Tesla Model S review

Our Rating: 
2013 model
By Auto Express Test TeamComments

The all-electric Tesla Model S is about the size of a BMW 7 Series and offers sportscar performance

Impressive range, relaxing drive, great acceleration
Limited charge infrastructure, no cheap models, handling could be sharper

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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

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.

Buyers can choose the four-wheel drive Model S 70D, with a 70kWh battery and two electric motors, giving a claimed range of 275-mile range, or there's the rear-drive Model S 85, which has a larger 85kWh battery which gives 310 miles of range. Tesla also offers the 85D which features two electric motors – one at the front, one at the rear – which has a 0-60mph sprint time of 4.4 seconds, a 155mph top speed and a range of 310 miles. Topping the range is the P85D, which has a claimed 0-60mph time of 3.2 seconds!

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 or Mercedes E-Class and the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S-Class.

Our choice: Model S 85D

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 sat 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 car can be a little unnerving at first, but it quickly becomes second-nature.

Give the throttle a gentle touch, and the Model S 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. Even the entry-level 70D can accelerate from 0-60mph in 5.2 seconds, while the high-performance P85D is as fast as a super car, with a 0-60mph time of 3.1 seconds. And when you're taking it easy, all models can cruise comfortably at motorway speeds.

Yet while enjoying the addictively rapid acceleration will make you smile, eager driving eats into your range. With a full charge, Tesla claims the top-spec P85D will cover 300 miles. Meanwhile, 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.

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 tounchscreen in the dash.

MPG, CO2 and running costs


The Government green car grant will knock a further £5,000 off the cost of the Tesla Model S. And as it’s an electric car, 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.

To maximise charging, we'd recommend installing a dedicated wallbox, as charging a fully flat Model S from a standard UK mains plug will take more than a day to do. Even better is Tesla’s Supercharger network, which will reacharge a flat battery to half full in less than half an hour. There aren't many Supercharger points in the UK at the moment, although the service is expanding, but if you live near one, they're free to use and exclusive to Tesla owners.

Even without this facility, rough estimates suggest you’ll only spend around £300 a year on charging, and fixed-price servicing makes it easy to budget for maintenance. But residual values are a bit of an unknown at the moment.

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.

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 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.

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’s some familiar Mercedes switches, too, especially the window switches 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.

Practicality, comfort and boot space


With no engine, and the batteries and the electric motor mounted low in the chassis, the Tesla is really practical.

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. Without them, there’s 894 litres of luggage space. 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.

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 proliferaton 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 serivce 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.

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.

We found that the Tesla Model S works perfectly fine, and feels like 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.

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, while the rest of the car is covered for four years and 50,000 miles. It's transferrable between owners too, even if you never service the car. And the Model S has performed very well in US crash tests.

Last updated: 27 Feb, 2015