Limited range is the Achilles Heel of most electric cars, with the exception of the Tesla Model S, which claims a maximum range, depending on the model, of over 300 miles. Is this claim mere marketing hype, or is it real? We set out to find out!
First impressions of the Model S are of a stylish, sporty saloon which can be mistaken for a Jaguar or even a Maserati. Closer examination reveals a raft of intriguing details such as flush-fitting door handles, which glide out to meet your hand as you approach the car – as long as you have the key, of course. Even the key itself looks like no other, its smooth stylised shape undisturbed by buttons.
Inside the car the unusual features continue, most notably the huge centre touchscreen reminiscent of an iPad on steroids. The interior is otherwise pleasingly minimalist, in best Apple-style, the facia featuring only two physical buttons – one to open the glove box, t’other for the hazard lights. Clearly, this is a car designed in a whole different way – by computer experts and not regular car designers.
Even in mundane matters such as luggage space, the Model S is unique. A decent-sized boot is expected on a large saloon, this car goes further by having a second useful-sized boot up front where the engine should be, a feat unmatched by any other electric car I can think of, as their underbonnet area still manages to be stuffed full of electrical gear.
The packaging of the Model S is indeed something of a work of art, which can only be appreciated by seeing the chassis in isolation. All the running gear – batteries, motor, charger and control system – is located beneath the completely flat floor, which as well as liberating vast amounts of space for passengers & luggage, must also provide a significant side benefit in ride & handling due to the extremely low centre of gravity.
Tesla, of course are a very new company, unheard of just a few years ago, and whose first all-new offering is the Model S – their Roadster of a couple of years ago being an admittedly heavily reworked Lotus Elise. There may be one or two very minor details of the Model S which aren’t quite right, for example there is a lack of door pockets for stowing things like drinks bottles, and the front of the bonnet feels as if it would be easy to dent when closing the lid. Nevertheless, for a first effort from a new company the Model S is an incredibly impressive bit of kit in every respect.
But of course, the Tesla is about more than looks and luxury – that substantial range appears to set it apart as possibly the first practical electric car for anything other than short-distance runs. So how realistic is that range? We tested an 85kW single-motor model, which Tesla tell us can achieve up to 310 miles between charges. With a level of honesty rare in the motor PR world, however, Tesla make no bones about this range figure being reduced by a range of factors such as speed, weather conditions and tyre size. Indeed, until recently they included a useful calculator on their website to show the results of these factors.
“Our target was to complete this journey without it taking any longer than it would in a conventional car”
To find out the true range, we decided to challenge the Model S to the sort of journey many of us will make from time to time, whether on business or to visit friends or relatives around the country. In our case, this involved heading off from Surrey, blasting up the West coast via the M40/M6/M74 motorway network, then over to Edinburgh and up into Perthshire, finally driving back down the East of England on the A1/M1/M25 to return to Surrey. Our target was to complete this journey without it taking any longer than it would in a conventional car, whilst using only the Tesla Supercharger network of charging stations – the use of which is free to all Tesla owners – wherever possible. The website calculator – pity Tesla seem to have deleted it as it was an interesting planning tool – reckoned that we would get around 250 miles from a full charge, bearing in mind that our journey would be mostly high-speed motorway miles in the winter months, with wipers, lights & heaters needed in the zero-degree weather.
Preparing to drive off in the Model S to start this journey once again reminded us that the traditional car designer’s rule book had been thrown away when Tesla engineered the Model S. Lesser cars need ignition keys to start them, more upmarket models may be keyless, proudly offering up a starter button instead. Not so the Model S, which eschews such fripperies. Once you are in the driver’s seat, with your foot on the brake, just slide the steering column mounted gear selector – borrowed from Mercedes – into D, and you are ready to rock & roll just as soon as your foot eases down on the acccelerator. No key, no starter button, no handbrake to release – the Model S does it all with that one simple action.
That’s after you have selected your ideal driving position, of course. Even then, the Model S manages to do something different: lesser cars store in their memory typically three driver settings for seats, mirrors & steering wheel, the Tesla manages 10, any of which can be called up by a couple of presses of that huge touchscreen.
