Like many pure electric vehicles, the Tesla Model S is missing a whole lot of extraneous stuff including a transmission, gears and a clutch. This means there’s a plethora of things that don’t need to be maintained due to component wear or failure. But it also means that the Model S has a much different driving characteristic than any other car with a transmission.
There are two types of transmissions in cars with a traditional gasoline-powered internal combustion engine (ICE) – automatic and manual. Manual transmission vehicles require engagement of a clutch typically through a clutch pedal. Some people prefer the direct control of the car by being able to shift through gears and engine braking through downshifting. I was one of them.
I’ve owned and driven a number of manual transmission cars over the years, anywhere from a cheap Ford Fiesta to a high-end Porsche 928. The feel of the clutch and quirks with shifting vary from car to car. Case in point was my 928 which I had to double clutch from time to time.
I eventually gave up driving any sort of manual transmission when my daily commute grew. Using the clutch and shifting on a manual transmission is a bear when it comes to heavy traffic. So, what does all this have to do with the Model S that has neither gears nor a clutch? The feeling.
Driving a Tesla Model S is eerily similar to driving a manual transmission vehicle. The car will roll if you take your foot off the brake while on an incline or decline. Tesla added the “hill assist” feature in the recent 5.9 software update, but that only holds the vehicle for 1 second before the car begins rolling again.
Letting go of the Model S accelerator pedal as you’re approaching a stop light will slow the vehicle down through regenerative braking which to me feels exactly like downshifting and engine braking, but without the noise.
Another thing I caught myself doing was quickly moving my foot from brake pedal to accelerator to prevent stalling the car only to realize that the Tesla will never stall. I guess it was just muscle memory.
In an automatic transmission vehicle the car will begin moving forward when you let go of the brake pedal as opposed to sitting perfectly still and silent in the Model S. Creep makes this happen by moving the car forward when you let go of the brake pedal.
I took my Model S to an empty parking lot and gave the creep feature a try. You can only toggle this feature on/off when the vehicle’s in park mode. After turning on the creep setting, put the car in drive, take your foot off the brake and the Model S will begin to move forward. It starts off pretty slow but picks up speed quickly. I measured a top speed of 5 MPH which felt pretty quick to me. You can literally drive around a parking lot in this mode without stepping on either the brake or accelerator and just creep along.
I also didn’t like the idea of the car using energy unless I was specifically asking for it through the accelerator pedal. I had originally thought that the creep feature would be useful when pulling into a tight parking space but the accelerator pedal on the Model S is very well tuned for both fine and aggressive movements. Creep is not really needed in my opinion. That being said, the only time I’ve used this feature was for this particular test.
The Tesla Model S behaves somewhat like a vehicle with a manual transmission but only when it comes to being at a standstill and braking. The car will roll forward or backwards when on a hill. Regenerative braking feels similar to downshifting and engine braking in a manual transmission vehicle. You can tweak these settings until the car resembles more of an automatic transmission, but this experience leaves little to be desired. Why mimic the past when you're driving the future?
After experimenting with reduced regenerative braking and creep mode, I'm really happy with the "default" modes - creep off and standard regenerative braking. Tesla has done a fantastic job in fine tuning the driving experience in order to give the driver the best of both transmission worlds.