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2016 Tesla Model X P90D review
OWNER RATING 9.1 /10
  • Serious supercar speed; Autopilot used at the right time; Falcon wing doors a hit with kids; Cavernous storage
  • Autopilot niggles; Rain-sensing windscreen wipers; No multi-destination GPS; Ventilation seats barely work
PRICE N/A
ANCAP RATING N/A

by Luke Calthrop

Americans have a real knack of making visitors from the rest of the world look on in awe – truly both the best and worst in life can be found there. It’s easy to look on jealously as a visiting car-loving consumer. So few can match the States’ population and market competition.

A favourite life hack is the website Turo, which provides the framework and insurance to let you borrow anyone’s car and use it as a rental. Goodbye drab one-size-fits-all Budget or Avis, and hello reasonably priced gigantic truck or muscle car.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a review of a rental car. However, as we occasionally do, we’ve decided it is interesting enough and thorough enough to publish here. Enjoy the read.

An entry-version Model S Turo rental made me a Tesla convert driving around San Francisco in 2017. The instant torque on tap, silent futuristic cabin and on-foot driving from regen’ brakes was my first taste of the dark side. To even mention EV revolution, pistonheads around the world will reach over their engine block coffee tables and take stubbieholder swigs in disgust. But hear me out… My pedigree includes heavily modded V8 utes and Bintang singlets.

Only judge a Tesla after you’ve driven one. I stomped on the happy pedal and realised I was going at least as fast as I dared on my large-capacity sportsbike at home. Doing 0–100km/h in 3.2 seconds is supercar-level intoxication, and positively comical for a fully loaded 2.5-tonne people mover.

Opportunities test-piloting a Tesla haven’t yet fallen to many very often – just too damned expensive for a start. So given a couple of weeks’ holiday in California this January, it was time to seek some Turo McLovin. Enter your stereotypical Yank entrepreneur with a small fleet of financed cars, who placed in my grateful sweaty hands the keys to a 2016 Model X P90D with Ludicrous mode. This is a car that in Australia would have cost north of AUD$250,000 when new, and it cost me the princely sum of AUD$200 a day (before add-ons). ‘Murica $*@! yeah.

A lot of people’s driving is exclusively local and commuting, perhaps with the odd interstate hike each year. Current lack of charging infrastructure is less of an issue for those who can top up at home, given, say, any car with 300km real-world range or more. Still, there are plenty for whom exploring on the road is the vacation of choice – the more ground you cover, the more you get to taste. I wanted to see how an EV coped on a 4000km loop through California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah over two weeks.

Averaging perhaps four driving hours a day were my passengers: a supportive spouse and our two sons under five. Departing Santa Monica through Hollywood and the LA outskirts, clocking first triple-digit speeds on long deserted straights entering Vegas via the route less travelled. Then followed a large loop of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, before fast-tracking it to Monterey and doing the famous Pacific Highway coastal road back to LAX.

Most overnight stays had destination chargers available at motels, but especially inland, the supercharger stops were mandatory. This was the litmus test: could an EV genuinely work on a planned road trip or was there too much of a compromise? My first error was not appreciating that even when driving like a granny, serious winter temperatures would knock up to a third off battery range. Tesla cars radiate ‘born and bred in sunny Silicon Valley’, not icy roads and extensive winter testing.

Range anxiety presents a genuine problem, given the battery consumption difference between, say, 85 and 65mph. When the car version of Gal Gadot is whispering in your ear “on this wild fling I’ll do absolutely anything you like”, the last thing you want is to channel your inner-Prius Eco Efficiency Challenger. “Just missionary position is fine thanks Wonder Woman”… Not the answer you want to give.

Between Vegas and the Grand Canyon, disaster flirted dangerously close. Just 147 miles, two-plus-hours driving with zero charging options between Kingman and Flagstaff superchargers. Initially showing 220 miles near full, it wasn’t long before the battery range started to drop dramatically, seemingly in sync with the outside temperatures falling to -20deg C. The GPS starts giving you ultimatums, “must maintain less than 70mph to reach destination”. Initially I thought this was being uber-cautious, based on arriving in Vegas with a handful of miles left on the gauge, which didn’t seem to drop at all in city driving.