The touchscreen, by the way, may look initially daunting, but proves to be extremely simple to use. The screen refers to features like the Sat Nav as “Apps”, again showing the design team’s mindset. It can easily be set up either to devote all the screen to one App, or show two simultaneously in split-screen format if desired. Many of the Apps involve internet access via the car’s powerful inbuilt 3G system, which hung on to a 3G signal long after our iPhones gave up the ghost. The screen’s sat-nav uses Google Maps, which is incredibly useful for spotting traffic problems on your route in real time, unlike even the best of other inbuilt systems. As our journey was to demonstrate, though, not everywhere in the country has the necessary 3G signal for it to work effectively. Not to worry, Tesla have thought of that minor problem, and the Model S also includes a conventional GPS-based sat-nav which displays on the instrument panel in front of the driver.
Another App selects the music system, which now includes, as well as the usual DAB & Bluetooth etc., a Spotify subscription, yet another novel but unusual and useful feature. Again, though, Spotify needs a reliable 3G signal, which slightly limits its use in some rural areas.
The touchscreen also includes a menu-driven system for accessing the various controls & settings, which might sound tricky but was actually very simple, aided greatly by sensible spacing between the virtual buttons on the touchscreen. In another nice touch, the car manual is also accessed via. the screen – more computer thinking!
The Model S interior is a luxurious place to be, with a remarkable amount of space available thanks to that completely flat floor. One minor gripe, though, is that stowage space for your bits and pieces is limited. Although the space which would normally be occupied by the transmission tunnel is given over to a huge floor-mounted oddments tray between the driver and passenger, mobile phones and the like tend to slide around in there, and are exposed to view if the car is left unattended. Slightly unexpected is that one of the windscreen wiper joints pokes upwards into the drivers forward vision line, a detail which most traditional car companies would have gone to some lengths to avoid. Due to the steeply sloping rear window, rearward visibility through the interior mirror is somewhat restricted, although this is a criticism which can also be levelled at many other coupe-style competitors. A rear window wiper would have been handy, too. Both interior and exterior mirrors are auto-dimming, making judging the speed of traffic approaching behind you slightly tricky until you get used to it. All minor quibbles, and certainly not enough to be show-stoppers.
“Even our more humble 85kW Model S produces a 911-demolishing 374bhp”
Enough of the static stuff, how does the Model S shape up on the road? In a word – electrifying! Anything other than a very gentle prod on the throttle sends the Tesla accelerating forwards in near silence broken only by some tyre rumble as the speed increases, accompanied by just a little wind noise. Full throttle acceleration even in this relatively benign 85kW Model S gives Porsche 911-rivalling performance. All electric cars are comparatively quick off the mark, thanks to full torque being available from a standing start, unlike petrol or diesel traction. In most electric-mobiles, though, that initial surge of torque soon diminishes as the speed increased. Not so the Tesla, which continues to haul the horizon towards you at a rate which could soon put serious points on your driving licence. Not for nothing do Tesla, with a delightful touch of wry humour, label the button which unleashes maximum performance in the higher-power P90D dual-motor model “Ludicrous”. Extremely apt, when the two motors between them produce a maximum of 762bhp, giving a 0-60 time of 2.8 seconds! Even our more humble 85kW Model S produces a 911-demolishing 374bhp.
With all that grunt available under your right foot, coupled with the near-silence which accompanies any level of acceleration, it’s just as well that the Model S helps keep you legal by alerting the driver to the prevailing speed limit, thanks to a forward facing camera which can be linked in to the speed limiter. Again, taking advantage of software programmability, the adaptive cruise control and speed limiter offers not just the ability to hold the car at any desired speed, but to adjust speed to cope with any and every speed limit you meet on your journey, or even offset the maximum speed from that limit by your desired margin. The beauty of the system is that once the system is set, it keeps you legal regardless of however frequently the limit changes. We found the speed limit recognition to be absolutely reliable, unlike in some lesser makes, detecting temporary road works limits as well as the overhead variable speed limit signs which are becoming increasingly familiar.
