What is it?
The Tesla Model S – an S-class-sized electric saloon built in California, the first official example of which has just arrived in the UK. You're reading a UK-roads review here first, then.
You’ve got to hand it to this company. While the rest of the global industry hedges its bets - watching, waiting, perhaps dipping its toe into the water with super-low-volume sports cars, short-range hatchbacks and halfway-house plug-in hybrids – America’s latest maverick car maker is ploughing on with the electrification of the car with total commitment.
Undeterred by the market’s slow uptake of battery cars, Tesla has remained on course to flesh out its product range to include several entirely discreet models by 2015. The Lotus-based Roadster is no more, but before the next two years are out, this firm will be offering small and large saloons, as well as a crossover SUV, to those looking to abandon the petrol pump indefinitely. The motoring public may be yet to take to an EV in serious volume, perhaps because they’ve yet to be offered the right one. Tesla’s bold solution is to come up with three, and in fairly short order.
Into that context, enter the first instalment. In the first three months of 2013, this car outsold the Mercedes S-class, the Lexus LS and the Audi A8 in its domestic market. It beat the BMW 7-series by more than two to one. So it’s proving quite popular – and not just for an EV.
What is it like?
Performance, size and range – the things experience says you don’t get from an electric car – are the things that make the Model S different. A viable alternative, even.
It’s a genuine luxury five-seater – seven, if you count the optional rear-facing kids' chairs for the boot – with proper big-saloon level accommodation. It’s got a hatchback rear-end and Porsche Cayman-style luggage compartments front and rear, with almost 1800 litres of storage between them. Built largely of aluminium, it also weighs within 100kg of what a like-for-like petrol saloon weighs – and so a 410bhp, 443lb ft electric motor on the rear axle is enough to make it seriously fast. Even if the top speed of this, the headline ‘Performance’ version, is only 130mph.
But over and above all that comes the answer to the only question that matters. The same top-of-the-range Model S records 300-mile charge-to-charge autonomy on the NEDC European test schedule, or just over 260 miles on the USA’s EPA range rating. An enormous 85kWh lithium-ion battery under the floor is responsible for that not-so-little breakthrough. That’s more than four times as much capacity as a Nissan Leaf, and charging it isn’t the work of five minutes. From a typical 32-amp UK on-street charging post, in fact, it’d be the work of about 15 hours.
The Model S comes as standard with an 11kW charger that’ll take power from anything upwards of a standard three-pin 13amp domestic outlet – but charging it this way would be a painfully long process. From a single-phase high-power wallbox charger (another option), it’ll charge at up to 30 miles per hour – Tesla’s own way of expressing a 10-hour total charge time for the range-topping model. Twin onboard chargers are another option, upping your at-home charging speed to a maximum 60 miles-an-hour, at 80 amps single phase.
And away from home, Tesla’s network of three-phase ‘Superchargers’ will roll out across the UK from next year. Already in place in the USA, these fast-chargers deliver a 50 per cent of the Model-S’s 85kWh battery in just 30 minutes, making longer road trips a realistic possibility along certain routes.
So perhaps this isn’t quite the market’s first no-compromise electric car, because lest we forget, the Model-S is set to cost more than £80k in this form. Relative to a like-for-like combustion-engined car, though, it’s remarkably close. With real-world economy of about 23mpg, an Audi S8 will only do 400-miles or so on a 90-litre fill, has an identical claim on the 0-62mph sprint, and is priced from £78k. Meantime, the Audi might set you back a frightening £11,000-a-year on company car tax. The Model-S wouldn’t cost a bean on benefit-in-kind, and an overnight home charge costs less than a fiver at typical off-peak rates.
This is a handsome, expensive-looking saloon. A bit derivative, but you can forgive that from a company making its first ground-up model and keen not to scare people off. Fat chrome doorhandles concealed inside the door panels motor outwards as you unlock it, and grant access to a cabin you’d swear belonged to a concept car if you didn't know better. There’s very little switchgear, no conventional instruments; all is clean, avant-garde 21st century product design, as you’d expect from something designed minutes from Apple’s US HQ. Dominating everything is a 17in touch-sensitive widescreen turned portrait, via which you control the ventilation, headlights and air-suspension systems, as well as read the sat-nav and energy usage monitor – and a web browser if you choose to.
There’s no ignition barrel, no starter button, a simple column gear selector, and the handbrake’s automatic; the powertrain’s live the moment you press the brake pedal. The car’s absurdly easy to drive at low speed, and whisper quiet. The ride’s flat, comfortable and – even on 21s – well isolated. Energy begins to regenerate the moment you lift off the accelerator, and slows the car consistently enough that you only need the brake pedal to hold stationary in traffic.
With a full road test and a comparison to come, we’ll hold off with the exhaustive description of exactly how this car handles and performs for now - except to observe three things. Firstly, that up to speeds irrelevant on British roads, the Model S really does feel super-saloon fast: uniquely muscular and super-responsive below 70mph. Secondly, that even with Tesla’s firmest chassis settings, it clearly isn’t a super-saloon. It’s much more biased towards refinement and ease-of-use than that; like a cross between an old-school 12-cylinder Jaguar or BMW and a high-speed maglev train.
And thirdly, that when Tesla promises 300 miles of usable range, that’s exactly what you get. Having completed the 130-mile trip to MIRA for our road test figuring session at an 80mph cruise, the Model S still had 110 miles of usable charge in its batteries. By moderating your cruising speed or mixing your route, you could achieve 300 miles on a charge – probably more.
Should I buy one?
Our final verdict will have to wait until we’ve spent more time figuring out this landmark machine - so watch this space. But even after just a few hours at the wheel, there seems little question about its towering status. Combining uncompromised performance, refinement and space with viable range and total freedom from the pump, we'd say it’s well worth its premium. It isn’t the perfect big saloon, but what it offers as a direct result of the way it’s propelled seems to dwarf what holds it back.
History may even place the Model S at a critical apex in the development of the modern car, where electric power is transformed from a restrictive to a liberating influence in our collective perception. Many of us already knew that point would come – but who’d have bet such a young company would take us there so soon?
Tesla Model S Performance Plus
Price circa £88,000; 0-60mph 4.2sec; Top speed 130mph; Economy 283Wh/mile; 300-mile range; CO2 na; Kerb weight 2108kg; Engine Three-phase AC electric motor; Power 410bhp at 5000-6700rpm; Torque 443lb ft at 0-5100rpm; Gearbox Single speed reduction gearing