In a world ever more conscious about fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, it was about time someone tore up the rulebook and created something using electricity alone. No hybrids, no sacrifices in comfort or usability, no gimmicks – a good car that happens to not feature internal combustion.
Cali-based Tesla, Inc. has been an electric car maker from its founding in 2003. The first model was the quirky Roadster, a take on what the application of electricity could do to a small, lightweight sports car. However, it was the Model S’ unveiling in 2012 that really got the world talking. It sits in the sport/luxury saloon segment of the market and, unlike the rest of the field, is purely powered by electricity.
We were given the keys to the Model S 90D, which slots in just under the range-topping 100D and P100D variants. To explain, ‘90’ means that the Kilowatt Hour (kWh) rating of the battery, and ‘D’ stands for Dual, meaning that this model has a motor on each axle for all wheel drive.
It doesn’t take much to think of Tesla as the automotive equivalent of Apple. The smartphone revolution came in 2007 – is this decade the turn of Tesla’s rise to domination?
Approach the Model S and there’s no doubting that it’s a handsome machine. However, unlike the malformed-looking electric eco-machines we’ve become used to, the Tesla gives no real clues as to its lack of petrol power.
As you approach it, the door handles slide out from being flush with the door, granting you entry keylessly. Slide into the luxurious leather seats and it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t a machine easy to compare with the rest of the market. There’s no need to insert the key or to even switch the car on – just select ‘D’ and you’re off, moving in complete silence; this is no ordinary driving experience.
When Apple launched the aforementioned iPhone, it completely changed the market and reinvented the smartphone user interface as we knew it – gone were the multitude of buttons and instead, a large, touch-friendly display was used. Tesla has clearly taken on board a similar design ethos, with the touch screen dominating the dashboard area – only two physical buttons are to be found.
The touchscreen measures in at some 17” and is as functional as it is beautifully big. The user interface just works and operates in a buttery smooth manner regardless of what’s thrown at it. Tesla has struck a very good balance between functionality and ease of use here, with all the menus feeling intuitive and simple without disappointing in customisation and options. Apps are docked along the top of the display, whilst commonly used controls such as the climate settings are kept along the bottom, leaving the centre of the display clutter-free. Apps launch in an instant, and can even be stacked split-screen style for multi-taskers – particularly useful for cross-referencing addresses from the web browser into the navigation.
The display offers 7 main apps; music, navigation, calendar, energy monitor, web browser, reverse camera and phone. The energy monitor is particularly useful, as it plots expected against average range, showing where driving efficiency can be improved. It also integrates with the navigation, showing a predicted battery level for the end of your journey, as well as whether you have the juice to get home again.
The 90D on test was ‘only’ equipped with Tesla’s standard audio offering, but even this was very impressive. Music can be pulled from Bluetooth devices or the built-in Spotify player (all cars have 3G data services as standard). There was plenty of detail to the sound, and bass was of the ‘you can really feel it’ variety. Volume controls show a little of Tesla’s humour, with volume controls maxing out at 11. Talking of the speakers, they’re well placed throughout the cabin, making them easily missed by the eye and difficult to pin-point by ear.
The test car also featured the bioweapon-ready HEPA filtration system, which removes a claimed 99.97% of particulate exhaust pollution along with essentially all allergens and bacteria. This is the sort of feature that’s likely to be overkill in the countryside, but with pollutants, on the rise in major cities, it’s one you may wish to go for.
Comfort for occupants in the back is also high, with Tesla’s lack of a transmission tunnel particularly good for middle-seat passengers. In the front, the area normally taken up by the transmission tunnel is wisely used for a labyrinth of storage compartments, with modular plates installed to allow this space to be customised to suit your own needs. The review car also came fitted with the panoramic sunroof (a £2000 extra), which makes the cabin feel even more open and airy. Its position is controlled by the touch screen, and is operated by sliding back the glass on a virtual representation of the car – nifty!
From the driver’s seat, the virtual cockpit can display the essential information needed and can be used for quick settings changed via the steering wheel controls. A display showing the Model S constantly updates with the proximity of the surroundings in 360 degrees, as well as showing the location of vehicles ahead all thanks to hidden sensors just about everywhere on the exterior.
As previously mentioned, there’s no denying that the Tesla is a handsome machine. Smooth, sleek lines are met with the angular lighting elements and sharp front grille. Look a little further and you start to see where Tesla has managed to create the shape; it’s yet another advantage of being electric.
Despite looking like a relatively ordinary vehicle, there are clues to be had for the trained eye. The sloping bonnet line would undoubtedly be impossible with a bulky internal combustion engine in place underneath. The relatively small grilles up front are another clue – though the Tesla does feature liquid cooling for the batteries, its demands for airflow are far lower than a conventional car.
