Pioneering electric saloon returns to the UK with 1020bhp for bonkers acceleration

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Tesla claims that the new Plaid version of its Model S saloon is the fastest-accelerating production car in the world, so it would be remiss of us not to strap our timing gear to it and subject it to a full road test.

We won’t string this out, because the spec figures on the opposite page give it away already: we’ve timed the Plaid from 0-60mph in 2.4sec, which is quicker than our previous record holder, the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport.

The odd name (said ‘plad’, not ‘played’) has nothing to do with Scotland but is instead a reference to Tesla boss Elon Musk’s favourite film, the 1987 sci-fi comedy Spaceballs.

That’s staggering performance by any standard, and it’s all the more impressive when you consider that this isn’t a hypercar but a big five-door saloon that costs from £113,480. That’s not pocket change for most people, but when the only cars in with a chance of beating it – the Bugatti Chiron, Rimac Nevera and Pininfarina Battista – cost multiple millions of pounds, it looks like a bit of a bargain.

We’ll go into the details of the Model S Plaid’s performance in a minute, but to truly distinguish itself in an Autocar road test, a car needs to do more than go fast in a straight line. It needs to stop, for one, have an interior that befits a £100,000-plus car, and display some ride and handling sophistication.

Range at a glance

Dual Motor AWD670bhp£93,480

You can have a fast Model S or an absurdly fast Model S. They look the same and have the same equipment. Tesla doesn’t do trim levels, because all its cars are well equipped as standard.

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Tesla Model S Plaid rear driving

It would be easy to scoff and say the Model S is now an 11-year-old car, but that would be to misunderstand just how fundamentally the car has changed since Tesla first shocked the world by putting an agreeable long-range electric saloon on sale in 2012. (UK cars followed in 2013.)

Tesla is notably taciturn about the details of its engineering, but the hype around its products is such that third parties have already taken Plaids to pieces for the world to see. And it transpires that while the latest Model S shares its shape with the original, it’s now a very different car.

Lithium ion battery technology has moved on a fair bit in the past decade, and while the Model S still uses cylindrical nickel-cobalt-manganese cells made in partnership with Panasonic, the way the pack is constructed, cooled and mounted has evolved substantially. The capacity is now considered to be 100kWh, of which 97kWh is usable. 

Single-motor versions have long since been dropped and the current Model S is available as a dual-motor Long Range, or as the tri-motor Plaid tested here. Like the Audi SQ8 E-tron, it uses a single motor at the front and one motor for each rear wheel. In the Tesla, the front has 412bhp, while the rears each have 414bhp. The car is rated for 1020bhp rather than 1248bhp because the battery is the limiting factor. That head room does mean that even under full throttle, power can be directed wherever it’s most useful, enabling torque vectoring.

As Tesla has gained experience in building cars, so it has refined its processes and the design of the Model S. It’s still made of mostly aluminium, but many stamped structural components have been replaced with cast ones, alongside numerous detail improvements. On Millbrook’s scales, our test car weighed only 45kg more than the Model S P85D we weighed in 2013.

The suspension is still by double wishbones at the front and a multi-link at the rear. However, the latter has gone from a four-link to a five-link. Every current Model S is air-sprung. The cradle that holds the rear motors and suspension is unique to the Plaid, as it needs to accommodate the dual-motor set-up.

On the outside, the Model S has new wheels, different bumpers and blacked-out trim. The most notable change is that the wheel arches have got wider for a more squat stance. Remarkably, the Plaid’s only visual tells are a rear badge, a subtle lip spoiler and red brake calipers.


Tesla Model S Plaid front interior

The latest update has given the interior of the Model S a major overhaul. Of course, it’s still very much a Tesla interior, so if you like buttons, wood and sumptuous leather, it won’t be for you.

The materials and build quality are decent and much better than Teslas once were but still far from faultless. The glovebox shuts with an audible ‘boing’ and there was a rattle in the roof rail, right by the driver’s left ear. You have to look hard to find cheap-feeling plastics, but neither does Tesla go out of its way to delight with its materials, which runs contrary to the common expectations of a £100,000-plus car. 

Tesla doesn’t use leather, and while the leatherette in here feels remarkably like the real thing, there’s no premium cloth option, no interesting stitching and no fillet of textured aluminium. The only nod to frivolity is the fairly basic-looking carbonfibre trim.

With the Plaid, Tesla has gone to extreme lengths to eliminate physical controls. It has always made you use the centre screen for most secondary controls and now it has even taken away the wiper stalk and gear selector. Instead, the car guesses your intended direction of travel and then asks you to confirm by tapping the brake pedal, and there’s a slider on the screen as a back-up. It works well, but the stakes of the screen freezing have suddenly got a lot higher. 

