Tesla have just opened their first Scottish Supercharger station at Edinburgh Airport, and Tartan Tarmac were invited along to witness the event and to test the high performance version of their current offering, the Model S.
This was not a dull, low content day. On show today was a concept and even a physical infrastructure, not just another car. So where should I start with this review? I guess I should keep to conventional car review staples, at least at first; what it is, what it’s like to be in, what it’s like to drive and so on.
What is it?
Tesla’s Model S is an all-electric luxury performance 5 door car. It is their second model, but it is the first one that has been designed from the start as an electric vehicle, with battery placement part of the concept, not just an issue to tackle when converting a conventional design. The battery pack is in the floor of the car, occupying all of the area underneath the accommodation.
Drive is via the rear wheels, although Tesla have just made available a dual motor option with the second motor driving the front wheels to give all-wheel grip.
Different battery sizes and motor capabilities are available. The car we tested was the P85 model and with the “P” standing for Performance, this was the most potent version. That means 470 hp and 600 Nm of torque to play with.
The test car was also loaded up with extras including Smart Air Suspension, Tech Package and Premium Interior Package.
Tesla have pitched the Model S as a luxury car and it lives up to the billing very well. As you would expect for a car with prices starting at a little over £50,000 and with variants and spec options to take the bill to double that, it is a very nice place for five fully grown adults to be.
Quality is good too. I’ve been in many American cars and was pleasantly surprised to find the Tesla, manufactured in California, has untypically good quality plastics and other materials. The test car also came with higher spec leather and very nice yacht-effect wooden trim on the dash and the tray between the front seats.
Despite being a technical tour de force and having some unconventional approaches to many control items, the simple control of indicators, wipers and cruise control are all performed via conventional stalks at the steering column. Tesla haven’t seen the need to break with decades of convention in how to indicate your turning intentions as is unfortunately the case with some of our favourite Italian marques.
Otherwise, there are only two other buttons on the dash; one for hazard warning lights and one to open the glovebox. All other control functions are performed via the giant touch screen mounted as the central feature of the dash. This is the interface to the rest of the car.
All the functions you would expect are here, such as climate control, navigation, trip computer, setup options and hifi. There are a few surprises too, such as a web browser, either full or split screen, a large rear camera view when reversing and a section dedicated to monitoring your energy consumption and efficiency.
The car is designed to be connected to the internet as constantly as is possible. It is supplied with a 4 year 3G data connection to facilitate web browsing, Google maps, internet radio and also to keep the car connected to Tesla’s engineering and service facilities, allowing the car to report problems and receive updates in much the same way as your computer or smartphone would do. More of that later.
Straight ahead of the driver, the instrument binnacle is yet another screen. The main feature shows a digital speed readout with an indication around the outside of how much power you are currently either using or regenerating.
Inside the car you do start to notice the effects of the core design on the cabin layout. On the plus side, this is a rear wheel drive car with no transmission tunnel and there is no gearbox poking through a bulkhead, so the cabin is very spacious and free from encumbrance between the seats. With no engine up front, there is space under the hood as well as a generous boot under the rear hatch.
On the minus side you do notice, at least in the rear seats, that the floor, and therefore your knee, is a little higher than in some other cars. Headroom in the rear is also slightly compromised by the coupe styling but this is not unique to the Tesla.
On The Road
So what is it like to drive? Well, below 20mph it is absolutely silent and above that it is only road noise from the tyres that breaks through. Never before will your favourite tunes be enjoyed through a car’s speakers at such modest volumes.
Despite being a big car, slightly wider than a Lamborghini Aventador, it is quite easy to position. It doesn’t have massive sills and sculpted doors so you feel conventionally close to the extremities. Visibility of the four corners is reasonable too.
Brake feel is good with a surprisingly progressive pedal. Engine braking, or rather energy regeneration, is also very noticeable. I liked it, but such was the feedback about it from early owners that Tesla updated the control software to offer a setting with less severe retardation through regeneration. Of course this was delivered over the air and owners awoke to find that their cars had acquired a shiny new option overnight.
Steering feedback for such a big heavy car was good. I suspected that such a heavy luxurious cruiser would start understeering first and communicating that lack of grip as an afterthought, but this was not the case. Both on poor surfaces and while circumnavigating a tight roundabout as fast as I would ever like our traffic enforcement friends to witness, I found the feedback good along with the grip itself. I did change the steering mode to the sport setting but the difference wasn’t much of a shock to the system.
The car also gives a good sense of speed from the driving seat. A criticism I would level at many large cars is the diminished optical sense of speed through high set dashes and tall bonnets. The Tesla doesn’t suffer from this and feels as fast as it is, which is a good thing considering that there is no audible cue to the speed in the form of a wailing engine note.
This brings me nicely to the topic of speed. Now, we have to recognise that the nice people at Tesla gave me the performance model for our test, but that performance was dramatic to say the least. We’ve known for a while now that cars with electric motors benefit from completely flat torque curves and for me, when thinking of other electric cars that have come before, I always considered that total torque at zero revs to be a welcome benefit amongst what would otherwise be a slow and uninspiring experience.