But progressively I became more and more worried – we weren’t going to make it. My speed dropped down to 70, then 60, then 50mph in limp-home mode. The last hour was spent with heating off, screen on darkest setting, and visions of being stuck on the below-freezing side of the road, running up eye-watering roaming charges during the call of shame for help. And of all days to potentially have to haggle over a tow truck charge, it was New Year’s Day.

With just one mile to go until the supercharger oasis, zero miles range ticked down on the dash. Under attempts to stay calm on the surface, expletives and despair lurked nearby. Every corner was willed closer as I imagined falling agonisingly short – ‘Can you push an electric car in neutral like a normal car?’ I thought to myself, and ‘How do you put the car in neutral if everything is off?’. Like a movie stunt waiting to spectacularly explode, the final hundreds of metres of tarmac passed by in slow motion.

By dumb luck, we arrived running on (battery cell?) fumes. I wanted a Chive T-shirt saying ‘Keep Calm and Plug in that Bloody Charger’. Subsequently I’d read of other drivers who’d been left high and dry, stranded even with low mileage numbers still showing for range – not like a petrol tank then! Another continuation of the great tradition of fortune smiling on travelling Aussies. Anyway, enough with the war stories. How was the car right?

You hear accounts from people fortunate, or foolish enough, to have owned supercars complaining the reality doesn’t match the dream. Like skin-deep beauty, perhaps the superficial allure masks other surprisingly basic flaws. The Tesla contained approximately three facepalms for me – mainly the rain-sensing windscreen wipers that were genuinely crap, and the GPS that doesn’t let you add multiple stops. How can you have a tech company and car that claims to be steps away from autonomous driving, yet not let you plan a route properly?

The ventilated seats, which in Australian summers could be worthwhile, didn’t seem to do anything either. Tesla discontinued these in 2017, but reintroduced it on 2018 cars, improved hopefully.

Would I be upset if spending a house-sized chunk of money on a vehicle that wasn’t near-perfect? Possibly yes, but none of these criticisms were enough to tarnish the honeymoon. Name another manufacturer who, after the sale and delivery are done, actively improves your car with over-the-air updates and features (e.g. Sentry mode).

The Model X interior is a truly fantastic and comfy place to be. The high line of the windscreen sweeping overhead offers a great window to the world. From a practical standpoint for travelling families, cavernous storage is available in the boot and frunk. More than just a high riding position, being able to easily sling things like kids’ bicycles into a high boot, and the sense of space, is why I can’t see our family picking a saloon over an SUV anytime soon.

What are the falcon wing doors like? Mostly just a cool novelty that our kids begged to be allowed to open and close themselves. Not a problem once trained to wait until unsuspecting parents were no longer standing in the firing line. To be fair, the sensors worked well, and occasionally the open-override button was required to approve the full door extension when nearby columns in car parks or similar were detected. I didn’t have an issue with rain or opening and closing speed either. As a parent strapping in kids, it was overall a big plus for ease of access. Although, yes, I wouldn’t want to be paying to fix these out of warranty on an older car.

With no centre seat in the middle row, most people like the six-seater option that gives better rear-view visibility. However, having a hole for all your stuff in the boot to slide into is a major drawback to keeping anything in one place. A borrowed Esky for the trip plugged this gap nicely – perhaps the lower-cost seven-seat option makes more sense.

One forum tip that worked well was putting – during normal forward driving – the reversing camera on part of the massive central display. This makes blind-spot monitoring a breeze and mitigates the obstructive C-pillars that are so common on many cars these days.

Autopilot – that great talking point. Does it have a place, and can it be relied upon? The answers are ‘yes’, and ‘not entirely’. There was a learning curve to ‘control’ the system in automated mode. Your friends on the cruise-control stalk are the following: distance adjustment and the target speed. When driving moderately aggressively in typical traffic, set a close following distance and high enough speed to suit fast-lane traffic.

Autopilot doesn’t yet have the ability to ‘see the horizon’ or naturally ease off or on the throttle like a human would do cornering. During infamous LA congestion, the only setting is maximum following distance and limited speed, else you’ll be braking far harder and later than you’d like. Whenever red brake lights began stacking up ahead, I’d just disengage cruise control and coast to drop speed rather than let autopilot continue to accelerate me towards a jam.

