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Tesla Model S 100D review: Big battery, little trouble?

4.5

In a test to see just how much of an issue range anxiety can be, Ben Griffin borrowed a Tesla Model S 100D and drove 313 miles to the Lake District, with some Supercharger action (of the vehicle charging kind) along the way.

This is the fourth time I have driven a Tesla. Though the company no longer delivers them to my home in an unmarked white truck, as it did in August 2014 when I was first properly introduced, the constant is that I find still them hugely appealing. Flawed in some ways, but impressive enough where it counts.

One issue that keeps Tesla back from conquering the world is, of course, the sheer price of the Model S and Model X. Even with the UK government’s £4,500 plug-in incentive and the promise of cheaper pence-per-mile running costs, you need to be enviably well off to own one, even with finance. But then that is where the £30,000-odd Model 3 steps in (set to arrive in 2019) – and UK journalists who have driven it are predominantly besotted.

The other problem for most people is range anxiety. But this is potentially only an issue for those who often drive hundreds of miles in a day. Your average motorist potters around at well under 50 miles. The actual issue stems from convenience, changing habits, learning a new way of thinking about how you get from A to B – things that initially involve hassle. And no one likes hassle. With a Tesla, there is a learning curve. The question, then, is whether it is worth the effort?

With a Tesla Model S 100D (the non-performance version) in my possession on a mini-heatwave weekend, I decided to go further than London to Bristol and back. This time, I was off to a hotel called Another Place, The Lake. A mere 313 miles away from my humble abode, well within Tesla’s NEDC claim of 393 miles for this model but with very little margin for error if you take into account the stricter EPA rating.

Tesla Model S 100D: A long, long drive begins

Tesla Model S 100D in the Lake District

Having stocked up on a number of healthy snacks (diet coke, pastries, Doritos and pasties), my companion and I set off on a journey that should, in theory, take five to six hours. By no means a short trip, nor especially exciting unless you love motorways.

Except I had left on a Friday, which meant sharing the road with vast numbers of fellow holiday-goers. Worse than that, it was also horrendously sunny, which meant even more people peeling themselves away from Take Me Out, and as it turned out it would become a day where everyone seemingly forgot what a steering wheel is.

Like any nice journey in a nice car, you start off with high spirits. Two electric motors (aka dual motor) fitted with the largest capacity battery in the Tesla arsenal, 100kWh, upholstery so white Pantone could use it as a reference and a stunning metallic red paintjob. Except for the absence of the ‘P’ for Performance, which includes Ludicrous Mode, and AutoPilot this is the spec I would buy myself – the new grey alloy wheel colour and all.

Instantly, everything feels familiar. There is never the sense of opulence or luxury you get in a rival Audi, BMW or Mercedes, but even after nearly four years the minimalistic cockpit still feels futuristic. Despite the likelihood that Tesla went with the ‘less is more’ school of design for cost reasons, it has so far managed to avoid looking dated. In fairness, the 17-inch touchscreen in the centre console is still unrivalled in terms of size and functionality and the materials used are, for the most part, attractive and hard-wearing.

But there are some puzzling cockpit choices that made themselves known as I headed towards the A3 out of London. The Model S now comes fitted with the centre armrest compartment, meaning no random expanse of empty, largely pointless space like I’d seen in previous test cars. This is good, except its location is a little far back to lean on comfortably. A lack of door bins is also an odd choice and one that makes the Tesla Model S less family-friendly.

The exterior feels familiar, too. A mid-life refresh that saw the open grille of the original Model S close up really helps it avoid looking tired. The weakest area in terms of design, for me at least, is the rear end, which was never the best-looking and could certainly do with a touch of jazzing up. Not so much the trademark identity is lost though, because very little makes onlookers stop, stare and admire like a Tesla.

Something I really had missed was the noise. Or rather, the lack of it. Two powerful electric motors in the Model S 100D only ever interrupt blissful silence with a faint and likable supercharger-esque whine. This and favourably low amounts of road and wind noise meant progress to the M25 was both brisk and refined, not to mention inundated with thumb-ups from those in the immediate vicinity. At first, the front seats feel a little firm but they end up coming through.

Infotainment wars

Tesla Model S Supercharging charge rate

Everything was glorious thus far, except for one teensy weensy problem. You see, I had been using the smartphone app, Waze, to navigate because, since picking up my Doritos (Chilli Heatwave, obviously), the touchscreen had been continually crashing. Asking it to run both Spotify at the lower half of the screen and Google Maps up top should have been a doddle. But every time the system tried to load up, it would freeze and either hang in an unusable state or prompt me to reset it.

