Tesla Model S review - Engines, performance and drive
Performance is, erm, electrifying... but heavy batteries mean cornering feels disappointingly leaden
It couldn’t be any simpler 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.
The 2021 update moves things on again in the drive towards full autonomy, as the shifter stalk has been deleted altogether and the Model S software decides which direction you want to drive in, although you can override its decision via the touchscreen.
Give the throttle a gentle touch and the car responds instantly. All versions of the Model S have four-wheel drive and have plenty of traction. And when you're taking it easy, all versions can cruise comfortably at motorway speeds.
Yet while the rapid acceleration will make you smile, any spirited driving will eat into your range. With a full charge, Tesla claims a range of around 400 miles for its latest versions, 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.
Car group tests
- New Tesla Model S Long Range 2019 review
- Tesla Model S 75D 2018 review
- Tesla Model S 100D 2017 review
Used car tests
The Model S’s mass means it feels heavy in the bends. The steering is light and doesn’t weight up or offer much feedback, and it also doesn’t grip quite as hard as a Porsche Panamera. Even if you delicately squeeze the accelerator out of corners it triggers the traction control, so it actually limits performance until you’re in a straight line.
You also feel the car’s weight when braking, and despite the regenerative effect from the motors, it doesn’t feel particularly stable. Nor does it yield to tricky surfaces as well as some rivals, thumping over bigger bumps despite its air-suspension. There’s also a lot of road noise.
With no combustion engine to drown out wind and road noise, you hear more on the move, but despite a less sophisticated feel to the way the Tesla rides, it still offers a decent level of comfort.
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. You choose the level of regenerative braking to help top the battery up. In the higher setting you don’t need to use the brake, the effect is so strong. However, one-pedal driving feels natural in traffic, but artificial on twistier roads.
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.
21-inch wheels give the Model S a firm edge on the roughest British roads, but no version is particularly uncomfortable. In fact, the Model S is an accomplished cruiser, with very little road or wind whistle - despite the lack of engine noise. Take it easy and the Tesla is a very relaxing car to drive.
Engines, 0-60 acceleration and top speed
If you’ve not driven an electric car before, then you’ve never experienced the instant power an EV delivers. However, nothing can prepare you for the punch of the Tesla’s electric motors – you’ll be left stunned at the performance on offer - even from the dual-motor Long Range model.
We’re still waiting for information on the battery capacity of the updated models, but Tesla has published typically spectacular acceleration figures with 0-60mph times of as little as 1.99 seconds for the 1,006bhp triple-motor Plaid.
If you’re looking at pre-update models they share a 100kWh battery, with the Long Range variant more than quick enough for any enthusiastic driver, completing 0-60mph in 3.7s. The aptly-named Ludicrous-spec Performance version offers other-worldy levels of acceleration, able to charge to 60mph in 2.3s.The dual motor, all-wheel drive system helps control traction and torque delivery, particularly useful in wet conditions.
This most powerful of the pre-update cars comes with Tesla’s Ludicrous Plus power upgrade, which puts 754bhp to the road through all four wheels. However it’s the torque that takes your breath away. Despite the Model S’s hefty 2,316kg kerbweight, acceleration is rapid, thanks to the 931Nm on offer. However, in order to extract maximum performance, you have to go through a lengthy process of pre-heating the battery pack, which can take up to an hour.
In this review
- 1Tesla Model S reviewThe all-electric Tesla Model S is an impressively competent luxury EV, but new rivals mean it’s got a fight on its hands
- 2Engines, performance and drive - currently readingPerformance is, erm, electrifying... but heavy batteries mean cornering feels disappointingly leaden
- 3Range, charging & running costsMinimal running costs and tax-breaks are appealing, while Tesla's Supercharger points are growing in number
- 4Interior, design and technologyIf you want to feel part of a digital future, the Model S is sure to impress
- 5Practicality, comfort and boot spaceThe Tesla Model S has a futuristic luxury feel that belies an improbably practical interior
- 6Reliability and SafetyTesla offers an eight-year battery warranty for the Model S, while safety levels are first-rate