Ten years ago none of us had even heard of Tesla, but with their Model S you cannot help but wonder whether the bigwigs at other luxury car makers have been caught with their feet up munching on the biscuits in the staff canteen. This is because Tesla for all their youth (incorporated in 2003) have effectively rewritten the rule book on luxury saloons, producing the first electric car which offers a usable real-world range (at least 250 miles), fast re-charging (85% charge in 30 mins at a Supercharger station), supercar performance (0 – 60 mph in 2.8 seconds) and space for seven (five adults and two children). It also offers an autopilot system for the motorway – one small step for the driver (he/she just needs to pull a lever), but a giant leap for driving! Check out our extended video test below to see what it’s like to drive.
The visionary behind all of this is Elon Musk of PayPal fame who now spends his billions playing with big boys toys, firing rockets into space as part of his SpaceX project and running Tesla Motors. Production is currently in California but a ‘Gigafactory’ (largest production facility in the world to you and me) is being built in Nevada to produce enough lithium ion batteries to allow a production of 500,000 cars by 2020. Tesla also have a forthcoming SUV (Model X) arriving shortly and critically, a new entry level saloon (Model 3) which will be priced from circa £30,000 launches in 2017.
The Model S is Tesla’s first mainstream model and is available in three states of tune:
70 (kWh) = Range of 292 miles, 0-60 mph in 5.5 seconds, 140 mph max speed. From £58,300
70D (kWh All-Wheel Drive) = Range of 292 miles, 0-60 mph in 5.2 seconds, 155 mph max speed. From £62,700
90D (kWh All-Wheel Drive) = Range of 346 miles, 0-60 mph in 4.2 seconds, 155 mph max speed. From £74,900
P90D (kWh All-Wheel Drive) = Range of 316 miles, 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds, 155 mph max speed. From £92,400
When you talk about an electric car, three questions always crop up: How far can it go once charged? How long does it take to charge? And, what’s it like to drive? The driving I will come to later, but look at the above figures and you notice that this is the first electric car that offers genuine usability with a minimum real-world range of 230 miles from the base ‘70’ model. I say ‘real-world’ range because of course when you drive you will want to sit in comfort with the air-conditioning on, you will probably want the stereo on too and you may even want to embarrass Mr Smug when he pulls alongside you in his loud and proud sports car, deploying warp factor as you leave him standing at the lights and all in deafening silence. All of these factors eat into the quoted range figures, but at least with the Tesla you should be able to complete nearly all journeys without nervously checking the remaining range figure every five minutes.
When it does come to charging, you can of course use your standard three-pin socket at home which nobody does because it takes about 15 hours to fully re-charge the battery. Those in the know prefer to take Tesla’s optional wall-mounted fast charger which will do the same job in half the time (6-7 hours). On the move you can use public charge points or better still, use Tesla’s Supercharger network which will take you from zero to full charge hero in one hour. The Supercharger stations are located at a number of service stations along the UK’s major motorway routes, so a quick 20-minute pit stop to charge the Tesla with volts and you with a coffee will do the job for most.
Walking up to the Model S and you will notice that the designers have clearly added ingredients from Jaguar and Maserati and stirred vigorously. The end mix is a good looking one with novel touches such as metal door handles that sit flush with the bodywork when locked, but motor out to greet you as you approach. And all this without ever needing to take the key out of your pocket/bag. That said, take the key out you should as it is resembles a miniature version of the car itself. Tap the front of the key and the front-boot on the real car opens (no engine remember), tap the rear of the key and hey presto the hatchback boot silently glides skywards. Not only is this convenient but a great party piece for you to impress those unacquainted with the car.
Open the sporty frameless doors and if you thought ‘screen real estate’ was a buzzword only in the smartphone sector, think again as Tesla have installed a whopping 17-inch screen in their Model S. All of your interactions with the car are controlled via this touchscreen but thanks to smart phone like functionality it is easy to use and responds quickly: pinch/pull to zoom in/out on the Google mapping function, press on the icons to move between functions and gently stroke the screen downwards/upwards to open/close the sunroof. The resolution of the screen is pin sharp even in bright sunlight and by night it thankfully dims to prevent any coastal ships mistaking it for a nearby lighthouse. My only reservation with this trend towards touchscreens is that by burying basic functions such as seat-heating within sub-menus, it can be a little distracting when on the move.
