HAWTHORNE, Calif. — Luxury electric car maker Tesla Motors is giving its Model S sedan an upgrade.
Tesla unveiled a faster, safer all-wheel-drive version of the car Thursday night in an effort to better compete with other high-end sedans.
The announcement put to rest a week of feverish speculation. Tesla CEO Elon Musk hinted about the news last week with a tweet that said, “About time to unveil the D and something else.”
On Thursday, he said the “D” stands for “dual motor.” The current Model S is a rear-wheel-drive car with one motor. The “D” will have two motors — one powering the front wheels and one powering the rear wheels.
Musk said unlike all-wheel-drive systems on gas-powered cars, which tend to be heavy and make the cars less efficient, Tesla’s system improves the speed, acceleration and mileage by optimizing which motor is used at any given time.
The all-wheel-drive version of the P85 performance sedan will have a top speed of 155 mph, compared with the current 130 mph. It will also accelerate from 0-60 mph in 3.2 seconds, akin to exotic sports cars.
“This car is nuts. It’s like taking off from a carrier deck,” Musk told a crowd of hundreds of Tesla fans gathered at a municipal airport near Los Angeles. The airport is where another of Musk’s companies — the commercial rocket firm SpaceX — is based.
Analysts have said Tesla needed an all-wheel drive system to boost sales in the Northeast and Midwest, as well as Europe. The company sold 13,850 cars in the U.S. through September, down 3 percent from a year ago, according to Autodata Corp.
Tesla is also significantly upgrading its safety features.
The Model S will steer itself back if it wanders from its lane and brake automatically if it is about to hit something. Those features are already offered on luxury competitors, as well as mainstream brands such as Ford, Hyundai and Toyota.
But Tesla is going a step further. Its new system will move the car over a lane when the driver uses the turn signal. It will also use cameras to read speed limit signs and adjust the car’s speed. Volvo also has a system that reads speed limit signs and alert drivers if they over, but not decelerate.
Musk called the features “auto pilot” and said they do not mean that the car could drive itself — or as he put it, that a driver “can safely fall asleep.”
While the addition of all-wheel drive catches Tesla up with the rest of the luxury car market, pulling together all the driver-assist features impressed Brian A. Johnson, an analyst with Barclay’s. “It’s a year ahead of the timeframe I was expecting,” he said.
Raj Rajkumar, a pioneer of self-driving cars with Carnegie Mellon University, was similarly impressed but also wondered how “auto-pilot” would perform in different weather and roads conditions. “It would be very interesting to know the limitations,” Rajkumar said.
All-wheel drive will be a $4,000 option on the base and mid-range Model S, which start at $71,000. The base price for the P85 with all-wheel drive — which will be known as P85D — is $120,000. The P85D will go on sale in December, while the other versions will go on sale in February.