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The Tesla Model S has undergone two generations since 2012, but each year offered new features and enhancements. So which Tesla Model S is the best?

The best year for the first-generation Model S was 2016, as it came with a larger battery pack, battery shield, and self-driving sensors as standard equipment. The best second-generation Model S year is 2021 due to an exterior facelift and a cleaner, more functional interior.

In this article, we’ll go over all of the major changes that occurred to the Tesla Model S throughout its nine-year production history. We’ll highlight the benefits of each and overview the best years for each generation. Additionally, we’ll cover the latest changes and why the 2021 Model S is the best one yet.

We sourced the technical specifications and model year changes directly from Tesla when possible, along with other trusted automotive authorities.

Table of Contents

Tesla Model S Generations

The first year Tesla offered the Model S sedan was 2012. Since then, the Model S has become one of Tesla’s most popular vehicles and a mainstay of its high-end car development. The Tesla Model S still looks a lot like its predecessors, but there have been some pretty significant changes over the years.

Generally speaking, the Tesla Model S has improved across the board with each new model generation. The range has increased, pricing relative to features has decreased, and pretty much all of the bugs have been ironed out.

However, there are some features in older models that many people prefer. Here are the biggest design evolutions of the Tesla Model S, along with the features that distinguish new models from outgoing years.

First Generation Tesla Model S (2012 to 2016)

The first generation Tesla Model S was produced between 2012 and 2016. This is the original model, and it gained huge popularity and quickly became the most common Tesla. The original Model S had two battery capacity options, which were 60 kilowatt-hours and 85 kilowatt-hours for the extended-range model.

The first major upgrade to come during this generation was the addition of titanium battery shields, which increased the safety of the large battery packs stored throughout the vehicle. This was standard in March 2014, and Tesla will add it to any used Model S built before this date.

The earliest Tesla Model S varieties were available with a small 40 kWh battery pack. This battery was sufficient for city driving but fell short on the highway and in rural areas. As a result, the 40 kWh Model S was shelved during the 2013 model year and replaced with the 60 and 80.

Additionally, optional parking assist technology became available around this time. It wasn’t standard across the line but available on vehicles with the right sensors. Other features, such as a sunshade, were standardized or offered as additional equipment.

In July of 2015, Tesla added an additional 90 kWh battery option to the mix. This vehicle is still technically a first-generation, and the larger battery was only available on the RWD model. Around the same time, Tesla added additional performance modes and introduced the RWD Version 70 Model S.

The body of the Model S, along with its signature pop-out door handles, stayed the same throughout the first-generation model years. However, features of the body were added that weren’t readily visible. These include extra sensors and equipment for future technology.

Mid-2014 Sensor and Motor Upgrades

By mid-2014, the first generation Model S was retrofitted with self-driving sensors in multiple locations. Tesla added these sensors to allow the car to utilize new self-driving software updates as they become available in the future.

All Tesla Model S sedans built after September of 2014 come standard with the sensors—even if they don’t come from the factory with self-driving capabilities.

Additionally, an additional dual-motor option was added at this time. It was available with the 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack and included an electronic all-wheel-drive system.

Second Generation Tesla Model S (2016 to Present)

The second-generation Tesla Model S is the most advanced Tesla to date, and it includes vehicles made between 2016 and today. These vehicles have also evolved over the years, and the latest editions include the legendary Tesla Model S Plaid with a 1.98-second 0 to 60 acceleration time.

The most notable difference between the first and second-generation Model S is the exterior appearance. The mid-2016 Model S received a sporty facelift, along with some subtle styling cues and a more modern profile. However, many more features were added that requires a bit more digging to see.

Tesla chargers got a refresh in 2016 and now have a charging capacity of 48 amps. Additional interior styling options and adaptive headlights were also introduced around this time, and an extremely effective HEPA cabin air filtration system was included.

