Ben Griffin cheats on the combustion engine with an all-electric car in his road test of the right-hand drive Tesla Model S Performance.
The AMC DeLorean and Tesla Model S have more in common than you think. Both cars are unique and packed with technology. Both cars step outside of conventional thinking. Both look original. But the comparison goes deeper than that.
With oil running out, the Model S is considered the future of motoring. Except the electric motor it uses to power the rear wheels predates the combustion engine. We’re talking about a car named after Nikola Tesla – one of the people responsible for the AC motor, invented in 1880.
In essence, the Model S is a second coming of a technology that got in a fight with the combustion and lost miserably. What we want to know is whether the most advanced electric car, which has been on sale in the US for a year (reviewed here), is viable in old blighty?
The Tesla Model S is cut from a very different cloth. Rather than slap an existing petrol model with an electric motor, the Californian car was built from the ground up as a ‘premium electric sedan’. No corners were cut in the quest to champion the green machine.
The Model S is vastly different to the Tesla Roadster, which predates it. It is a big five-door saloon, for starters, and is therefore infinitely more practical and spacious. The body is mostly made of lightweight aluminium, but a touch of steel improves strength in key areas.
A rear-mounted electric motor not much larger than your head powers the rear wheels. A lithium-ion battery comprised of 7,000 cells feeds the electric motor the juice it needs. The battery, located under the floor, helps the Model S achieve a front-to-rear weight distribution of 48:52 per cent.
Our first impression of the Tesla Model S was the sheer size of it. It’s just short of 4,970mm in length, which is less than the comparable 5,262mm Maserati Quattroporte, but still far bigger than your average car. The width is 1,964mm without mirrors, while the Mazzy measures 1,948mm.
There is more than a whiff of Italian flair about the Californian creation, but somehow Tesla has created its own bold visual style. It’s distinctive enough to gain attention wherever it glides, but relatively traditional despite it lacking the same engineering constraints as a gas-guzzler.
The interior is comfortable and stylish, although it lacks the same prestige feel as an Aston Martin or Mercedes-Benz.
It would be hard to miss the 17-inch, dash-mounted touchscreen display, which is used to control just about everything. It is possible to have two items running at once, so in theory you could be browsing the internet while checking your projected driving range.
We love how intuitive a touchscreen can be, but there are times when it seems unnecessarily complicated. In most cars the sunroof is operated by a button. In the Model S, you need to navigate into a menu and then move a slider up and down, which is tedious.
The 1,445mm height of the Tesla Model S provides plenty of headroom in the front. Rear passengers will find legroom is less impressive and anyone taller than 6ft may find their head touches the ceiling.
There are no door bins or a central console as standard, but at least you get cupholders. An optional centre console is available should you want to carry packets of Haribo. The glove box is opened by one of two physical buttons located beside the touchscreen.
Shell out an extra £2,100 and you can opt for two extra seats in the boot with proper seatbelts, turning the Model S from a five to seven-seater. Adults will struggle to fit in the boot, but space is adequate for big kids or small people.
Even though the Model S is a wide car, anyone sat in the centre of the rear bench had better hope the two rear passengers either side have avoided eating lots of pies, otherwise it will be a bit of a squeeze.
The lack of an engine in the front means you get a front trunk (‘frunk’ as Tesla staff call it). This means an extra 150 litres of storage space. Use the boot without the third row of seats and there’s a further 744 litres with the seats folded up and 1,645 litres with them down. Few saloons come close.
Visibility is good and the rear-camera helps with parking that two-metre wide derière.
Performance & Handling
The Tesla Model S range is split into 60 and 85kWh battery sizes in the UK. The 302hp 60kWh has a range of 208 miles and can hit 0 to 62mph in 5.9 seconds. The more expensive 85kWh has 362hp, 0 to 62mph takes 5.4 seconds, while the top speed rises by 5mph to 125mph.
The 85kWh battery has a Performance option. Go for this and 0 to 62mph drops to 4.2 seconds, making it 0.5 seconds faster than an Aston Martin Rapide S and only 0.6 seconds shy of a Ferrari 458 Italia. Lightning quick has never been more apt.
Plant the throttle and all 600Nm of torque goes to the rear wheels, launching you forward with such force the back end kicks out and the rear wheels squeal for traction. That’s impressive for a car that weighs 2,100kg – almost as much as two Ford Fiestas.
Most electric cars are fast off the lights, owing to the instant torque of electric motors, but the Model S Performance Plus is something else. It pulls absurdly hard regardless of your speed. You really have to be careful with your right foot or find yourself in trouble with the police.
Admittedly, its competition can go far beyond the 130mph top speed, ruining the fun of an Autobahn road trip, but how often do you really find yourself needing to go that fast?
Our test car was equipped with the Performance Plus optional extra, which adds 21-inch alloy wheels, Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tyres, spoiler (not fitted to our test car) and upgraded dampers. Ride quality suffers a bit with the larger wheels, but the ride was smoother than we anticipated.
The steering is incredibly light and reacts instantly. Even though there is a noticeable dose of body roll, you feel confident pushing your luck. Grip is plentiful until the laws of physics remind you this is a two-tonne vehicle and understeer kicks in. It helps the brakes are progressive and powerful.
