Test Drive: Tesla Model S

INTRODUCTION

Tesla were recently kind enough to loan me a new Model S to try out for a few weeks. It was an opportunity for me to find out what it was like to travel the county in a pure electric vehicle and if Tesla shaped up to their hype.

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Staff at the dealership in West London were very pleasant as you would expect and during the handover I was taken out on a short drive where they demonstrated some of the car’s unique features (more on that later), before I was handed the keys and told to go and enjoy myself.

So, what did I think of the new Tesla Model S?

That’s a very good question. £100,000 can buy you a lot of car but was this a lot of car?

Well with a Tesla, £100k doesn’t just buy you the car, it buys you all the fuel – Tesla are currently offering free use of their network of superchargers for the period that you own the car.

On top of this, not only are you subsidising the life of that fuel, you’re also subsidising Tesla’s massive battery R&D and the roll out of their supercharging network across the globe. And if you ever see a Tesla supercharging installation, it’s extremely impressive, it’s not just the bit that plugs into your car, it’s all the infrastructure behind the scenes necessary to make the fast charging possible.

So, your £100k is not just buying you a motor car, it’s buying you a share in a whole new way of going motoring.

EXTERIOR AND STYLING

My first impression of the luxury American saloon was its sleek, sporty and pleasing to the eye, I particularly liked the way the door handles slowly raised and sunk into the bodywork to aid the aerodynamics of the car.

Taking my son to his school leavers ball, the car certainly turned heads as we silently glided up to the entrance, even though it was in the presence of Porsche’s, Bentley’s and such like.

The Tesla can certainly hold its own in the looks department compared with its German rivals. Personally, I prefer the Model X, I like the fact that you’ve got the gull wing doors, the option of big full seats in the rear but I couldn’t get Tesla to lend me one of those.

INTERIOR

Sliding into the driving seat, the first thing that hits you is the huge amount of room in the cabin – this is a big car. A beautiful full-length glass panoramic roof lets plenty of light into the cabin and this adds to the impression of a very open and clutter free interior.

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There’s plenty of room in the rear for passengers too. With a completely flat floor due to the lack of transmission and exhaust, you can seat three adults comfortably with luxurious amounts of legroom and headroom.

It doesn’t stop there either, there’s also plenty of storage space with an enormous hatchback boot plus a small ‘frunk’ where the combustion engine would conventionally be.

The cabin upholstery was faultless, and all the trim had a good quality feel. The tan interior on this particular car was not my choice but beggars can’t be choosers.

TECHNOLOGY

From a technology point of view, the Tesla is a high-tech piece of kit. Most of the controls are accessed via the main central touchscreen which leaves the rest of the dashboard very simple with a nice clear speedo but surprisingly no option of a head up display. Included is a speech recognition system but as much as I tried, I didn’t find it very easy to use.

The sat nav system is very good and is based upon Google Maps. Obviously, it has the usual Bluetooth integration for your Smartphone, but I was a bit disappointed it didn’t support Apple CarPlay / Android Auto. You can however synchronise your calendar.

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One nice feature is a graph that estimates your energy usage – it shows your historical use but it will also, if you put a destination in the sat nav, estimate your energy depletion for the journey, and against that estimate it shows you your actual usage. This enables you to see roughly where you’ll be – or not if you haven’t got enough battery – at the end of the journey.

Music is supplied via DAB, USB or the integrated Spotify app. I had some fun and games with the DAB reception, but I think that was more to do with my own local coverage than Tesla’s receiver.

The central screen has a built-in web browser, but you can’t really use that if you’re driving – hands free or not – and I think most people will continue to use their smartphones.

What is good is the rear parking camera which you can leave on all the time to keep an eye on what’s behind you – this provides a much better view than that available through the rear-view mirror. Another nice touch is that you can adjust the cabin temperature through the steering wheel controls without having to take your eyes off the road.

If you compare the Tesla to what you would get in a top of the range BMW or Audi, discounting the autonomous driving, it’s still short of a few things. For a car costing £100k, that can drive itself, it can’t sense rain and decide when to put the wipers on. That’s a manual process (maybe they don’t have much rain in California). And the mirrors – Yes, they dip when you reverse but they don’t dim when there’s a bright light. All standard things you get on a German car but not on the Model S.

AUTOPILOT

Every Tesla built since October 2016 comes as standard with hardware capable of providing Autopilot. All that is required is for the facility to be enabled via a software update either at the time of purchase or later on.

This was my first experience of an autopilot car and once you get over the initial weird feeling of letting the car have complete control at 70 mph – it’s interesting – Tesla insist that your hands remain lightly on the wheel at all times and the system will alert if they cannot detect this.

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I found the autopilot functionality to be very effective. The car drives happily along the motorway at 70 mph staying perfectly in lane. You could see how long you could drive along with your eyes closed before you bottle it (not recommended).

A few things that I did notice were that the car could sense immediately around it but it couldn’t detect further ahead and therefore could anticipate what was going to happen like a human driver would. As a result, some of the cars reactions were a little more sudden and I felt that it may have confused people behind me a little, certainly in heavy traffic.

Also, I found the auto lane change abrupt. By triggering the indicator, you tell the autopilot to change lane. The car will look around, calculate where the space is, and move across lanes. The movement though is quite jerky, it’s not the smooth lane change you would do if you were a driver where you glide between lanes, it’s very much a turn right, turn left, straighten up again. You almost feel that you are going through an S bend rather than just drifting across.

