Updated: December 25, 2016
Having well-off friends is always a bonus. Because when they buy a nice new car, and they wanna show off, if you're in their grace, you get invited for a spin. The minus side is having friends in the UK, because driving on the wrong side of the road, on a rather bad infrastructure, is never great fun. The plus side is, again, having friends who had just bought a Tesla. That beckons some testing, what.
Indeed, my friend, who shall remain unnamed, although he didn't mind me disclosing that Philip is his real name, confessed having had much more attention since buying the Model S than ever before in his life. He had become a celebrity, or rather, his car had. Nary a day passeth without someone begging for a ride, a photo or both. 'Tis my turn now. Follow me on the electron trail, if you will.
The story, the car, and two smoking electric motors
Before we delve into the specifications, let's elaborate some more on what me friend did. So, he decided to buy himself a new car. Driving roughly 150 km a day, he figured having a lower fuel bill could be a bonus. Then he thought doing that with style might be the way to go. Rather than continue the conventional way of frugal yet powerful top-end diesels, he decided to sample from the forbidden fruit of electric-only cars.
Tesla Model S 70D was his choice. And frankly, 'tis a good choice. Electric cars are usually boring, because they are designed to maximize their already limited range and make them into a somewhat useful alternative to fossil fuel cars. Most electric-only products are intended for short commutes inside cities, with performance and good looks as secondary considerations. Being able to survive for a few days on a charge without having to plug it into a socket is the prime directive, and it comes at the expense of everything else.
Electric cars are tricky. They only offer about one third of a range of a typical petrol, refueling takes ages if not longer, and the base price, even with ample and liberal government concessions, is often much higher than the combined TCO for conventional vehicles over a typical period of 4-5 years. This is one of the reasons why there are so few electric cars available, as they are expensive to produce, the batteries are costly, and it is very difficult to compete against 100 years of a well-established global industry.
Most manufacturers prefer to go the hybrid way, but again, hybrid cars aren't really exciting or practical, with a few odd exceptions. The manic and illogical focus on lowered consumption and emissions comes with a severe sacrifice of performance, utterly killing the joy of driving, and making hybrid cars viable only for those who don't really care much about the fun side of physics.
Tesla decided to shatter all boundaries, and came out with a range of extremely good and sporty looking cars, mated to powerful, sporty (electric) motors, and offering decent, almost-normal ranges on their battery pack. Throw fast battery replacement and decent availability of charging stations into the equation, and Tesla started making headlines with its hi-tech hi-fun approach.
Model S was the flagship, offering luxury, technology, hype, and bonkers speed to its owners. Philip is one of them folks what got sold onto this premise, and he cashed some GBP60,000 to own the base 70D model plus some accessories. This is his story, and it's my story too, because I got to snap some photos and enjoy some electric-only acceleration.
While Philip is not busy taking random strangers for a spin, answering silly questions from car enthusiasts genuinely interested in his extravagant escapade, taking pictures of his unconventional ride, and actually working, he enjoys a powerful platform with two electric motors, to and fro. Each unit develops 259 HP, but the combined output, limited by the motor shaft power, is 328 HP. The torque figure is 525 Nm - delivered from 0 rpm in a very electric fashion to all four wheels.
This is good enough to propel the 5-meter long, 2-meter wide and 2100-kg heavy car to 100 km/h from standstill in 5.4 seconds. Top speed is 230 km/h. In comparison, the most luxurious P90D model generates almost 1000 Nm of torque and can complete the 0-100 dash in just 3.1 seconds - 2.8 seconds for the 0-60 mph spring. But the price changes accordingly. Let us not go there. Range wise, the battery pack offers about 440 km under ideal conditions and a very low 70 km/h driving speed.
Model 70D comes with a generous standard equipment. My friend - if I can trust his word - added premium interior and light and some other expensive gadgets, ramping the price of about GBP52,000 up to GBP60,000. To wit, his car comes with panoramic sunroof, electric folding mirrors, 19-inch alloys and 245/45 tires, auto Xenons and LED DRL and tail lights, auto wipers, heated seats with memory, leather and micro-fiber interior, a supersized 17-inch central console touch system that governs pretty much everything, the likes of dual-zone climate control, DAB, navigation with seven years of free updates, and other cool details.
