If ever there was a car that could be labelled an undisputed ‘game changer’, the Tesla Model S is it.
A fully electric car with more range than we’ve ever seen from a dedicated plug-in – and even some plug-in hybrid models that also lug a conventional petrol or diesel “range-extender” engine around with them – the Model S is enough to make you think that electric motoring could actually be a real possibility in the near future.
The Model S went on sale around the world in 2012, and before the end of this year Tesla will be selling the four-door liftback sedan in Australia for similar money to a Mercedes-Benz E-Class or BMW 5 Series. Stay tuned for our first local drive of the car in December.
The range is set to kick off with the base model 60 (that number refers to the number of kilowatt hours the battery holds), which has already been confirmed to start from $91,400 plus on-road costs. Prices vary between states, though the Model S still attracts luxury car tax.
The mid-range model is the 85, which ups the performance (dropping the 0-100km/h sprint time from 6.2 seconds to 5.6sec), and increasing the range from 345 kilometres to a more impressive 460km, according to the US brand’s website. It also adds more equipment such as an infinite kilometre battery warranty and free Supercharger (ultra-fast recharge station) access, and is priced from $103,400 plus costs.
The range will – for the time being – be topped by the P85+, a higher-performance version of the 85 that we tested in the US during our exclusive drive, priced at $127,800 plus costs. To break that price down, it’s the base Model S price ($91,400) plus the 85kWh Performance battery pack ($28,500) and the Performance Plus pack ($7900).
It’s worth noting, though, that car will effectively be replaced by the technologically advanced – and significantly quicker – P85D dual-motor all-wheel-drive Model S from mid-2015.
That’s not to say our P85+ is an underwhelming thing. In fact, it’s a menace.
The claimed 0-100km/h sprint time is 4.4 seconds; as fast as a HSV GTS, which is powered by a 6.2-litre supercharged V8.
It feels entirely capable of achieving that time – possibly even bettering it – and we honestly cannot wait to sample the new P85D which slashes that claimed sprint time to just 3.2sec.
It does that by adding all-wheel drive traction, with the addition of a second electric motor at the front axle. The inclusion of the second motor lifts the power output to an impressive 515kW and 930Nm.
Again, not that the P85+ is by any means short of grunt, with 310kW and 600Nm propelling its 2100-kilogram heft with effortless ease.
There’s no start button – you simply need to sit in the driver’s seat with the key inside the car, put your foot on the brake and select a gear using the steering column-mounted gear selector stalk that is clearly borrowed from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin. And you won’t need to release the handbrake or footbrake – the push-button P on the end of the shifter stalk automatically deactivates, and it acts as a full park brake when you stop the vehicle, too.
Once you are moving, it is indeed a very quick car, with torque instantly available upon right pedal application.
Tramp the accelerator and you’re thrown back in your seat, but with hardly any visceral or audible accompaniment it feels somehow more frightening, not to mention blisteringly fast. There’s only a slight electric motor whine and the thrum of the tyres as they find traction with the road surface, and the faster you go the more wind noise you notice from the A-pillars and wing mirrors.
There are no gearshifts – the transmission is a single-speed, fixed gear unit with a variable frequency drive – so forward progress literally couldn’t be smoother, and that means there are no paddleshifters, either.
But the instantaneous reaction of the powertrain when you do accelerate – no turbo lag or transmission slur, here, ladies and gents – makes this a thrilling car to drive.
We used zero litres of any form of fuel during our drive – obviously – with the Model S offering the ability to be recharged up to 80 per cent in 40 minutes from a Supercharger station (average charge at 80 amps, though we saw as high as 143 amps; most stations charge at more than 240 volts, and we saw up to 386v). A full charge takes about twice as long as topping up to 80 per cent.
Tesla says the US Supercharger network has been set up to allow trips between stations on that amount of charge, provided you stick to roughly 105km/h.
The charge rate does drop off dramatically as you climb hills at freeway speed, but the regenerative braking system allows plenty to be reclaimed as you descend. The claimed range is up to 460km, and we managed more than 400km, including some spirited driving.
If you don’t have a Supercharger nearby (and it’s likely Australians may not, as the brand has yet to confirm its plans for the locations of its fast-charge network) you need not fear: Tesla will supply buyers a 40-amp single-phase wall connector.
It is near silent inside and out at speeds below 30km/h – serene, yes, but it could be a concern around town, as Tesla doesn’t have a low-speed pedestrian warning “moan” as we’ve seen in cars like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV.
There is noticeable tyre roar over rougher surfaces as speeds rise, but it’s never deafening and is frankly quite muted considering our car sits atop 21-inch wheels with liquorice-thin 35-profile tyres (the fronts are 245-aspect, while the rears are broader 265s). Tesla says it will offer all Model S variants in Australia with a tyre repair kit, but no spare wheel or space-saver will be available.
