Compared to earlier all-electric cars, many of which were styled rather quirkily and not especially in a positive sense, the £77,630 (as tested) Tesla Model S looks every bit a normal car, albeit a desperately attractive one, which meant I could’ve done with a paper bag or a fake moustache and comedy spectacles to wear during my week with one. Even if I was just dashing out for a pint of milk in my tracksuit bottoms and didn’t want to be seen, I can understand the attention from uninitiated folk feasting their eyes on the Tesla for the first time, though.
I won’t pull any punches – its design echoes Maserati from the front and Jaguar and Aston Martin at the rear. Still, that’s fine with me. Volkswagen’s XL1 looks interesting but daft, BMW’s i8 reminds me of a squashed Friesian cow and the Fisker Karma isn’t aesthetically revolutionary, either. To appeal to current Jaguar, Audi, Mercedes, BMW and Lexus owners, Tesla has got the styling of the Model S just right.
If the exterior’s a tad conformist, the interior is downright rebellious, and positively so. Aside from the electric window and mirror switches and buttons for the hazard lights and glovebox, no others are visible. The Model S’s remarkably minimalist dashboard is a breath of fresh air, dominated by an enormous 17-inch touchscreen in pride of place. Using a stalk-mounted gear selector and omitting a parking brake button or handle, Tesla has freed up the largest central console storage area I’ve ever seen. It looks fantastic to Tesla newbies and is certainly a conversation starter, but may not prove particularly useful as objects can roll around on the move, plus it lacks privacy. Digging deep, some of the trim is a bit plasticy and not upto Audi standards, but the Carbon Fibre inserts and Alcantara headlining in the red test car looked very classy and helped to create a high quality ambience in the cabin. I just don’t know if I could live with a car lacking door bins and seat pockets, but maybe I should learn to stop carrying so much clap-trap around with me, and the Model S does have an additional boot (or ‘frunk’) at the front, complementing the already commodious main boot.
The aforementioned 17” screen looks every bit like your tablet has jumped off your coffee table and landed on the dashboard, operating in pretty much the same ways, with finger pinches, slides and taps. Let’s face it, most homes in developed countries have a tablet or few, and it’s not just the younger generation using them – so by going down this route, Tesla hasn’t alienated more mature drivers. In fact, a handful of people bounded up to me during the week, telling me they’d just ordered a Model S moments after test driving one, partly because they’d become instantly smitten with the touchscreen. It controls a large percentage of the car’s systems, from obvious things like audio and sat nav, to door locking settings, the panoramic roof, cabin preconditioning, headlight and suspension settings, to steering responsiveness and ambient lighting. Google Maps means you can see the UK, and the world for that matter, in its resplendent aerial glory, but reliance on a 3G or wireless signal will result in frustrating map disconnection at times. Setting a sat nav destination was effortless, simply involving a long-press of my pinkie. There’s a web browser at one’s disposal, too, which functions on the move, necessitating restraint from drivers addicted to surfing the web. Considering the Tesla is so thoroughly modern, I expected to find a TV function, though, and although I can understand the reliance on iPod connections and the like, an old-fashioned CD slot would have been nice to have. The Ultra High Fidelity Sound system is a £2,100 option and for the first few days didn’t strike me as being as good as the Meridian alternative, let alone Bentley’s Naim Audio setup. After a crashed map required the whole centre console to be reset to regain a 3G signal, I ended up also resetting the audio mixer. Despite coming from an audio background and knowing what I’m doing when it comes to treble, bass and all that, the reset elevated the sound quality to Meridian levels, allaying any initial disappointment.
Space for all five passengers is superb and even with two 6-footers sat in the front, legroom for rear occupants is plentiful, as is headroom. The rear bench folds down, opening up the load area nicely in case you need to carry large objects, and the Tesla Model S can be ordered with two additional rear-facing seats if desired, or indeed as a four-seater, which looks wonderful. The five seat version doesn’t have rear cupholders or an armrest, so if these are important, plump for the four seat configuration. The leather is a little shiny and again isn’t quite upto Audi standards but the interior certainly stands up as stylish, luxurious and comfortable – even after spending nine hours sat at the helm (with short breaks, of course).
Approach the Model S and the cleverly and attractively designed door handles extend out to greet you, which is a nice touch, if superfluous. There’s no need to even press a start button, either, as the car senses when you’ve sat in it. Simply shift the stalk into Drive and you’re off, in near silence. The Model S is a long, wide car, larger than a Porsche Panamera, so requires attention in order to thread it down narrow country lanes and through tight car parks. The turning circle is quite wide, too, but the huge reversing camera screen aids proceedings. My test car wasn’t configured to park itself, but this feature is being rolled out to the software of future Teslas, which will be able to automatically park in garages, parallel park, sit themselves in supercharger bays and even switch on and meet you outside your house in the morning. Their Autopilot package also comes with driverless systems allowing the car to change lanes and steer on its own. Soon, there will also be a ‘summon’ button, perfect for calling your car to meet you at the supermarket entrance on a rainy day. Tesla is working on some really clever technology, that’s for sure .The suspension in the Model S is intelligent, too, using mapping to determine what kind of road you’re on, raising and lowering accordingly. Not having to worry about speed bumps or pitted, uneven roads was most welcome. The regenerative braking system can unarguably be felt, taking your foot off the accelerator instantly resulting in what feels like quite fierce engine braking, but this can be reduced in the myriad settings. Getting the best out of a Tesla requires changing your driving style, but you soon get used to it and it proves rewarding and second nature.