However, imagine the delivery of 600 Nm of torque in that manner. Imagine a conventionally propelled performance car where you were always, instantly, at exactly the right engine speed and in exactly the right gear to accelerate maximally into every opportunity? That is the equivalent of what we have here. It is quite staggering. Every time you push the pedal the Tesla is perfectly set up and gives you everything it has. The guilty looking spikes on the energy graph remind you of the fun you’ve just had!
It has a lot to give too. Recently I was fortunate enough to test drive one of the latest breed of mid-engined 600+ hp supercars and I can honestly say that on the move, the Tesla felt at least as accelerative. Perhaps it was the shock of such a large car being able to shift so well, but I got the sense that making progress through traffic would be as easy in the Tesla with four friends as it would be in something twice the price and with less than half the room.
So in terms of conventional car reviews, that’s about it. The Tesla Model S is a good looking, well made, luxurious and stonkingly fast car with an interesting and unique approach to user interaction via the large central touch screen. However that is only part of the story.
The discussion on all-electric cars is always going to come around to range, charging times and the dread of being stranded at the roadside with depleted batteries. So how does the Tesla fare? Or put another way, could you live with it?
Predictably, it boils down to your circumstances, i.e. where you will go, where you park the car at night and how well you can expect to plan your longer journeys. Here are the relevant facts :-
– The “textbook” range is 312 miles, but that figure is a bit like extra urban cycle mpg figures for petrol cars. The normal range you would actually achieve will, I am told, likely be around 250 miles. For an electric car that is exceptional, but you would expect twice that in a conventionally engined car, and at the end of that car’s range, a 20 minute stop at any petrol station sets it back to full.
– With a “Type 2” home charging station (it is suggested that after government grants this will cost you around £95), you will top up the battery from average normal daily driving overnight. It’s the mobile phone approach. You put it on the charger at night and it’s ready for you in the morning.
– With access to a conventional 3-pin plug when visiting a friend’s house or a hotel, you will charge at a rate of 4 miles range every hour, which is very low, so an overnight stay may only see you 40 miles better off come the morning
– At most motorway service stations and at the hundreds of dedicated charging points springing up in cities and shopping centres across the land, you will charge at a rate of up to 68 miles range per hour, so a worthwhile motorway break is looking like 2 hours
– To make these cars really work as a long-distance proposition, Tesla are attempting to provide a game-changer in respect of charging. They are implementing their own network of high speed charging stations, world-wide. At one of the network of Tesla Supercharger points, you would be half-charged by the time you have visited the rest-room and ordered a coffee, 80% replenished (the recommended charge limit to maximise the lifetime of the battery pack) in 40 minutes and on the occasion where you really need the full charge to get to your next stop, you will need to allow 70 minutes. You gain 170 miles range per 30 mins charge.
On that last point, today’s event was not just about the cars. It was also marking the opening of the first Scottish SuperCharger station at Edinburgh airport where you will be able to wait while you charge, or if flying, use a valet service to take your car from you at the terminal and return it to you when you arrive back, fully charged and ready to take you home.
By the end of 2015, Tesla hope to have sufficient stations to take you from Inverness to Istanbul, charging at these “coffee break” rates, every 180 miles.
So would this car suit you?
– Well, first of all you are reading this on Tartan Tarmac, so it’s odds on that you like good looking fast cars, and this certainly qualifies
– If your circumstances would allow you to install a single phase Type 2 charger where you park your car at night, and your normal daily mileage is 160 or less, then you can use this car every day and never visit a petrol station again, enjoying exceptionally low running costs
– If your longer drives are less common and you have a chance to plan them such that you can stop at Supercharger stations en route or attend to your long trip’s purpose while your Tesla is hooked up to a conventional public charging point for a few hours (up to 68 miles of range added per hour charge), then you’re still good
– Other than range, there are some other possible detractions, first of which is the price. Tesla make no apology for this being a luxurious, up-market, expensive car. The car will cost you between 50 and 100k depending on powertrain and specification. At that price point Tesla won’t be selling it in Ford Focus volumes and that suits the current battery production and Tesla’s still-developing production, sales, charging and service capabilities.
– Depreciation is as yet unknown. It is a unique car with a lengthy waiting time and comforting warranty provisions around the car and, most notably, the battery, so early signs are positive, but 50-100k is a high starting point from which to fall, and only time will tell.
– Other considerations would be any requirements you might have for more space or to tow. The next Tesla model, the Model X, complete with unusual Falcon-style rear doors, could be what you need.
– If the price is too rich for your blood then Tesla also have planned a smaller, less expensive, higher volume car, the details of which we should start to see in a couple of years.
For me, as a died-in-the-wool classic sports car fanatic, I think I may have seen the future for my daily drive requirements. My usage would suit the range and charging limitations, so with that accepted, I think it offers an interesting and enticing ying to my favourite past-time’s classic smelly noisy multi-cylinder yang.