With very compact, separate drivetrains front and rear, Tesla also has a flat underside. These features afford the Tesla 0.24 drag coefficient, the lowest of any production vehicle on sale today; that sleek shape is as slippery as it looks.
The standard 19” wheels do unfortunately look a little ordinary, but as tested the optional 21” ‘Turbine’ wheels (some £4500) look stunning and really do fill the arches to perfection. The pay-off cost aside, is a small amount of range but we can’t help but think that they’re completely worth it.
On The Road
Despite the technology and the vast difference in its method of propulsion, the Model S is incredibly easy to drive. The power delivery is seamless and instant, meaning that it really is as simple as your right foot telling it how fast you wish to go. There’s no gearstick to worry about and no automatic gearbox to kick down – the electric motor operates through a single gear and delivers maximum torque from zero rpm.
When lifting off the accelerator pedal, the Tesla automatically applies regenerative braking to give charge to the batteries. It’s much like engine braking in an ordinary car, only perhaps a little stronger. It takes a touch of getting used to but soon becomes natural. Besides, it can be reduced in the options anyway.
The silence is perhaps the thing that takes the longest time to get used to. It’s just so alien, and yet feels completely normal in no time. It also shows how much work Tesla have put into the rest of the car – with no masking engine noise, everything has had to be engineered to operate as quietly as possible. The suspension dampens out bumps and road noise superbly despite the 21” wheels, there is very little wind noise to speak of and even the smaller details like the windscreen wipers operate with minimal disturbance.
If the comfortable interior, superb sound system and whisper-quiet drivetrain aren’t enough to relax you behind the wheel, then that’s no problem either. Two swift pulls of the cruise control stalk and the Model S will essentially drive itself, utilising the aforementioned sensor array to stay in its lane and also to dictate speed, keeping a set distance from the car in front or else keeping to your selected maximum speed; it’ll even stick to the speed limit on your behalf and in the case of our test vehicle, will raise the suspension over rough terrain automatically through the Smart Air Suspension (£2500).
But screw it, we’re not here to let the car drive itself, incredible though that is. The Tesla is rightly marketed as not only a capable electric vehicle but as a capable car. The performance of it is, in short, quite staggering. 0-60mph happens in 4.2 seconds and feels every bit as quick as it sounds; spooky when it’s delivered with no engine noise whatsoever.
That performance is due to the motors’ combined output of 417hp and peak torque of 485lb ft. Opt for the range-topping P100D (‘P’ standing for Performance), which comes complete with ‘Ludicrous’ performance mode, and things are moved up a serious notch. Torque is upped to a frankly ridiculous 792lb ft, allowing the Model S to launch itself to 60mph in a gut-churning 2.28 seconds. Who said electric cars were slow?
To drive, the Model S’ controls aren’t alive with feedback but nor are they entirely numb. Considering the number of electronics in effect, it remains entirely comparible to its petrol-powered competitors and utterly enjoyable, while also relaxing. It’s as happy being hustled down a countryside B-road as it is driving itself on the motorway; some feat.
Of course, the big question that needs answering is just how well Tesla works in the real world. Behind the wheel, it makes infinite sense, but there’s always the tricky topic of refuelling; it’s not just a case of spending a few minutes at a petrol station every now and then with the Model S.
Tesla has an ever-expanding infrastructure of its own charging locations throughout the UK. These include ‘Destination Chargers’, a fairly speedy way to charge your vehicle while at certain hotels, restaurants and other points of interest. The fastest charging available is from a Tesla ‘Supercharger’, a 120kWcharging point available in some locations to allow up to 170 miles of driving range to be charged in just 30 minutes.
Plan a long journey through the Model S’ navigation and you can automatically choose how to structure your journey to make the best use of the charging locations available. Do be aware that you’ll need to make use of these; your ordinary wall socket will charge the Model S at a rate of just six miles per hour using a draw of ten amps.
‘In our test area of rural Sussex, the Tesla charging points are few and far between which presented a challenge at times; more are constantly in development and so it’ll doubtlessly be an issue solved soon. Also, Tesla offers an optional home charger meaning that you can keep your Model S topped up at all times, stress-free.’
It’s so hard to truly compare the Model S to its competitors – really it’s truly in a class of its own. The entire experience is extraordinary in the fact that it is relatively ordinary. It’s bewildering, laugh-out-loud fun at times and yet so relaxing.
What Tesla has created is something truly unique, completely futuristic and yet so applicable in today’s world. The only problem with it? Personally, I’ll always be a Nokia guy…
Spec – Tesla Model S 90D
- Horsepower: 417hp
- Torque: 485lb ft
- 0-62mph: 4.2 seconds
- Top speed: 155mph
- Range: 348 miles
- List price: £84,500
- As tested: £109,880