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Can a Tesla survive a weekend of tailgating?

Smart cars are everywhere now. But we had to find out if a Tesla Model S could make it through a weekend of sports and questionable decisions.

If you needed any more proof that electric cars have worked their way into the mainstream, how’s this: Atlanta, the capital of the Deep South, has an electric cop car now. Driving through town a few months ago, I saw a Nissan Leaf, decked out in APD regalia, making a traffic stop. (To add to the hilarity, it had pulled over a smart car, which I hadn’t thought capable of exceeding a posted speed limit to begin with.)

As I get ready for work on any given morning, I’ll see three Leafs pass by my house for every pickup truck. Come fall, though, gas-guzzling, full-size trucks and SUVs will muscle their way back to the top of the food chain, as football fans stream from Atlanta to places like Athens, Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. Part of that has to do with practicality: A truly extravagant tailgating setup isn’t going to fit in a Leaf or a Ford Focus Electric or what have you.

But down here, it’s also cultural. On the Venn diagram of "rabid college football fans" and "people concerned enough about the environment to drive an electric car," the intersection barely amounts to a sliver. Anything as primal as SEC football just seems more appropriate when fueled with actual dinosaur juice. But is it mandatory?

The electric car took a huge leap forward in prestige and perhaps even cojones when the Tesla Model S became a reality in June 2012. Far from a dinky, underpowered shoebox, the Model S was a voluptuous full-size luxury sedan, one whose breakthrough battery technology gave it a cruising range two to four times any other pure electric on the market. And its performance envelope not only matched but exceeded conventional luxury sedans in its price range.

Since then, Tesla models have pushed that envelope even further, and starting with the 2015, buyers have the option of twin electric motors and four-wheel drive. On paper, at least, it’s a car your tailgating neighbors would be hard-pressed to make fun of, no matter how big or intimidating their gameday chariots are — but you can’t drive anything on paper.

So I asked Tesla if they’d loan me a Model S over the long Fourth of July weekend. For reasons still not clear, they said yes. As questionable as their judgment might’ve been, over the ensuing five days I would exhibit far worse.

Questionable Decision No. 1: Tesla Lets Me Borrow Something Nice (and Breakable)

Even the cheapest 2015 Model S packs 329 horsepower and a long list of tech gadgets. But when I arrive at the Tesla store, Alexis Georgeson, Tesla’s senior PR rep, walks me over to a maraschino-red P85D with 21-inch rims, panoramic sunroof, five individually heated leather sport seats, and not one but two electric motors combining for 691 horsepower, only 16 less than the Dodge Hellcat with which Spencer Hall terrorized Augusta National this past spring.

My Volkswagen GTI, a car with more power than any car that size really needs, saddles each of its 200 horses with about 15.5 pounds. The P85D’s power-to-weight ratio is less than half that.

The base Model S, with a 70 kWh battery, starts at $76,200 (minus the $7,500 federal tax credit for EVs). There’s no window sticker on this almost fully loaded model, but Tesla’s website says a P85D with all these extra bells and whistles goes for $127,450.

I keep waiting for Tesla personnel to ask me to sign something in my own blood or put up my firstborn as collateral, but no one does. The rep hands me the key — or rather the fob, since Teslas have neither keys nor conventional ignitions — and off I go. You fools!

The skies open up before I’m even halfway home, yet I don’t even have time to be terrified. The otherworldliness of the Model S experience leaves little mental bandwidth for that kind of anxiety. Because there’s no transmission, there’s no shifter, nor even a center console at all, just a wood-lined canyon that makes the cabin feel a lot bigger than it is. Then, when you step on the gas pedal — sorry, the accelerator, we won’t be needing any gas this weekend — there’s no roar or vibration, just a soft whine that’s more MacBook than muscle car.

Nor is there any delay while the engine spools up. Mechanically, think of the Model S like you would an electric razor: You know how you push the "on" button and the thing is instantly sawing away at your stubble? Depending on how heavy a right foot you have, the Tesla is nearly that immediate. The motor’s not doing much of anything, then it is, and before you’ve even had time to process it, you’re going 30 miles an hour. Or 60. Or, if you’ve availed yourself of the car’s "Insane Mode" (which we’ll get to later), way, way faster than that.

If the P85D’s powertrain is like the world’s biggest and fastest electric razor, though, the rest of the car is like the world’s biggest and fastest smartphone. Nearly every feature is controlled from a 17-inch touchscreen in the center of the dash, from the nav system to the stereo to the seat heaters and sunroof (you drag the little "open" bar just as you would "slide to unlock" an iPhone).

It’s a whole lot of functions for one screen to handle, and there’s a pronounced learning curve to memorizing which settings reside where. The screen’s massive size makes everything quite legible, though, so in the end it’s not much more complicated than the setup in, say, a Mercedes S-Class (much less an Acura RLX, with two screens that function much less harmoniously than the Tesla’s one).

