Electric Dreams? Our first drive in a Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S EV Performance

As we approached Tesla’s Heathrow store, it occurred to me that this was likely to be a pretty pinnacle moment of my driving life so far. A moment where my perceptions of cars over the last quarter of a century – from pushing a 1/32 scale model of a Dodge Viper across my parents’ carpet until it had almost entirely worn away, through to passing my driving test and blasting my deafening Rover Mini around the neighbourhood until the engine blew up – were going to instantly feel a whole lot more dated and distant, whether I was prepared for it or not.

I didn’t want the electric car revolution to happen as much as you secretly didn’t, either. To me, the howl and feel of a car gives it an identity that is as fundamental as the name I will choose for my first child. The beating heart of a combustion engine brings the car alive, and as man has fettled it to such an incredible level over the past 100 years, it’s become one of engineerings finest art forms.

But as the technological world gets exponentially propelled into an Apple-lead frenzy, it’s getting increasingly difficult to ignore that even the most refined of petrol-powered vehicles are starting to feel slightly left behind. Kids nowadays, conditioned to a ridiculously short attention span thanks to the sheer speed that their electronic devices can work to, will no longer be willing to accept the patient wait for hot air whilst the engine warms up, the minute amount of turbo lag that occurs when you floor it off the lights.

That’s why electric cars are such an important part of the automotive world in 2016. There’s no denying it; they’re on their way, and what better way to deal with it than to check out perhaps the most advanced, fastest version currently on sale? The Tesla Model S has redefined what a car should be, coming out of nowhere to brutally shame its more conventional competitors in almost every single way.

We took a Model S 85 out for a few days to see exactly what it was like for a red-blooded petrolhead to take sample the future. And this is how it affected our senses…

Seeing

“It looks like a Jaguar,” or, “is that the new Ford Mondeo?” are just some of the confused, misguided phrases you can learn to enjoy with Model S ownership. But we think this is exactly what Mr Musk wanted – a car that fits in to our heavily judgmental and disposable society as much as possible.

Cars like the Nissan Leaf have proven that people often don’t want to look like they’re driving around in a fish, just because they’ve opted for an EV. Just because their car is powered in a different way, why do they want to stand out?

One qualm that will rumble red-blooded petrolheads is the gaping hole where the central console should sit. The luxury of not having this gives the driver and passenger far more leg room (and the chance to play footsies, of course…) If this gap leaves you feeling too strange, however, we found the perfect solution to make you feel more at home.

The overall result here, though, is one classy looking super saloon, and we think it’s perfect. The smooth lines of our mid-range 85 model are never too garish, but in person the dimensions are long and swooping, hitting the sweet spot between luxury and sportiness.

Hearing

This is perhaps the strangest part of the sports EV experience. There’s no preparing for the first time you floor it, where your ears begin to get ready for an onslaught of noise energy to smash their drums, but in reality, not much happens.

You just get propelled relentlessly down the road with just a minute whirr and a slightly increased amount of road noise to go with the worryingly substantial hike in pace. And it makes it all the more hilarious and intense for it. It’s absolutely great!

The lack of metallic roaring soundtrack means that conversation is a delight, even if you’re hitting the triple figures in speed. So what else to entertain your ears? Well, Mr Musk has thought of this one, too. Fire up the central screen (so comically far removed from conventional cars in terms of its sheer size that you’ll once again be reduced to fits of giggles as your mind adjusts), and you’ll see that upon purchase of the car, you’ve been treated to your very own subscription to Spotify Premium. And trust us, the lack of engine noise makes the music (our test song: Ice Cube – It Was a Good Day) infinitely more enjoyable. Who needs a V8 burble, anyway?

Feeling

By this stage, we’d all but forgotten our worries of missing the charms of a combustion engine-powered car. The sheer technological advances that have been achieved on the Model S see to that. It’s like being cocooned inside an iPhone. But iPhones can’t go round tracks very well. The final test for the Tesla was upon us: just how did it drive?

Now, let’s get one thing straight: this isn’t the full-blown, P85D or P90D model with Ludicrous mode installed. In fact, although they all look pretty much identical, the Model S model list is a bit of a minefield.

Here, we’ve got the 85. This means an 85kWh engine mounted across the floorplan, powering the rear wheels only (as opposed to the twin-engine, 4WD monsters). We chose the 85 as its affordability should favour more sales than its faster siblings.

With the equivalent of 373bhp at our right foot, it’s not exactly sluggish. 0-60mph is dealt with in 5.4 seconds, in fact, making it at least as fast as the rivals at the same price (around £56k). But it’s the power delivery that is so mesmerising, and so hard to explain in words. A dab of throttle at any speed results in the car flying forward at almost the same rate of acceleration as you prod the pedal with. Laws of gears and fuelling don’t apply here – the throttle is more like a switch to instantly tap into 100% of the car’s power as required.

Things remain fairly promising when it comes to the corners, too. You may have preconceptions about EVs such as this being heavy beasts, and you’d be absolutely right: this car weighs in at a hefty 2.1 tonnes. But as the weight is low and central, and with our car also benefitting from RWD, it’s planted and precise around corners. Give it enough boot and it can be persuaded into a bit of oversteer, but on the whole, it’s surprisingly stable and capable around the bends. Whether or not the sheer mass would be a disadvantage on track is yet to be confirmed (watch this space…)

Tesla Charging

All of this is all very well and good, but there’s still the teeny elephant-in-the-room that is charging the beast that remains to be addressed.

Supplied with every adapter your and access card you could imaging from Tesla when picking up our car, we were confident that a bit of juice was never going to too far away if we started running low. In reality, though, the majority of the home- and public-chargers we encountered were just too damn slow. Opting to leave our car charging in a multi-story overnight, we found that 12 hours later it still hadn’t anywhere near given us our 200+mile full range back. This is not good.

‘There’s always the Superchargers!’ we hear you cry. And it’s true – just as Teslas are a million miles ahead of their rivals, so are its charging facilities. You truly can get the majority of your charge back in the time it takes to eat a Burger King. But this is where our beef (excuse the pun) emerged: the Supercharger network, although ever-expanding, is just not comprehensive enough at present to enjoy as part of most people’s weekly schedules. Although based in the south east, our nearest charger was over 20 miles away, and nowhere near our route to or from work.

Verdict

So, the Tesla Model S.
It blew our minds in every single way, and acted as a great reassurance that the future isn’t actually that bleak for petrolheads, after all. We reckon looking back on a 2016 Honda Civic in a couple of decades could potentially be a bit like us looking back now on a Nokia 3310. The Model S really is that good…

Our advice? Just keep an eye on the charging network, and buy an EV as soon as you feel confident you can make it work for you.

Next stop, Ludicrous mode…

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Sam Preston
With years of car journalism behind him Mr EV Performance may have gone a little crazy, but charge him up and he's good to go!