The wipers and indicators are now controlled with capacitive buttons on the steering wheel. The car cleverly uses the cameras and steering angle sensor to know when to cancel the indicators. Like the drive selector, it works impressively well, but we can’t help but conclude that this is very clever technology doing a job that a simple column stalk would do better.

A Tesla interior won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s hard to criticise the practicality. Tesla makes good use of the flat floor by giving the Model S a practical and deep centre console with movable cupholders and bins and two wireless charging pads. 

There’s a pretty big luggage space under the bonnet; it opens with just a tap of the screen or your phone – no need to fumble for a catch.

Tesla model s plaid infotainment system


Tesla arguably started the trend for big touchscreens that control everything by showing that it could be done in a way that isn’t completely infuriating. That’s still the case: the ultra-high-resolution 17.0in screen responds instantly and the way the various applications can be swiped left, right, up and down is very clever and intuitive. The navigation is Google-based and works well too.

However, systems that retain at least a few buttons are less distracting, and certain options such as the heated and ventilated seats need too many taps to engage.Tesla’s refusal to integrate Apple CarPlay or Android Auto is also frustrating. The native Spotify app is better than its CarPlay equivalent, but the Apple Music one is unusably buggy. There’s also no support for WhatsApp or Apple Podcasts.

Tesla doesn’t bother using fancy-sounding names for its audio system, but the 22-speaker, 960W set-up sounds better than many.



Tesla Model S Plaid front end driving

To get the absolute fastest acceleration out of a Model S Plaid, it’s necessary to have as much charge in the battery as possible (we started our runs at 90%) and put it in Drag Strip mode. This pre-conditions the battery and puts it at the optimum temperature. It takes a while – about seven minutes or so. 

When you put your left foot on the brake and floor the throttle, the Plaid takes a few seconds to enter its Cheetah Stance, lowering the front further to fight the front-end lift and give the front motor the best chance of putting its power down.

The first time I booted the Plaid, I was staggered at the force of the acceleration, only to discover that it was still in the medium-power Sport mode. Even then, it’s quicker than most performance cars.

Do that and you will tick off 60mph in 2.4sec, 62mph in 2.5sec, 100mph in 4.6sec and 160mph in 10.9sec. The Tesla stays ahead of the Bugatti Veyron past each of those increments and also beats it to the standing kilometre, even though the Tesla has by that point been running against its limiter for 5.7sec and we had started braking for the end of Millbrook’s mile straight just before we passed the kilometre. 

You might argue that the rigmarole with the Drag Strip mode and Cheetah Stance takes the shine off the performance. However, if you had even the smallest amount of mechanical sympathy, you wouldn’t do a full-bore standing start in a petrol car without first getting the engine up to temperature. 

We also timed the Model S without the Drag Strip mode.In Plaid mode, it still hit 60mph in 2.7sec and 100mph in 5.1sec. In Sport mode, 60mph took just 3.7sec – faster than a Ford Mustang Mach-E GT. Even in Chill mode, which subjectively feels glacial after any of the car’s other modes, 60mph took just 7.3sec.

Clearly, the Model S Plaid generates a collection of absurd performance figures, but drivability on the road is a different matter.

Because of just how mind-bendingly fast it is, full throttle can be enjoyed for only a few seconds at a time on the road. However, it’s so immediate (even the fastest piston-powered supercars need an instant to select the right gear or spool up their turbos) and violent that it’s a visceral experience to be savoured.

Most of the time, we tended to drive the car in Sport mode, because there isn’t enough throttle travel to easily and smoothly control the huge amount of performance available in Plaid mode. 

Where things get a bit more critical is in slowing down. Teslas don’t blend regenerative and friction braking like almost every other modern EV does. The brake pedal exclusively works the disc brakes, while regen is controlled purely by lifting off the accelerator.

Tesla’s one-pedal operation is among the most intuitive of any EV, so in normal driving, it works fine, but there are plenty of EV drivers who prefer to use both pedals. 

On a track, the lack of brake blending is a serious issue. There, being able to apply the brakes accurately and firmly is essential, which is acknowledged by Track mode letting you dial down the regen. However, with regen out of the mix, the disc brakes have to face the inertia of this two-tonne, 1020bhp car alone, which causes them to overheat in short order. 

The brake pedal feel itself is good, and the Plaid stopped from 70mph in 43.1m – decent for a heavy car.

