Tesla’s Model S: Is 60 Horsepower and 57 Miles Worth $10,000?

The speedometer. This was not the fastest we went. | Justin Lloyd-Miller/Wall St. Cheat Sheet

In case you missed it, I was given the good fortune of getting behind the wheel of a 60 kWh Tesla Model S sedan in the outskirts of Chicago back in May. For those who are unfamiliar, the 60 kWh version — which produces the equivalent to about 300 horsepower — is the least powerful vehicle in Tesla’s stable and serves as the entry level for Tesla’s only car on the market. From there, buyers can choose the 85 kWh model or the P85, which adds 60 horsepower and 114 horsepower respectively, though the car itself remains largely the same.

Essentially, what I walked away with from that experience was this: The praise, claims, and fervor that are heaped on this car are largely justified. The torque really is instantaneous. The infotainment system, presented on a large and disconcerting 17-inch touchscreen, is largely intuitive despite its threatening appearance. It’s really that quiet, really that fast, and really that well planted. The back seats are on the smaller side for tall people because of the sloped roof and the interior could use some minute adjustments, but overall, the car is as good as it’s been promised.

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Memorably, I said at the time in my piece that “I can only imagine how much better the 85 kWh model would be.” Well, imagine no more — with some convenient timing, I was able to get a shot with the 85 kWh model to find out how drastic the difference was. Possibly the biggest question I had going into the drive was if it’s worth the added cost. Jumping 25 kWh adds $10,000 to the base price of the car. Is it worth it? 

Many — most, actually — would say yes. The 85 kWh Tesla is far and away the more popular trim, and the P85 has its fair share of fans, too. In addition to more power, you get better range: 265 miles versus 208. After driving both cars (admittedly, my experience with the 60 kWh was some time ago now), when it comes to real-world difference, the speed isn’t the biggest factor separating the two. It’s the comfort of having an additional 60 or so miles on tap.

Obligatory ironic photo of a Tesla at a gas station. | Justin Lloyd-Miller/Wall St. Cheat Sheet

Don’t get me wrong: I love my share of absurdly powerful vehicles. But whether it’s the backroads of Vermont or the suburbs of Chicago, I’m not convinced that shelling out the extra $10,000 for the boost in power is necessarily worth it, provided you’re not traveling long distances on a daily basis — but hear me out.

The Tesla 85 kWh is blisteringly fast. With no transmission to soak up power and 100 percent of the torque available from a standstill, it’s absurdly fast feeling. If it’s truly taking almost five seconds to reach 60, it doesn’t feel like it. But the trouble is, I remember distinctly having the same impression when walking away from the 60 kWh, too, and here’s why.

Say you are in a comparable vehicle. A Porsche Panamera or an Audi A7. Both can be equipped with optional rev-happy V8 trims in the Panamera S and the S7 varieties, respectively. Thrashing a good V8 is wicked good fun for the noise, the brutality, the complete aural and visceral sensations when the tach breaches 3,500 RPMs and beyond.

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In the Tesla, naturally, there is none of it. Which means you can thrash it to your heart’s content and it will be ready for more every time. There’s no satisfying crescendo and peak at the redline. It will just keep going and going until you reach terminal speed at about 125 miles per hour. And it loves it — it just can’t get enough. After beating a gasoline engine around for a while, you almost feel bad. But in the Tesla, it’s the car asking if you’re the one who’s OK.

Of course, there are limitations — the car can only keep it up so much before you risk initiating the engine power-cut in order to prevent the batteries from overheating. But my greater point is that with so much torque available right when you step down, you’re not going to be thinking about the difference between hitting 60 in 5.9 or 5.4 seconds. Unless you plan on dragging with it, the sensation is similar in real-world conditions.

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If you long for the sound of a throbbing V8, fair enough: That’s a reasonable and understandable desire. But in the Tesla’s league, you’ll be paying upwards of $4 per gallon for the privilege. (Pro tip: Of the cars in the Tesla’s price bracket, few will be sucking on anything short of premium.) Casual drivers should really consider, however, if the added performance is worth the $10,000 premium over the base model. If it’s for the added range, drivers should spend some time tracking their driving habits to see if they really need the 265-mile driving range or if they can get by with the 208.

I recently wrote a post based on a study conducted by researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee. They found that “the majority of the average drivers – four-fifths of U.S. vehicles, to be more specific — travel less than 40 miles each day. But despite being afforded the convenience of home charging, owning a car that can’t travel further than 100 miles in one go just doesn’t seem to be of interest for consumers, even if less than half that is traveled per day and the car can top itself off overnight.”

At the end of the day, the 85 kWh model is an excellent choice for those who are seriously discerning in the performance of their vehicle or who really, really need that extra range. But for casual drivers, the 60 kWh Model S should suffice just fine. 

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If performance is really a priority for you and you can already afford a Tesla, shoot for the P85, which adds a higher-performance inverter and brings the horsepower from 362 in the 85 kWh to 416. That should prove to be a more meaningful performance experience, as it also reduces the 0-to-60 time to 4.2 seconds, and the top speed — should you ever need it — is widened by 10 miles per hour to 130 over the 60 kWh, as well as upgraded tires, rims, bushings, stabilizer bars, and dampers.

The party trick of the Model S — and this is true in all of its trims — is how remarkably well balanced the car is. Since there’s no heavy engine up front, the battery packs along the bottom create an even anchor that helps keep the car in check when enthusiastically carving up some corners. But again, this isn’t specific to the 85.

In short, the 85 kWh is an ideal halfway point between the 60 and the P85, as it’s supposed to be. But don’t buy the version for the extra power — buy it for the range, if you truly need it. If performance is your thing, you’re better off putting down for the P85, which is purpose-built for those reasons. But for the casual driver who doesn’t need more than 200 miles per day, the 60 should be more than adequate.

Editors’ Note: This article was updated to clarify some language regarding the overheating of the battery cells when operating at full performance. The Model S will indeed cut power to the engine to minimize the risk of the batteries overheating, if the concern presents itself. We have also revised the language referring to the battery capacity-horsepower comparisons. Thank you to our diligent readers for pointing this out.