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Premium electric saloon gets ramped up beyond ‘insane’ levels of performance for yet more effect, and is no less revolutionary as a result

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Tesla Motors has been in the news lately. Its new car, the Model 3, attracted 275,000 orders in just three days – and £30,000 saloon cars, however they’re powered, don’t normally threaten to break the internet and jam up the phone lines to quite the extent that this one did.

Things have been going quite well for Tesla, then. The company has started up, moved off, set about building the largest single factory in the world and is about to change gear.

The Model S was first introduced in the US in 2012, ever since Tesla has just been refining the formula

In 2013 it paid back every dollar it owed to the US government and became the top-performing business on the New York Stock Exchange’s Nasdaq 100 index.

It expects to deliver close to 90,000 new cars this year and an ambitious 500,000 a year by the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, Tesla has been making incremental improvements to the car with which it blazed a trail three years ago when it set about proving that the electrically powered luxury car’s time had come.

Since our 2013 road test, the remarkable Model S has been in receipt of more power and performance (neither of which it really needed), more battery capacity and cruising range, a second front-mounted electric motor and consequent four-wheel drive capability and a new Autopilot feature that extends beyond the abilities of most car makers’ lane keeping and active cruise controls.

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All good reasons for another full Autocar road test – and this time, in a right-hand-drive, UK-registered car.

The Model S range now starts with a sub-£55,000, 312bhp rear-drive model, moving up to include four-wheel-drive options of both 324 and 411bhp and either 70 or 90kWh of battery capacity.

Here, we’re trying the top-of-the-range P90D, complete with ‘Ludicrous Speed’ upgrade – all 525bhp, 713lb ft and £97,000 of it.

We donned our Spaceballs movie costumes to investigate Tesla’s key 2.8sec 0-60mph performance claim.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Tesla Model S P90D rear

The Model S’s key advantages, Tesla says, derive from the fact that it uses electric motors rather than an internal combustion engine. The body structure is mostly aluminium, with boron steel tubes reinforcing the pillars and crash structures.

Up front, where you might otherwise find that piston engine, there’s a small electric motor and gearbox, some steel cross-members and an abundance of deformation space to protect occupants in the event of a frontal collision.

Supercharger stations are installed in pairs, and to share a pair with another user is to halve the charging speed

A significant proportion of the torsional rigidity comes from the liquid-cooled lithium ion battery pack, which is mounted under the floor and made up of nearly 7000 laptop batteries.

Sharing technology with the electronics industry means that Teslas benefit from the same scale and pace of development that, say, laptops enjoy.

An example of that bore fruit when Tesla introduced a part-silicon anode to the cells last year, creating an extra 5kWh of capacity for the range-topping cars.

The battery shares its cooling circuit with the main electric motor, gearbox and power inverter. That drive motor, rated at 496bhp in the P90D’s case, is slung between the rear wheels.

With the front motor rated at 255bhp, you might imagine a peak output of up to 750bhp, but the power inverter’s peak flow of 1500A is enough for ‘only’ 525bhp and 713lb ft – the kind of reserves for which many luxury saloon makers rely on V8 and V12 petrol engines.

Batteries aren’t light, of course, and neither is the Model S. We measured this one at 2220kg, which is about 20% heavier than a like-for-like mid-size executive saloon. The major masses are located low in the structure, at least, preventing that weight from manifesting in certain elements of the handling.

Suspension is all-independent, via front double wishbones and rear multi-links. Coil springs are standard; height-adjustable air suspension is an option even on range-topping cars.

INTERIOR

Tesla Model S P90D interior

New seats, wider rear doors and myriad detail changes are the material differences to report here – a fact that both totally understates how innovative and bold the Model S’s cabin looks and feels even today and also leaves one of two of our original criticisms unanswered.

Tesla’s right-hand drive conversion is flawless, consisting of a wide, centrally positioned brake pedal and a perfectly placed and broadly adjustable steering column.

Tesla’s ability to upgrade its infotainment remotely far surpasses rivals’ sluggardly improvements

The aura of material quality has improved a little, its leathers and plastics being notably better than they were. But the crowning glories remain the crystal-clear digital instruments and, moreover, the 17.0in colour display, which is angled slightly towards you as part of the asymmetrical sweep of the cockpit.

The screen’s functions run beyond the scope of most infotainment systems; everything from the headlight and sunroof controls to the standard-fit web browser is incorporated. Finding the menu you need can be tricky at first, but it quickly becomes easy once you’re used to the shortcut buttons.

Tesla’s technophile approach to the car business wouldn’t work without a generous equipment level here.

