The new all-electric Tesla S sedan is not just the favorite of car magazines, now Consumer Reports calls it the best car they've ever driven, scoring 99 points of 100 and beating out the Lexus LS460 that held the previous record back in 2007. What does this massive battery-powered EV have that no others do?
"It handles like a sports car, it rides like a luxury car, it has the energy efficiency that is twice as good as the best hybrids and is the quietest car we've ever tested," said CR tester Gabe Shenhar. "It does so many things so right on so many levels that to us it wasn't a surprise."
Perhaps that's why Tesla Motors has sold more cars during the first quarter of 2013 than luxury German automakers, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi, prompting the Palo Alto-based firm to declare its first-ever profit and raise expected sales for 2013 from 20,000 to 21,000.
Shenhar said that Tesla started from scratch. It engineered an electric vehicle around a larger battery that gives it a range of more than 200 miles (265 miles with the upgraded 85 kilowatt/hr lithium-ion battery). All other EVs -- such as the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus, Honda Fit -- can only travel 60 to 80 miles before charging up. The closest competitor is the Toyota Rav 4 EV with a 103 mile range, according to the Department of Energy.
Tesla has also installed its own network of super-fast chargers along the East Coast corridor between Washington and Boston, as well as in California. It gives drivers in these areas the advantage of a 30 minute charge, instead of a six-hour overnight fill up at home.
Consumer Reports magazine said driving a Tesla S "is like crossing into a promising zero-emissions future. ... It's what Marty McFly might have brought back in place of his DeLorean in 'Back to the Future.'"
The Tesla far outscored competitors in its Luxury sedan category -- the gas-powered Porsche Panamera (84 points) and plug-in Karma (57) from financially troubled startup Fisker.
Shenhar said the Tesla's range, while leagues above its EV competitors, still has to ease the "range anxiety" for drivers used to going 400 to 500 miles on a tank of gas.
"You can't drive from here to Ohio and fill up anywhere you want in three minutes," he said from Consumer Reports test facility in Colchester, Conn.
The testers also noted that the Tesla doesn't have much of a track record yet for reliability or resale value. And while ordering a vehicle online may seem pretty cool -- bypassing pesky car salesmen at a dealership -- getting repairs, service and complex software updates to the EV's electronic brain can be a headache, at least according to posts made by owners on Tesla club blogs.
But some of those drawbacks are made up for in the hi-tech features: smart phone connectivity that allows you to remotely control charging levels; a 17-inch video display that gives navigation info as well as monitoring battery levels, and a built-in media player and internet browser. The Tesla S also has a surprise: more space. Since there's no engine to speak of, there's an extra luggage compartment in the front as well as a extra jumpseat in the rear, just like an old-fashioned station wagon.
Shenhar said he believes other car manufacturers are watching the success of the Tesla with envy.
Clearly every automaker in the world is looking at the Tesla model S and seeing how they can learn from this and break from conventions," he added.
For the electric vehicle industry as a whole, the success of the Tesla may rub off less-expensive models that appeal to the rest of us, according to Genevieve Cullen, vice president of the Electric Drive Vehicle Association, a Washington-based trade group.
"It's a rising tide," Cullen said. "They are showing that you can start a new car company in this day and age and tinker with the business model and come up with a great car. What it shows for the industry that this is a diverse market where there is demand in a lot of all segments."
If you can't afford an $89,650 Tesla S, you can always try Las Vegas, where a car-sharing service announced last month that it plans to purchase 100 of the sleek EVs and allow subscribers to run errands in style.