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Can the Model S challenge the finest offerings from two of Europe's biggest car makers?

For as long as we can remember, the saloon class has been dominated by two German giants: Mercedes-Benz, and BMW

As we enter the electric era, though, things are starting to change. A flood of rivals from the west, and the east, are starting to make their way into the UK market, but there's one brand which has taken Europe by storm. 

Tesla has shaken up the market with the Model 3 and Model Y - which have both risen to become two of Europe's best-selling EVs - but the Model S was its first production model since the original Roadster electric sports car, and now it's back to take on the continent's biggest hitters.

Can the Model S, in its insanely powerful Plaid specification, really challenge the finest offering from two of Europe's biggest car makers? It's up to our team of testers to find out. 

Read on, as we pit the 1000bhp EV against the BMW i5 M60 xDrive and the Mercedes EQE 53 AMG Performance Package. Which car will come out on top?

Quick links: The challenger: Tesla Model S Plaid - The stalwarts: BMW i5 and Mercedes EQE - Design - Performance - Ride and handling - Verdict 

Introducing the Tesla Model S Plaid 

Just one extended push of the Tesla Model S Plaid's throttle pedal is all you need to understand that the super-saloon state of play could be in for an upset.

With more than 1000bhp to play with, the Model S Plaid was never going to be slow, but the eye-widening, bowel-loosening pace that it delivers is like nothing you've ever experienced before.

Your seat-of-the-pants accelerometer is backed up by the data, because this is the fastest car to which we've yet strapped our timing gear.

The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport? Slower. A McLaren P1? Tardy by comparison. The Ferrari SF90 Stradale? You will see it in the Tesla's rear-view mirror. On this evidence, how can the BMW i5 M60 and Mercedes-AMG EQE 53 hope to compete?


Read our review

Car review

For the very first time, BMW targets its spiritual heartland with an all-electric model

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Okay, we're getting ahead of ourselves, because there's obviously a lot more to a great fast four-door than its ability to obliterate straights. Even so, the fact the Model S is here at all and laying down the gauntlet gives pause for thought.

In less than a decade the all-American, all-electric machine has turned from group test revolutionary to the one to beat, while the old guard have been frantically playing catch-up. 

Introducing the Mercedes EQE and BMW i5 M50

Yet when it comes to spawning super-saloons, the playing field is levelled somewhat, because few car makers have a more impressive track record than BMW and Mercedes.

The former arguably created the genre with its original M5 way back in 1985, while the outgoing M5 CS is perhaps the greatest exponent of the art yet seen - perhaps ever.

Sure, the i5 M60 isn't an M car in the strictest sense (Motorsport engineers have only given it a once-over and a thumbs-up seal of approval), but it does pack a mighty 590bhp dual-motor setup and a chassis honed for extra sharpness.

Then there's the AMG-fettled EQE 53, which is Affalterbach's second electric offering after the larger EQS 53. Featuring the AMG Performance Package that allows a brief power boost from 617bhp to 677bhp, it's certainly not short of the minerals needed for this encounter.

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And of course, Mercedes' in-house high-performance hothouse is littered with ICE machines dripping in brawn and dynamic brilliance. 


And the Tesla? Well, its tacky Plaid boot badge certainly doesn't carry the kudos of an M or AMG sticker - at least not yet. And then there's the name itself, which is typically Elon-eccentric, being a sniggering frat-boy nod to one of his favourite 1980s films, the goofball comedy Spaceballs. Hmm...

Despite its mind-boggling power output, the Plaid looks pretty much like any other Model S. You could argue that the fact it's available in left-hand-drive only adds an air of exoticism, in the manner of the E30 BMW M3 or Lancia Delta Integrale, but you would be clutching at straws.

Still, it's handsome and well-proportioned and is more distinctive than the 'bar of soap left in a bath' aesthetic of the EQE. By comparison, the square-rigged i5 looks the most familiar, its traditional three-box profile being a result of the need also to accommodate the petrol and plug-in hybrid powertrains necessary as part of its dual role as the all-new 5 Series.

The contrasts continue when you climb aboard, where once again the Tesla does very little to remind you of its flagship status.