Sure enough, the car’s stunning 17in tablet-style touchscreen infotainment display is backed up by 3G internet connectivity and wi-fi as standard — with a full-screen web browser visible even while the vehicle is in motion — as well as an AM/FM/DAB radio, internet radio, European navigation, voice control, Bluetooth media streaming and two USB inputs.

Frankly, you couldn’t really want or expect more in the way of entertainment or communication options. The web browser is somewhat limited by the speed of your data connection, and because the navigation relies on the same data connection to refresh mapping data, it can refresh a little slowly at times when expanded into full-screen mode.

Most of the time, though, the navigation display is clear and fantastically easy to use, thanks to sophisticated touchscreen controls and intuitive programming tools.

Tesla’s 12-speaker premium audio system was an option that our test car didn’t have, but the standard set-up is powerful and clear enough not to sound in need of an upgrade.

Our test car did without the rear-facing jump seats fitted to our 2013 example, making it a five-seater only – and a decently spacious one.

For the money, you can buy more accommodating passenger cars, the Model S coming up to mid-size saloon standards on space and yet costing more than most equivalent full-size limos.

That said, there’s more than enough room for larger adults in the back, and the combined luggage capacity of the front and rear boot compartments would be enough to rival almost any estate car or SUV you care to mention.

Tesla has yet to get a proper grip on the thorny nettle of adequate oddment storage. There are still no door bins, there’s no centre console storage bin, and there’s only a flat, slim cubby at the base of the centre stack that tends to empty its contents over the cabin floor under acceleration.

They’re the kinds of failings that can be remedied in a car mid-cycle, and in the convenience-conscious United States we’d imagine there’s plenty of pressure on the company to address them. Still, given how busy Tesla has been on other fronts, few would complain. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

525bhp Tesla Model S P90D

Equipping a car with a ‘Ludicrous Speed’ setting is somewhat brave. Not only does the name playfully allude to the cinema of Mel Brooks (it’s a 30-year-old reference to light speed being too slow), but it also ramps up expectations to the near-vertical – and opens the door to potential disappointment.

In one sense, the latter comes to pass. The P90D, with two testers aboard, could not be persuaded to deliver a sub-3.0sec 0-60mph time – and felt unlikely to do so in any circumstance.

Huge mass tests the brakes into T5, but the car just about loses speed. Brakes resist overheating for longer than the battery

This, though, is a matter for the small print, in that Tesla’s claim has always included the disclaimer of a one-foot rollout. Even so, it’s the acceleration figures that the car records before the legal limit that make it truly remarkable.

To put it into context, the P85+ tested in 2013 featured the same electric car party trick: a venomous avalanche of instantaneous torque, launched like a bullet from a gun.

That car made it to 40mph from rest in just 2.9sec; the P90D, powered up and with both axles in on the action, is very nearly a second quicker.

For the first 30mph, it is more than half a second up on a BMW M5. It even noses the McLaren 570S despite giving away a colossal 775kg. Ludicrous? Just a bit.

And that’s before we’ve dealt with the acceleration that occurs when the wheels are already rolling. From 20mph, the Tesla hits 40mph in a solitary second. It is a tummy-troubling, neck-snapping outburst, made all the more preposterous by the fact that it is accompanied only by wind and whine, as well as the audible squeaks and grunts of the incredulous occupants around you.

But for all its initial shove, the P90D is not immune from physics, nor the eventual limitations of its powertrain.

By 100mph, the M5 has caught up; by 150mph, it is almost four seconds ahead. More pertinently, there is only a split second or two of difference in the 30-70mph times.

But while the M5 proves that it’s possible to equal the P90D’s performance by conventional means, classing the two in the same league ignores the EV’s other big advantage: it doesn’t come with the financial, social and environmental burden of noisily burning finite hydrocarbons.

Leaving aside the source of the electricity for a moment, nailing the P90D’s accelerator in the pursuit of pleasure is virtually guilt-free – and absurdly moreish. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Tesla Model S P90D cornering

Much is asked of the Tesla’s chassis, and, given the way it thrusts about the place, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to wonder if Tesla has invested in some outlandish way of overcoming drag, gravity and mass.

But sadly, its control of the wheels remains far more conventional than the method used to turn them. The optional ‘Smart’ air springs deployed on our test car are as sophisticated as the P90D gets, giving the car the ability to adjust its ride height on command – or even automatically if you choose – but never quite providing superlative handling or comfort.