Indeed, this brain is quite impressive. Make no mistake, it's a computer, it's a laptop, and it's positioned vertically in the center of your dashboard, and it can do everything and anything. Among its numerous functions, the unit will receive firmware updates over the Internet when appropriate, and you can even use a smartphone app to check and control your car remotely. Then, you can set up driver profiles, and tune suspension and steering wheel response. We will elaborate some more in a jiffy.
Back to the equipment, the list continues with seven 200 Watt speakers, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Internet, TPS, keyless entry, adaptive cruise control, voice control, reversing camera, parking sensors, two USB ports, six airbags, ISO fix attachments, four years or 80,000 km warranty for the car and eight years of warranty for the battery and drivetrain, without any km limitation. On the safety side, you also get a five-star NCAP rating, front/side collision avoidance, blind spot warning, lane departure warning, and emergency braking.
The list of optional accessories is also quite interesting. Since Model S is one giant smartphone on wheels, and Tesla is quite keen on promoting its technology, it comes as no surprise that it offers something rather cool and wizard-like called Autopilot, an early version of a full autonomous vehicle system. This is showcasing the future, demonstrating what the platform can do, and trailblazing a trend, one of many that the company has been setting recently. I don't know if all and every car will get Autopilot as a default. The currently enabled set covers automatic steering and parallel parking.
I did not have the opportunity to test Autopilot. At the moment, and this may change, Philips's car only has the standard navigation and traffic aware cruise control, as far as I can tell. His car would alert on side angle obstacles and proximity to the kerb based on GPS and active sensors.
The options list continues with premium interior and lighting - Nappa leather, Alcantara, accent lighting, power gate at the back, and a few other details; smart air suspension; hi-fi sounds that is entirely wasted on someone like me; cold-weather package aptly YOLO-named Subzero Weather Package; rear-facing sporty-looking third-row seats; rear buckets, which Philip also added, and some other extras. Well, that was long. Let's move on to the next section.
The Model S is a fairly pretty car. The front end is slightly less aggressive, but the side and the rear view have a definite sporty streak. The aerodynamic design belies its size, with a handsome stretch of 5 meters, equivalent to Opel Insignia estate or perhaps the BMW 5 series, and it's 2 meters wide, on par with most mid-sized executives. However, at a first glance, it looks much smaller and chunkier. The big difference is on the inside, because there is no need for a bulky engine, transmission and drivetrain, and the cabin can be expanded, especially at the front. That's for later, though.
The styling is very modern, if not totally unique. In my mind, there's a lot of similarity to Maseratti cars, and if you squint, you can probably see a Porsche Panamera and a pinch of the new Ford Mondeo. The model comes with a lot of interesting detail, like the retracting door handles, disco LEDs at the front, and other modern, sleek elements that make it extremely visually appealing.
Regardless of how you feel about Tesla's mission, Model S is a distinct work of automotive engineering, and it will draw glances and smiles and questions your way. The combination of its special techno allure and the undeniable good aesthetics will guarantee the kind of attention normally reserved for cars upward of the 100K mark, no matter what currency. Me likes.
Tesla Model S is an American car. And so, it's big! Well, yes and no. Technically, it is not huge for the sake of it, but there's an undeniable presence about the car, in and out. A very sleek shape helps create the necessary illusion on the outside, whereas the lack of internal combustion machinery allows for the expansion of the cabin. The battery array underfloor does introduce its space penalty. On the other hand, the platform bed is perfectly flat, allowing for a more ergonomic placement of the front and rear seats.
The front bay holds 150 liters of stuff. In the back, you get a massive 745 liters, including a false bottom with still more space for your travel accessories. The wheelbase stands roughly 4 cm short of full 3 meters. If we compare to the earlier mentioned BMW 5-series, we get the same length and wheelbase, but the latter only has 520 liters of luggage capacity, and only at the back. More importantly though, despite the actual technical specifications, Model S feels larger than most other cars, possibly because of how it's designed.
The size, though, is only one part of the equation. Tesla Model S comes with a very friendly and comfy interior, even when the steering wheel is placed on the wrong side. A combination of sporty and luxurious, with leather, Alcantara, and soft materials everywhere. The build quality is good. Nothing squeaks or rattles. The dash has a simple, modern look, with clean lines and few details. Perhaps that's one downside, in that all the focus goes into the 17-inch screen, robbing the rest of the driver's area of attention. You do want some buttonage here and there, especially for the aircon and such, because you do want to be able to do things HOTAS style. In other words, be able not to have to take your eyes off the road, and that means analogue commands. Automatic safety features can help the dilemma, but digital inputs still remain tricky.
