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Tesla's X takes aim at the seven-seat SUV market with extreme performance - and a price to match

Tesla got off to a slow start with the Lotus-based Tesla Roadster, but a decade has now passed since we first drove that car – in fairly shabby two-speed prototype form, straight out of the gates of Potash Lane, Hethel, as it happened.

And there has certainly been some water under the bridge since then.

Have the 100D if you can afford it, for the best range and air springs as standard

The Roadster, now long discontinued, reached fewer than 3000 homes over its four-year life cycle; by way of contrast, Tesla delivered more than 76,000 other new cars last year alone.

So while only a brave few were willing to risk their motoring happiness on an electrified sports car at the turn of the current decade, some 50,000 buyers a year are now switching their preference from fossil fuels to battery power and buying a Tesla Model S executive saloon.

Growth of that kind doesn’t tend to come easy, and there have, of course, been safety controversies, recalls and a few corporate scandals to keep the gossip mill spinning. But the Model S has emphatically succeeded, and it is now a bigger-selling car than almost any other full-sized limousine in the world.

Tesla, being at once a long way from done and ever-keen to talk of its plans, already began talking up the Tesla Model 3 compact saloon before its first seven-seater had rolled out of the factory. That will make Tesla ownership about twice as affordable as it currently is.

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By 2018, Tesla aimed to be making half a million cars a year. It has been a phenomenal transition: from Morgan-scale car-making to Volvo-scale volume production within just seven years. That’s one vehicle life cycle and a mere heartbeat in industry terms.

The new Tesla Model X is the seven-seat SUV reimagined in much the same vein as the luxury saloon was by the Model S.

A 2.5-tonne electric vehicle available with as much as 611bhp, the Model X, is a car for which equally remarkable performance claims on acceleration (0-60mph in 3.2sec) and range (in excess of 300 miles) are being made.

We’re testing it in middle-rung 90D model trim. So will the luxury SUV ever be the same again?

DESIGN & STYLING

Tesla Model X Falcon doors

The lithium ion battery pack in the Tesla Model X is ostensibly the same as the one in the Tesla Model S, and it comes in a choice of 75kWh, 90kWh and 100kWh capacities.

The bigger ones weigh close to 600kg, which is double what a typical engine and fuel tank would weigh in a conventional SUV.

I stood close to a ‘falcon wing’ door to see if it would hit me while opening. It didn’t. But after I moved away, it refused to reset and open normally until I moved the car. Family proof? I doubt it

The Model X, however, takes a fresh angle on SUV design and uses that extra weight to its advantage. Its roof is lower than you might expect – the car is less than 1.7 metres tall, when plenty of rivals approach 1.8m – and it has most of its mass concentrated under the cabin floor, where that battery is carried.

It’s no surprise that the car is heavy, but Tesla’s claim is that the Model X has a lower centre of gravity than any car in the large SUV class. In theory, that ought to translate into tidier handling than the class’s norm and also make it resistant to rollover.

The Model X is built on the same platform as the Model S, so it is predominantly made from extruded aluminium reinforced with boron steel. All versions of the car are four-wheel drive, powered by three-phase electric motors cradled between each axle.

In the cases of the lower-end 75D and 90D models, those motors are rated for up to 259bhp each, although the peak power they make is governed by how much power can be drawn from the drive battery.

The 75D has a total power output of 329bhp, while the 90D we’re testing produces 416bhp, along with 487lb ft, available instantly and from a standstill.

There is a 100D at upper-middle level and, for those for whom only ‘ludicrous speed’ will do, there’s the 611bhp, 713lb ft P100D range-topper. Its rear motor is swapped out for a bigger one with a peak of 503bhp.

The Model X uses the same suspension configuration as the Model S, with double wishbones at the front and multi-links at the rear.

Steel coil springs are standard but can be upgraded to height-adjustable air suspension, the latter producing up to 211mm of ground clearance on request – a respectable amount for the very occasional off-roading the car is likely to do. Rarely for an EV, the car is rated for towing of more than two tonnes on a braked trailer.

Other features of note include the ‘canopy’ windscreen, which Tesla claims is the biggest of any production car in the world, fully motorised front doors and a pair of motorised and uniquely folding ‘falcon wing’ rear doors, hinged in two places, that are said to offer peerless convenience and easy access.

INTERIOR

Tesla Model X interior

Cranking up the ‘wow’ factor to implausibly high levels is already the calling card of Tesla’s brief existence, and there’s no question that the Tesla Model X’s automated doors contribute bullishly to that progressive theme.

