Cars

The Tesla Model S Is a Classic American Muscle Car, and That's OK

Published On 01/26/2016 Published On 01/26/2016

What I'm about to say might be offensive to anyone who came of age idolizing some of the greatest American cars ever built, but it needs to be said. The Tesla Model S is a muscle car, straight up. Frankly, when viewed through that lens, it's a damned good one.

I’ll be honest: for a long time, I truly hated the Tesla. It’s heavy, unreliable, expensive, impractical for long trips, and doesn’t corner all that well. Moreover, to my eye it was little more than a glorified Camry; a car designed to be inoffensive in as many ways as possible, to appeal to the car-ambivalent masses who would just as soon have a Maytag or Whirlpool emblem on the hood. Granted, it was a glorified Camry with one hell of a party trick when you put your right foot down, but I saw little else to love.

It turns out I was looking at it all wrong. Despite what numerous fanboys have written, it's definitely no supercar. Nor is it a sports car, or even a sport sedan, really. It’s wholly unfair to compare it to the Lamborghinis, Corvettes, and AMGs of the world, or even luxury cars in a similar price range. As a muscle car, though, it works.

Flickr/Randy von Liski

What is a muscle car, really?

I know terms get muddled by both the car-illiterate and by marketing campaigns that love to latch onto an image, but from its inception, the muscle car has always been a large, American family sedan with a big, loud friggin’ engine. Its ethos from the 1960s to present is unchanged: kick some serious ass when the light turns green, then do a fairly reasonable job of blending back into traffic on the way to the grocery store or Little League game.

Flickr/Christopher Dorobek

Why is the Model S a muscle car?

When you think about it objectively, the Model S ticks every box in the muscle car definition except one, and the one it misses is a technicality (more on that in a second). It’s large, and any car designed to fit kids in the rear hatch area is certainly a family sedan. Even the "slower" Model S variants aren’t actually slow, and the fastest (see, P85D with Ludicrous mode) are among the fastest cars on Earth from stop light to stop light.

Does that sound familiar? Compare it with a Dodge Charger, from a regular V8 on up to the not-exactly-cheap but all-world fast Hellcat. Can either of them handle? Not particularly well. Can both fit a family? Yep. Can someone who doesn’t know jack squat about cars tell the difference between a base model and a P85D/Hellcat at first blush while driving down the street? Not bloody likely.

Flickr/David van der Mark

There’s no engine; how can it be a muscle car without a huge American V8 under the hood?

Ah yes, that. Dislike the electric motors if you must, but I call it automotive evolution. I don't hear too many people complaining that the Porsche 918 isn't a real supercar because it uses electric motors on the front wheels. Besides, what type of V8 would be needed? Some purists deride the Hellcats of today for being fuel-injected and supercharged, because they stray from the old tech of the 1960s. Taking it a step further, the Buick GNX is often described as the last of the old-school muscle cars... despite getting its power by way of a turbocharged V6.

The Tesla uses electric motors for propulsion. So what? At the end of the day, what converts an ordinary family car fit for a salesman into a muscle car is the ability to warp physics with whiplash-inducing levels of acceleration. I don't think anyone's arguing that the Tesla Model S is lacking in that department.

Flickr/Wolfram Burner

What does this mean for the future?

I’d be willing to bet that, if parts for Teslas don’t become overly scarce or prohibitively expensive, then decades from now it’ll be thought of as a legend in the same sense that we all think of the original Pontiac GTO today. We live in an era when the Ford GT eschews its traditional V8 because a turbo V6 was the faster option, when the fastest and most expensive cars in the world use electric motors to aid in acceleration, and the coolest sports cars, like the BMW i8 and Acura NSX rely on them as integral features of the car’s performance. The question is when, not if, proper electric sports cars, muscle cars, and sport sedans will rise to the fore.

The Tesla Model S has been out for years, but it's time to admit that it's part of a new era for American muscle.

Enjoy the silence.

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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. He's OK with electric cars so long as their fundamental principles are still geared toward the driving experience.

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