There is also an over-whelming feeling of space inside which is aided by a flat floor (no transmission tunnel here) that means you can fit three adults in the back with ease. There is even the option of two rear facing boot seats for children, enabling the Model S to be marketed as a 5 + 2 car.
The seats fold away when not in use and the Model S offers additional storage space in the horribly known ‘Frunk’ (Front Trunk) or front boot to you and me when they are in use.
Elsewhere the cabin is lavishly trimmed in leather with some suede thrown in for good measure. It is just a shame that the cows sacrificed in the name of this interior did give their lives in vain as the quality of the materials lags behind the interiors found in other luxury cars. Nevertheless, the Model S takes such a futuristic approach to cabin design that you will be too busy playing with the screen to notice any shortfalls in quality.
And to the final question, what is the Model S like to drive? On the one hand, it is utterly conventional as it drives just like a standard automatic. Simply pull down the column-mounted transmission stalk and press the long accelerator pedal and off you go. But the unconventional starts the moment you set off as you glide away in silence which tends to be the talking point for those who are travelling with you. The talking then tends to abruptly stop the moment you deploy the full shock-and-awe treatment by hitting sixty miles per hour in a little over three seconds in utter silence. The power is instant and excuse the pun, it is rather electrifying making you seek out empty stretches of tarmac again and again to revel in the madness of it all.
The flip side to all this silence is that you come to appreciate a whole new relaxed way of driving. In the absence of any mechanical noise the dreaded commute suddenly becomes an opportunity to listen to the dawn-chorus as the birds sing you on your way, past all the other commuters who suddenly look terribly old fashioned sat there in their fuel burning, emission creating, conventional cars.
The other area where the Tesla Model S is unconventional is that it can be driven on the accelerator pedal alone, because the moment you lift off the accelerator excess charge is put back into the battery which produces a strong retardation effect. It sounds confusing but much like the rest of the car it becomes second nature very quickly.
The all-aluminium Model S at 2.1 tons is no lightweight but thanks to electrical mechanicals that can be mounted low down in the chassis to minimise roll it flows from one bend to another. Ride comfort can be a touch unsettled on rough surfaces and the steering is certainly not the last word in feedback, but none of this detracts from what is an incredibly responsive drive.
Of course when you want to sit back and relax on the motorway, words that normally do not belong together, you can switch on ‘Autopilot’ mode. Pull a small lever towards you on the steering column and the Model S will not only regulate your nominated speed in comparison to other vehicles, accelerating and braking as necessary, but it will actually steer for you as well. Flick the indicator and it will even change lanes for you also. The system will allow you to take your hands off the wheel briefly, most likely for an obligatory photo at the novelty of it all, but it will cut out if it does not detect your hands on the wheel for a prolonged period of time.
Autopilot mode will only work on the motorway/dual carriageway as it requires the white painted lane markers as a reference point. It sounds nerve-racking but Tesla provides comfort with a driver display that shows all of the digitally rendered traffic ahead, giving you comfort that the car has actually ‘seen’ the truck that is about to pull into your lane. Make no mistake this marks the start of the autonomous car era and those who say it will never happen are the equivalent of the naysayers who doubted that a car could ever replace the humble horse and cart. Just think of how much more productive your time can now be when travelling between destinations!
Once at your destination, Tesla’s App allows you to check the remaining range instantly on your smartphone, you can also heat/cool the car to your needs and then when you leave the office in the rain, you can use the ‘summon’ feature to bring your Model S out of your parking garage to meet you right outside the front door. The only thing missing is Jeeves standing by the car with an umbrella ready to drive you home.
The Model S represents a compelling ownership proposition for those in the market for a premium car, offering exotic looks, room for the family and feel good eco-credentials. How suitable it will be for your needs will very much depend on your lifestyle and whether you can afford the premium purchase price of course. However, next year will see the launch of Tesla’s new Model 3 which will offer a claimed range of 200 miles at a predicted price of about £30,000. This will be the real tipping point for electric-car sales. I do wonder though what will happen to Tesla’s stellar rise once all the legacy manufacturers catch up with their equivalent technology and how Tesla will then differentiate themselves? Either way, Tesla have sparked an electric car revolution and a new dawn for what was the motorcar has begun.
2015 Tesla Model S
Price from £58,300 (price as tested £80,100) excluding UK Government Grant of £4,500.