The recently updated interior still has the brand's minimalist layout, so it's dominated by a large and surprisingly easy-to-use central touchscreen. It's also the roomiest, using its EV packaging to best effect to deliver the most head and leg room, along with the biggest boot, complete with underfloor storage for charging cables.

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Not so the Mercedes, which, despite sitting on a bespoke, electric-only platform, appears to be an inverse Tardis: big on the outside, borderline cramped inside. Still, with the optional Hyperscreen (an eye-watering £6990), it beats the Tesla for tech tinsel.

Moreover, the sprawling three-display layout is surprisingly easy to get along with, and the brand's Zero Layer concept means you don't have to delve into submenus for the most frequently used options.

The BMW's curved display looks nearly as slick, but you will be expelling expletives as your eyes leave the road for extended periods just to change between audio sources or switch driver modes.

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That said, the i's otherwise stylish cabin is the most sumptuous and feels solidly screwed together from the highest-grade materials; both the Mercedes and Tesla suffer from the odd piece of low-rent plastic and creaky, poorly applied trim. 


Despite its sturdy feel, the BMW isn't the heaviest here: its 2380kg kerb weight falls between the EQE's corpulent 2525kg and the Tesla's hardly waif-like 2167kg.

Yet with just' 590bhp on tap, the i5 is the slowest, claiming 3.8sec for the 0-62mph sprint (quick but 0.2sec down on the fast version of Volvo's EX30 baby SUV, which is a sobering thought).

Make no mistake, it delivers a real kick and will keep hauling hard for a considerable time - although that you can access the full complement of power only in 10sec bursts while pulling on a steering wheel-mounted boost paddle is a little gimmicky.

As in its rivals, acceleration is seamless: four-wheel-drive traction means not a single watt of electricity is wasted through unruly wheelspin.

And once you've fathomed how to turn off the spaceship sound effects, you travel in hushed silence (it's easily the most refined; both the Mercedes and Tesla inflict a fair dose of road roar).

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It also delivers the best one-pedal driving experience, the regenerative braking proving easy to modulate and strong enough to bring the car to a complete halt. If you need to resort to the friction brakes, the BMW's set-up is nicely judged, offering excellent progression and good power.

The Mercedes gets a slightly grabby carbon-ceramic braking set-up as part of the optional AMG Performance Package (for a trifling £7995), which also briefly boosts power to 677bhp, helping it blast through the 62mph benchmark in a scant 3.2sec.

It feels faster than the BMW, too, responding more sharply to the throttle, especially in its racier driving modes, which give it a real super-saloon bite. 

Ride and handing

You certainly won't be lacking an injection of adrenaline in the tri-motor Tesla, which, as we've discovered, is leagues ahead in terms of outright urge.

In fact, so savage and slightly disorienting is the acceleration in Plaid mode (there are also Sport and Chill settings) that most corners are upon you before you know it, meaning there's a real risk of sailing past the braking point of no return.

Speaking of which, the stoppers don't offer the smoothest transition between regen and friction, while, more worryingly, they soon wilt under the demands of slowing in excess of two tonnes of metal propelled by 1020bhp.

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Provided you do get the Tesla slowed down for a corner, you will discover that its vibe slips from hypercar to old-school muscle car. While improvements have been made to the latest Model S, it remains something of a one-trick pony dynamically.

There's plenty of grip and a flat cornering stance, but the steering is lifeless and there's precious little adjustability: the rear wheels simply follow the fronts.

Try to get on the power early to alter your line and it's the front motor that dominates, resulting in a scrappy flurry of wheelspin and run-wide understeer. You can dial in more dynamism and a rearward torque bias with Track mode, but the Tesla remains uncommunicative and flat-footed.

Worse still, there isn't even a trade-off in comfort. The air springs round sharper imperfections, but there's an underlying firmness that seemingly can't be dialled out, despite the apparent ability to almost infinitely adjust suspension bump and rebound settings via the infotainment.

Even so, the Model S isn't as stiff-legged as the also air-sprung EQE, which never properly settles down unless on billiard-table-smooth surfaces. The flipside is that the EQE does serve up some genuine entertainment in the twisties.

