What is it? Upgraded version of Tesla’s mould-breaking electric luxury saloon
Key features: Fully electric drivetrain, controversial autopilot feature,
Our view: The Tesla Model S, the car that has the automotive industry scared stiff, keeps getting better.
Type of review: First UK drive
Before we even start, let’s make one thing quite clear. The merit of the Tesla Model S will be directly impacted by the availability of rapid charging points in your area. If you have convenient access to the Tesla Supercharger network or other EV charging points, you should be able to cope with owning one of these cars comfortably. If not, this car is never going to be a realistic option for you.
Tesla is keen to shake up the established automotive industry, and it has been very good at getting enormous publicity for a start-up car company which still only produces a relatively small number of vehicles and still runs at an enormous loss.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla amongst his various other interests, has certainly taken the industry by surprise. Conventional wisdom pre-Musk was that fully electric vehicles were not viable for volume sales and wouldn’t be for many years. There were a few production models like the Nissan Leaf, but nothing that the average car buyer would really ever want to own. Premium brands stuck to their beliefs that customers wouldn’t pay premium prices for an electric car.
The Tesla Model S has changed all that. Here is a car which looks good and promises an awful lot, particularly in two of the areas which continue to bother potential buyers – performance and range. It is also aimed squarely at executive car buyers rather than fleet buyers, governments and environmentalists.
Living with an electric vehicle requires a different mindset from living with a petrol or diesel car. Even with Tesla’s much-hyped Superchargers, a full charge takes over an hour. And if you are charging at home on a regular wall socket, it would take more than 24 hours to fully charge a Model S. In reality, you will be looking for opportunities to plug the car in wherever possible to top up the battery, rather than run it down and then charge it back up to full. That means you need access to a network of commercial charging points, which is not too bad if you live in London or other major centres. However, the story is not so good if you live in many other parts of the UK. From my home or office, both in Surrey, the nearest Superchargers were over 30 miles away and in generally the wrong direction from anywhere I ever go. There is still a long way to go before a Tesla (or any other electric vehicle) can match the sheer convenience of a fossil-fuel car.
But if the logistics of battery charging work out for you, the Tesla Model S is a fantastic car. Performance – we drove the 90D model – is superb. It is comfortable and luxurious, has a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP (2014 test regime), and there are a lot of things it does very well indeed.
Interior – it’s all about that screen
The interior party piece is the 17-inch touchscreen, which controls everything from stereo to satnav to (optional) sunroof. It certainly gives the dashboard a striking look, but like all touchscreens, it is much easier to use when stationary than on the move. For example, trying to adjust the sunroof requires selecting a menu and then trying to hit the right spot on the screen for the amount of sun you would like, and it’s difficult to get it right no matter how much you practise.
With no physical buttons or switches to grab, making adjustments to anything on the move is at best a pain and at worst a dangerous distraction. The Tesla Model S does has steering wheel controls which you can use for many functions, but by loading a large number of options into the steering wheel controls, you still end up scrolling through menus to find what you’re looking for. Tesla is certainly not alone in this, but by removing nearly all of the physical buttons and switches from the interior, it has made the controls very user-unfriendly.
Once you have everything set to your liking, the interior is a very comfortable place to be. Latest versions of the Tesla Model S have finally gained a sensible centre console for drinks and storage, addressing one of the main complaints about the original interior. The seats are broad and supportive, and the digital instrument display is excellent. Other than the fiddly touchscreen, the main quibble is that the fit and finish are not at the same level achieved by the likes of Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
The Model S received a minor visual update in 2016, adopting Tesla’s sleek new grille-less corporate face and replacing the original model’s big black ‘koala nose’. It still manages to look fresh and different, and the Model S has always been a car that looks smaller than it really is.
It is a big car, comparable in size – and price – to vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class or CLS, BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 or A7, Jaguar XF or Maserati Ghibli. And while those are all very good cars from very good companies, they are all variations on the same theme compared to the Tesla.
Autopilot is good but not yet great
One of the features our car had and I was keen to try was the optional and controversial Autopilot self-driving system. Tesla stresses that it is a ‘beta’ feature (ie – not yet finished, so don’t blame us if you crash), which is rather a cop-out since they charge you £2,600 for an unfinished system. As its name suggests, Autopilot takes over most of the driving functions from you, although on UK roads it has limited success. It also gives you a fully adaptive cruise control if you don’t want the car to steer itself, and adds autonomous braking and other safety systems.
In motorway situations, Autopilot works very well and would be a great feature to have. But once the roads get less predictable, the self-steering system struggles to cope. And in the UK, the road infrastructure does not match that of the USA and Europe. Autopilot doesn’t like roads without clearly defined lane markings, and during our time it continually tried to veer towards the side of the road unless there was a clearly visible line. It coped better in traffic than on its own, as it could use the other cars to judge its position better.
The adaptive cruise control system, however, is probably the best I have used. Linked to the speed limit recognition programme, it can default to the speed limit at any time with one touch, meaning you don’t have to tap a button or lever constantly to set the speed.
Tesla Model S pricing
It’s certainly not cheap. Our car had the Autopilot system and panoramic sunroof options, and the on-road price was £83,680. The government will give you £4,500 towards that, but you are still paying just under £80,000 for a Model S 90D. But Tesla knows that the luxury saloon market is about aspirations, and the high costs of electric motors and batteries is less of an issue than it is at the more budget end of the market.
Of course, you won’t have to pay for petrol or diesel ever again, but the cost of charging will very much depend on your circumstances. If you have access to a Supercharger, Tesla promises that you can charge your car there for free, forever. If you use public charge points, you will have to pay whatever the going rate is. If you are charging at home, it will be painfully slow and the cost will depend on your home electricity tariff.
There have been several reports of quality and reliability issues from Model S owners, although most have also been quick to point out that the manufacturer has gone to great lengths to look after their customers when things have gone wrong.
Overall, the Tesla Model S is a fascinating glimpse of future-tech that is here now. Most of it is very good, some of it is interesting but no great leap forward, and some of it we are just going to have to get used to, since all the kids these days seem to want bloody touchscreens.
Tesla has shown us how the tech industry of Silicon Valley views the future of the car, and both Google and Apple are investing heavily in autonomous car technology. If all American cars were as good as the Tesla Model S, the US car industry would be in a much stronger state.