“…..radar-based adaptive cruise control forms part of the foundations for Tesla’s innovative and recently-announced Autopilot system”
That radar-based adaptive cruise control forms part of the foundations for Tesla’s innovative and recently-announced Autopilot system. This feature, when activated, keeps the car positioned in the centre of its lane, adjusting the steering as necessary to maintain the car’s position in the centre of the lane, whilst maintaining the set speed, only slowing where necessary when coming up behind slower traffic. In that situation, overtaking can then be carried out simply by checking that there is no approaching traffic in the adjacent lane and then indicating; the car slides into the next lane as if by magic and, if the road ahead in that lane is clear, accelerates back to its set speed. If you do fail to spot an approaching car before you pull out, the blind-spot detection system should prevent the Autopilot from moving out into its path, although relying just on the Autopilot to check that the outside lane is clear is probably not a good idea!
Indeed, Tesla are at pains to point out that Autopilot software is still in a Beta phase (computer-speak again!) and should only be used where conditions are safe to do so. In practice, this means motorways or dual carriageways where the lane markings either side of the lane are clear. We did however try out Autopilot where conditions were far from ideal, in darkness with heavy rain where even the driver struggled to keep the white lane markings in sight. Even then, Autopilot still coped admirably: clearly, Tesla have done a vast amount of development in this area.
To comply with present legislation, Tesla insist that the driver keeps the steering wheel loosely held whilst Autopilot is switched on, allowing the driver to regain control if necessary. The initial sensation of driving under Autopilot can best be described as uncanny, with the steering wheel writhing gently under your fingers like something alive. Even more eerie is the lane-change manoeuvre, with much will-power being needed initially to avoid grabbing the wheel when the car steers out of lane. Use of Autopilot does however become second nature very quickly, and without a doubt the feature makes life much more relaxing on a long motorway journey.
“if only all manufacturers cared enough about their customers to do the same”
The hardware for Autopilot, incidentally, is now built into every new Model S, and can be activated – for a price, obviously, – either by specifying it when ordering, or retrospectively. The software itself was part of the download for the latest update to the cars operating system. Which brings me to yet another innovative feature of the Tesla: regular software updates are streamed direct to every car via either 3G or WiFi, often adding additional newly-developed features at no cost. As an example, user feedback from early Model S cars criticised the lack of a “creep” facility on the transmission; one quick software tweak later and a creep option was rolled out to every Model S, new and old! The update process can potentially take several hours, however Model S drivers can select when it takes place, rather than being inconvenienced by having to book the car into a dealership for this to be done. If only all manufacturers cared enough about their customers to do the same!
“whilst lesser manufacturers merely talk about driverless cars, Tesla have quietly gone and done it!”
Overall, Autopilot is a highly impressive system, and we look forward to monitoring its doubtless rapid evolution. For now, though, it is abundantly clear that whilst lesser manufacturers merely talk about driverless cars, Tesla have quietly gone and done it!
For such a big and heavy car – just short of 5 metres and 2,100kg., the Model S rides and handles pretty well, giving the driver the confidence to push on and use that staggering performance to advantage. Optional air suspension – engineered by Bilstein – allows the ride height to be adjusted as required, principally to increase the ground clearance when crossing steep drives and the like. Yet another example of computer-geek engineering means that the ride height can adjust itself automatically in preparation for traversing known obstacles, again courtesy of GPS. As if that was not enough, the air suspension can also jack up the Model S to allow a wheel to be changed!
Safety, of course, is of vital importance, and the Model S passes all the relevant tests with flying colours. Indeed, the story goes that the passenger compartment is so strong that on one side impact test it was the test equipment which broke, rather than the car! This tale may seem far fetched, but examine an unclothed Model S and you will discover that the sills, humble pressed steel on most cars, are a massively strong extruded aluminium section. These also perform a secondary function of protecting the thousands of small batteries, which are sandwiched under the floor to achieve that completely flat floor.
“we regularly achieved a full range of 240-250 miles, bang on Tesla’s prediction”
But what about the range? Well, in around 1,200 miles of fast, but cold and wet wintry motoring, we regularly achieved a full range of 240-250 miles, bang on Tesla’s prediction. Judging by other electric cars, this would improve significantly given better conditions.