Second Generation Autopilot Advances

The second-generation Model S received the most advanced autopilot systems yet developed by Tesla. The second-generation autopilot incorporates eight sensors located around the exterior of the vehicle and eventually supported full self-driving capabilities. The software is still in the works, but the car itself can utilize the latest updates and have full functionality.

High-Performance Models

The second-generation Model S also included two of the company’s most well-known high-performance models. The first was the P100D Model S, which included 315 miles of range and a 2.5-second 0 to 60 acceleration time. Additionally, the P100D included Tesla’s new ‘Ludicrous’ performance mode, which put a staggering 503 hp and 497 lb-ft of torque to the wheels with remarkable responsiveness.

The Tesla Model S Plaid is the biggest innovation ever to hit the Model S lineup. Available this year, the Model S Plaid has an astounding 1,020 hp and a 9.23-second quarter-mile time. This vehicle has a 0 to 60 time of under two seconds and a top speed of 200 mph. It absolutely dwarfs even the fastest Model S from the first generation and also puts the respectable P100D to shame in the performance department.

Best First Generation Tesla Model S Years

The best year for the first generation Tesla Model S was 2016. At first glance, it’s difficult to tell a 2016 model from 2012 or 2013, but there are some big differences that set it apart.

For one, the 2016 model included most of the advancements Tesla offered during the first generation. This includes self-driving sensors, battery shields, and the high-performance HEPA filter. Additionally, extended range models with larger battery packs were available at this time.

The next best year is 2015. You’ll probably be able to find a 2015 model for less money than a 2016, and it still has almost everything that the 2016 model does. This includes the self-driving sensors, which became standard in 2014. Additionally, this model is available in RWD and dual-motor AWD, which adds performance and safety in wet weather.

Model year 2015 was also the time when Tesla began experimenting with performance tuning. By then, Tesla developed a reputation for offering a fast car, and the market became more interested in go-fast buttons and software updates. Tesla’s 2015 lineup included the new “Insane” performance mode, which added acceleration and reduced race times.

Additionally, 2015 models came with additional sensors for adaptive cruise control and pre-collision avoidance systems. This includes front-facing radar, which has since become standard on a wide range of Tesla models. A 70 kWh battery also replaced the base 60 kWh battery, adding additional range to the most affordable models.

Best Second Generation Tesla Model S Years

It’s a lot more difficult to narrow down the best years for the second generation Model S. Over the years, there haven’t been as many major modifications or advancements until recently. As a result, pretty much any Model S produced after mid-2016 is fair game.

These are all highly advanced cars with the latest tech, and whatever they don’t have can usually be added with a software update from the company. However, there have been some modifications made to the car for the 2021 model year, though it’s too early to decide if it justifies a new generation or not.

The 2021 Tesla Model S is the best second-generation edition so far, and it has the most advanced technology and most numerous styling options. Automotive critics are hesitant to call the 2021 Model S a ‘makeover,’ though there are some slight styling changes to the exterior that gives it a more sporty look.

The 2021 model year includes a few more body lines in the front fender, along with brighter headlights and taillights. Tesla also deleted the chrome trim around the vehicle, giving it a modern and uniform design. The new Model S, when equipped with dark-colored wheels, now looks superb, and the styling is unimpeded by out-of-place shiny metal.

2021 Model S Interior and Technology Updates

The steering wheel of the Tesla Model S got a big redesign in 2021. The wheel, which is called a ‘yoke’ wheel, resembles the controls of a jet airliner. These steering wheels are common in race cars as well, and it gives the driver better control of the vehicle. All controls have also been integrated into the wheel, which reduces clutter and increases longevity.

Tesla also changed the orientation of the control screen from portrait to landscape, which is a long-requested change and a welcome addition. Tesla also chose to utilize the low-profile HVAC vents from the Model 3, which adds a clean look to the dash.

Best Year Tesla Model S

About The Author

Charles Redding

Charles Redding

I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.

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