You sit a little high (Mercedes hasn't packaged the battery quite as neatly as the others), but the EQE's meaty and accurate steering is the best here. The car feels like it's pivoting around you in the corners as it slices accurately toward the apex, and the steered rear axle feels far more natural than the similar system in the BMW.

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Dial up the driving modes and relax the electronic safety net (all easily done with the wheel-mounted controls) and the Mercedes even gets a little playful, allowing you to tease out the tail under power as you slingshot out of slower corners.

You still feel the mass through quicker changes of direction, and there's still a sense that the computers have ultimate control, but the EQE is at least up for a little fun.

And the BMW? Well, anyone expecting an electric M5 CS is in for a disappointment. Despite the M branding and those trademark door mirrors, the i5 feels more like a scaled-down i7 luxury limo than a sporting saloon.

On the plus side, it has the plushest ride here and the interior boasts vault-like refinement, but there's little reward gained from hustling it hard. For starters, it's a big old bus, and it can't disguise its mass and measurements on the road.

The optional rear-wheel steering and active anti-roll air suspension add agility in the slow stuff, but you always feel it's reacting a half-beat behind your requests, which gives it a slightly lazy demeanour.

And while the steering is better weighted than that of the Tesla, there's still very little in the way of back and forth between your fingertips and the asphalt.

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Fumble your way through the touchscreen to dial in Sport mode and the suspension hunkers down for some extra sharpness and control. In response, the i5 corners more keenly than the ModelS, but still you're always aware of its immense heft.

Its efficiency-enhancing Continental tyres also give up their grip the soonest, with the fronts sliding wide surprisingly early. Even with its stability control disabled, the 15 refuses to engage in any M-car-style throttle adjustability. It's composed and capable, but keen drivers will find little to get their teeth into. 


Ultimately, despite prodigious performance and posturing, none of our trio delivers on the super-saloon brief as we've come to understand it. Each is missing the vital ingredient that delivers those drives that lift spirits, enrich the soul and stimulate the senses.

There are flashes of promise, but none comes even close to presenting as the finished article.

So where does that leave us? Well, if this were a straight executive saloon test, the refinement and rounded abilities of the sensible i5 might have it triumph. But here it finishes third, although only by the width of a charging cable from the second-placed Model S.

The Plaid offers unearthly performance, the best range and access to Tesla's excellent Supercharger network, but it also suffers lead-footed handling and a nagging sense that nobody really needs to go this fast.

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This leaves the EQE out front, albeit by the narrowest of margins and almost by default. It has the smallest cabin, it's the least efficient and it weighs the most, but it's the only one that you would consider taking for a blast just for the hell of it. In a test of cars supposedly created for keen drivers, that has to count for a lot.

James Disdale

James Disdale
Title: Special correspondent

James is a special correspondent for Autocar, which means he turns his hand to pretty much anything, including delivering first drive verdicts, gathering together group tests, formulating features and keeping topped-up with the latest news and reviews. He also co-hosts the odd podcast and occasional video with Autocar’s esteemed Editor-at-large, Matt Prior.

For more than a decade and a half James has been writing about cars, in which time he has driven pretty much everything from humble hatchbacks to the highest of high performance machines. Having started his automotive career on, ahem, another weekly automotive magazine, he rose through the ranks and spent many years running that title’s road test desk. This was followed by a stint doing the same job for monthly title, evo, before starting a freelance career in 2019. The less said about his wilderness, post-university years selling mobile phones and insurance, the better.

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scrap 5 January 2024

Need to wade through the cliche soup here to decode what's going on. For example, the BMW apparently 'hunkers down' in sport mode... like, lowers its ride height?

Given all 3 are too big to drive with abandon on European twisties, you're looking for luxury here. And I reckon the BMW without the rear wheel steer or active roll bars but with a sharper set of tyres would be the choice here.

Its still ugly though. 

Will86 4 January 2024

I bet that all three are better in their respective 'base' model forms. They'll be plenty fast enough, much cheaper and probably nicer to drive. It used to be you wanted the more expensive model to get a nicer engine, but with EVs there's must less incentive to move higher up the range.

dakoje 4 January 2024