Optional air suspension aids the Model S’s commendable harnessing of its 2220kg kerb weight, but ride refinement remains compromised

That it manages to do neither brilliantly is partly because it still strives ambitiously to do both. With Tesla’s line-up being so small, the Model S attempts to fulfil the obligations of both a luxury saloon and a five-door performance car, and because there is so much weight and power to manage, the compromise is a tricky one.

Kudos to Tesla, then, that the P90D continues in the established vein of offering an agreeable, obviously hefty driveability that rarely feels overawed by its huge potency or unreasonably strangled by the effort of harnessing it.

The car is ably assisted in both respects by its near-perfect weight distribution and the advantages of all-wheel drive. Considering its mass, its command of pitch and body roll is also deeply impressive, and much more so than its ability to iron out secondary intrusions.

The air suspension manages the latter satisfactorily but not with the finesse that a similarly priced Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Jaguar XJ might.

The shortfall is as noticeable as the Model S’s key driver involvement deficit, its adaptive-feel steering being better at communicating reassuring sturdiness than contact patch friction.

Ultimately, though, none of this significantly dents the appeal, and not least because the same steering, in Autopilot mode with your hands deposited nearby, will have a fair stab at doing your job for you on the motorway – including changing lanes (via use of the indicator).

It’s easily the finest such system currently available and a clear indication of where its maker’s R&D money gets spent.

The Model S isn’t made for the track. It doesn’t take too many laps for the battery to get too hot (cue a huge-sounding fan), resulting in a temporary dialling back of the power. Nevertheless, while it lasted, the car’s respectable and secure on-road handling transferred to circuit driving respectably.

Dynamically, the defining feature remains the colossal, ground-hugging weight beneath your feet. But everything around it — the all-wheel drive, the 50/50 weight distribution, the stringent body control — is aimed at keeping the mass in check. This it does admirably.

Its dual motors, and the always-on stability control, are inclined toward safety-first, understeer-based assurance (as they should be), but that doesn’t generally prevent the P90D from carrying big speeds into corners.

Suffice to say, the car was more than two seconds quicker than the rear-drive Model S we tested three years ago. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Tesla Model S P90D

Three years ago, the case for running a Model S company car was made all the stronger by 0% benefit-in-kind tax; today, a business user will pay 7% on it, against a typical liability of around 30% for a luxury diesel saloon.

Tesla estimates that a Model S will save the typical company user £6500 in fuel and tax over five years.

The Model S’s residuals has it beating a hybrid Mercedes S-Class over three years and 36,000 miles

The car comes with charging cables for UK domestic three-pin and 32A seven-pin Mennekes-style power outlets for at-home charging.

Be warned that a full charge of the 90kWh battery from the former would take days, not hours, but Tesla can provide and fit a home charger to significantly improve on that.

You also get free access to Tesla’s Supercharger network, which has already expanded beyond 30 locations from Edinburgh to Exeter.

An 80% charge at one of these takes just 45 minutes, and allowing for the car’s near-300-mile cruising range as we verified it (our 214-mile average range return included the effects of performance testing, as it always does with road test subjects), that means there are few places in the UK you couldn’t visit on a day trip.

There would still be journeys for which a Model S wouldn’t have the range – or be sufficiently flexible – to suit your needs, but they’d probably be sufficiently few and far between to plan for easily.

We would advise specifying the Tesla with smart air suspension (£2200) and Autopilot (£2600); only pick the jump seats (£2600) if you’ll use them.

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VERDICT

4.5 star Tesla Model S P90D

We called the last Model S we tested a triumph. The P90D, with yet more power, slightly enhanced battery capacity, all-wheel drive and – yes – ludicrous potential, is hardly any less of a revelation.

In several ways – infotainment, straight-line speed and Autopilot – it’s so far ahead of rivals that it hardly seems plausible that Tesla started life just 13 years ago.

Great EV, intriguing driver’s car; not quite the perfect luxury GT

The model’s limitations do remain noteworthy. This is still an electric car, so forward planning will occasionally be required.

But even this has been alleviated – less by the car, more by the growing network of superchargers, the closest things to electricity pumps we’ve yet encountered.

Perhaps the most convincing argument against buy a P90D is that Tesla still hasn’t applied a final level of polish to the car that would mean it conclusively looks, feels and drives better than anything else offered at its high asking price.

However, the fact that the reasons for not buying one are now dramatically outweighed by the incentives shows just how far the Model S has come.

Even so in the luxury department the Tesla out does the BMW 740d xDrive and the Jaguar XJ, but still falls short of the Range Rover and the Mercedes-Benz S 500 e L.

Tesla can make up some lost ground by rethinking the centre console, improving the steering feel and a faster-charging and longer-lasting battery.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.