As I have now learned, resetting a Tesla display is rather easy. You simply hold the two steering wheel scroll buttons for an almost annoyingly long time and, bam, the screen goes black and not that much later you get to see the Californian company’s T-shaped logo. This process of reset after reset lasted about 40 minutes before the endless, frustrating loop of infotainment misery was over. I had done nothing differently, it had just decided to play ball.

I have read this issue can be a problem when the software of the infotainment system and the separate system for the more important stuff get a bit upset with each other, which means an over-the-air update probably would have spared me the misery. Except in that moment, on a very long drive to the Lake District, I was at the mercy of computer programming.

Luckily, the rest of the car runs without the display. In fact, only the air conditioning turned off during the reset debacle, resulting in an uncomfortably warm cabin. But with almost all functionality accessible within that touchscreen, the Tesla experience is drastically limited. At least the hazards are (by law) operated by a physical button, just in case things go really wrong.

Charging on

Tesla Model S 100D bonnet and front lights

With well over a hundred miles under my belt and the touchscreen woes over, it was time to endure heavy traffic. The first of three serious backlogs, in fact, which meant six hours would become eight and a half. A long section of a roadwork-induced 50mph limit proved particularly brutal, although giving people longer to stare at the car compensated nicely.

Locked into cruise control at 70mph, the range of the Model S was matching the miles I had covered, unlike other electric cars I have driven, which gave me confidence.

I would be using the car when I arrived so I decided that spending longer at the Charnock Richard services in Chorley for more than the 20 minutes the car was recommending. It is the prospect of a 20-minute pit-stop that, for many motorists, makes the Teslas less tempting than a diesel or petrol. In some ways, the need to be conscious of where you can top-up is ever-present. However, there are times when you will experience the same thing when running on fumes.

The thing is, finding a supercharger is easily done using Google Maps (when the screen is working). Either the Tesla works out a route for you if there is a need to incorporate a stop or you can easily toggle their location on and off within Google Maps, neither of which is hardship. Actually finding the charger once you arrive at the destination, well that can take a little more effort – and the need to ignore car park directional arrows.

As for the waiting aspect, half an hour sounds like a long time but after four hours of driving it is not only sensible, you should probably do it for your own sanity. Once you have popped to the toilet, parked up and bought an overpriced sandwich or coffee, at least 15 minutes will have gone. If travelling with others, particularly children, you can add even more time onto that without really trying.

With the Supercharger pumping in more just over 340 miles of range per hour (and the first part of the charge happening fastest), a half an hour stop can rejuvenate a significant portion of battery. Another plus is that some supercharger locations feature numerous charging points, which combined with relatively few Teslas on the road meant there was no need to drive around to find a space at what was a peak travel time. That saves time in itself.

Also bear in mind that in a diesel or petrol car, the need to top up and use the services means parking up once to get out and stretch your legs, then driving on a again to the petrol station, adding fuel and going in to pay (or faff with the card machine). If there is a queue at the pump, you have to wait around even more.

Tesla Model S 100D review

What I am trying to say is that, realistically, a 20-minute stop in a Tesla is really no more hassle than in something with an engine. How many people drive 300 miles without a reasonable break? In fact, how often do you drive 300 miles in a single day? The rest of your journeys will likely be catered for by a home charging unit, which is a cheap addition relative to the cost of the Model S and Model X. If you can afford a Tesla, it is also likely you have a driveway or garage where one can be installed.

I will say the Model S 100kWh battery offers a range where you can relax on most journeys, whereas the heavier, less range-friendly Model X is noticeably more stressful. Between the two, I would go for the Model S any day of the week unless you need seven seats for adults. Because the rear-facing ones in the Model S are, quite honestly, designed for children.

Interestingly, Tesla had removed the AutoPilot functionality from the test car and others in the range. A representative told me that it was a move designed to ease those unfamiliar with a Tesla into the experience. I read this as meaning, ‘we don’t want anymore idiots assuming AutoPilot is a replacement for the driver’, which is probably best after a man was sent to jail for sitting in the passenger seat while it was engaged.

As a petrolhead, I rather enjoy driving and the Tesla’s effortless pace and mainly competent suspension setup meant I never pined for any assistance beyond that of adaptive cruise control. I have used AutoPilot before and it works brilliantly on a motorway, but the fact you need to hold onto the steering wheel and pay close attention means it is less essential than you may think.

Charged up, caffeined up and ready to go, it was time to embark on the last part of the journey. Patience waning (it’s amazing how many people find as basic a task as driving difficult), it was welcome to see a dramatic shift in scenery. Though Yorkshire is a pretty place, the scenery as you come into the Lake District is nothing short of staggering. Not quite New Zealand or Costa Rica staggering, admittedly, but enough for the journey to be worthwhile.

