The days of electric cars being glorified golf buggies are gone. The Tesla Model S has street cred – and plenty more besides.
Tesla is an unknown quantity in Australia. Its owner, Elon Musk, made his fortune with PayPal (a money transfer site) and he now plays with everything from cars and solar panels to rockets and Hyperloop, a conceptual 1000km/h capsule-based transport system. He’s not afraid of pushing boundaries.
The Tesla Model S is a prime example, taking electric and general car ideas to the next level. Companies willing to go out on a limb are very important for the future of motoring, and Tesla has opened all of its patents to accelerate electric vehicle development by other makers.
The Model S range starts with a pair of rear-wheel-drive sedans powered by a 285kW motor. The 60 (it refers to its 60kWh battery pack) is $95,500 and has a rated range of 390km. The 85 ($109,200) has an 85kWh battery pack that increases the rated range to an amazing 502km. For an extra $6400, the 85D (for dual motor) has 140kW motors at each end to give all-wheel-drive and slightly improved performance over the single-motor 85.
Top of the line-up is the P85D – the P is for performance – which is due out later this year for $140,900. It’s set to offer supercar-like performance with its 165kW front motor and 350kW rear motor allowing it to sprint to 100km/h in a claimed 3.4 seconds. These are not the sort of utilitarian electric cars we’re accustomed to.
Our experience with the Model S was in the now-discontinued P85 single-motor performance model. It has a slightly more powerful motor than the regular 85 but was not at the level of the P85D. We did 0-100km/h in 4.7 seconds and 60-100km/h passing tests were dealt with in 2.4 seconds. This is amazing in an electric car and the Model S is one of the highest-performing cars we’ve tested.
The most impressive thing, though, is the lack of drama involved; other cars that accelerate with this level of urgency typically do so with a lot of noise and fanfare. The electric drive simply gets the job done. This is a seamless, linear powertrain, and the instantaneous response is unlike any mainstream car.
The Model S’s drivetrain and batteries are under the cabin. This design keeps the centre of gravity low and improves the handling. Steering down a windy road is excellent and the cornering ability is surprising for a car that’s more than two tonnes.
Our car had 21-inch wheels with 35-profile tyres and optional air suspension. This combination would normally lead to terrible ride quality but this was not so on the majority of roads.
An interesting trick of the adjustable-height air suspension is it remembers where you have selected to raise the ride height and will automatically lift when you return to that location; for example, if you have a particularly steep driveway.
Having the drivetrain and batteries underneath the car makes for a very practical body. There is a large storage area in the front of the car as well as the spacious boot. Occupants front and rear have plenty of space and the seats are comfortable. All up, the cabin has a luxury feel that matches the price-tag. Yet the rear seat has no cup holders or centre arm-rest.
Apart from typical steering wheel controls, and window and mirror controls, most driver functions are handled via a massive 17-inch touch-screen. It’s like using a giant tablet. The contents of the main screen, including energy consumption, radio and navigation, can be repeated in a more basic form on screens either side of the instrument cluster.
Another interesting feature is the lack of a handbrake lever or even an on/off button. The parking brake activates when you select Park, and the motor starts when you push the brake prior to engaging a gear, turning off when you get out. These take some getting used to; it’s like you’ve forgotten something.
The Model S is the first pure electric car we’ve driven where you don’t constantly worry about the battery running flat. But to get a 500km range means a time-consuming charging process. All Tesla buyers get a unit capable of charging at 40 amps – this adds about 50km of range an hour. But many homes are unable to provide this much power and a restricted system will reduce the charge rate. There will soon be a standard 10-amp household-plug charger available but at around 10-15km of range added per hour, this will surely be a last resort.
The 85kWh models can access a Tesla ‘supercharger’ which can provide 270km of range in half an hour. (This function is a $2700 option on the 60kWh car.) Currently there are only two of these chargers in Sydney but Tesla intends to build a charger network between Melbourne and Sydney, enabling drivers to do the trip with stops along the way to fast-charge their car.
At this stage the Tesla buying experience is via an online portal. There is a booth at Chadstone Shopping Centre in Melbourne where potential buyers can look at the options – there are a lot – and be walked through the online ordering system. You’ll then wait about four months for the car to be delivered.
The Model S’s annual service is more of a safety check than any major items. Many technical issues with the car can be handled remotely via the data connection, and Tesla releases software updates to incorporate new features.
Unlike earlier electric cars, the Model S doesn’t feel like a toy or a science experiment but like the sort of car you actually want to drive. It’s probably the first electric vehicle with that inestimable quality: street cred.