’d never try it on a curve).

By the time I returned the Model S to the store, I was sold—on the concept, at least, although I wouldn’t be spending $100K on a car anytime soon (unless I had extremely elderly and unhealthy relatives my family had failed to inform me of). But I learned that Tesla has a “first adopters” business plan much like the tech business of its Silicon Valley home: The company was selling its first generations of cars at a high price for the forward thinking and affluent, then sinking profits into research and development in hopes of hitting the market with a more affordable model.

The goal is a $35,000 model in two years—for a car that never requires gas and which can be charged for daily use at a home socket. This may well be the next model of automobile that I will drive until the parts come off.