Lem Bingley Reviews the Tesla Model S to discover whether the most hyped electric car since the dawn of time can possibly live up to expectations?
California-based Tesla made a name for itself with its electric Roadster, the unlikely combination of a Lotus Elise and a shedload of laptop batteries. Cramped and pricey, it nonetheless overturned expectations, proving that electric cars could be desirable and sporty rather than oddball and ugly.
The Roadster’s replacement, the Tesla Model S, is different in almost every way. It’s bigger, more practical, better value, with improved range but still sports-car quick. The recipe has proved compelling, at least in the US, where demand for the Model S outstripped supply throughout its debut year. Nobody expects problems shifting the 35,000 examples due to be built in 2014.
The first UK shipments are imminent, but will silicon-valley’s finest feel out of place in the Thames Valley? We borrowed one to find out.
Conceived from the outset as an electric car, the Tesla has a layout like no other. The body sits on a giant aluminium skateboard of a chassis, holding its large lithium-ion battery in a thick, flat layer across the floor. The electric motor, which drives the rear wheels, slots neatly in place of a back axle.
The aluminium bodywork provides a five-door hatchback rather than saloon layout. Arguably the Model S is a five-seat coupé, given its sleek lines and frameless door glass.
The styling is unexpectedly conventional for such a forward-looking car – and surprisingly British too, offering echoes of both the Jaguar XF and Aston Martin Rapide. Tesla’s Model S sits roughly between the two in terms of size – longer and lower than the Jag, but not quite as long or as low as the Rapide.
It’s yank-tank wide, however. At 2,187mm across the mirrors (7 feet 2 inches), or 6 feet 5 and a bit with mirrors folded, it’s notably wider than a Mercedes S-Class. We did manage to squeeze our Model S onto the Hogarth flyover in West London, which has a 6-feet-6-inch restriction, though not without the urge to breathe in.
The Model S comprehensively trumps all other cars of a similar size and shape when it comes to swallowing luggage. With no engine under the bonnet, there’s instead a neatly shaped storage compartment. Telsa calls this front trunk a “frunk”, though “froot” seems unlikely to catch on as the UK equivalent. It holds 150 litres – enough for a couple of carry-on bags.
Under the big rear hatch there’s a conventional boot, only bigger. With no large silencer lurking under the floor the boot runs deep, to almost 745 litres, seats up. A Jaguar XF offers 540 litres.
Overall, the interior feels spacious, and with no centre tunnel there’s plenty of legroom throughout the cabin. It’s a little short on places to put oddments out of sight, however.
You can spend £2,100 to add a pair of rear-facing child seats, which fold away into the boot and turn the Model S into a school-run seven-seater. The jump seats are limited to children no more than 4 foot 5 inches tall – any taller and it would be unwise to slam the hatch shut.
Performance & Handling
The entry level Model S comes with a 60kWh battery offering a rated range of 242 miles between charges. The motor provides a peak power output of 225kW (the equivalent of 302bhp) and 440Nm of torque, sufficient to zip to 62mph in a brisk 6.2 seconds.
Opting for a bigger 85kWh battery expands range to 312 miles, with an increase in peak power to 270kW (362bhp) and a cut in the 0-62 sprint to just 5.6 seconds. Trading up to the Performance edition keeps the same battery and driving range but beefs up the motor to deliver 310kW (416bhp) and a stonking 600Nm of torque. The dash to 62mph is then dusted in just 4.4 seconds (with 60mph breached in a fleeting 4.2 seconds).
Top speed is governed at 120mph for the entry-level car, rising to 125mph with the larger battery or 130mph for the Performance edition.
At any normal road speed, the Model S feels athletically quick and uncannily smooth, as if the accelerator pedal is somehow tilting the earth in your favour. It never feels as heavy as the 2.1-tonne reality. Torque will easily overcome grip if you abuse the throttle, even when already moving on dry tarmac, triggering the electronic traction control to mute the power a little and gather the tail in neatly.
