Tesla Model S review
The all-electric Tesla Model S is about the size of a BMW 7 Series and offers sportscar performance
The Tesla Model S is a fascinating – if expensive – take on the future of electric motoring, available now to bold early adopters who want their green credentials to get them noticed.
While top models are priced in the same ballpark as the Mercedes S500 Plug-in Hybrid and the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, the all-electric Model S can outperform both in outright acceleration terms – although the Tesla needs to be tethered to a charger while its rivals can simply pop into a filling station.
But if you can live with the Tesla’s range limitations, it’s one of the most rewarding all-electric experiences around – especially if you’re a company car tax payer. And perhaps surprisingly, while it’s loaded with digital technology and has a futuristic feel, the Model S is roomy and practical too.
After establishing itself with the Lotus Elise-based Roadster, Tesla has high hopes for the Model S.
And rightly so; you simply won’t have come across a car like the Tesla Model S before. This all-electric saloon is as quick as a Porsche, as luxurious as a Mercedes and as eco-friendly as a Nissan Leaf.
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It’s roughly the same size as a BMW 7 Series and comes packed full of technology that you’ve probably never seen before in a production car. Take the all-electric powertrain for a start, which – depending on model – has an estimated range of up to 310 miles. Most electric cars claim a range nearer 100 miles.
The futuristic cabin doesn’t have a handbrake or a start button – you just get in, the car detects the key and that you're sat in the driver's seat, and turns itself on. There’s a huge 17-inch touchscreen in the centre console rather than traditional buttons, and you can even get a pair of seats in the boot to make this a seven-seater.
Most pure electric cars on sale in the UK are supermini-sized or smaller, but the new Tesla Model S targets larger models, sitting somewhere between the BMW 5 Series and the 7 Series, or the Mercedes E-Class and the S-Class.
Engines, performance and drive
It couldn’t be any more simple to drive a Model S: there’s no handbrake or starter button, as sensors detect when you're sitting in the car and turn it on. All you have to do is slot the column-mounted, Mercedes-sourced gear selector into drive and move off in silence.
The lack of interaction needed to start the Model S can be a little unnerving at first, but it quickly becomes second-nature.
Give the throttle a gentle touch and the car responds instantly. While rear-drive models will get the traction-control light flickering if you put all of the power to the back wheels, the four-wheel drive 'D' models have plenty of traction. And when you're taking it easy, all models can cruise comfortably at motorway speeds.
Yet while the addictively rapid acceleration will make you smile, any eager driving will eat into your range. With a full charge, Tesla claims the top-spec P85D will cover 300 miles, but whatever your driving style the car’s energy flow data always keeps you fully informed, limiting range anxiety a little.
Aside from blind spots caused by the big A-pillars, the driving position is good, but the wide Tesla is tricky to place on narrow roads. The steering lacks feel in all three of its settings, although the Sport mode adds weight.
In corners, the heavy Tesla feels numb and responds lazily to inputs. But with the 7,000-cell battery incorporated into the floorpan, the mass is low down and the Model S feels stable.
With lots of regenerative braking, you learn to slow down by simply lifting the throttle, but brake-pedal feel is almost as good as on a Porsche Panamera. Plus, with Smart Air Suspension, the Model S rides well and even allows you to vary the ride height. A 'Low' setting is designed to offer the car even better high-speed aerodynamics to maximise the car's range, but it's best left alone around urban speed bumps.
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Optional 21-inch wheels don't harm the ride on anything but the roughest of British roads, but their 20mm wider tyres to contribute a large degree of tyre roar which disturbs the Model S's otherwise serene cabin.
Owners of the performance-minded P85D can enjoy switching the car's acceleration settings from 'Sport' to 'Insane' via the 17-inch touchscreen in the dash.
Buyers can choose the Model S 70, with a 70kWh battery and a single rear-mounted electric motor, or the Model S 85, which has a larger 85kWh battery for greater range. The S 85 does 0-60mph in 5.4 seconds and will hit 140mph, while the S 70 is a tenth of a second slower to 60mph.
Tesla also offers both versions with four-wheel-drive, badged 70D and 85D respectively. The four-by-four system features two electric motors – one at the front, one at the rear. The 70D can accelerate from 0-60mph in 5.2 seconds with a 140mph top speed, while the 85D has a 0-60mph sprint time of 4.4 seconds and a 155mph top speed. Topping the range is the P85D which comes with the twin motor set-up as standard, and which has a claimed 0-60mph time of 2.8 seconds and a 155mph maximum.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
The government's green car grant will knock a further £5,000 off the cost of the Tesla Model S. And as it’s an electric car with zero running emissions, you’ll have no road tax to pay, and it’s exempt from the London Congestion Charge, too.
Company car tax is at the rock-bottom 5 per cent rating that's now levied against electric cars, so tax costs are on a par with a compact hatchback.
Range is probably the biggest anxiety for owners, although Tesla makes reassuring claims about the Model S’s potential to eke out big mileages. We’ve no reason to doubt the figures achieved under test conditions, but keep in mind that if you want to unleash the car’s performance – and trust us, you will – the achievable mileage will drop. The official range figures vary from 260 miles for the Model S 70 to 330 miles for the 85D.
There’s a fascinating table on the Tesla website showing miles of ‘range per charging hour’ available from different types of electrical outlet. The standard domestic plug-equipped charging cable will give you six miles per hour, and the car also comes with a blue three-pin ‘utility plug’ cable that bumps it up to 22 miles per hour. An optional red five-pin plug cable is available from Tesla that offers up to 34 miles per charging hour, but you’ll need an electrician to sort out a 3-phase electric supply, for which the costs will be variable depending on your situation.
