Tesla Model S Review

We’re going to have to come up with a new collective name for ourselves.

I mean, can we realistically keep describing ourselves as ‘petrolheads’ if we don’t burn any petrol?

We can’t even call ourselves ‘gearheads’ – a phrase popular in some parts – because the Tesla Model S doesn’t have any. Gears, that is.

This doesn’t mean the Tesla is powered by angel’s tears, moonbeams or witchcraft.

No, the Model S is entirely electric.

Let’s not get bogged down in hypothetical meta-discussions about an electric car’s green credentials, because that way lies endless debates about how its ecological aspirations extend only as far as those of the power station it’s fed by.

Of course, the Model S isn’t the first electric car; a quick sweep of the market reveals electro-atrocities such as the Renault Twizy, a car that doesn’t have any doors, and the Nissan Leaf, a car that doesn’t have any style.

Instead, the Model S is the first electric vehicle that any self-respecting ‘personal-transportation-module-head’ can take seriously.

The company that produces it seems to have more in common with tech giant Apple than it does with anyone in the car industry, even down to the role of charismatic figurehead fulfilled by the somewhat over-achieving Elon Musk.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the car itself seems to take more than a spark of inspiration from the near-omnipresent iPhone. Not just because it’s a car you plug-in to recharge, but also because it downloads regular updates via the internet, and appears to have a bleeding great iPad embedded in the dashboard. The interface of which seems straight out of Cupertino.

So is this some kind of brave new world we’ve stumbled into? One where Silicon Valley start-ups give the dinosaur juice-slurping established automotive companies a serious run for their money?

Spend time with a Model S and it’s difficult to come up with anything other than a resounding “yes.”

Car manufacturers have been fiddling about at the edges for years with alternative power sources: natural gas, hydrogen cars, fuel cells, and hybrids.

The thing is, Tesla’s arrival on to the market makes all of this look like the competition has been stalling for time.

What’s remarkable about the Model S is how – starting from scratch – the company has been able to arrive at such a compelling platform for their latest model.

The Model S starts life as a skateboard filled with laptop batteries. The car’s various vital organs are dangled off each corner – suspension, brakes, steering, and one or two electric motors – leaving a completely flat floor that coincidentally makes the Model S the most aerodynamic saloon car on the market.

The body they plonk on top of this electronic sandwich isn’t bad, either. There’s a hint of Jaguar in the rear lights, and – dare we say it – something a touch Aston Martin about the rear haunches, and the fact we’ve just name-dropped two of the most well-regarded premium brands on the planet must mean Tesla’s design team have done something right.

We’re not entirely convinced by the gloss black snout they’ve given the front of the car, though; being electric, it doesn’t need a radiator, but Tesla seems to have ceded to convention and given it a faux-grille, perhaps to stop it looking nose-less.

Climbing aboard the Model S is a bit like climbing inside your laptop’s carrying case. Access is made a little ungainly for tall drivers by the steeply-raked A-pillars, and once aboard your eyes can’t help but rest on the huge flat-screen TV that dominates the centre console.

Anyone who’s used an iPad will feel perfectly at home with this, and even those that haven’t will find it all incredibly intuitive.

Just like your iPhone, the car has a permanent 3G data connection, and this powers not just things like the built-in web browser, but also the Rdio music service that allows you to request seemingly any song from out of the ether just by speaking its name, although it’s a shame that in terms of outright audio quality, the system isn’t quite up to the standards of Lexus.

Also internet-powered is the Google-based navigation system, which by comparison makes traditional satnav feel a bit like peering at a map through someone else’s letterbox.

It’s not perfect, however: there are no speed limit indications, for instance, and there’s no choice of route planning (shortest, quickest, etc), but these are things that could easily be added later.

With the exception of the Mercedes-sourced electric window switches, there are only two buttons in the whole car – for the glove box and the hazard lights. Everything else is neatly filed away in an appropriate tab on the touch-screen: even the headlights, heated seats and electric sunroof are summoned into life by tapping or swiping.

Our one complaint is that there’s nowhere practical to put your phone: there’s a shelf under the central touch-screen, but if you put your phone here, you get endless interference piped into the car’s speakers. For such a ‘connected’ car, a bit of electro-magnetic shielding seems a strange omission here.

Matching the whole “I’m sitting in a laptop” theme is the instrument cluster, which uses a 12.3-inch screen to display a central dial that combines speed, power use and regeneration.

The left part of the screen echoes that of the navigation system during guidance, but without an active route it’s not possible to leave the map here, an option we’d have liked.

A shortcut menu pops-up to the right, with a jog-dial on the steering wheel allowing you to flick through settings such as driver temperature, screen brightness, etc, although quite why you need such immediate access to the precise percentage of sunroof openness isn’t clear.

Barring the lack of storage space (there aren’t even any door bins), the Model S interior is a perfectly respectable place to spend time, and even the rear seat offers space for three adults, although those over 6-foot may find headroom a challenge.

Young kids can be carted about in an optional pair of rear seats that origami themselves into the boot floor when not in use, and with everything folded and combined with the slightly rude-sounding ‘front trunk’ the Tesla has almost 1,800 litres of space on offer.

Nudge the column-mounted lever down to D for Drive, though, and all similarities between the Tesla and your laptop end. Unless your laptop can accelerate from 0-60mph in 3.2 seconds, of course.

