The Tesla Model S upends the electric-car status quo like only Silicon Valley can.
On sale in June in the UK, this Californian-built hatchback limo solves the EV range problem with a whopping great battery pack giving a potential 300 miles between charges. Then it eliminates dashboard clutter by funnelling all the cabin controls onto a touchscreen tablet double the size of an iPad.
The styling is graceful, the speed ballistic and the £50,000 start price so far not putting anyone off.
There are fast cars and there’s the Tesla S.
It weighs 2.1 tonnes but the quickest Performance version at £68,700 accelerates to 60mph in 4.2 seconds - faster than a Porsche 911. Even the standard car costing from £49,900 manages 5.4 secs. Because it’s electric all that muscle is available from rest, and it felt even faster in the Performance version we tested. We’re talking yell-out-loud rollercoaster fast.
It’s also stealthy. Find an open stretch of road, nail it, and nobody will hear your hooliganism. A pleasing whine from the rear electric motor sounding like a tiny jet engine is the extent of it. The Tesla even checks body roll in the bends while resisting the Germanic urge to pummel the spine on bumps.
No car maker offers anything like Tesla’s 17in in-dash touchscreen. Yes, the interior is mostly well designed and the second screen behind the steering wheel is welcome, but the upright, fixed-in tablet is the main event.
As silkily responsive as an iPad Air, it gives you control over the heating, sat-nav, smartphone integration radio and more. You even open the vast sunroof with a swipe down of the finger.
There’s a camera looking back that’s clear enough to use in place of the rear-view mirror, or you can configure it so the Google map occupies all the space. Screen updates come via a built-in 3G sim and each time you get one you could find you’ve got an entirely new button. Nothing new in smartphones, but revolutionary in a car.
Where’s the active safety kit?
The serious omission in the otherwise fulsome spec list is radar cruise control and related automatic emergency braking, increasingly common on other cars.
That 17in screen is as moreish to the eyes as pizza is to the mouth and frankly you need a back-up look-out in case you miss traffic ahead suddenly slowing, especially when you're still getting used to that screen.
Once the novelty has worn off it'll hopefully be less alluring, but even Fords have safety stuff like lane-departure warning. A check of Tesla’s job vacancies online shows it’s coming, but too late for the current gen Model S.
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Tesla boasts the Model S has the range of a regular car and it’s mostly true thanks to the massive underfloor battery pack. The standard one is rated at 60kWh (kilowatt hours) to give a quoted range of 240 miles and the 85kWh versions from £57,700 is reckoned to be good for 312 miles. To put that into context, the battery pack in the new LaFerrari hybrid hypercar is just 2.3kWh.
From a standard house plug it’ll take 20 hours to charge from flat to full, but a £95 government-subsided wallcharger halves that to 10 hours, while the optional £1900 dual-charger halves that again.
Quickest at 45 mins to full are the Tesla Superchargers the company plans to build at service stations along the M4 and M1/M6 to create corridors of freedom for London owners. Tesla coffee shops not included.
The Model S is large. Limo large.
Staff at Tesla’s sole UK ‘store’ in London’s Westfield shopping centre claim it has more room than a BMW X5 SUV in there and you can believe it.
One option includes two rear-facing jump seats in the boot to take the max passenger count to seven. There’s further room under the bonnet where a regular petrol engine would’ve been.
Sometimes it feels too large for UK roads. Even driving cautiously we managed to scrape an alloy on a width restriction on to the bridge over the Thames in Marlow. We weren’t fiddling with the screen at the time, promise.
Tesla Model S Verdict
The Tesla isn’t just a better electric car – it’s a groundbreaker that history could well hoist into the automotive hall of fame alongside the original Mini or even the Ford Model T.
The speed is breathtaking, the styling sensational, the range good and that 17in dash tablet embarrasses anything the premium Germans can offer.
Its only real flaw? It could do with a few more active safety devices for anyone careless enough to let their eyes linger too long on that mesmerising screen.
Words by Nick Gibbs
Tesla Model S
An electric car of such staggering talent it’ll have mainstream makers racing to catch up.