It is a peculiar experience test driving the Tesla Model S on Australian roads, given the fanfare that has greeted its recent local launch.
Few cars break the mould like this, the all-electric product of a Californian startup led by a cult of personality. A car for the times it serves and what may become a dog-ear in the pages of automotive history.
Not to overstate, but it’s a long-awaited offering, and it’s been hard to miss the press clippings, ours included. The general consensus? Very few brands have knocked it out of the park so early in their existence as this one, named in honour of inventor Nikola Tesla, has.
On the face of it, you can see why. It’s car that looks like nothing else — a very good thing to the image-conscious upwardly mobile — travels nearly 500km between recharges, and at flagship level, before (expensive) options, costs close to what you’d pay for a smaller BMW 535i sedan.
The general buzz, pardon the pun, around this car means that driving it for the first time in the most objective capacity possible is as much about burying preconceptions as it is forming conceptions, all before one even turns the key, so to speak.
Or should we say, before one pushes down on the ‘roof’ of the pseudo matchbox car that serves in a conventional key’s place, waits for the dramatic electric door handles to pop out of their recesses, and presses the brake pedal that brings the car silently to life (who needs a starter button?).
Our test car here is the range-topping Model S P85, which is the focus vehicle for the brand at launch. Its electric motor makes 310kW of power between 5000-8600rpm and 600Nm of torque from 0rpm, allowing the 2.1-tonne behemoth to leap from 0-100km/h in a remarkable 4.4 seconds.
In time, this will be supplanted by the P85 D with its dual motor setup that slashes the 0-100km/h sprint to a scarcely believable 3.4 seconds. But that won’t be here until August this year, so for now the car you see here is the flagship.
The 85kWh battery pack gives a combined driving range of around 500km. Tesla throws in a 40A single-phase wall unit with all purchases, and the car allows you to delay recharging until off-peak rates kick in, or reduce the charge being fed in to, say, 10A if you’re already sucking up energy on other things.
A mobile cable will be available for purchase soon, and Tesla is already planning a network of Supercharger fast-charge stations along the east coast. Research indicates 90 per cent of charging among the small clique of Australian EV owners is done at home, anyway.
We only had a day behind the wheel (read our longer, US drive here), but my 186km combined-cycle test, including a short stint of very heavy throttle, used up 230km of the car’s estimated range, 51.7kWh of energy at an average of 215Wh/km. So not too far off Tesla’s claim, really. No more than the fuel economy claims of most car makers anyway.
So how does the Tesla drive? It goes like the proverbial clappers in a straight line, for starters, and the torque comes on in that unrelenting (all those Newtons from 0 rpm and a single-speed gearbox will do that) yet eerily silent way. One of my colleagues called it the Tower of Terror.
It’s also quite nimble for a car that weighs 2100kg despite the use of aluminium, given its rear-drive layout and low centre of gravity. It’s a big car (about 5.0 metres long) and it never belies its dimensions, but it’s not out of place along sequences and switchbacks.
The variable ratio electric steering is also rather excellent, especially in its middle ‘weight’ setting, which offers pleasing resistance without feeling treacly, and good feedback from the front wheels. The ride is also very compliant around town.
Around urban surrounds you use the brake regeneration to slow the car and recharge the batteries, which has two settings — heavy or very heavy. One-pedal driving — lift off the throttle and slow — takes some getting used to, but becomes second nature in time.
That said, our car was lacking adaptive cruise control, and if ever a car needs it, it is this one, given it’s optimal to set the cruise control whenever possible to preserve energy, and cancelling it for slow vehicles ahead (always a problem with clueless Australian right-hand lane occupiers) and lifting off the throttle causes the car to brake on regen at speed.
Our car, along with all delivered Teslas, was fitted with Autopilot Hardware which works in conjunction with the Autopilot software that, as part of a remote update, will release various new features such as the much-needed ‘traffic aware’ radar-guided cruise control. But it’s not here yet, nor is blind-spot monitoring…
Tesla can feed these software updates out remotely. It has already done similar by adding a ‘creep’ feature that allows the car to roll forward while in Drive at traffic lights if you lift off the brakes, just like an internal combustion car.
We also reckon the dual motor model is a timely addition, given the 245/35 Continentals sitting on 21-inch wheels were happy to squirrel about under heavy throttle on some damp roads, revealing the overly intrusive ESC system. The 355mm front/365mm rear brakes also felt a little wooden.
Jump into the cabin, once you’ve pushed past the crowds that seem to form around it wherever you park, drop yourself onto the soft, black leather heated seats (that are a little short in the base and lack head adjustment) and you’re greeted by a layout unlike any other car we can think of.
Dominating the fascia is a 17-inch touchscreen that behaves like a tablet, given it allows you to swipe, drag and drop various menus and functions. And when we say ‘various’ functions, we mean ‘all’ functions, given there are only two conventional buttons beyond those on the steering wheel — one controlling the hazard lights and the other opening the glovebox.
Everything from the sunroof adjustment to the air suspension settings (which awesomely, can be programmed to automatically raise or lower at given geographical locations, such as my steep driveway), driving modes, climate control, navigation, charge settings, trip information, headlight controls, and audio adjustments are all operated by touch rather than the tactility of a physical button or dial.
That said, most functions were relatively intuitive once familiarisation was achieved, and it also pays to remember that this car’s true target demographic is likely a far more tech-savvy one than a comparative luddite such as yours truly. If you can use an iPad you can use this.
