Tesla Model S review
The all-electric Tesla Model S is about the size of a BMW 7 Series and offers sportscar performance
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 a range of 311 miles. Most electric cars struggle to hit 100.
The futuristic cabin doesn’t have a handbrake or a start button – you just get in and go. 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 between a 60kWh battery with a 208-mile range or the larger 85kWh battery with the full 311 miles. There’s also an 85kWh Performance model, which drops the 0-60mph time from 5.4 to 4.2 seconds.
Most pure electric cars on sale in the UK right now 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 . So can an EV be a luxurious, desirable and good-to-drive executive car?
Our choice: Model S P85+
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 generic 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 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 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, and another TFT screen in the instrument cluster. The main screen has an intuitive tablet-style pressing, swiping and zooming operation, but keeps the heater section loaded at the bottom for ease of use.
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, but this doesn’t detract from the futuristic appeal. Kit is generous and our car featured the optional full-length sunroof, LED cabin lights and high-fidelity stereo, although Tesla cheekily charges £200 for a boot load cover.
It couldn’t be any more simple: there’s no handbrake to release and no start button to push. Sensors in the seat take care of all that, so all you have to do is slot the Mercedes-borrowed 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 a highly convenient second-nature response.
But give the throttle a gentle touch and the Model S responds instantly. Get too eager and the traction control kicks in immediately to help the rear tyres place all that instant torque on the road. But even in wet conditions, the Tesla whirs its way to 60mph in just 4.6 seconds and cruises 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 85Kw Model S will cover 310 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, while the optional Performance Plus pack’s stiffer anti-roll bar ensures body control is decent.
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.
There have been a few high-profile instances of fires in the Model S, and the company has recently recalled 29,000 charging adaptors.
But 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 (which owns a 10 per cent stake in Tesla) 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. And the Model S has performed very well in US crash tests.
With no engine, and the batteries and 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 – 150 litres of it in the nose where the engine would be. The back seats fold flat, too, taking load space up to 1,645 litres.
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 will cover the south of England with these units by late 2014 and the whole of the UK by 2015.
The Government green car grant will knock a further £5,000 off the cost of the Tesla Model S. As it’s an electric car, you’ll have no road tax to pay, and it’s exempt from the London Congestion Charge, too.
There’s no company car tax for fleet buyers and your employer will also be able to write off 100 per cent of the car’s value against tax in the first year.
To maximise charging, you’ll have to tick the Dual Chargers option box, but the P85+ spec is set to use Tesla’s UK Supercharger network, which will let you charge up for free.
Even without it, 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.