The motorised front doors, which gently puff towards you once the handle is pressed, are at least familiar from the Tesla Model S.

Please lose the column gearshifter. I dislike its old-fashioned feel on Mercedes products; having it on a car from Silicon Valley is like turning on Bluetooth with a toggle switch

But it’s the rear doors – which bring to mind a DeLorean and about a dozen other sci-fi movie props – that are the real coup de grâce.

Admittedly, they take some getting used to; they are neither speedy nor particularly elegant in their mechanism, and nor are they as solidly put together as a conventional alternative. They are also extravagantly exhibitionist; any child emerging from their shadow can expect (for a good while, at least) to be stared at.

Egress from them, though, is impressively unimpeded. The advantage of the doors is that they lever a significant portion of the roof off, meaning that occupants simply slide out without having to scrunch themselves into the right shape first.

This is particularly noticeable when exiting the third row, a process that is normally ripe with trip hazards. Tesla claims the doors need less space than the sliding variant often seen on big MPVs, although in our experience the sensors seemed keen to have plenty of room to work with. That’s fine in a Palo Alto parking lot but potentially less so at your local Tesco Express.

Inside, the layout and design theme are carried over from the Model S, so you get an unfussy dash almost entirely monopolised by the peerlessly vast infotainment screen that controls virtually every function short of actual driving.

The main point of difference between SUV and saloon, not unreasonably, is the heightened sense of space. The Model X feels especially big and airy, although less because of its panoramic windscreen and more because that is simply what it is, with its physical size affording enough space for three decently proportioned individual seats in the second row and two slightly smaller ones in the back.

Save for the unspectacular amount of head room given to occupants of the latter, rear seat passengers are unlikely to feel cramped, making the model a highly competitive rival for any conventional seven-seat SUV.

The boot is generous, too, and while you can’t put the middle row down, the absence of an engine means there’s significant additional storage space under the bonnet.

As with the Model S, a question mark hovers over build quality and material richness. The car is neither nailed together like a Porsche nor as pleasing to the touch as a Range Rover, but in roominess, practicality and desirous gadgetry, the Model X is commendably well endowed.

There are two schools of thought on Tesla’s giant-screen infotainment system. One is that it’s brilliant; the other is that it’s a little too large and distracting — but still brilliant.

The Model X has the latest 17.0in version, so you’re confronted with a portrait-orientated touchscreen that mimics a tablet PC. This is integral to both its desirability and functionality: it feels intuitive simply because its look is familiar from every computer ever, and you’ll probably want one for the same (mostly inexplicable) reason that people suddenly wanted an iPad.

This must-have appeal helps paper over the fact that cycling through on-screen menus still isn’t the optimum way to operate everything in a moving car, and the fact that — fantastic web browser aside — it’s not necessarily doing anything that its rivals haven’t since thought of.

Be that as it may, it’s been four years since the introduction of the Model S, and Silicon Valley’s concept of in-car, always-online infotainment still has a likeable tendency to make the rest of the mighty car industry look irredeemably backward.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Tesla Model X side profile

It’s probably fair to say that the incredulity that greeted the Tesla Model S’s ravaging, noiseless propulsion has mellowed somewhat since we tested the P90D.

A little under 12 months has passed since then, but already the flat-toned super-waft of Tesla’s three-phase electric motor has become an accustomed feature, sufficiently so for the off-the-line performance of the Tesla Model X to be somewhat taken for granted.

Instantaneous, potent torque remains a Tesla calling card

Consequently, the 5.2sec the big SUV took to whirr beyond 60mph seems more creditable than outright compelling (especially when you consider that a Range Rover Sport SVR thundered there almost a second quicker, and that the more powerful Model S had almost hit 80mph in the same time).

Still, recording virtually the same time as the Audi SQ7 – powered by its cutting-edge oil-burner – while weighing as much as 200kg more is laudable. Needless to say, the Tesla does it in inimitable style, thrusting off the mark with only hum, wind and g-force as meaningful company.

Its kickdown vigour is practically on a par with the SQ7’s triple-charged V8, too, with 30-70mph taking 4.2sec to the Audi’s 4.5sec and 30-50mph being dispatched in just 1.7sec (versus 2.0sec).

But as we’ve noted previously, the all-electric advantage is not everlasting. The SQ7 is half a second ahead by 100mph and lengthens the gap over its weightier foe from then on.

Nevertheless, instantaneous and hugely potent torque, matched to a remarkably well-measured accelerator pedal, remains a Tesla calling card and it is no less appealing for its familiarity. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Tesla Model X cornering

There are many good things about electrically powering a vehicle, but the fact that the battery and motor combination weighs twice as much as an old-school powerplant is not one of them.

