11 things we learned about the Tesla Model S P90D
We've driven the 762bhp Model S with 'Ludicrous' mode. Here's what we found out
You really can drive with your hands off
There is nothing in the British Highway Code that says you have to hold on to the steering wheel at all times – just that you have to be in control of the car at all times. In the US, only the state of New York says you have to keep your hands on the wheel.
Most marques, concerned, I suspect, about litigation, have set up their systems to bleat as soon as you take your hands off the wheel. Not Tesla. Why, I have no idea. No, that’s not strictly true. I don’t know if their radar and cameras are more hi-tech than other marques, but I doubt it, but I do know that giving the car the ability to drive hands-free makes the car seem cleverer and Tesla more cutting edge. And that’s a powerful, potent sentiment and a new car company intent on socking it to the establishment.
And it works, it really does. It’s also currently the only car to be able to change lanes autonomously if you put the indicator on – although to do that you do have to have your hands on the steering wheel.
Anyway, for 14 miles of the M4 motorway at rush hour last Friday evening, I neither touched the steering, nor the pedals. Colleague Tom Harrison did even better – 16 miles. Think this sounds dangerous? The weird thing is when you put your trust in the car to get it right, you find yourself paying more attention simply because you don’t actually believe it can. That may change over time, though.Advertisement - Page continues below
It doesn’t need much encouragement
It likes to drive on Autopilot. Where other systems need a defined white line on either side, the Tesla will have a good stab at tracking along just one line.
And it’s so simple to use – just pull the cruise control lever towards you twice, and as long as the system agrees, you’ll get some blue graphics to tell you it now has control of the steering and speed, and can see lines on the road. The moment it can’t see lines any more, it’ll bong, and give you back control.
This, rather than the 'Ludicrous' speed mode, is the car’s real party piece.
It’s very fast, but not so good at braking
Speaking of which...
Yes, the P90D is ridiculously fast, but the acceleration is so bland, so one-dimensional, that it’s easy to get bored of. The reason for this is simple. There’s no character to it. You’re not involved in the process at all. There’s no noise or drama.
So once you’ve got used to the massive, instant, neck-jarring forces, there’s not much to hold your interest. Actually to be fair, it does take a while to wear off – I’ve never felt anything, anything which reacts faster or more energetically in the first 0.1 of a second. That it weighs over 2.1 tons and snaps forward like that is sensational.
Two things though. E-power is most effective at low speeds – it can’t force the electrical energy through fast enough to maintain acceleration at high speeds. After 70mph it starts to tail off. It was a couple of tenths faster than an Audi RS6 to 60mph, but over half a second slower to 100mph.
And then there’s the brakes. They’re just not strong enough to cope with this weight of car. First big stop they’re OK, second one they start to smell, third one you’re getting brake fade. And 110 metres to stop from 100mph, even on a slightly damp surface, isn’t good.Advertisement - Page continues below
Superchargers are clever
This is a big selling point – buy a Tesla and you get free access to the supercharger network.
It’s simple to use. You just rock up at the location (more on that in a second), unhook the supercharger, press the button on it, which plips open the car’s charge port, plug it in and you’re done. Go and have a coffee.
Which will probably be somewhere quite salubrious. The reason for this is that most of the superchargers we came across seem to be at nice hotels located near key roads or junctions. I assume this is a more cost-effective solution for Tesla than paying to have them installed at motorway services. I’d guess there’s some sort of quid pro quo going: ‘let us put our superchargers here and not only will you look cool and forward thinking, but you’ll get some extra customers through your door’.
OK, so in our experience, the superchargers don’t charge as quickly as Tesla claims, but why should we be surprised about that? Do you get the fuel economy the manufacturer claims from your car? And it’s such a clean, pleasant process. Going back to a diesel-stained fuel station after driving the Tesla for a few days felt dirty.
The full screen sat nav is a joy
The screen is a triumph. And so is the software behind it. It’s fast-acting, responsive, easy to interact with, and, provided the car has signal (it has its own 3G connectivity), the sat nav is a doddle to use.