The autopilot also got confused if someone in the adjacent lane was straddling the white line. It interprets that as someone coming into its lane and breaks suddenly. Equally on A-roads, if there happens to be a layby on the outside of a bend with parked cars, the system braked as if there was a stationary car ahead. In both cases, it’s better to err on the side of caution but it proves that there is still some way to go until we have total autonomous driving and I can see why Tesla insist that you keep your hands on the wheel while it’s in auto mode.

The good thing is you get free over the air software updates, so when Tesla make improvements or enhancements to the autopilot functionality, you get the benefit straight away. And should technology improve, and the legislation change – you might find you’ve got a car capable of more autonomous driving.

I didn’t have time to test out the Smartphone app which allows you to do some fancy stuff like summon the car in a car park and let it drive out of the space and right up to you which sounds like fun.

DRIVING AND HANDLING

Obviously without a noisy petrol engine the car is very quiet but thanks to good aerodynamics and soundproofing, the car remains surprising quiet cruising on the motorway at 70mph, there is hardly any wind noise at all.

Being an electric car, the power delivery is linear and very smooth with no shifting of gears. The regenerative breaking is sharp – a little sharper than the BMW 330e PHEV that I’m used to driving but you do get used to it remarkably quickly.

One thing I didn’t like was the steering. Even in sport mode, I found the steering to be woolly compared with a good performance German car. I think that Tesla really do need to work on improving the steering.

The suspension has ride height adjustment from low to very high, this can also be linked to the Sat Nav to adjust the setting at certain locations. Good to play around with for a bit of fun, it doesn’t affect the handling too much – more I guess to improve fuel economy.

PERFORMANCE

The performance is…. Electric!

The Model S with its all-wheel drive is very quick, you put your foot down and the torque is there instantly. 0-60 on this model is just over 4 seconds and of course there is a performance model available as well which reduces that time to just over 2 seconds.

However, this lightening performance comes at a cost – if you start driving with a heavy right foot you will see you range start to decrease very rapidly. Yes, that happens with a petrol car too but in that instance, you easily fill up for more fun – In the Model S you have to be mindful that you need to reach your destination.

RANGE AND CHARGING

This is the Model S 100D – with a 100kW battery – it’s not the performance version but trust me, you really don’t need the performance version, this is more than adequate.

Certainly, I think the 100Kw battery is a must, but fully topped up, it provides a range of about 300 miles cruising on motorway which for a single charge I consider to be a reasonable distance.

Tesla recommend not regularly charging the battery above 80% to preserve the life of the cells and only going to 100% when you really need the full range.

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I found that the battery would charge from empty to full in about an hour and a half when using one of Tesla’s superchargers, obviously, it’s a lot slower if you are not on a supercharger, and if you’re on a normal 13a socket you may just as well forget it.

Driving to Nottingham, I stopped off to get a quick bite to eat on the motorway and top up the charge. When I’d finished stuffing my face the battery was back up to full charge from about 50%. So, a quick half charge while I got a sandwich didn’t feel like I was being delayed on my journey.

Most of the supercharging stations have between 4 and 8 slots and the onboard sat nav system will tell you where your nearest one is and how many of the slots are free. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough of the stations around and I ended up having to book myself into a Travel Lodge in order to have access to one overnight – and for all the flashy adverts they’re still a budget hotel chain. Although it allowed me to charge the car up, it didn’t exactly charge me up…

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At the moment there aren’t that many Tesla’s in the country and most of the times that I stopped; I was the only one using the chargers, but I guess over time that will change. The biggest issue is there’s just not enough superchargers located around the UK and you must go out of your way to find one. Certainly, they are not currently at all motorway service stations and away from the motorway network and large cities they are hard to find. Again, if you see the amount of infrastructure required to install the superchargers, it’s hardly surprising they are few and far between – I wouldn’t have thought they come cheap, but I guess that Tesla and others will get there eventually.

Tesla’s free charging offer for new purchasers has now ended – However if you can get a referral from an existing Tesla owner, you can claim some free supercharger use.

What I didn’t find out – thank goodness – is what happens if your battery completely depletes. Perhaps a button appears on the screen to notify Tesla where to come and collect their demo car?

SUMMARY

Overall it is a nice car, don’t get me wrong, this is a really nice car. But for £100,000 you could get a nice C63 Merc, you could get a Porsche, you could get Jaguar, you could get a couple of M3s…

You can get a lot of motor car for £100k and fantastic as this car is, great as the autopilot is, and great that it doesn’t cost you any petrol, would you really spend £100k on this car?

Yes, it’s got great acceleration, but I wouldn’t call it a sports car, I really wouldn’t. I can see it appealing to Apple fanbois and real geeks. If you really love technology, its right up your street.

Personally if I was going to spend this amount of money, I would want something with a bit more of a soul – this is a gadget – it grabs your brain but it doesn’t grab your heart – so I would opt for something with a bit more of a sporting pedigree.

Overall, I’d say the Tesla Model S is a decent car but not £100k worth.

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That said, I think the upcoming Tesla Model 3 will be an interesting proposition, if Tesla get the pricing right (anticipated to cost between £30-40k, which is still an outrageous amount of money for a small saloon but a bit more affordable than £100k), tighten up the steering and fill in some of the missing items on the spec sheet, they could be onto a potential winner. By that time the charging infrastructure should also be more widespread.

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