Is the Tesla Model S the most Darwinian car ever? It certainly seems to be evolving at a heck of a rate, because every time we jump into a Model S, even after the shortest of interludes, something always seems to have changed.
This is because Tesla is consistently sending out software updates which rectify bugs and add features. It happens while owners are safely tucked up in bed and the car’s hooked up to wi-fi, with no need to give up your vehicle to a dealer and enter the scrum for a loan car.
The latest update is version 7.0, which includes the much talked-about optional Autopilot feature. This means the Model S will steer, accelerate, brake and park itself, feeding off a mix of radar, cameras and GPS data to ‘see’ where it’s going. The update also includes a new, cleaner-looking instrument display.
However, it’s not just software updates; there have been hardware changes, too. Earlier this year Tesla introduced dual-motor four-wheel drive on the insanely quick – literally so with its ‘Insane’ mode that sets it to maximum attack – P85D. However, you can also have four-wheel drive on the entry-level model, which has a larger 70kWh battery than before for added range, and hence the new 70D designation.
Is this a shrewd, lower-cost route to sleek four-door luxury motoring? Let’s...
You can still buy a two-wheel-drive version, but instead of the single 377hp motor driving the rear wheels in the 70, the 70D has two 255bhp motors, with one mounted on each axle. When you include the limitations of the battery this equates to a total power figure of 324bhp, with 387lb ft available from the moment the motors begin to rotate.
The range is actually boosted over that of the two-wheel-drive model thanks to the better combined efficiency of two motors, meaning the 70D will theoretically travel 275 miles between charges. Realistically that’s more like 150-200 miles, depending on ambient temperature, equipment usage, the type of driving you’re doing and your driving style.
What's it like?
The 70D doesn’t feel insane like the P85D, nor will it send your vision as blurry, but it's still mildly unhinged. It’s a car that’ll hit 62mph from rest in 5.2sec, so it’s always going to feel quick, but as with anything that swaps a tank of fossil fuel for darting lithium ions in rows of battery cells, it’s the instant torque surge that makes it feel half as fast again.
And with four-wheel drive it can get its power down with stunning efficiency, even on wet roads. Stamp hard on the accelerator and the tyres just dig in as the 70D swooshes you down the road with nothing more than a muted whine to indicate any effort on its part.
We’ve already written extensively about the Autopilot’s features, but suffice to say it works well if you accept the slightly misleading name. The Model S isn’t suddenly transformed into a completely autonomous car with the £2200 option (£2600 if you have the update retro-fitted to your current car), and it’s really for use on motorways or dual carriageways, where the car can follow clear white lines demarcating the extremities of the lane.
To get it working you simply set the adaptive cruise control to the desired speed, give the activation lever behind the steering wheel a double tap and boom, you're in tomorrow's world, today.
It is a bizarre feeling watching the wheel twirling itself as you barrel along the motorway at 70mph, made even stranger by the confidence the system inspires that, rather oxymoronically, makes you relax and feel like this is quite the norm.
The Tesla sticks rigidly to the centre of its lane – more so than the meandering systems we’ve experienced from Mercedes and BMW – and locks onto the car in front like a Tomahawk, tenaciously maintaining the desired distance whether that car picks up speed or stabs on its brakes.
Unlike those other systems it doesn’t need you to keep your hands on the wheel, and if you indicate it will happily change lanes for you, too.
But as Tesla is at pains to point out, it doesn’t mean you can ignore what’s going on outside while you concentrate on Matt Prior’s latest YouTube video on the excellent 17in central touchscreen. Watch the video, of course, but wait until you’re back home.
The system may be good, but like any piece of tech in the early stages of development, it has issues. If it decides to jink left like an erratic puppy that's seen a tabby cat, telling an officer of the law in the aftermath of any incident that you don’t know what happened because the car was driving itself won’t aid your defence - and quite rightly so.
So what about the rest of the car? Well, it just gets better and better. The ride is much improved over the early cars we tried. It’s firm in a sporty way, but feels beautifully engineered to keep a decent level of compliance with no crashy moments to ruffle your feathers.
For a big saloon that’s capable of transporting five people in comfort – or seven if you get a third row of seats fitted – it handles and steers beautifully. Yes, you can feel there’s considerable mass around you as you carve between apexes, but the body stays superbly controlled with next to no roll. The steering is quick and accurate with lovely weighting, even if it doesn’t exude oodles of feel.
The airy cabin is also a great place in which to spend some time, and not just because of the endless fun you can have playing with that big iPad-style screen. The current generation car's front seats fit like a tailored glove and mark a huge improvement over the narrow and unsupportive perches fitted to the early cars. And you can't argue with the space on offer either, whether in the front, back, or in either the two generously proportioned boots.
It feels much better built these days, too. The materials look smarter than ever, and even if it’s not quite an equivalent to today’s Audis for perceived quality, it’s certainly heading in the right direction.
Should I buy one?
Yes, you should, but of course you need to have your eyes wide open to the traditional electric car hang-ups. For the £55,000 that the 70D will set you back, you could plump instead for a diesel 5 Series that would do 600-odd miles between fill-ups.
Even if you're careful the Tesla will struggle to cover a third of that distance, and although you have free access to Supercharging stations that’ll grant you a further 80% charge in about 30 minutes, long road trips are never going to be as straightforward as they would be in a conventionally powered car.
However, most people’s daily commute or general transport needs can be comfortably managed on one charge, and even plugging it in at home will cost you a fraction of the price of a tank of diesel or petrol.
But the Tesla isn’t just about cheap running costs; it's much more than that. It is a truly fabulous thing to drive and own, and these updates do nothing other than turn up its appeal. So if it fits your lifestyle, take the plunge and enjoy - just make sure you concentrate on the road at all times.
Tesla Model S 70D
Location Surrey; Price £55,000 (after £5000 government grant) Engine Two electric motors Power 324bhp; Torque 387lb ft; Gearbox Single-speed, direct drive; Kerb weight 2108kg; Top speed 140mph; 0-60mph 5.2sec; Range 275 miles; CO2/tax band 0g/km, 5%