Where the Model S excels is refinement. The lack of a noisy, vibrating engine and other physical constraints associated with a fossil fuel engine are gone. Incredibly supportive and comfortable front seats compliment a refined, near-silent experience.
Two driving modes – Normal and Sport – and various suspension customisation options afforded by the optional Smart Air Suspension allow you to change the personality of the handling. It is possible to lower or raise the car as you please, with Sport mode lowering the Model S automatically. We found the car felt largely similar regardless of the driving mode.
We did hope for a little more driving involvement. There is a sense of occasion every time you set foot into a Model S is present, make no mistake, but it can feel a bit disconnected from the road.
Economy & Environment
The problem with a fast car is that you drive it as such. Every traffic light is an opportunity to remind yourself how insanely fast the Model S is. The novelty of leaving fellow road users in a trail of what should be exhaust fumes is hard to resist.
Regenerative braking is used to claw back energy when you take your foot off the pedal. In the default ‘Standard’ setting, it feels like the brake has been applied. The ‘Low’ setting reduces the effect and is more relaxed, but will claw into your maximum range.
Put on your sensible hat and you can expect up to 310 miles on a single charge. While cars with drastically smaller ranges may leave you suffering range anxiety, forcing you to drive in an efficient manner, we found ourselves letting our hair down whenever we could.
310 miles is still considerably less than your average diesel or petrol range, but we can forgive when it costs less than £5 to ‘fill up’ a Model S. A gallon of petrol costs around £6.50 and will get you no way near as far, even if you have something frugal like a 1.0-litre Ford Focus EcoBoost or equivalent.
Only a hybrid like the Chevrolet Volt/Vauxhall Ampera, Volvo S60 Plug-In or BMW i8 come close, but they all rely on fuel. In their defence, the potential maximum range is higher and therefore more suited to long-distance drivers who probably don’t want to spend part of the day waiting for a car to recharge.
The high cost of the Model S means, sadly, it will be years before you see a return unless you put in some serious miles. Some owners may never see a return at all. Still, the lure of paying no London Congestion Charge, Vehicle Excise Duty and never spending a cold winter’s morning on a petrol station forecourt will be tempting enough.
Equipment & Value
The Tesla Model S is well-specced out of the box, especially as the touchscreen is standard. But it’s all too easy to dramatically increase the price you pay with a few choice options. The Supercharger option, which enables you to use Tesla’s network of Superchargers, is free for 85kWh cars or £1,800 for 60kWh cars.
The £3,200 Tech Package adds LED cornering lights, power tailgate, illuminated door handles, automatic keyless entry, onboard navigation with free updates for seven years and power folding, heated door mirrors.
The aforementioned Performance Plus upgrade is an eye-watering £5,500. That, on top of the Model S Performance, means you are on the way to £85,000 including the government plug-in grant of £5,000.
You will need to approach a third-party like Chargemaster if you want a faster way to charge the Model S than using a standard UK plug socket. Fortunately you can get one free or at a relatively low cost.
If that seems ridiculously expensive, bear in mind an Aston Martin Rapide S starts from £150,000 before fuel costs. A BMW i8 is £100,000. Suddenly the Model S seems good value.
There is, of course, an argument the Model S and its expensive batteries will one day need replacing, making second-hand prices uncertain. Currently only in the US does Tesla offer a buyback scheme that matches a comparable Mercedes-Benz.
Fortunately you get an unlimited 8-year battery warranty on the 85kWh or 125,000 miles / eight years on the 60kWh so there is some peace of mind.
The Model S costs £550 to service. It is unclear what a typical Tesla service involves (the company wouldn’t tell us), as there are far fewer moving parts to check. But the cost compares favourably with sporty or luxury cars like an Aston Martin, Bentley or BMW M4.
The Tesla Model S scored the highest ever safety rating in the US. There’s no Euro NCAP star rating to go on yet, but we are sure it will score highly. Six airbags – including two side curtains, head and pelvis – and large crumple zones can only be a good thing.
Concerns over the safety of lithium-ion batteries have been raised, and while there have been fires, these seem isolated incidents that could happen to any fossil fuel car.
As an electric car, the Tesla Model S is unmatched. As a generic car, it is extremely capable. The initial outlay is steep, making it out of the reach of your average eco-warrior, but how many cars can take on an Aston Martin while helping to keep the home of polar bears from melting into the sea?
Yes, the majoroty of electric power in the UK comes from non-renewable sources, but there is always the option of going for a green energy tariff if you struggle to sleep at night. Or you can fit solar panels.
Arguably the fledgling UK electric charging network is the biggest problem, but there are government incentives to get a charger fitted at your home for free and new chargers are being added all the time if you have to venture beyond the Model S’ 310-mile range.
If we were going to cheat on a combustion engine with any car, it would be the Tesla Model S. The interior could be better and we think the touchscreen is overly complicated, but neither bugbear keeps us from loving the car. It has enough range to be practical for most drivers, so it’s a shame only a few can afford even the most basic model.