That impressive range is only part of the Tesla experience however; charging at their network of “Supercharger” locations is just as easy as filling a conventional car with fuel. A useful boost in charge can be achieved in around 30 minutes, the time it takes for the average comfort or coffee break. In fact, with only a small amount of prior planning to identify possible Supercharger locations, we lost only around 30 minutes waiting for the car to recharge sufficiently during the entire round-country journey.
Supercharger stations carry their own connecting cable, which plugs directly into the car – even the car’s charging port cover opens automatically as it senses the cable approaching – and within seconds the car starts to charge – it’s as easy as that. No buttons to press, no charge cards to validate, just plug and go. And quick as well – we found that 30 minutes of supercharging gives at least 100 miles of range, and often closer to 150 miles (the charge rate slows as the battery approached its full charge). Are there enough Superchargers? Availability is certainly not presently an issue, and the number of locations is growing rapidly, with 30 to date, mostly located on or close to the motorway network. Each Supercharger location has a number of bays, often up to eight,
If there really is no convenient Supercharger, the Model S can be recharged from most of the other available charging point networks. The next-fastest chargers are the Ecotricity Chademo DC fast charger installations, although even these only deliver at most some 40% of the 120kW rate of the Supercharger – or 50kW of juice an hour – and they do require an optional adaptor which is a bit heavy & cumbersome to use. At the other end of the scale, a domestic 3-pin connection can only manage at best a 3-4kW charge rate, adding a negligible 6 miles of range or so for every hour of charging. Using a domestic socket for charging is therefore not a good idea unless you have plenty of time! Like most electric car makers, Tesla can provide a dedicated home charging box, offering an 11kW charge rate which should provide a full charge in around 6 hours.
An interesting subtlety in the charging system is the ability to easily adjust the maximum charge level. Batteries don’t like constantly being charged to the maximum, so Tesla sensibly advise keeping the charge to around 85% of maximum, increasing this as required where peak range is needed. Lesser electric cars don’t have this luxury of course, needing every bit of range they can muster!
Even with its impressive range, the Model S does its utmost to help you avoid running out of juice. Once you have put your destination into the sat nav, the car calculates whether the remaining range is adequate to get you there; if it isn’t, it gives you a route to the nearest Supercharger. Should you ignore this and run low on charge, the Model S goes into battery saving mode at around 20% of remaining capacity, reducing power to get you as far as possible on the remaining charge.
All this sophistication, of course comes at a price. The 85kW car we drove cost £83,130 on the road, before taking into account the Government Grant of £5,000 (shortly to drop to £4,500). However, Tesla have sensibly pitched the car squarely at the high-end market sector currently occupied by the likes of the Mercedes S-class, Jaguar XJ and Range Rover. All of which, as senior executive-level transport, are very likely to venture into the London Congestion Charge Zone, which is where the Model S scores a significant benefit over its more established competitors. As if the exemption from congestion charging was not enough, personal tax rates are highly attractive for company car drivers, and Tesla have also devised an interesting Salary Sacrifice scheme which benefits both employer and employee. And don’t forget that the fuel costs of running a Tesla are zero if you use the Supercharger network. All of which starts to make the Tesla a highly attractive choice for the city-based executive, green-minded or not.
For the rest of us, if the £53,600 starting price for the Model S range is still out of reach, just watch the Tesla range develop: this year’s new Model X SUV will still be aimed at the top end of the market, but next year’s Model 3 is expected to bring the price of a new Tesla down into BMW 3-series territory, at $35,000 in the US and presumably a similar price here in sterling.
“the Model S reinvents the rule book”
Summing up, the most impressive thing about the Model S – apart from, obviously, that unequalled 250-mile-plus range – is how well integrated all the features and bits of technology are. Most of them can be found in isolation on various other manufacturers offerings. No-one else, though, integrates them all so seamlessly and effectively, to make a car that is so easy and enjoyable to drive and be driven in. Underpinned by the incredibly rapid charging provided by the Supercharger network, truly the Model S re-invents the rule-book.
Small wonder that the established motor manufacturers are rushing to develop electric cars which can compete on usable range. They must be scared…………very scared of what Tesla have already achieved, and even more scared of what they will do in the future!
Interested: find out more here:- https://www.teslamotors.com/en_GB/models