But the smartphone mentality goes much further than the screen. Modifications and upgrades can be handled with software updates. If Tesla comes up with a more efficient motor program or sportier suspension setting, it can beam that to your car while it sits in your driveway, like an iPhone absorbing a new version of iOS. Not only does this reduce visits to service centers, a Tesla spokesperson tells me, it also means drivers who bought 2012 models can drive around today in cars functionally on a par with the ‘15s.

Questionable Decision No. 2: Careless Time Management vis-à-vis #Barves

Tailgating a 1:35 p.m. baseball game directly on the heels of a post-July-4th hangover proves to be a bigger undertaking than I planned for, and by the time I drag myself out of bed on July 5 and make it to Turner Field, there’s barely enough time to pound one beer before the game starts.

There was, however, plenty of time to marvel at just how much gear the car could swallow. Though the Model S looks like a four-door sedan, it is in fact a hatchback, and the space beneath that hatch is massive — 26.3 cubic feet, 60 percent more than an S-Class and nearly twice as much as an Audi A8 (neither of which exactly qualify as wee). So it’ll easily accommodate a 45-gallon tub filled with supplies, two standard-sized coolers, and three or four folded-up camping chairs, and still let three adults relax in the back seat. Fold that seat down, and with 58.1 cubic feet of space, the Model S will hold more than a Jeep Cherokee (54.9 cubic feet).

The Tesla would have even more space if it weren’t equipped with another unusual feature: a pair of rear-facing jump seats that fold up out of the trunk floor, not unlike the backwards seat in the trunk of everybody’s mom’s Taurus wagon. After giving it a sit myself during tailgate testing, at $3,000, I decided the jump-seat option is perhaps less cost-effective than a pair of $30 camping chairs at Target.

Using a few borrowed beer kegs, I can confirm that the Model S is a beer hauler par excellence: Even with the back seat in place, it takes three full-sized kegs with room left over for a couple of coolers. And we haven’t even gotten to the front trunk, or "frunk," as Tesla owners are unofficially calling it.

With only a backpack-sized AC induction motor under the hood rather than a complex gas engine, Tesla designers were able to carve out an additional 5.3 cubic feet of cargo space. That’s not enough for a full-sized keg, but it will handle a pony with ease. (Assuming the smokeys in Georgia or Tennessee haven’t yet caught on that there’s no engine under there, it presumably makes the Model S a very attractive option for moonshine runs. I was unable to wrangle enough mason jars to confirm this.)

It’s hard to conceive of a tailgate that would require more alcohol than the Model S can bring. LSU fans, you may consider the gauntlet thrown.

Questionable Decision Nos. 3a and 3b: Damning the Torpedoes and (Intermittently) Full Speeding Ahead

It’s all well and good to ball out at a tailgate, but you have to get to the stadium first. This is where the Model S faces its biggest obstacle (after price) to widespread adoption. Depending on weather conditions and how your Model S is equipped, Tesla says you can go as far as 300 miles on a single battery charge. That range won’t necessarily hold up under more lead-footed drivers, which will force you to recharge the battery, a far more time-intensive process than a gas station stop.

There was only one way to find out how big that obstacle might really be, and that was to take a road trip. There’s a Supercharger in Auburn, Ala., and a short jaunt there would let me gauge the car’s range in real-world highway driving and get a taste of how the charging process would affect trip time.

Perhaps as much as the cars themselves, Tesla’s growing Supercharger network is critical to the brand’s viability. Without it, Model S drivers are at the mercy of public charging stations unlikely to provide more than 30 miles of range per hour of charge time. The Superchargers, however, can give a Tesla 170 miles of range in as little as half an hour, free of charge, with a full charge taking 75-80 minutes. (In yet another similarity to smartphones, the power intake rate slows as the battery nears full charge.)

About 200 Superchargers currently operate at strategic points along major Interstate truck routes; by the end of this year, Tesla wants 98 percent of the continental U.S. to be within 100 miles of one of these specialized stations.

Starting the day at the Decatur Supercharger, I go from 94 indicated miles of range to 209 in less than 40 minutes. That’s more than enough to make it to Auburn. So I decide to detour through my parents’ place in Columbus, Ga., just shy of the Georgia-Alabama state line — even though the nav system, ominously, is sticking with its recommendation to hit the Auburn Supercharger first.

After a 75-mph drive through rain showers, I arrive in Columbus with 122 more miles on the odometer but 149 miles of range sapped from the battery. Sixty miles is plenty for the short jaunt to Auburn, but after letting my dad experience the car’s ridiculous acceleration for himself, it’s down to 35. In theory, that’s still enough to make the 33-mile trip to Auburn, but now the nav system is issuing a dire warning: a red rectangle declaring "Charging needed to reach destination."

No problem, I think: Columbus has a couple public charging stations downtown, so I’ll stop at one of them just long enough to add 15 or 20 miles’ worth of cushion. But the plugs at those stations look nothing like any of the adapters in the trunk of the Tesla, not even the J1772 adapter designed to be compatible with most public chargers.

