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First Drive

Tesla Model S Plaid review: the best electric powertrain in the world

Published: 05 Sep 2023

Wait, haven’t you driven this already?

We have, although the Tesla Model S Plaid that Tom Ford drove at Paul Ricard earlier this year was a Track Package version, kitted out with £16k’s worth of carbon-ceramic brakes, lightweight, forged aluminium wheels and Goodyear Supercar 3R tyres. This one has none of those things.

Not that you’ll feel short-changed, of course: the normal Model S Plaid gets Tesla’s tri-motor set-up (421bhp on the front axle, two doses of 414bhp at the rear) for an absurd 1,020bhp. Torque is 1,050lb ft, almost double that of a Ferrari 296 GTB. 0-60mph falls just under two seconds if you subtract the first foot of rollout; just over if you don’t.

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Good heavens! What’s it like having 1,020bhp under your big toe?

It’s a rush. You access maximum beans by swiping over into Plaid mode via the touchscreen, although there’s no fanfare, no warning bong, no alert to tell you you’re one bad decision away from being a viral laughing stock on YouTube.

Hit the throttle and the response is instant, drop-kicking your entire body back into the seat as the car catapults forward. For a fraction of a second you’re clinging on for dear life, leaving just enough thinking time to remember that the speed limit a) exists, and b) is fast approaching. Nothing else on four wheels accelerates quite like this.

With no traffic or laws to worry about the Plaid could hit 100mph from rest in 4.19s and chalk off a quarter-mile sprint in 9.23s, crossing the gate at 155mph. Top speed’s 200mph.

That’s mental. Does the novelty wear off?

It doesn’t, but there’s only so many times you can put yourself and your passengers through such violent, punishing force. So you’ll quit while you’re ahead. Back into Comfort mode we go.

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Treat the Model S Plaid like a normal car and its behaviour is immaculate: power delivery is smooth and linear, and it’s well-mannered whether you’re in town or cruising along the motorway. It’s not rewarding to thread through corners by any stretch (how many two-tonne-plus cars are?) but it feels fluid and neutral, and what little body roll there is is predictable.

What’s range like?

The official claim is 373 miles on a full charge. Not that Tesla discloses what a full charge is these days: the internet reckons around 100kWh net, 95kWh useable. I got 3.3mi/kWh out of a short blast down the M11 which implies 316 miles real-world. Pretty darn good: chuck in some slow speed stuff and it’d be even better. Though interestingly, probably still short of the magic 5.0mi/kWh we’ve seen out of stuff like the Kia Niro EV in ideal conditions before now. Imagine what the rumoured Model 2 could do with less heft to lug around.

I digress. This has got to be the best electric powertrain in the world right now: nothing else has the same depth of talent for outright performance and day-to-day suitability. Only the Porsche Taycan comes close.

Is the inside up to scratch?

You’re only asking it like that because Tesla has a history of questionable execution when it comes to interior build quality. For the most part, the Model S is in a far better place now than it was a few years ago, and that minimalist design is still refreshingly different from what’s offered elsewhere.

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First, the good stuff: the seats are comfy and supportive, that 17in touchscreen is a whopper (it can tilt to face the driver or passenger), and the graphics are pin sharp. Wind noise is almost non-existent. There are four (yes, four) wireless charging pads, two front, two rear. Those in the back get their own screen for climate and vent control. And Netflix, obviously. Meanwhile, instead of a physical drive selector you simply swipe up or down on the far left of the screen for forward and reverse. I was sceptical at first, but it works well.

However there are caveats, and lots of them. That screen might be huge but the menu icons are too small, making it fiddly to use on the move. Depending on your seat position and reach, a portion of it might be obscured by the steering wheel. Including the temperature control. Argh! Visibility via the mirrors is rubbish and is exacerbated by the Model S’s sheer size. Oh, and I found one of the seals coming away on a rear passenger door. The test car at this point was less than 1,400 miles old. Not a great sign.

Anything else?

Oh I’ve saved the worst ‘til last. For reasons unknown Tesla has decided that indicator stalks are a waste of space, and so in its infinite wisdom it has replaced them altogether with haptic buttons… on the steering wheel (see below).

Tesla Model S Plaid indicators

It didn’t work on the Ferrari 458 Italia yonks ago and it hasn’t worked here. They are woeful, partly because it’s a weird semi-press to turn them on and off, but mostly because - as steering wheels have a habit of doing - they move around when you need them. So if you’re sat at a junction with half a lock of turn on, you need to indicate in the opposite direction. With the wrong hand.

A basic function like this shouldn’t divert so much of your attention away from the road, and quite how the makers of “best electric powertrain in the world” (me, six paragraphs ago) signed off on something so befuddling is borderline alarming. Explains how the yoke slipped through the net.

Putting all that to one side… how much is it?

That depends on your timing. As revealed back in May, Tesla has no plans to build the Model S or Model X in right-hand drive any more, so your only option is to buy one in LHD and have it shipped over to the UK.

For that, you need to head over to Tesla’s online inventory. At the time of writing there was only one Model S available; a blue Plaid on 19in wheels with Tesla’s Full Self-Driving system and a black and white interior, priced at £108,790. Warranty? Four years or 50,000 miles for the car, eight years and 150,000 miles for the battery.

Is that good value? Placed in the context of the standard Model S or any of its rivals - the Taycan, the Audi e-tron GT, the Polestar 2, the BMW i4 - you’d have to say no. But then none of that lot can briefly hold a candle to a Formula 1 car in a drag race, can they?

The more relevant question for UK Plaid buyers is ‘can you put up with left-hand drive?’ And as tempting as unparalleled acceleration is, who among us is going to drop six figures on a car that will force us to get out of it at every automatic ticket barrier in the land? Not many, you’d think. Not when the Model 3 is plenty quick enough, far cheaper and designed to work here.

Come on Elon, get that RHD capacity back up and running. Or at least invent some kind of ticket grabber contraption…

Photography: Katie Potts

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