The final stretch

Tesla Model S 100D vistas and scenery

Until now the Tesla had done what it does best, comfortable cruising. At this point, though, as I peeled off into smaller A and B-roads, I could see the Model S’s playful side. Despite being a big car and weighed down by a hefty battery cell, the Model S is capable of serious pace. It is, as Top Gear presenter Chris Harris pointed out recently, rather more competent in the handling department than it is often given credit for. Only the sheer width of the car gives you any pause for thought.

That is not to say it is as exciting as a supercar nor as enthralling as a Hyundai i30N or any other decent hot hatchback, but its ability to mince almost anything in a straight line coupled with decent body composure and grip means only those with a death wish will reach its limits. Even without Ludicrous Mode, the acceleration makes your stomach do weird things. I probably could have just made the journey in one charge if it wasn’t for the enjoyment of sticking your foot down like an imbecile.

With the last few miles of the journey coming to a close, my eyes were about to fall out of my face through sheer exhaustion. But there was no discomfort from the seats, no headache from a constant drone of an engine, no annoyance at having to stop. These would be a non-issue in other premium cars (Audis especially), too, but it felt good to top up for free, as opposed to burning £60-odd quid.

Sadly for the Tesla Model 3, you will have to pay to use a Tesla Supercharger and other charging providers will want you to pay. The need to use a slower, more common charger also means waiting substantially longer and, therefore, heading to an area without Supercharger support will dramatically increase the hassle. Unless there is what Tesla calls a ‘destination charger’ where you are going.

Luckily for me, I knew the beautiful Another Place, The Lake hotel had a Tesla-sized space waiting for me. I simply popped the charging cap open, a task done through the touchscreen, and plugged it in. By tomorrow, I would have a fully battery. A group of three men staying at the hotel gave me a nod as I walked the last 20 metres of the journey. They seemed impressed by the car I had rolled up in.

To be fair, I have yet to meet anyone who has seen or been in a Tesla and walked away without saying good things. Sure, it is far from perfect as the odd uneven panel gap and software issue highlights, but the way it drives, the way it looks and the way it makes most cars feel like a horse and cart is only surpassed by hypercars and supercars.

And that is the most impressive bit. You don’t need gears or a lightweight two-seater to enjoy a hint of blistering pace. You don’t even need to give up seats or comfort. Unless you routinely drive big miles and are allergic to motorway service stations, there is a chance a full-blown Model S will work for you. Hell, you could even get away with the 75kWh ‘budget’ entry

As I said at the start, a taste of the future costs serious cash. At £65,500 for the cheapest model, it is well out of the reach of most people and that is a shame. With extras and the Ludicrous Mode-enabled P100D, you are looking at £134,350. You could buy a McLaren and run a Hyundai Kona Electric on the side for similar money and you would be as happy.

Tesla Model S P100D: Still a relevant purchase?

Tesla Model S 100D in red against a Lake District backdrop

Look, I’ll be honest. I adore the Tesla Model S and I felt that before an eight-hour drive – comprised 50mph speed limits on a motorway, waiting in huge tailbacks and battling with the touchscreen for a portion of the journey – and also when I got out of it in an exhausted state.

But it saddens me that four years later the user-interface experience can still be troublesome. And that the UK’s charging infrastructure, though improving, still needs work. Now that you have to pay, you could argue it has regressed.

It is also a problem that the sheer cost of the thing makes it more of a luxury purchase than one born out of financial sense. Though it will spare you large fuel bills, depreciation is still severe (but competitive) and the payback time will be long, especially as it is unclear if the UK government will renew its plug-in grant of £4,500.

You know what, though. If I had all the money in the world I would have a Tesla as my second car. One that offsets a highly damaging, high-powered V12 or V10 monster I would enjoy at the weekend. There are just so few cars with a combustion engine that feel remotely as advanced as the Model S.

The jump between horse and cart to combustion is more significant than the one from the internal combustion engine to electric, no one would dispute that, but it is monumental enough to make you wonder what would have happened if the world had gone electric earlier.

Once you get used to that unrelenting, hugely efficient delivery of torque and horsepower, most petrol and diesel equivalents come across as antique and dated.

As a petrolhead, I should want to burn all electric cars and pretend they never happened. Yet the Model S’s ability to make me wax lyrical about it four years on is testament to how right Tesla got it the first time and how maybe there is more to motoring than a good engine noise.

A big thank you to Tesla for lending me the car (again) and to the staff at Another Place, The Lake, who were great. Well worth a stay.

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