The buckets are snug and supportive, and uncharacteristically aggressive for a posh car. The driving position is excellent, with everything within easy reach. I'd dare say the Model S has a rather non-American work area, and it caters well to European drivers and technophilles. There's perhaps a little less excitement than you get in a typical Merc or Audi.
The 17-inch Skynet is the dominant piece of the cabin. Not only can you not ignore it, it also governs pretty much everything. The amount of options is staggering, and it takes a long while tweaking and figuring out everything. However, the product is realized well, with a simple and intuitive design. You get a high level of freedom when it comes to both basic and advanced driving functions, and you can fine-tune things like calendar entries or steering wheel response. However, some features are just mental. You even get a browser, and you can use it while driving. That is proper insane.
The huge touch screen equity can actually be distracting, and while you can set day and night modes, it is still there, present and visible in the corner of your eye. Touch also mandates eye contact. The navigation system uses Google Maps with real-time updates, and in my humble opinion, it is not the best choice. HERE Maps will always be a superior software. Overall, the responsiveness is decent, but nothing stellar. In this regard, some rival systems manage a more streamlined experience with smaller but also less-detailed, less-complex displays.
The system isn't without fault. Philip reported having to hard boot it twice or three times, once after an actual software update, due to various glitches and not being able to refresh the maps. You cannot turn the display if you're unhappy with its overzealous informatics, and even though it worked pretty well, you will never really quite manage tactile memory the same way you can with real, physical radio and climate systems.
This is the really fascinating bit. Apart from go-carts and bumper cars, I never had the privilege of being transported in an all-electric vehicle. And the thing is, the feeling is the same, magnified a hundred times. You have that instant, flip-of-a-switch acceleration, and it feels like it's coming from somewhere outside the car, as if a magnet is pulling it forward with a steady, linear and somewhat nauseating sensation.
With so much power and torque, delivered instantly, the pedal-down moments are fascinating. You must focus on the road ahead or you will get sick. I never get sick in the car, ever, and yet, the Model S made me dizzy by how it moves in the straight line. The lack of progressive engine noise makes it all the more disturbing, in a good, magical sort of way.
On paper, five and a bit seconds is five and a bit seconds. And yes, in the BMW 330d, when you floor it, you do get a solid kick in your back, followed by some short, honest spaceship grunt and forward movement. In the Tesla, you don't really know what's happening, and you must consult the dash. Therefore, the 0-100 km/h dash feels both faster and yet slower than it really is. The initial binary savagery movement from standstill is mindboggling. The linear acceleration in the ensuring few moments is great fun but less breathtaking, because you don't have the drama of thunder and cogs like in a normal car. The soft whirl of the eclectic motor sounds the same when you go 10 km/h and 150 km/h.
On the road, Tesla is a nimble and precise, very non-American car. It drives sharply, and with the suspension and/or steering firmed up, it delivers good response from the road. The size and mass are evident. You cannot ignore them, and you feel the bulk of metal around you. Unlike sporty petrols and diesels, it does not have that shrinking sensation when you tune the car for performance. However, 70D handled inertia well, with good grip under its wide tires, each scrabbling with dollops of instant torque.
If you ignore the acceleration, you are left with a luxurious, spacious car that swallows road deformities well and glides with elegance over tarmac. Perhaps too much elegance, because you do want more analogue feedback, even if it's just aural. Technically, an experienced driver will always know the speed and the gear they are driving in a conventional car. You don't get these in the Tesla, even though it sweeps through the corners with good balance and accuracy. The brakes are also quite good, and you feel confident with the two odd tonnes of weight.
As always, the UK road infrastructure comes with its sad challenges, and Tesla has the same problem like any large car. The lanes are narrow and badly maintained, which is why the active sensors really help gage the margins, especially when driving on roads without hard shoulder. In the passenger seat, I was rather uncomfortable with town maneuvers.
And the fuel cost?
This is the big question. Because if you're not into pioneering technology, then the reasoning for buying a Tesla is probably eco-financial. In that regard, even with a bunch of gov-green discounts, Model S 70D still comes about GBP15K more expensive than a typical medium-size top-end exec. So what's the offset?
