Tesla Model S driven: warp factor nine

1 April 2014

Tesla Model S rear view

Tesla Model S
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Good: Classy, quick, good range, great touchscreen
Bad: Tyre roar, price, stingy standard kit
Price: from £50,280
Nestling in a car park under a sprawling shopping centre in West London sits a Tesla Model S, in sober navy blue with huge gunmetal wheels. It looks a lot bigger than I remember from motor shows – long, low and unnervingly wide, and as crisply cut as glassware.

As I approach, gleaming mirror-finish handles extend silently from the doors, twinkling in invitation under the harsh strip lights. The Model S knows I’ve arrived from the proximity of its key, a sort of smooth plastic pebble in my pocket, like a Hot Wheels car that’s been melted in a furnace.

I swing open the surprisingly lightweight door – it’s largely aluminium, with frameless tinted glass – and slip into the driver’s seat. Again, the car knows I’m here via a sensor buried under the leather. Once snugly buckled up, I simply need to step on the shiny brake pedal to ready the car, slot the column shift into D, and brush the throttle to set off. There is no starter button, and no handbrake. Both can be consigned to the history books, it seems.

Tesla Model S front view

After creeping carefully between pillars, fat tyres squealing on concrete, we emerge blinking into spring sunshine. I’m quickly spun out from a roundabout onto an urban dual carriageway, and find the car seems to have shrunk to fit. The Model S is not actually so big – it’s roughly the same size as a Jaguar XF, but with more of its length taken up by cabin. It’s a shade longer, a touch lower and ever so slightly wider than the Jag, and of course belongs to an entirely different era.

As befits its youth, the Model S seems as eager as a puppy. It accelerates, stops, turns and pounces as if weightless, even though at 2.1 tonnes it’s no featherweight. The controls all feel smooth, light and linear, and the cabin is bright and airy even without the optional glass roof.

The instrument panel is digital, of course, while the stalks behind the steering wheel hail from a Mercedes. The indicator stalk is set lower than you might expect, while the transmission selector sits where the wipers might normally reside.

Tesla Model S interior

Comfort is generally good, though the central armrest does seem a bit too high for my elbow. Where a more ordinary car might have a gear stick and cubby holes, the Model S provides a very generously proportioned open tray, though I’d prefer somewhere to stow my clutter under a cover.

On the move, there’s a surprising amount of noise for an electric car – all of it coming from those big 21-inch wheels and their lawn-roller tyres. It’s hard to know whether a petrol car would experience the same level of roar, given that there’s not a whisper of engine note to put it into context. But the rising din certainly adds to the sensation of going places fast.

To be honest, I’ve not yet tried pushing the throttle pedal with real conviction, due largely to cowardice. There’s a neat little badge on the bootlid that reads P85+, signifying that I’m in the least modest Model S. It has the biggest battery – 85kWh, good for 300-odd miles and 3.5 times as big as the Nissan Leaf equivalent – and the most powerful motor – offering 310kW (416bhp) alongside an unseemly 600Nm of torque, all of it channelled through the rear axle. Zero to 62mph takes a mere 4.4 seconds, although that figure is unlikely while I’m driving.

I have the key to the Model S for a limited time and so my route has been carefully planned and even rehearsed via Google imagery. The police, however, have other ideas. As I turn towards the Thames a man in a yellow jacket is standing ahead of his awkwardly parked patrol car, signalling with neatly gloved hands that I should bugger off.

Tesla Model S cockpit

Another unique feature of the Model S immediately comes to the fore. In the centre of the dashboard is a huge touchscreen monitor, controlling all of the car’s many functions including navigation. Whereas most central screens offer a letterbox snapshot of the world, the Model S offers a broad picture window. It’s also perfectly positioned at your fingertips. With a quick pinch and swipe I can see the pattern of side-streets for miles around, and can work how to get back on track with the cunning of a rat. If the criminal element can ever work out how to hotwire a Tesla (which I sincerely doubt) it would make a supreme getaway car.

Courtesy of the police, I emerge from my workaround half a mile adrift, onto an unusually empty stretch of tarmac. Not a soul is about and I take that as a sign from above. I’m not Jeremy Clarkson and I’m not on a racetrack, so I don’t swipe to the onscreen page where I can turn off the electronic safety measures. I simply grip the wheel, mash the throttle and prepare for fireworks.

Three things happen in such quick succession I can’t really separate them in my mind. One: the back end of the car steps out a tad. Two: I’m snapped sideways in my seat as the traction control whips the car back into line. Three: I seem to have reached warp factor nine and run out of road, bringing me unexpectedly to four: there’s another police car parked sideways up ahead. I back off, carefully, and decide not to try that again. If you are ever tempted to indulge in traffic-light grand prix in a Tesla, don’t bother – simply content yourself with the knowledge that you’d almost certainly win. Or, at the very least, check that there’s ample wiggle room either side.

Tesla Model S side view

Forced to abandon my route, I nip down a random turning and find I’m hugging a bend in the river, on a narrow little track giving access to slipways and boat houses. I find a space to park, and jump out to take photographs and to take stock.

I should perhaps have explained that my Model S is left-hand drive, with Dutch registration plates. There are, as yet, no right-hand-drive models in the UK although some are surely due soon – I’m told Britain’s only Tesla Store, in the Westfield centre in Shepherd’s Bush, has already sold quite a few examples since the ribbon was cut by Tesla boss Elon Musk in November. Today’s example is not a press car but a demonstrator, and it has clearly been busy, as the battle scars to its rims can testify.

Tesla Model S P85+ badge

I love the look of the Model S, even if tasteful restraint is a little disappointing, given the space-age technology on offer. The gentle curves and crisp lines of the bodywork all whisper rather than shout, although the difficulty of pressing aluminium into complicated shapes may also have had a hand in the sculpting. It looks expensive and of course it is. The cheapest Model S starts at £50,280 before options, after the contribution of the Plug-in Car Grant. The P85+ costs from £83,480. Astonishingly, this figure does not include parking sensors or fog-lamps.

As noted, you do get performance aplenty and, unusually for an electric car, enough range to drive until you really need to take a break. Tesla is busy building a network of Superchargers, which run at 120kW (forty times the rate of a three-pin plug) and can add 170 miles of range in 30 minutes. At present there aren’t actually any Superchargers in the UK, though that will quickly change in parallel with Tesla sales. Today there are 14 stations scattered across Europe, and 82 in North America.

Interior space feels first class, and we know that safety is unparalleled. The Model S is also practical. Open either the bonnet or the tailgate and you’ll find ample carpeted luggage space. There is, of course, no engine. The fully electric Tesla keeps its huge lithium-ion battery at floor level between the axles, while the motor, gearing and power electronics all fit snugly within the arc of the rear wheels.

A pair of jump seats can be fitted in the rear, costing £2,100 and suitable for short sprogs who don’t mind facing backwards. They turn the Model S into an occasional seven-seater. Headroom looks tight in the third row, even for gnomes, but there’s a surprising amount of legroom, due to the lack of a big silencer taking up space behind the rear bumper.

Snaps taken, I jump back in and reluctantly turn the car towards the Tesla Store. I doubt that any test drive could seem long enough in a Model S. It has flaws, no doubt, but it feels like the kind of car you could love for a lifetime. I, for one, am smitten.

Tesla Model S key fob

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