While by any stretch this is not fully autonomous driving, take my word, it’s still more relaxing than normal driving. Whereas on long solid driving days I’d usually be more tired, here I found myself still surprisingly fresh. Critics ask, ‘how can it be relaxing if you have to be ready to take over at any moment, surely that’s dangerous?’. Far from it I’d argue, it’s freeing up workload instead.

Different concentration levels match different tasks. Race around a track or ride a motorcycle and coming off has real consequences – everyone’s proper alert. Safe in our cage on suburban roads, however, driving concentration levels lie somewhere in the grey zone between people who drive defensively, knowing where and when to look, and others who would probably prefer to be in the passenger seat but unfortunately have control of a high-speed killing machine instead. I’m looking at you here texting drivers with ADHD, who can’t go a traffic light without the phone fix.

So why is this autopilot thing good again? In the right application it works. On mostly straight highways, it lets you concentrate mainly on watching hazards and traffic, in the faith that the small steering changes and driver inputs are being taken care of. I never felt like I was wanting to stop everything to watch a movie, but it just took less mental energy to do the same tasks of monitoring and driving.

And when it comes to stop-start crawling traffic, I think of those man-made Bermuda triangles of time I’ve visited… Punt Rd Melbourne or the London M25 in a manual car… Hours spent creeping clutches and training pedal feet up for non-existent Olympic Games. Give a motoring purist an automatic car with adaptive cruise control, and instead they can focus on enjoying a conversation or tune instead – work smarter not harder?

Widespread rollout of these semi-autonomous systems seems improbably distant. Yet further improvements have been promised this year, including a summon feature where your car will start and drive to you anywhere in a car park. It’s certainly a strange act of faith to take your hands off the wheel and trust a computer to do that turn for you around that first corner. For fast single-lane country roads with plenty of turns, it still feels too clumsy and ham-handed to inspire confidence.

One day with enhanced algorithms, an eyes-closed-in-the-back Driving Miss Daisy won’t be able to tell the difference as to who’s in charge. If you’re interested in machine learning, programming and outlier cases, you might argue it’s a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’. They’re not a million miles off.

Which doesn’t excite me at all to be honest. Imagine the nightmare of governments one day mandating driverless car sharing alone in the name of safety. Perhaps if we act now to protect it, a new second amendment perhaps, the right to bear wheels! I want my kids (like I did) to literally gain their independence with their licence at 17 and be free to roam.

Generationally, though, maybe things have changed. My younger brother’s 30, lives in the city and has no interest in owning a car; I’ll never get it. As a nanny-state postscript, during this USA trip not one single revenue-raising speed camera could be seen anywhere. A carrot-topped ‘please explain’ to these latest figures: Australian road deaths 4.7 per 100,000 population. Germany with their unrestricted autobahns – 3.9.

Some recall when American car manufacturers had a reputation for being good in a straight line only and little else. In recent decades they’ve struggled to compete on innovation with the Japanese, Germans or Koreans for the most part. But putting those stigma sunglasses down for a moment, there is a new player increasingly stealing territorial corners from the established gangs. Tesla has just released its long-promised USD$35K Model 3 capable of 0–100 in 5.6 seconds, which will open the door for a lot of folk. In my opinion, it made a mistake bringing the saloon to market first over the compact SUV design, which is surely the fastest-growing segment worldwide.

While it’s still a fight for survival, indications exist that Tesla as a company will likely continue to juggle profitability pressures while expanding manufacturing, servicing and the charging infrastructure that gives them a competitive advantage. Perhaps at some future stage, if capturing American heartland’s a Ford F150-killa, Tesla might be able to get the popcorn out while legacy makers cannibalise their own ICE sales and blame each other for what went wrong. Or maybe it won’t.

Granted, the roar of an engine will always stir the stomach and make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. But commercially, when another technology offers better performance and less pollutant side effects, has minimal maintenance and parts to service, and costs less to run, then perhaps that’s natural progression?

We’re blessed to live in sparkling (for the most part) Australia, but fly into China and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just a cloudy day, every day, over there. That’s a perma-smog poisoning all those living underneath it. Confirms for me why in the big picture those decent EVs, if not driverless cars, can’t come soon enough.

Beating several tempting contenders to the honour, this ludicrous Tesla Model X put the biggest smile on my automotive dial yet. Even if the rain-sensing wipers barely work, it’s what I’d put on the driveway given half a chance. Anyone got next week’s Lotto numbers?

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