How Does Tesla's Model S Hold Up in the Snow?


Tesla Motors' luxury sedan has amassed a number of accolades. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls it the safest car ever tested. But how does the massive car hold up in the winter without all-wheel drive?

Model S driving in snow. Source: Screen shot from Tesla Cold Weather Performance YouTube video.

Does Tesla need an all-wheel-drive Model S?
This weekend, Tesla spoke up about its Model S in the snow. In a new video, Tesla VP of Vehicle Engineering Chris Porritt said the car -- even without all-wheel drive -- holds up considerably well in snowy conditions.

"[T]his car performs outstandingly in winter conditions," he said. "In fact, all-wheel drive is not required at all when you purchase this car."

That statement is somewhat of a surprise, considering CEO Elon Musk has, on numerous occasions, hinted that the company may eventually release an AWD Model S. In fact, unnamed sources "familiar with the situation" told The Verge in August that Tesla was already preparing an AWD Model S.

But with Tesla now reporting that AWD is not required for the Model S, it seems an AWD version of the vehicle may be more of a way to add another model at the high end than it is to address a customer base that wants to drive the car in the snow. Maybe that's why these unnamed sources also told The Verge that if it does launch an AWD version of the sedan, it "may initially be offered in an ultra-premium (and ultra-expensive) trim with performance equal to or better than the current 'P85' drivetrain that delivers 0-60 mph in an impressive 4.2 seconds."

Model S in the snow
So what's up with this crazy claim? Why would AWD not be required when you purchase a Model S? Porritt breaks it down.

The other thing the Model S has is a traction control system, which, in low-grip situations, works fantastic with the car. In an [internal combustion] engine car, the motor, transmission, [and] axles take a long time to speed up and slow down. The Model S has an electric motor, which has very low inertia, which means that the motor could be spun or slowed down very, very quickly -- almost instantaneously, in fact. It takes input from the driver, from the steering system, from wheel speeds, and it basically gives you the best possible traction you could have in the kind of environment.

Sounds reasonable. It's no secret that Tesla's electric motors are highly responsive. The motor uses an AC induction technology with a single gear box. This allows for instant and maximum no-joke torque from a stand-still. Anyone who test-drives the vehicle would probably testify to the abrupt power that pulls you into your seat when you press the pedal to the floor. This instantaneous response takes a traction control system to places an internal-combustion vehicle couldn't.

A matter of time
Even if the car may not need AWD to operate effectively in the snow, it's still likely Tesla has an AWD version of the Model S in the pipeline. As The Verge notes, AWD is about more than traction in the snow: "[I]ndeed, many modern sports cars send power to all four wheels thanks to benefits in traction and handling." Even more, it makes sense it wouldn't be difficult for Tesla to provide an AWD version of the Model S when it's already working on one for its Model X.

But the takeaway here for investors isn't that Tesla will probably unveil an AWD Model S in the near future. Instead, the news is yet another data point that makes a solid case for electric cars as a sustainable vehicle type. Thanks to very responsive electric motors, Tesla is able to take traction control systems to a whole new level.

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