The screen is essentially broken up into tiers, with climate settings and general car controls (sunroof adjustment, suspension height, screen brightness, steering modes and emergency ‘power off’ settings) situated in the lower quadrant.
At the very top of the screen are the dropdown menus, with six major functions — Media, Nav (run off an embedded 3G SIM with free data, though which retains satellite-fed turn-by-turn directions if the signal dies), Calendar, Energy, Camera (a massive reversing camera that feeds you centimetre increments as you approach an obstacle) and Phone — controlled by icons that you drag and drop into the central space.
This area can display one or two of these at a time, for instance you can have the energy readouts at the top and the Google Maps running beneath. You can also switch the screen to black, which Tesla calls Cleaning Mode, though there’s no conventional off switch. Instead you have to dig though menus.
A few initial thoughts: The Google Map integration is easily the best sat-nav we’ve used, and when displayed on full screen view is just remarkable; the Bluetooth pairing is likewise flawless; and the DAB+ compatible audio system has fantastic sound quality and a nifty multi-finger swipe adjustment function. The volume also goes up to 11, in a quality nod to Spinal Tap.
One glaring omission is a web browser, even though you can tether off your phone or hook up to WiFi. As of now, Australian Design Rules (ADRs) restrict browsers that are useable while the car is in motion, meaning the current Tesla setup doesn’t meet regulations.
The cabin beyond the screen is a mixed bag. There’s a large digital screen ahead of the driver that shows navigation directions, remaining charge, and speed and instant power usage. That said, we’d like to see a head-up display.
Until recently, Mercedes-Benz owned a stake in Tesla, and the cruise control and indicator stalks, and column-style gear lever are right out of a B-Class. That’s a touch low rent, as is the slightly flimsy feeling plastic dashtop, layered in P85 for in Alcantara suede, that has a degree of ‘give’. The steering wheel buttons, with a number of ‘keyboard shortcuts’ also feel ordinary.
How’s the value? Well, hit and miss. The entry car costs $91,400 plus on-road costs, which makes it about on par with a lower-end same-size German diesel offering. That’s fantastic value. But that equation can change pretty fast.
For instance, the 85kWh Performance upgrade with more power and better range costs $28,500, taking the price to about $120,000. Even then, though, this kind of performance for BMW 535i money seems pretty appetising.
To get our test car, though, you need to shell out another $30,000 in options, taking the car the $150,000 plus on-road costs. That said, this is the top-of-the-line model in the range, and it still easily undercuts a BMW 550i.
These include a rather steep $4600 for the Tech Package that brings satellite-navigation (yes), LED cornering lights, automatic keyless entry, illuminated door handles, electrochromatic mirrors, power folding and heated side mirrors, power tailgate, and memory settings for the driver’s seat and mirrors.
Then there are other extras including the $3100 panoramic glass roof, $5500 for the 21-inch wheels, $1200 for the Performance Leather Seats, $1000 for the carbon-fibre, $1800 for the dual charger option that effectively doubles the car’s recharge potential to 110km of range per hour (the P85 is already Supercharger enabled), $2800 for adjustable dampers, $600 for parking sensors, $600 for fog lights, $3100 for the upgraded sound system, $1200 for premium cabin ambient lighting and $900 for the silver metallic paint our car wore.
Cabin storage is catered for by a massive open space running along where a transmission tunnel would normally be situated. This makes up partially for the lack of a centre console and proper door pockets. There are two front cupholders but none in the rear.
Back seat passengers enjoy excellent legroom, and the flat floor means even the middle passenger has decent space. The sunroof (which, annoyingly, lacks a proper sun blind) does eat into headroom though, and there are rear vents and spotlights. Australia does not get the option of third-row dicky seats available in the US.
The rear seats (made of beautiful leather) fold 60:40, expanding the already enormous cargo space from 745 litres to 1645L. There’s also 150L in the ‘frunk’, or front trunk, given the lack of an engine. Should it be renamed the ‘froot’ for Australia? Fact is, this car has more storage space than the average family SUV. And that’s clever packaging.
Part of the reason for this is the car’s rather interesting mechanical makeup. Underneath is what as known colloquially as a ‘skateboard’ rolling chassis with suspension (double wishbone front and multi-link rear), motor and other various components, including the battery pack. It’s a flat, all-encompassing floor with a body and seats plonked atop.
Being a new offering from a startup brand (it only has about 30 local staff, though this will grow rapidly), the ownership proposition is a mixed bag. You’re not going to get access to a vast network for support for some time, at the least.
For now, there are two Tesla sites locally, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne (soon to be two, but quarter three). There are no confirmed details on the rollout into other states yet, though this fledgling company means business.
Servicing increments are annual and consist of brake checks, tyres and motor diagnostics. All models get 24/7 roadside assist (and if you don’t fancy using the tyre repair kit, this could be your first port of call) and there’s a four-year/80,000km warranty, plus eight-years/200,000km cover on the battery and drive unit.
Finishing on the ownership information is perhaps a strange choice, given until now EVs have been a proposition for the early adopters and trend setters that put such things lower down the priority list.
What might be the biggest compliment to Tesla is the fact that it has created a genuine alternative to large luxury car from established brands with runs of the board, with very few compromises and enough range for almost any situation you’d reasonably encounter.
This is not a perfect car, despite the fanfare, but it remains a remarkably cohesive and impressive effort for such a small company, and one that will be looked at as the real genesis (forget the Roadster) of what may well in a decade hence be considered an automotive superpower.