Rory Reid drives the Tesla Model X in New York
Rory goes for a spin in NYC in Tesla's mind-warping SUV
It’s a warm spring afternoon in Times Square, New York. Leaning through the window of my car is a heavily armed New York City police officer, barking as to why in the four-letter-word I’ve driven onto one of the world’s most famous intersections and opened the Falcon Wing doors of my new Tesla Model X.
One reason is my photographer, positioned across the street, thought it would be a good idea to cause a stir. And it has. Pedestrians are swarming around the car, faces beaming, cameraphones flashing and the cop – quite rightly – is reading me the riot act. “Why do you look so nervous?!” he barks. “You got something to hide?” I manage only a series of “umms” before we’re joined by yet more heavily armed police. Headlines about a Top Gear-related diplomatic incident flash before my eyes, before one officer, mercifully, defuses the situation.
“Those doors are awesome, man! What is that?"
Photography: Anton Watts
This feature was originally published in issue 283 of Top Gear magazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
Another joins him: “That thing is incredible! Make ’em go up and down!” I oblige and, before long, all but the original officer are asking me how fast it goes, when it’s out or how much it costs. All are oblivious to a mob that’s growing as quickly as the traffic behind me.
Eventually, I’m allowed to leave. I find a quiet side street, contemplate my brush with the law and vow to keep a lower profile. I fail. Another crowd gathers, most reaching for any photographic device they can muster. A school bus driver leans his entire upper body out of the window to get a closer look. A man pulls out a phone and appears to start live vlogging the car’s every detail. Larry David, of Seinfeld fame, appears from nowhere with a beautiful brunette and says: “Now that’s my kind of car."
I have to leave the city, I think to myself. I’ll get no driving done here – not with the traffic, and certainly not with half of Manhattan clamouring like zombies to get a better look at the Model X. I head north towards Sleepy Hollow and some less crowded roads where I can spend some quality time with the thing.
On the move through quieter streets, the Model X is a bubble of serenity. I expect it to crash about on its huge 22-inch alloys, but it glides beautifully, its air suspension ironing out giant potholes, its two electric motors (one on each axle) whirring almost imperceptibly beneath me. I pull the cruise-control stalk twice to engage autopilot, and the car takes over, driving entirely by itself. My hands hover near the wheel, but my trepidation is misplaced. It feels like the future.Advertisement - Page continues below
The Model X’s interior is like nothing else on the market. The cabin is light and airy with a windscreen that curves upwards, finishing directly above my head, rather than just ahead of it. The model I’m in has six seats in a 2+2+2 configuration, though a third seat can be added to the middle row. Each pew, even those in the back, are comfortable and spacious enough for an adult.
Up front, Tesla’s familiar 17-inch touchscreen dominates the cabin, like an iPad on growth hormones. I flick through the fiddly menu and discover a bioweapon defence mode that filters out everything from pollen to the plague. I connect my phone to the fancy dock in the centre console, crank the volume on the hugely impressive stereo and switch off the satnav, which is rubbish.
Eventually, I arrive at Warwick Municipal Airport. A group calling themselves the Form:Function crew are loitering at the start of the facility’s only runway with their collection of modified RX-7s, Civics, Imprezas and the like, all itching to burn rubber. They greet the Model X with looks of disdain or confusion, I can’t quite tell, but I know they’re not particularly impressed.
“You brought your groceries here in that thing?” one asks. “Hey, if you’re low on battery, just connect your iPhone,” another quips. That’s when I hit them with the same trick I used in Times Square. The Falcon Wing doors glide up, their faces contort in suppressed awe and opposition turns to acceptance. It might be a family SUV, but dammit... those doors.
Soon, they’re urging me to blast down the runway. It would be rude not to. I initiate the process to precondition the battery for maximum energy release, and the Model X sits there whirring. The weather is warm, so it reaches optimum temperature for maximum performance in less than five minutes.
Once I’m on the start line, I activate the Model X’s secret weapon: Ludicrous mode. In this setting, the X has access to a whopping 762bhp – 503bhp from the motor on the rear axle, and another 259bhp from the unit bolted to the front.
Next, I engage launch control. This is a matter of stomping and holding the brake with my left foot, stomping and releasing the accelerator and waiting for confirmation on the instrument binnacle. Once that’s in place, I floor the accelerator again and the car jerks slightly, straining against the brakes, ready for a burst of electrons to set it free.
