Unconvinced by electric vehicles? Wait until you try Tesla's Model S. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Here is an electric car with over 300 miles of range that can seat up to seven, has acceleration to demolish an Aston Martin and features zero tailpipe emissions. There's now a choice of either 70 or 85 kWh battery outputs and even the option of 'Dual Motor All Wheel Drive'. This system powers a top P85D flagship variant with super saloon-style performance. Here's what the future looks like - and it's cause for celebration.
What do electric cars say to you? For the most part, they're rather inoffensive city scoots. Get one out on the open road and they're often only about half an hour from leaving you stranded on the hard shoulder with no juice. That's the way electric cars have been developed by big car companies. Tesla isn't a big car company. It has never been rooted in the culture of the internal combustion engine, so perhaps it's understandable that when it sets out to build an electric vehicle, things are a bit different. Founded by Paypal creator, Elon Musk, Tesla has been committed from the word go to changing how we think about electric vehicles. The Model S may look like a relatively conventional luxury car but it's anything but. It's a car that has the power to fundamentally alter the status quo in this sector. Electric power isn't just for small cars. It works really well with big ones too.
What are the driving characteristics you'd look for in a big luxury car? We'd be looking for hushed refinement, a smooth step-off the line, instant acceleration as soon as you prod the throttle and the handling ability of a smaller car. The Tesla Model S delivers all of these things and more. The 2.2-tonne kerb weight hints at a rather portly demeanour but the Model S handles a good deal more sharply than you might imagine. The steering can be switched between three settings - Comfort, Normal and Sport - changing the weight of feel but not markedly adjusting the level of feedback. Ride quality is better than you'd expect from a vehicle running on 21-inch wheels. Air suspension is optional and worth having. As you'd expect from an EV, there's no gearbox as such, so power transfer is even smoother than the best automatic transmissions. That power comes courtesy of batteries developed by Panasonic which sit under the floor of the car, keeping the centre of gravity low, while the electric motor sits atop the rear axle. In the mainstream range, customers choose between 70kWh and 85kWh variants. Sixty is around 5.4s away from rest, so you'll be looking at very rapid progress. At 85kWh level, you get the option of Dual Motor All Wheel Drive in the '85D' model. Here, you move from the simple layout of the standard rear-driven variant - that of having a single 380bhp electric motor slung out over the rear axle driving the back wheels - to one that, as the terminology suggests, offers two electric motors, one sitting on the front axle, the other driving from the rear. Both of these develop 188bhp, so in total, you've got approximately the same sort of power as you would in an ordinary rear-driven 'Model S 85' variant. But, with the power spread around the drivetrain, you've of course got the perfect recipe for AWD traction. The same AWD set-up is used by the insane flagship 'P85D' variant. 'Insane' is a word we feel we have to use because it designates the most frantic of this top Tesla's three driving modes - the others being 'Normal' and 'Sport'. Go 'Insane' and 60mph is just 3.2s away from rest, courtesy of a 221bhp electric motor driving the front wheels and a 470bhp unit powering those at the back. As advertised, there's nothing else with four or five seats that can get remotely close to this kind of pace.
Design and Build
Tesla deliberately set out to style this car in a relatively conservative fashion so as not to alienate its core buyers. There's even a dummy air intake at the front. The car it most closely resembles in external dimension is a Porsche Panamera, but when you check the tape measure, you realise quite what a massive car this is. At 4978mm long, 1964mm wide and 1435mm high, it's 8mm longer, 33mm wider and 17mm taller than a Panamera, which is already a pretty sizeable hunk of automotive real estate. The width makes it feel a handful on narrow city streets but there's plenty of space inside. The car is a comfortable five-seater and can even be configured into a seven seat mode thanks to a pair of the cleverest rear-facing occasional seats we've ever seen. They flip out of the boot floor and while they may only be good for small kids, it's a trick that few will see coming. With no internal combustion engine to package, the Model S has storage front and rear totalling a massive 895-litres. Fold the rear seats flat and you get 1,642-litres of luggage capacity. The dashboard is dominated by a monster 17-inch colour touch pad display that controls everything from the air-conditioning to the air suspension. Parts quality inside is extremely good although the eagle-eyed amongst you might well spot some Mercedes-Benz switchgear. Still, that's no bad thing.
Market and Model
So, how much will you pay for this taste of your motoring future? Less than you might think? Possibly. The entry-level 'Model S 70D' variant will, after all, set you back no more than about £60,000, not much more than you'd pay for a more conventional hybrid-engined version of a slightly smaller executive car like BMW's 5 Series or the Mercedes E-Class. The feebler 70 kWh battery in a 'Model S 70D' though, doesn't offer you quite as much driving range as variants further up th line-up, diluting the ground breakingly long distance EV flexibility that probably attracted you to this car in the first place. Which means that you'll probably want the larger 85 kWh battery fitted to the 'Model S 85' variants. The standard rear wheel drive '85' version requires a £65,000 budget, which still seems reasonable. Most buyers though, opt to add a premium of just over £4,000 to that figure to get the '85D' version, the 'D' designating the clever Dual Motor All Wheel Drive system that then comes included. You can go further too. Top of the range priced from around £80,000 is the 'Model S P85D', one of the fastest and most unique cars in the world. The 'P' designates 'Performance' - and you certainly get it, the 85 kWh battery here mated with an electric motor offering almost twice as much grunt - 691bhp! - and enough pulling power to ensure that the standard Dual Motor All Wheel Drive system will have its work cut out in transmitting the torque to the tarmac. All the prices we've just quoted you, by the way, are figures with the Government's generous £5,000 electric car grant already subtracted from the asking cost.
Cost of Ownership
Owning a Model S is different from conventionally powered vehicles. There's no petrol bill and service is minimal. The annual service fee covers an annual inspection, replacement parts like brake pads and windscreen wipers, 24 hour roadside assistance, system monitoring, remote diagnostics, software updates and new features sent through the touchscreen. It's possible to charge the battery half way in about 30 minutes using Tesla's 'supercharger' but as with most elements of this car, it requires a change in your way of thinking. The car responds best to nightly recharges, but will happily sit for a couple of weeks at an airport while you holiday without losing significant charge and the battery pack has no 'memory effect'. Over longer stationary periods, the batteries will slowly lose their charge. If left at a 0% state of charge for period of time, you may need a battery replacement. The batteries are guaranteed for 8 years with a full replacement billed at $12,000 USD. Tesla offers two batteries, denoted by the kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy they store: 70 kWh and 85 kWh. Tesla reckons that an 85kWh model can go well over 300 miles on the NEDC test, but a realworld range is more in the region of 250 miles. Opt for the entry-level 70kWh variant and that figure would probably fall to just over 200 miles.
The Tesla Model S is a remarkable vehicle. It changes the way you'll view the whole concept of a motor car. As long as you're willing to alter your long-held preconceptions of what an automobile demands and, in turn, delivers, the Model S demonstrates that the genuinely practical electric vehicle has been achieved. Caveats are few. Yes, battery charging does require a little more thought than just topping up a tank and if a car is shared between a married couple for instance, you'll both need to be on the ball with it. Other than that, it's a tour de force. The interior is adventurous, the packaging ingenious, the styling sleek and mature in its execution. It's searingly rapid, wonderfully refined and rides and handles well. If this is the future of cars, bring it on. The internal combustion engine has had a good innings and certainly has charisma, but the Tesla Model S opens a window to a better way.