With electricity costs roughly half the diesel price - and this is based on my friend's actual cost calculations - a driver commuting a handsome 200 km a day would probably save roughly GBP7.00 on their daily trip under ideal conditions. This translates into something like GBP2K per year, if we include occasional holidays and such. In other words, within seven years, you can recuperate the cost of the car, much sooner if you diligently spend 40 minutes at one of the Tesla charging stations more or less once a day or at least twice every three days.
However, most people probably won't replace their Tesla every seven years or drive 200 km every day, assuming their diesels burn through 7 liters of fuel, which sounds like an expected figure for a medium three-liter diesel car. At half this kilometrage, the annual savings drop to about 1,000 pounds with home overnight charging. Again, you can still recover the premium within roughly seven years, if you invest some 5,000 hours of your time at the charging stations, which are still far and few in between in most countries except maybe the USA. Then, time is money, so even if you earn as little as 2 pounds per hour, you could easily regain the money lost of buying a Tesla just by not buying it, and/or investing the time in using your household grid. But in that case, the electricity bill goes up, and you will equalize the price difference in only about 15 years.
This means that whoever buys a premium electric today is not making a sound financial investment. Which is absolutely fine, because cars are also meant to be enjoyed, and the Model S is a hoot. It's fun to drive, the speed gains are eye-popping, and you get the flair, the drama, the prestige, the attention, and a heavy dose of quality and style. That has a price of its own, and it cannot always be measured in the figures on a sheet of paper.
In fact, if you're planning on buying a Tesla, doing any kind of fuel calculations is the wrong thing to do. You should treat the Model S as a modern, posh, hi-tech premium, and you're paying for all that extra glamor, even if it's completely unjustified, because you want to enjoy something new and unique. And that's the best way to look at it. Then, any kind of savings you can make compared to your previous bills is a bonus rather than an offset of the original price hike. This way you can ensure maximum enjoyment.
Lastly, the range. If you consult the website, and use its wheel size, temperature, AC on/off, and speed figures, 70D can manage about 350 km at 110 km/h speed. In reality, this is something like 300 km, which is less than half a typical diesel. This introduces its own restrictions, as you need to plan your journey carefully, and if you need to go somewhere far, this might not actually be doable. You never have those worries with an ordinary fossil-drinker, so there's that, too.
Our owner reported mostly problems with the computer and its quirks. Then, the fact you can't turn the display off is also annoying. The gear lever is actually a stalk on the right side of the steering wheel, and it's not a fun place to put gear levers. It feels a little too much 70s linoleum-faux-wood-plated station wagon. Other than that, the Model S was behaving nicely.
Let me begin by saying I'm a Tesla shareholder. There. Now you can ignore me. Or perhaps listen. Overall, Tesla Model S 70D is a really good piece of automotive machinery. For me, the driving experience is the most important element, and it delivers beautifully, with a great sense of speed and precision. The all-electric shenanigans take time getting used to, and the straight-line dashes are brain-mashing. You won't get this kind of g forces unless you go supercar.
That, however, does not preclude the Model S from being pretty, spacious, luxurious, and practical, with all the necessary trimming for modern, trendy, upmarket lifestyle. The interior is pleasant and finely designed, and the only downside is the overbearing 17-inch screen with its too-smartphony abilities. They take away from the core function of the car - driving, preferably safely. The price is high, but then, you can't really argue emotions against dry figures. And then, when you compare 70D to the butt-ugly electron-boxes out there, you know it's a rather special thing. So yes, it's not perfect, but it's a fairly well realized, amazingly so for something that's only now becoming a viable reality and alternative to conventional cars. Overtime, new models will eventually become more affordable, as expected for any young technology - remember the price of a CD-ROM player in 1993 - and hopefully, the brain power will become even more intelligent, responsive, and road-focused.
I can't advise you on the green thingie and money saving. Honestly, I do not care about that. If you really want to go green, do not procreate and buy a tiny, tiny car with the smallest diesel you can find. Do not try to argue the cost of electricity, charging times and such. That's a killjoy. Driving isn't meant to be utilitarian, administrative boredom. If that's your goal, don't buy a Tesla. If you want to make yourself dizzy flooring it, or drive a one-of-a-kind luxurious techno-mobil, this might be your kick. 9/10 for 70D. No idea what the bonkerous top models deliver. Perhaps even more thrill and nausea? Hopefully, we shall see one day. Actually, I did enjoy P90D in the Ludicrous mode, and it tore my neck off. Seriously, I cramped my bloody neck. So there's that question answered. And we're done.