I release the brake, keep the throttle mashed and the world becomes a blur. My head snaps back and the X spears at the horizon with the savagery you’d expect from a hypercar. I feel as if I’m being sucked out of a plane at 30,000 feet.Advertisement - Page continues below
Driving it fast isn’t especially hard; there are no gear changes in the Model X, no wheelspin, no torque steer. But there is torque. Savage, merciless torque. Halfway down the runway, the acceleration relents enough for me to draw breath, and I cross the line, astonished at what I’ve just experienced; 0–60mph in 3.2 seconds and a quarter-mile in 11.7. In something the size of a van.
The Model X isn’t even operating at peak power. The drive to the airport has sapped battery reserves to below 70 per cent, at which point its 0–60 and quarter-mile times increase by as much as half a second, I’m told.
I cruise back to the start, Falcon Wing doors open. I can see the crew are impressed. They know fast when they see it.
As evening descends, I head towards the city via Bear Mountain – to see how the Model X copes with corners.
I’m disappointed to find there are no bears here, nor is it anything resembling a mountain, but it does have some phenomenal roads: beautiful, sprawling stretches of asphalt that hug glassy lakes before spiralling through forests.
I decide to take things easy at first, fully expecting the Model X to handle like a lorry, but I discover it’s no barge. The majority of its weight is located below the floor in that hefty 90kWh battery pack, so body roll is minimal.Advertisement - Page continues below
The assured body control and relentless torque soon lull me into a false sense of security, and I make the mistake of entering a downhill left-hander a tad too enthusiastically. It understeers alarmingly, tyres protesting but I - well, the Model X - hangs on. The stability control systems have kicked in, rather intrusively I think. I fiddle around for a button to switch off the electronic aids, but there isn’t one. There will be no sliding here.
I soon learn to drive within the limits of the car while still having fun. There’s little feedback from the steering, but it’s easy to detect when things start going awry. Because the Model X doesn’t have an engine drowning out other noises, that tyre screeching is very noticeable. It becomes your ally, audibly communicating a loss of traction. I sense just how much grip is available with a combination of my bum and my ears, before launching down straights with the gayest of abandon; slow in, ludicrous out.
Darkness falls and I soon realise I haven’t been taking note of the range; the gauge reads 90 miles remaining, and I have 60 to drive. I’ll make that easily, even with a hefty motorway stretch and abysmal New York traffic, but I take things easy regardless. I re-engage Autopilot, sit back and let the Tesla’s electronic brain figure out the journey while my grey matter tries to make sense of the day.
The Model X has been a revelation. It might not look like much in some pictures, but it commands attention in a way few supercars can. That attention is universally positive, too. There are no bitter looks of envy, no hostility, nobody pretending not to look because they don’t want to give you the satisfaction of their attention. People love this thing.
It’s not perfect, of course. The rear Falcon Wing doors are just slow enough to look cool – as if they’re unfurling in slow motion, but also just slow enough to be annoying.
The front doors, meanwhile, throw themselves open automatically as you approach, so they’ll smash themselves into bollards, walls, cyclists or other cars if you make the mistake of approaching the Model X at the wrong time.
The rearmost seats, meanwhile, fold down, but it took me several hours to find the button to do so. I won’t bother telling you where they are, I’m too angry. Tesla – please tell me; why have you made front doors that open automatically, but made it so difficult to make the boot bigger?
The biggest drawback to owning a Model X is, of course, the fact that electric vehicle charging infrastructure is still far from perfect, despite Tesla’s best efforts. The range is fine – it’ll drive for near 300 miles, squeeze in a track hoon, some B-road blasts and still make it back. But away from home, finding a convenient power outlet can be tricky.
Things will change for the better, of course, especially as cars like this are a great advert for the technology. The X is desirable not because it’s efficient, or because it’s cheap to run, or because it’s good for the environment, but because it’s cool. If the people of New York are any reflection on the rest of the planet, this thing is going to go down a storm, and will deservedly change attitudes to electric vehicles.
Sure, there are cars that are fast, or green, or packed with tech, but how many of them squeeze all those things into one, Falcon Wing door-toting, muscle car-baiting, self-driving package?
Away from the looming threat of his firearm, I now have a proper answer for that officer in Times Square. I drove that Model X onto the intersection because I wanted to give the people a glimpse of something exciting; a glimpse of their future.