The brakes feel strong and linear, and you can adjust the level of regenerative braking felt as you lift off the throttle.
We tested the car in its top-spec Performance Plus guise, which adds air suspension, uprated dampers, stiffer anti-roll tendencies and wide 21-inch alloys. That sounds like a recipe for a rock-hard ride but actually provides a surprising level of comfort. Even in its most manic form, the Model S is more swift coupé than road racer. It’s not quiet, though. The electric motor may be virtually silent but the big tyres throw up plenty of road roar even at urban speeds.
Economy & Environment
As an electric car the Tesla Model S offers an angelic zero in terms of tailpipe emissions, and running costs should be tiny compared to other cars of similar performance. It’s unlikely to be the greenest choice on the planet, however, given the massive carbon debt locked up in its big lithium-ion battery and aluminium construction, both of which are energy-intensive compared with steel bodies and petrol engines. Fortunately, both aluminium and batteries should be fully recyclable at the end of the car’s life, helping to tip the balance back in Telsa’s favour over the long haul.
Recharging a big battery also takes time – about an hour for every 34 miles of driving range from a domestic plug, though you can fit twin chargers (a £1,250 option) to double the rate.
A better bet is to roll up to a Tesla Supercharger station, which pumps in 200 miles worth of juice in just 30 minutes. Right now there aren’t actually any Superchargers in the UK, but they are set to be installed on major routes across Britain and Europe over the next few years. Compatibility comes as standard on 85kWh models, or as a £1,800 option on 60kWh cars.
Equipment & Value
The Tesla Model S looks and feels like a premium product, with a tasteful interior made from quality materials. And so it should, given the starting price of £50,280 on the road. With all boxes ticked, a top-spec Performance Plus model, with four-years fixed-price servicing, will set you back £100,080.
Despite these costs, standard equipment levels can seem penny-pinching. The £57,680 asking price for an 85kWh model provides neither parking sensors nor fog lamps, for example – either one is a £400 option. A digital radio and 12-speaker audio upgrade costs £2,100. The Tech Package that brings navigation as well as a powered tailgate and other fripperies costs £3,200.
The Model S comes with a reassuring 8-year battery warranty, good for 125,000 miles on 60kWh cars and unlimited miles with the larger pack.
The undoubted high point of the Model S interior is its 17-inch oblong touchscreen, which offers control over all of the car’s functions. Ventilation controls are permanently available at the foot of the screen, while the bulk of the display is devoted to setting preferences, entertainment or navigation. It works exactly like a giant iPad and it’s incredibly useful to have such a wide view of surrounding roads available at a glance.
The Model S hasn’t yet been tested by EuroNCAP, but in similarly tough American testing it gained a maximum five stars across the board, in frontal impacts, side impacts and in rollover testing. Indeed it posted the best overall score ever recorded, in part due to the lack of a big engine block in its front crumple zone.
Batteries contain a great deal of pent-up energy and can pose a fire risk, much like a tank full of fuel. In March, Tesla upgraded the armour used to protect the underside of the Model S battery, following an incident where steel debris on a freeway punctured a battery and caused a fire. The new undertray is now lined with titanium and, according to Tesla, can withstand being driven “at highway speed into a steel spear braced on the tarmac”.
Tesla’s Model S offers cutting edge electric power, aluminium construction and step-ahead touchscreen controls, all wrapped up in tasteful bodywork and high-quality upholstery. It combines the best of old and new motoring, with class-leading space and catapult-level acceleration.
Big batteries remove most of the anxieties involved with running an electric vehicle, while Tesla’s promised network of Superchargers should make long journeys more feasible than in any other car without a fuel tank.
If you can afford the asking price, can cope with its girth and have somewhere to charge the car overnight, the Tesla Model S really does tick an awful lot of boxes.
|Price||£83,480, after £5,000 plug-in car grant|