Even the base single-motor model hits 60 in 5.9 seconds, with the range-topping dual-motor P85D model boasting not just spine-deforming acceleration but also tarmac-tearing traction thanks to its all-wheel-drive layout.

Find yourself at the lights next to anything less than a new McLaren 650S, and your challenger might as well not bother.

While traditional petrolheads may bemoan the day we no longer get to enjoy the sound of suck-squeeze-bang-blow, I defy even the most ardent gearhead to not be excited by one simple prospect: maximum torque from zero rpm.

In the Tesla, that means you need only flex your right ankle to be rewarded by instantaneous and seemingly endless power.  Although you’d better be ready for it if the roads are wet, because no amount of traction control is going to reign in 600Nm of torque.

Lift off the gas pedal (that’s another thing we’re going to have to rename) and regenerative braking kicks in.  Coming from a conventional car, lifting off feels like someone’s cranked up the handbrake, so strong is the braking effect.  But once you adapt it makes perfect sense: judge your arrival at junctions and roundabouts perfectly and you need hardly ever trouble the brakes, safe in the knowledge that all that kinetic energy is being recouped and shovelled back into the batteries.

Up until about 40mph or so, the Tesla’s rampant acceleration is a sensation that’s accompanied by near total silence, too. But as with any car, if you remove the engine, you’re still left with all the other noises that go along with shuttling two-tons of metal down the road: wind noise, tyre noise, etc.

Most of these noises are remarkably well suppressed in the Model S, with its slippery shape no doubt helping to keep wind noise well in check, but once up to speed tyre roar becomes the dominant noise in the cabin. Our car wore the optional 21-inch rims, and while they look great, they no doubt exacerbate the problem somewhat.

Chances are the Model S handles better than the average laptop, too, although there’s no disguising the fact this is a big, heavy car. It’s wider than a Porsche Panamera, and although it carries the mass of all those laptop batteries low down in the floor where they don’t upset the centre of gravity, it still tips the scales at over 2,100kg. Tesla haven’t quite managed to alter the laws of physics, so for now we’ll describe the Model S as capable, but not necessarily engaging.

Now, if you fling your Tesla about the countryside you will put an inevitably large dent in the car’s range, but if you can restrain yourself to driving like a normal person with the odd bout of blowing someone into the weeds, you’ll clock up a respectable 230 miles or so to a tank… err, I mean, charge.

Recharging via a standard three-pin plug is possible, but also painfully slow: you’re talking about five miles of range to every hour of charge, but even that will be enough for the average person’s commute if left overnight.

A much better option is to use Tesla’s own network of Superchargers. There are about 20 in the UK at the moment, with more coming online all the time, and this – we think – is what makes the Tesla a seriously compelling option for many.

Their claim to fame is that they can deliver half a charge in about 20 minutes, with a full charge taking no more than an hour.

The best bit, though, is that they’re free. Forever.

If there are no Superchargers on your route, you can still jack-in to almost any public charger, with most juicing-up at a rate of around 60 miles per hour if you’ve ordered your Tesla with dual on-board chargers. You can keep an eye on its progress via the excellent Tesla smartphone app, which also allows you to pre-set the car’s climate control, fiddle with the sunroof, and even remind you where you parked.

As an ownership proposition, the Tesla makes particular sense if bought as a company car – there’s zero benefit-in-kind tax, it pays no road tax, is exempt from the London congestion charge, and even if you don’t live near a Supercharger, it’s still cheaper to run than a conventional car.

If you’re used to taking long journeys in a single stride, the Tesla perhaps isn’t for you. The company reasons that most people drive for a few hours, then stop for lunch or a pee break, during which the car can be recharged, but that does mean you need to plan your route a little more carefully to ensure it takes in the required number of charging stations, and it seems a shame the built-in satnav doesn’t appear to be able to help you with this.

But then that may come later*, as Tesla has an impressive record of tweaking the car via over-the-air software updates. Recently, they added a feature called Autopilot, which uses an array of ultrasonic sensors and cameras to provide functions such as lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and – in time – even the ability for the car to park itself.

Given it takes most manufacturers an eternity to fix bugs in their software, if they fix them at all, this approach is yet another breath of fresh air.

Prices for the Model S start at £50,880, including a £5,000 government grant, with the dual-motor models starting at £62,780. Options are expensive, though – a set of 21-inch wheels will cost you £3,700, for instance – and our test car came in at £103,880.

In the end, though, it all boils down to this: judged as a car, the Tesla is very impressive, but with a few foibles.

But judged as an electric car, it’s nothing short of astounding.

In fact, it makes us wonder: just what have the other car manufacturers been doing all this time, if what amounts to an internet start-up company can suddenly come out with this.

*As it happens, after this review was written, Tesla released an update that allows route planning to incorporate charging stations automatically.  It also provides speed limit info via traffic sign recognition, although there’s still no way to include the map display in the instrument cluster without having route guidance active.  Perhaps in the next update…

Entry-level Price£50,880Price as tested£103,880
EngineElectric motor(s)TransmissionNone
0-604.2 secsTop speed130 mph
EconomyCO20 g/km
Dimensions4970 x 2187 x 1435 (LWH)Kerb Weight2108 kg