To maximise charging efficiency, we'd recommend installing a dedicated wallbox with at least the blue utility (‘commando’) socket, as charging a fully flat Model S from a standard UK mains plug will take more than a day to achieve. Even better is Tesla’s Supercharger network, which will recharge a flat battery to half-full in less than half an hour. The problem is there aren't many Supercharger points in the UK at the moment, although the service is expanding. If you live near one, they're free to use and exclusive to Tesla owners.
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Even without this facility, rough estimates suggest you’ll only spend around £300 a year on charging via the dedicated wallbox.
Whichever version you pick, the Tesla Model S is luxury saloon offering extremely high performance – so you won’t be surprised to hear it has group 50 insurance, a privilege shared with cars such as the Bentley Continental GT and Ferrari F12berlinetta, among others.
Tesla Model S values are a bit of an unknown at the moment, but it’s no secret that ‘lesser’ electric car values take an absolute pasting at resale time.
Tesla reckons it has an ace up its sleeve though, as the car’s software packages are updated every few months - much like a personal computer. According to one company source this means the Model S ‘improves over time instead of depreciating’, but although that’s an appealing assessment we’d rather wait for the market to form its own judgement.
Interior, design and technology
Few cars we’ve driven attract as much attention as the Model S. But it’s the Tesla’s novelty factor and silent running that turn heads rather than its extravagant looks.
Having said that, with a low-slung luxury saloon shape that has a hint of Jaguar XF about it, the Model S isn’t a bad-looking car. Its wide haunches and sweeping roofline combine with optional 21-inch wheels to give it a sporty stance on the road. However, it’s inside that the Tesla’s futuristic wow factor really hits home.
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Walk towards the car with the keyless fob in your pocket and the door handles pop out towards you. Swing open the wide driver’s door and the first thing you’ll notice is the huge 17-inch touchscreen on the dash, and another TFT screen in the instrument cluster.
The rest of the cabin is kept simple, with flowing lines and a minimalist design that’s upmarket but not flashy. Generally, quality is pretty good, but some plastics low down in the cabin are a little cheap and the Model S is certainly not as plush as a Porsche Panamera.
There is some familiar Mercedes switchgear, too, especially the window controls and column-mounted gear selector, but this doesn’t detract from the futuristic appeal.
Kit is generous and options include a full-length sunroof, LED cabin lighting and high-fidelity stereo, although Tesla cheekily charges £200 for a boot load cover.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The main screen is intuitive to use like a tablet, with pressing, swiping and zooming functions, although the size of the screen means the climate controls remain located at the bottom of the screen for easy access.
Once on the move, all the crucial operations can be duplicated via the multifunction wheel, while speed, range and energy flow are displayed in the smart central TFT screen.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
With no engine to find space for, and the batteries and the electric motor mounted low in the car, the Tesla is really practical.
Its sleek hatchback body provides generous accommodation for five, with the option of extra rear-facing child seats in the boot. Its crushing performance, compliant ride and silent-running refinement make it a genuinely satisfying mode of transport.
But in spite of a going far beyond what any other production EV is capable of, the biggest limitations to the Tesla are its range and the lack of charging infrastructure. Tesla is working to combat this, with the proliferation of Supercharger fast-charging centres which are free of charge for Model S owners to use.
Tesla has installed its Superchargers at shopping centres and service stations across the UK, with the largest concentration in the south-east, although in theory you should be able to drive from London to Edinburgh just using its Supercharger network.
The Tesla Model S is 4,978mm long, which makes it a less than 1cm longer than a Porsche Panamera but 27cms shorter than an S-Class Merc.
The Tesla and Porsche both make the S-Class look slim though – mirror to mirror the Tesla is 1,964mm, the Porsche 1,931mm, while the Mercedes is 1,899mm. The Tesla’s 1,435mm roof height splits the other two.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
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In the back, there’s plenty of legroom, you get three ISOFIX mountings and there’s also no transmission tunnel to be climbed over.
You can even have a £2,100 set of rear-facing jump seats in the boot for kids under 10.
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Without the extra jump seats, there’s 894 litres of luggage space in the boot. The back seats fold flat, too, taking load space up to 1,645 litres. There's extra storage in the nose, too, although four-wheel drive D models have a bit less room, thanks to the front-mounted electric motor.
Reliability and Safety
There were a couple of instances of fires in the Model S early in its production, and the company recalled 29,000 charging adaptors as a result. But aside from this initial glitch, the Model S has reportedly been trouble-free.
In spite of its advanced digital technologies and lack of traditional switchgear, on our test we found that everything on the Tesla Model S worked perfectly fine. The non-digital/hardware components feel well fixed together too, and the car certainly feels as though it has been built to last. And while it’s a new company, Tesla is responsible for building a run of 2,600 Toyota RAV4 EVs, as well as working with Mercedes on an electric B-Class – so it has a lot of experience.
One of the things that’ll help make owning the Model S such an adventure is the company’s stated intention to continually update the software installed on the car over its lifetime. Whether this causes any problems over time for owners remains to be seen.
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The Model S performed well in EuroNCAP's crash tests in 2014, where it was awarded five stars with an 82 per cent rating for adult occupant safety, 77 per cent for child occupants and 66 per cent for pedestrian impacts. Its safety assistance package was rated 71 per cent, with the testers highlighting the fact that an autonomous City Braking system was not available at the time of the test.
The battery cells come from Panasonic and, while they’ll lose some charge after 10 years of use, Tesla provides buyers with an eight-year, unlimited-mileage warranty on the battery. It's transferrable between owners too, even if you never service the car.
The rest of the car is covered for a reasonable four years, but with a rather ungenerous 50,000 mileage cap.
A fixed-price servicing plan covers service parts and wearing items such as wipers and brake pads (not tyres). At the time of writing the price is £1,800, which breaks down to £450 per year.