I have three choices: try to force the plug into the car’s charge port, in the process possibly damaging the car and/or electrocuting myself; plug the car into a standard wall outlet at my parents’ house, replenishing range at the agonizing rate of three miles per hour; or roll the dice and head to Auburn. I say a prayer and head over the bridge into Alabama.

I say a prayer and head over the bridge into Alabama.

The "Range Mode" function in the P85D limits air-conditioning power and optimizes the torque split between front and rear motors for maximum efficiency. Though it’s creeping up toward 90 outside, I turn off the A/C entirely, and I’m a sweaty mess by the time I hit the Lee County line. My stomach somersaults with each mile that peels off the range indicator.

Temporary relief arrives in the form of an 18-wheeler on U.S. 280. He’s only going 55, but he’s the perfect battering ram to draft behind, if I set the adaptive cruise control to follow him at a distance that openly mocks the truck’s "IF YOU CAN’T SEE MY MIRRORS I CAN’T SEE YOU" sign. When the truck and I finally have to part ways, I prod the accelerator as gingerly as I’d touch the soft spot on a baby’s head and start imagining awkward phone conversations. "Oh, yeah, everything’s great! Drives like a dream! Hey, random thought, Tesla’s got roadside assistance, right?"

But the worst-case scenario will have to wait for another day, because I coast into the Auburn Supercharger with exactly 3 miles left on the clock.

While the car charges up, I stroll my sweltering ass across the parking lot to one of Auburn’s finer dining establishments for a beer. Twenty-four hours ago people were staring at me because I was driving a bright-red supercar that costs as much as a house; now they’re staring at me because I look like I just jumped into a swimming pool with my clothes on.

But I don’t care. I looked fate in the eye, and fate blinked first. A little over an hour later, the Supercharger has put 232 miles back on the clock and I’m headed home with the air conditioning set to "Hoth."

As harrowing as the experience was, it did provide two valuable lessons. First: While the Tesla can handle a road trip, it is not to be undertaken without plenty of prior planning. This is not a car in which you can just say "Ooooh, let’s head down to Mardi Gras on a whim!" Even "Let’s detour off our pre-determined route and go have barbecue at this shack in the middle of nowhere" is probably inadvisable. Certain restrictions apply to electric motoring.

Which brings me to the second lesson: Any claims about the Tesla’s cruising range should be viewed through the prism of your own personal driving tendencies. Do you regularly partake of a 10-mph cushion over the posted speed limit on the Interstate? Then you might want to shave about 15 percent off any range estimates. Are you driving through inclement weather or, alternatively, weather so hot you’ve no choice but to blast the A/C at wind-tunnel intensity? Maybe shave off a little more.

The nav system is programmed to both know where all the Superchargers are and alert you if you’re about to drive beyond their reach, but it can’t force you to listen, so you’ve got to put rugged individualism aside and exercise caution. If you have a choice between two Superchargers and one of them is 180 miles away and the other is 250, for example, maybe go with the closer one?

Questionable Decision No. 4: Using a City Boulevard as a Drag Strip

There’s one last thing expected from a tailgating chariot: It should be able to either beat a hasty retreat in the event your team loses, or participate in a gaudy victory celebration if they win. So let’s circle back to the whole thing about 691 horsepower. What does that even feel like?

Like warp drive. The P85D goes from not moving at all to "dude what the f&$% are you doing?" in the literal blink of an eye. Insane Mode casts off any pretense of energy conservation and programs the engine for even giddier than usual power delivery. I’ve resisted its siren song nearly the entire weekend, but Sunday afternoon, after the baseball game and with an hour and a half still to go until the Women’s World Cup final, I take the car out onto the desolate southernmost reaches of town and flip the switch. With a Charger on my left and a Maxima on my right, I wait with bated breath for the light to turn green, and when it does, I stomp on the accelerator as hard as I can.

Car and Driver clocked the Insane Mode 0-60 sprint at 3.3 seconds, faster than everything else on the road with four doors. With only an iPhone stopwatch and my own sluggish reflexes to corroborate that figure, I don’t doubt it for a second.

And while 60 mph isn’t that big a deal in a cosmic sense, it’s a lot bigger when you get there before your brain is prepared to even process it. You look in the rearview mirror, and cars that were right next to you just a second ago are suddenly so small they make you question the concept of object permanence. One second you're surrounded, the next you're alone.

At least until I glance up there and see an anomaly of an anomaly — a car that wasn’t there a second ago, but now is. It’s a different Dodge Charger, one with a menacing black push bar on the front and a light bar on the roof. In an instant, adrenaline reverts into humiliation, and I start tallying up how much this display of audacity is going to cost me.

I pull a U-turn at the next light and the state trooper ... goes straight. It's then I realize that I’m not even going far enough over the speed limit to merit a ticket. I just got there really quickly, and there’s no law against accelerating really fast. Particularly when the P85D can accomplish it without tire smoke, a black patch on the pavement, or so much as a peep from the engine bay.

How ironic is that? Here’s an impossibly sleek, bright red, $130,000, fully electric game-changer, and making a spectacle of itself is the one thing it can’t do.


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