Changing the steering mode from comfort to sport doesn’t make much difference to sensitivity and feedback, which aren’t the Tesla’s strong points, but the increased steering weight certainly boosts confidence and allows the sporty nature of the chassis to shine. Despite weighing over two tonnes, the instant torque provided by the electric motor, combined with impressive suspension and damping, result in an engaging drive. I’ve always been intoxicated by the sound of a V8 burble, but soon came round to relishing the smooth, rapid and silent acceleration of the Model S. In the real world, on British roads, its performance is enough to excite the majority of people; a relaxed wafting saloon one minute, a brisk sports car the next. The graceful pace removes any fear one may otherwise have at daunting, multi-lane roundabouts, a mere dab of the throttle giving you what seems like ample thinking time. Even on 21” Grey Turbine alloy wheels, a mermerisingly attractive extra costing £3,800, the overall ride is good on all surfaces. Everyone’s obsessed with the crazily fast P85D at the moment, and ‘D’ models with all-wheel drive are proving the most popular, but I’d be happy with this 362bhp rear-wheel drive Model S 85 any day.
As with all fully electric or hybrid cars, it was both tempting and fascinating to frequently glance at the various readouts available in the Tesla, remembering that miles per gallon didn’t really apply. Tesla forums are awash with current and prospective owners discussing how to calculate MPG figures based on wh/mi and kWh/mi data, along with the real cost of charging the battery using either a beefed-up domestic electricity supply or one of Tesla’s special wall boxes. A large percentage of sources, including Tesla, cite 89MPGe as the real-world consumption equivalent from the Tesla Model S 85. By comparison, an electric VW e-Golf does 116MPGe and a BMW i3 returns 124MPGe, but these are much smaller, lighter cars, making figures for the Tesla Model S seem rather impressive in relative terms. Just as one can refer to live consumption readouts in a conventional car, the Tesla displays wh/mi. The lowest I achieved was 308wh/mi and the highest was 355wh/mi when I really gave it the beans over a long distance. According to forums and other owners I spoke to in the flesh, most seem to average around the 300wh/mi mark, too, so I’m pretty chuffed. The lowest anyone has reported, after driving a modest distance like Miss Daisy, was 280wh/mi. As far as my Crosby to Hull and back effort was concerned, the numbers did stack up, rendering the 265ish mile range credible.
If you live relatively close to one of Tesla’s supercharger sites, which are conveniently hardwired into the sat nav, you could conceivably never use your own domestic electricity supply to top the battery up, as Tesla says the superchargers will always be provided free of charge. There’s a code of etiquette regarding charging, to reduce the likelihood of an owner hogging a supercharger for more than 60 minutes, and many owners are in the habit of leaving their phone numbers on notes under wipers. The superchargers tend to be located next to four star hotels and my nearest was adjacent to the QHotel in Warrington. The other supercharger I visited, to see what it was like, was the Leeds site, located round the back of the Village Hotel, next to the bins, but only a short walk away from soothing coffee or whatever else takes one’s fancy.
Superchargers are capable of replenishing the 85kWh battery from flat to 50% in 30 minutes, which is impressive as it equates to a range of around 130 miles – more than enough for most drivers. It would have been more convenient if the cable could be connected at the front, not just the back, but this is likely governed by the position of the motor in rear-wheel drive cars. Getting a wall box installed will charge the car overnight and special government incentives mean you can currently pay as little as £95 for a box, compared to several hundreds. Fully charging from zero to 265 miles using a standard mains socket in a typical home would take tens of hours, with only around 6 miles added to the range for each hour plugged in. Relying on this method clearly isn’t the way to go unless you only use the Tesla for the school run, gym and local shops. I calculated the approximate cost on my Scottish Power tariff and a full charge would tot up to £14.40, according to the Tariff Comparison Rate, which includes the standing charge. Compare this to a similarly sized and equally potent luxury diesel saloon averaging a real-world 50MPG and covering 265 miles, it would cost £29.15 in diesel according to two calculator websites I used, so the Tesla is cheaper to ‘fuel’ in a basic sense. I appreciate, though, that electric cars have so many other considerations to include in the equation, such as battery production, battery life and environmental impact in the short term. Regenerative braking and a careful driving style will make best use of the Model S’ range, with a heavy right foot having quite the opposite effect, as you would expect. Oh well, I guess one can’t revel in the Tesla’s instant acceleration all the time.
The Model S is extremely attractive for businesspeople, which was evident by the two who approached me saying their accountants had wholeheartedly embraced the idea. Who can blame them? After all, the Tesla attracts the usual £5,000 government grant, the BIK figure is only 5%, it’s exempt from the London Congestion Charge, there’s no road tax or indeed luxury/showroom tax to pay, and if a company is purchasing one, there’s a 100% first year allowance until April 2018. I’ve also heard something about discounts for NHS staff, too.
It looks subtly stunning if a little formulaic, showcases a remarkable, high-tech and minimalist interior and offers plenty of fairly luxurious space for four, five or even seven occupants. The pace even from the relatively modest rear-wheel drive Model S 85 should be scintillating enough for most and the near-silent ride is truly refreshing and addictive. It’s not without minor faults, with a lack of cabin storage, an over-reliance on 3G/wireless signals and prohibitively long charging times using a normal socket, but the Tesla Model S is unarguably not only the best electric car out there, but presents itself as a terrific executive saloon choice in its own right. The future is very bright for Tesla and indeed the world.