I could have written this article the day I drove the Tesla Model S. I thought about it, but then I thought it might be better to calm down, let the wave of endorphins settle. Two weeks on, I feel the same way I did the moment I stepped out of the car – amazed.
I first inquired about the Tesla Model S back in May last year when I first heard they were coming to Australia. I finally got an email in January asking me when I’d like to drive it and I just so happened to be sitting at a lunch with my father’s friend who had test driven one the week before. He started to talk about the car, specifically the torque. ‘It’s so quick off the mark’, he said. My dad’s friend drives a Mercedes C250 Kompressor, nice car don’t get me wrong but not what you’d call fast. So I sat and listened to him, knowing what he was comparing it to and I was sceptical. I wondered how it would compare to a fast car, like an R8 V10 Plus or an Aston Martin Vanquish, poorly I imagined, as I laughed to myself silently.
Well gentlemen I can safely say that it does compare. It doesn’t just compare, it contends.
So like the Tesla Model S quashed my preconceptions in the first minute of driving it, let me do the same to yours, in the first minute of this article.
It can’t be that fast, it’s electric: The electric motor(s) delivers instant torque and lightning quick acceleration. The car isn’t progressing through numerous gears, there’s just one, and it is the most seamless delivery of power I’ve ever experienced in a car (and I drove the second slowest model!)
It makes no noise, doesn’t that retract from the driving experience? No it doesn’t. The Tesla delivers a very engaging drive, I barely noticed the fact that it didn’t have an exhaust note (mind you I only drove it for one afternoon) because you definitely get a bit of tyre screech once your foot is planted.
The screen is huge, isn’t it distracting? Again no. Not at all, in fact I found the 17inch screen to be such a useful size that I could view the controls easily, and without looking away from the road as I might in a car with a standard infotainment unit.
So lets address the next elephant in the room, range. I think it’s important to recognise that Tesla tout themselves as a software company, not a car company, and when you buy a Tesla they assure you the car will only get better. Like your iPhone, new software will be available for your Tesla – it can’t drive itself now but it will be able to in the future. That’s a crazy concept, buying a car with a 8 year, infinite kilometre battery and drive unit warranty knowing it, like a Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, will only get better with age. The current software is already pretty amazing, I can’t begin to imagine what the car will be capable of in a year.
The 85 which I drove has a 500km range but there are a number of variables which affect the range. The software calculates these variables to give you the most precise range for each individual trip. Enter your destination into Google maps on screen and the map software will calculate the amount of elevation and work out how that might affect your range. Once you’ve worked out your expected power usage to that destination, based on km’s travelled and elevation (the car uses more battery power to climb), you can then select your driving style. You can choose to optimise range or select your ‘typical’ driving style which assesses how you’ve driven the car in the past, how much power you use on an average drive and how that will affect range. It’s quite phenomenal.
With typical driving selected on our car, the range end up being roughly 360km, if I recall correctly. Now as a media car you can imagine it would have copped quite a thrashing, so the ‘typical’ driving mode would have registered these intense periods of power usage and adjusted the range accordingly. A normal Tesla driver isn’t going to thrash their car daily, so their typical range would be higher than the car I drove, perfectly fine for one or two charges a week at home. However even if at an highly optimised 470-500km range you are limited to where you can go. Any extended drives will be met with subsequent ’Range anxiety’, no doubt a serious issue for all current Tesla owners.
Range anxiety is not an issue swept under the rug though, Elon Musk is well aware of his product’s only downfall and yesterday announced the company’s latest software update will have two upgraded features. The car’s estimate of how far it can go before being plugged in will be more accurate, accounting for new variables like heavy wind, and a new ‘Trip Planner’ proactively warns drivers before they head out of range. By communicating with charging stations in real time, it will provide the best options for powering up and reaching your destination as quickly as possible. Obviously the infrastructure is more advanced in the USA but Tesla claim they will have Supercharging stations built before the end of the 2015 that will allow you to drive from Sydney to Melbourne.
Onto the car itself. The range starts with the base model 60 which starts at $95,500 plus on roads but comes with an optional Supercharger fee (you have to pay a one time fee to use the Supercharger stations). The mid-range model (which we drove) is the 85. It increases performance and range and gets some more standard features such as an infinite kilometre battery warranty and free Supercharger access – priced from $109,200 plus on road costs. Currently the range is be topped by the P85+ but will be replaced by the P85D which ups the ante again adding a Performance Plus package to the performance battery pack on the 85 and will set you back $140,900 plus on roads. All models are hit with the luxury car tax.