Given the mass of the Model S, its acceleration is astounding, as is the big liftback’s handling.
There’s no denying it can feel weighty through sharper bends, but with so much grip available at the corners of the car (from the Michelin Pilot Sport tyres) it maintains composure and compliance beautifully. There are three steering modes – normal, sport and comfort – and the default setting is the most natural, progressive and involving of the trio (sport just adds heft but no extra feel, and comfort lightens things up – it’s good for around town).
Our test car had the optional adaptive air suspension fitted (it will be available as an option on Australian-delivered cars for $2800, but requires the fitment of the $5200 Tech Package, too), which awards the Model S a smooth ride that betters some limousines available for twice the price.
It copes with small road imperfections very well at speed, and speed humps are done away with simply and smoothly. The low-speed ride can be a little jittery over corrugated roads, and it will bang over large sharp-edged bumps.
Braking in electric cars can be something of a problem, mainly because of inconsistent brake pedal feel. There’s no such issue in the Tesla, which has good pedal motion and progression, and the kinetic braking system can be quite aggressive (though there are two modes, with a less aggressive setup proving more accommodating).
The interior quality is also of a very high standard, with the car’s enormous 17.0-inch touchscreen media and infotainment unit taking pride of place. To put its size in context, it’s about 2.5 iPads worth of glossy display to play with.
The screen does take some learning, particularly because it controls every single interior aspect aside from the windows.
And in that respect it can be slightly frustrating: I’ve never heard anyone complain about having a button for an interior light switch, though I guarantee people will complain about having to cycle through on-screen menus to find a means of cockpit illumination (Tesla has informed us that the interior lights are supposed to work by pressing them in, but this didn't work on our test car).
On top of that, there are no knobs or dials to control the heating or ventilation – instead, a dock-style menu system sits at the bottom of the screen, and requires you to touch in to a menu to control the fan, temperature and seat heating settings.
The driver-centric angle to the screen can frustrate passengers when trying to key in addresses – either on the internet (as the car has an included 3G sim card that allows access to the web), or physical street locations (the car uses an on-board Google maps-driven navigation system, again using the data SIM). The bad news about that internet-driven navigation is that it can be slow to determine where you are, and it can freeze. Tesla offers a four-year, no cost data plan in the US – we’re hoping Australian buyers get the same.
Another thing with that screen is that you can’t turn the display off – it has a dim mode, but is still very bright and still, ultimately, distracting. A blackout mode would be beneficial, even if it meant you could blank out half or three quarters of the screen with a “small screen mode”.
There’s a highly useful driver profile setup system that allows you to set your seat, steering and side mirror positions under your own name in the top-left of the screen. If you jump in and hit the button, everything’s restored to your preferred position within seconds. However, it doesn't adjust the rear-view mirror, which is something a brand like Tesla probably could invent.
A reverse-view camera is fitted, and it displays on half of the screen in class-leading high resolution. Below it sits a display for the rear parking sensors, and there's a front parking sensor display that shows on the driver information screen (with distance to object measured in centimetres and in colour codes).
Our car is fitted with the Subzero Weather Package ($900) that adds rear seat heating, wiper blade defrosters and spray nozzle heaters. That means all five main seats have heating. I say ‘main’ seats, as the Model S can also be had with a clever “jump seat” that stows away in the boot floor and allows seating for two children (or very short adults). That option costs $2500 in the US, but these extra chairs won’t be offered in Australian cars.
For the most part the seating is good, though the chairs themselves are a little flat and could do with more side bolstering during hard cornering. One other issue is a lack of seatbelt height adjustment, and it can make long trips uncomfortable.
The lack of a transmission tunnel means the centre floor section acts like a large stowage bin, and it needs to, as there are no door pockets. There are, however, decent cupholders between the seats.
There is ample seat space in the rear, too, with the flat floor allowing good foot space. It is, however, quite a flat seat surface.
And the luggage storage on offer at the front and the rear of the car is, frankly, astonishing. There’s Tesla’s ‘frunk’ (the front trunk) that allows 150 litres of cargo capacity, while the boot has 744L of space. Combined, it has 894L – more than almost all similarly sized vehicles.
That amount of space is only possible because of the architecture of the Tesla Model S. Being that there’s no engine to take up space under the bonnet, no fuel system behind and below the rear seats, and no transmission tunnel down the spine of the car.
Our tech and connectivity score may seem low, but there are some issues with the usability of the systems in place in the car, and there are also some shortcomings in terms of safety technology for a car in this price range (including a lack of collision prevention systems, active lane-keeping and radar cruise control). The company's Autopilot option pack will likely improve that score over time via software updates.
But that doesn't change the reason this is a game-changing car. Tesla has thought differently about what a car needs to be. And the result is a car that will make buyers think differently - so long as there is decent infrastructure in Australia to support it.
Photography and videography: Mitchell Oke