The Tesla Model X tipped our scales at 2508kg, which wouldn’t be outrageous for a 4x4 that maintained serious off-road pretensions, but it does highlight one disadvantage of an EV, given that the Model X is very much a road-orientated car.

The higher-riding Model X's body movements in corners are tempered to a degree by its low centre of gravity

It’s hard enough to make a car that both rides and handles and, given the Model X’s 2.5-tonne kerb weight, Tesla has made the case harder still for itself. It’s not a total surprise, then, to find that the Model X’s ride is firm, in an attempt to retain control of its considerable body movements, while the handling is relatively inert, as the inevitable result of trying to change the direction of its mass.

To Tesla’s credit, that the Model X’s weight is located low in the chassis does, at least, give it a secure handling bias.

It rolls less and at a more steady rate than most other SUVs, and that makes it no less enjoyable or wieldy on most back roads.

On a motorway, meanwhile, its near-silent propulsion, combined with good wind and tyre refinement in the cabin, steady, linear steering and those great ergonomics, mean that the Model X is an extremely relaxing cruising car.

We haven’t yet driven a Tesla well suited to life on track, and that was unlikely to change with a seven-seat SUV.

Typically, the issue was the battery’s tendency to get discontentedly hot during strenuous use, but on the Hill Route, not unexpectedly, it is the Model X’s conspicuous weight and loftier body that serve as its primary limitations.

While the secure, understeer-minded all-wheel drive essence of the Tesla Model S survives, it’s the Model X’s low-lying ballast and taller suspension that cause issues, most notably in the consistency of the body control andthe manifest effort of keeping 487lb ft and 2.5 tonnes in check at once.

The always-on stability control does a worthy job, but the SUV carries nothing like the Model S’s speed through corners.

That’s quite acceptable, but being plainly less adept or likeable than a throng of mostly cheaper rivals in its own segment is plainly not ideal. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Tesla Model X

Since we road tested the Tesla Model S, the benefit-in-kind tax liability on zero-emissions cars has been almost doubled by the UK government.

Buy a Tesla Model X today and run it as a company car and you’ll pay tax on nine percent of its showroom price. That’s the same as the owner of a Volvo XC90 T8 plug-in hybrid or an Audi Q7 e-tron would pay, although it’s still a quarter of the tax penalty incurred by a conventionally powered Range Rover Sport.

Our experts predict the Model X will shed almost £20k more than the Range Rover over three years

Even electric cars don’t escape the new ‘premium rate’ road tax bracket that is due to be imposed in April. It will take a year’s VED on any Model S or X from free to £310 (although it’ll revert to free again once your car is five years old).

The Model X takes about an hour to charge from almost flat to almost full when connected to one of Tesla’s ‘supercharger’ DC fast-chargers, of which there are now more than 30 in the UK, and via which Tesla will give you 400kWh of free power (between five and eight typical charges) per year.

After that, electricity is chargeable at 20p per kWh, so a full charge costs less than £20. A full at-home charge of a Model X 90D or P100D would likely take in excess of 12 hours, or longer still on a three-pin domestic plug, and cost about £10 at typical UK electricity rates.

As far as electric range is concerned, our test car indicated that it would cruise at typical UK motorway speeds while consuming power at just under 500Wh/mile, making for a real-world range of just over 180 miles.

Expect a P100D to just tip over the 200-mile threshold and a 75D to make 150 miles or so. That’s workable for some, perhaps, but not quite as convincing as the Model S was.

VERDICT

4 star Tesla Model X

Tesla is accustomed to making hugely ambitious pronouncements – and the industry has learnt to listen.

Yet its assertion that the Tesla Model X is the quickest and most capable SUV yet can be dismissed as hyperbole.

High-rise EV strains under SUV brief but still feels like a history-maker

We haven’t tested the speediest version available, but no amount of extra power will correct its handling deficiency versus a Porsche Cayenne or Range Rover Sport SVR.

And Tesla would do well to understand that the word ‘capable’ has an especially broad meaning in this segment: there are no superchargers in the wilderness that its rivals are better equipped to explore.

However, it is necessary once again – even with qualifications – to acknowledge that there is nothing else quite like the Model X.

Much like the Tesla Model S, its greatest asset is mixing spaciousness, refinement, impressive infotainment and forward-looking tech with a respectable all-electric range and agreeably guilt-free pace.

Add to that the apparently innate desirability that the segment already provokes in buyers and the Model X’s impact on Tesla’s sales is likely to be sizeable. 

Tesla Model X First drives