Right from the get go you realise you are dealing with a pretty amazing machine. Firstly there are no doors to unlock, once the key is in your pocket you walk up to the door, watch the hidden handles glide out, open it and sit down. Once seated there’s no engine start button, you just put your foot on the brake and select Drive and pull away. Everything about the car is displayed on the central monitor and the most important stuff can also be viewed on the digital display in front of you. The screen controls everything, from the maps to the sunroof, from the ride height to the drive mode and of course the premium Rdio account Tesla shout you for the first 4 years of ownership.
Charging the car is as straightforward as I had imagined. Plug the unit into a hidden port and wait. 20mins will give the car a 50% charge and 1 hour will give you a full charge (on the Supercharger). I stopped by the Supercharger station at The Star, which was very well signposted I might ad, and thought about the consequences of returning to your car as a new owner and forgetting it was plugged in and driving away. I obviously didn’t test it but I’m sure the software would be smart enough to prevent this. At home the car is charged via a 40amp wall mounted unit which provides up to 55km of range per hour charged and can be set to schedule a charge to take advantage of off peak electricity rates. At an off peak rate of 20 cents per 1 kW you’ll get a full charge for around $17.
Inside there’s a host of luxury leather and trim options to keep it on par with the finest German sedans. Some of the interior parts including the steering column and electric window controls actually come from Mercedes-Benz who made a $50 million investment to help launch the brand. What you also instantly notice is the amount of space. With no bulky transmission or driveshaft running down the centre of the vehicle there’s an abundance of room in between the front seats, and across the back seat. Strangely though there’s no door pockets or pockets on the back of driver and passenger seats. One of those things you don’t notice until they are gone.
Along with the massive conventional rear boot, the Tesla also has sizeable front boot (where a normal combustion engine would be). Rear facing seats were not approved for Australia so you also get what would have been the foot well for the rear facing seats in the boot, adding another esky sized amount of storage to the car.
Finally, what is it like to drive? It’s an absolute weapon. It really is hard to explain the acceleration without experiencing it because it’s so abnormal. I could only laugh in complete astonishment as I plunged the accelerator into the floor and flew past a straggling Nissan Pathfinder leaving it for dead on the Old Pacific Highway. The 85 will do 0-100km in 5.6 but it feels much quicker than that.
The top of the line P85D will do 0-100km in 3.2 secs. Let me put that in perspective for you. A $428,000 Lamborghini Huracan LP610-4 does 0-100km in 3.2 seconds. The fact that a five person family sedan costing $140k will match a Lamborghini Huracan in a dash to 100kmh is an outrageous concept.
With no engine up the front, batteries laid out evenly under the floor and the motor planted between the rear wheels (the P85D will get an additional motor over the front wheels) the car is beautifully balanced despite weighing in over 2 tonnes. With such a low centre of gravity, driving it at speed is a delight. The Sports steering is well weighted, there’s copious amounts of grip and limited body roll, making it feel as agile as some of best sports cars I’ve driven.
On the highway you can play with the sunroof which can be 100% open or 17% open, or however far open you like. You can also explore a range of the car’s smart features like the regenerative braking and intuitive cruise control. Set the cruise control to 60km/h on the Pacific Highway and select the minimum distance you’d like to keep between you and the car in front (measured in car lengths) and the car will do the rest. You don’t need to brake, the Tesla slows down and stops itself, and when the traffic light goes green you just touch the accelerator and it picks up where it left off, keeping you at the chosen distance to the car in front. Indicate right to overtake and the car will detect you’re doing so and automatically give you the required power to do so. Yes ‘Wig out’ is the most effective phrase to describe it.
The Tesla Model S is a groundbreaking and exhilarating car, one that presents fabulous value and class leading performance. There are however barriers to purchase, most notably access to Superchargers. Knowing you can’t hop in and drive to a holiday destination will deter people but that will change. Soon there will be Superchargers and Dealerships spotted throughout the country and then an entry level Tesla, one which Elon Musk will aim to put into every home in our country, and he’ll probably get close. The Tesla Model S is the start of something very special and I’m certain once you drive one you’ll feel the same way.
I could run the Tesla Model S on one charge a week and live without the stress of future servicing costs and the excitement that my car will get better. I was blown away by this car, I still am, but I just don’t know if it could be my one and only car. I love the sound of raspy crackle of an engine, I just think I’d miss it too much. To a lot of people it won’t matter, it will be the perfect car. For me it can never be perfect, but it can be part of a perfect combination.