It’s a Google maps set-up, so you just do an online search, rather than tapping in an endless address, but it's intuitive, and you never get tired of interacting with that giant touchscreen. Pinch to zoom, drag to move it, the functionality is superb.
Of course the catch here is connectivity. In lower singal areas you could tell the map was taking longer to load, but it really wasn’t bad at all. The Model S seems able to pull more signal out of the air than my phone.
It has a boot in the front
You probably already know this, but it’s a good party trick for those who don’t, a reminder of just how well packaged a car can be when you don’t have to force in a conventional drivetrain.
The rear boot is massive, the front, well, it’s more than a token gesture, but if you want genuine forward space you need to go for a non-dual motor Model S. That’s rear-wheel drive only, and without having to package a front electric motor (it weighs about 100kg and is the size of one of those wheelie carry-on bags), you get more volume.
Depending on your domestic situation, two boots may be more valuable to you than rear headroom, which is pretty paltry. A 10 year old won’t complain, a 13 year old almost certainly will. Or you could just wait for a Model X.
There are Easter eggs
This seems to be what they are referred to in the forums. Locked away in the Tesla’s menu systems are a number of little treats for you to discover. These are our three favourites:
1. If you press and hold the 'Ludicrous' button for a few seconds, there’ll be a pause and then the entire screen will give you a Millenium Falcon-style star rush.
2. You can choose to give your car a name. Give it the name 42 (are you with me, Douglas Adams fans?). When you come out of the menu, you’ll see that the name of the car has changed to ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’.
3. Go into the car’s access menu by pressing and holding the T at the top of the screen. When the keyboard pops up, type in ‘007’. Now, when you go to the car’s suspension menu, the picture of your Tesla will have been replaced by James Bond’s underwater Esprit.
If anyone’s got any more they’d care to share, the comments section is at your mercy...Advertisement - Page continues below
The app is very amusing
There’s an app you can download that gives you access to the car – it tells you where it is, how much charge it has in it, etc. It’s very useful actually.
It’s also good for a bit of mischief. You can sound the horn. Flash the lights. Open the sunroof. Turn the heating up. All of which Tom Harrison found happening to him while he was minding his own business at a charge point. Back in the office, prodding at a phone, we found this very amusing.
You can have it as a seven seater
But really, you should wait for the Model X. Seats six and seven are rear facing and in the boot where the view out isn’t special and space is restricted.
If your kids are small you want them in child seats and where you can see them, if they’re larger, you might not want to see them, but you will hear the complaints...Advertisement - Page continues below
It has a very low centre of gravity
This is the chassis. Notice how low everything sits? Over 700kg of batteries are tucked away in there. This is good – having the weight carried low and centrally in the chassis is good for both ride and handling – no flopping about in corners, so you can run softer springs to improve ride without spoiling the handling.
It handles tidily enough, very tidily when you take the weight into account. No steering feel of course, and it’s not what you might call fun to drive – it’s the lack of interaction, of not getting any emotional connection back from the car. However, it rides very well indeed. I reckon Tesla has spent a lot of money on the springs and dampers, and made sure that all noise has been suppressed. It’s not exactly plush, more well controlled, but it really takes the sting out of rough roads. Impressive.
It’s a set-up that suits the car, and you can’t say fairer than that.
It is not the second coming
People are evangelical about Tesla. I can kind of understand that. It’s a bit like the old Apple vs every other tech-giant debate. Tesla treads that same route – it’s cool, it’s clean, it’s fresh, it’s different. I don’t dispute any of this. There are plenty of things that other manufacturers can, and should, learn from Tesla – the integration of technology and making it useable being foremost amongst them. Funny, isn’t that what everyone loves about Apple?
But it’s not revolutionary. Electric cars aren’t new, they’re still a bit awkward to get along with for most of us, the Autopilot mode is the same as others offer, just more tolerant of you letting go every once in a while. It is expensive. That’s another Apple trait.
Tesla’s genius is in repackaging the car in a way that’s appealing to today’s audience and distances it from every other car marque. That’s clever. I really admire it, I really enjoyed driving it. I’d have one in my dream garage. Just not at the expense of something with a proper engine.