Tesla model s plaid black wheels

Track notes (Hill Route, Millbrook Proving Ground)

Screenshot 2023 08 11 at 10

We managed to record acceleration and braking figures before the heavens broke over Millbrook but had to settle for wet laps of the Hill Route. However, while a good driver’s car is fun and gives you confidence even in suboptimal conditions, the Plaid felt unsatisfying and unpredictable.

The steering has a constant weight throughout and tells you nothing about grip levels. Leave the systems on and you will demolish the straights and tiptoe through the corners. Try to get on the power too soon and the front wheels will spin briefly and cause some understeer before the traction control puts a stop to it.

It feels at its best and most balanced in Track mode, with the traction control halfway, and the torque split set to about 35:65. The mute steering still stops you from leaning on the front end and Track mode locks you into the overly jumpy Plaid drivetrain mode. Dialling down the regen helps with predictability but quickly overheats the brakes.



Tesla Model S Plaid side view

Whereas the Porsche Taycan is a super-saloon but electric, one could view the Model S Plaid as the modern, electric equivalent of the 1970s muscle car. This is perhaps surprising for the car that holds the Nürburgring lap record for an electric production car and possesses a Track mode. 

Then again, when we road tested the original in 2013, we said it had “acceptable dynamic competence, but it’s nothing special”, and on the road, much the same applies today.

I’m not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed that our test car had a steering wheel. I’m curious to try the yoke, but because the steering ratio is the same as with the wheel, I suspect that twirling that odd shape would get annoying very quickly.

It conjures plenty of grip from its wide, Tesla-specific Michelin tyres, the fast steering responds keenly enough and the adaptively damped air suspension gives it good if unremarkable body control. Most drivers will find it entirely adequate on the road. 

If you’re hoping for some super-saloon flair, though, the Plaid will leave you cold. Because it’s quite a wide car that’s available in left-hand-drive only, you feel naturally disinclined to push it on the road, because it’s hard to see around left-hand bends.

Even on a wide, well-sighted road, the Model S doesn’t inspire much confidence, and the culprit is the steering. Initially, it feels nicely weighted, with relatively strong self-centring, but you quickly discover that there’s nothing more to it. It retains the same weight whatever the front end is doing. It’s slightly eerie and offputting. If you do commit and get on the power a mite too early, you just get understeer.

When we were doing acceleration runs, the Plaid also felt like it was starting to wander a bit at 160mph.

It remains amusing that the company that claims to have cracked ‘full self-driving’, when faced with more stringent European regulations, seems to throw its hands up and deliver a very rudimentary assisted driving system. The lane-keeping assistance is intrusive and takes a few taps to turn off, and while the adaptive cruise control isn’t too easily spooked, it’s very slow to accelerate. The lane-following also tolerates no steering corrections without turning off.

Tesla model s plaid rear driving 0

Comfort & Isolation

The Plaid is better at a gentle canter – just. The air suspension certainly doesn’t have the magic carpet feel of a Range Rover or Mercedes-Benz S-Class, letting a little more of the road’s topography filter through. By luxury car standards, it’s slightly lumpy, but for something with this level of performance, it’s pretty smooth. Even on 21in wheels, surface imperfections are nicely rounded off too.

The seats can’t match the indulgent feel of the multi-adjustable chairs in the best luxury cars, but any driver should be able to find a good driving position that keeps them comfortable on long journeys.

One area where the Model S is decidedly behind is on noise isolation. Although it has frameless windows, wind noise isn’t the issue. There’s just constant road noise at speed, as its 70dBA figure at 70mph highlights. The Taycan Turbo recorded just 66dBA.



Tesla Model S Plaid front cornering

Tesla suspended production of the Model S in right-hand-drive in 2020 and hasn’t restarted it. It is bringing the Model S back to the UK, but more as an image-booster than as a volume-seller. Some people cope with sitting on the wrong side of the car more than others, but if you want the fastest-accelerating saloon on sale, we don’t think that should stop you. However, there is always the danger that Tesla changes its mind in a year or two and starts making Plaids in right-hand drive, thus wrecking the residual values of left-hookers in the UK.

Prices start at £93,480 for the Model S Long Range, but it’s the £113,480 Plaid you want, and options are expensive. For the time being, it’s available from inventory only, so you will need to wait for your ideal spec to pop up.

There’s no word yet on if or when the Track package will be available in the UK. In Germany, the ceramic brakes are priced at €13,825 (£11,945) and the forged wheels are another €4610 (£3985).

Tesla remains streets ahead of most competitors when it comes to drivetrain efficiency. Yes, the Plaid gulped down 5% of its battery for every pass of the Millbrook mile straight, but on average, we got 3.1mpkWh. That’s a bit like the Veyron getting 35mpg. It should be good for a range of 301 miles.

Tesla’s Supercharger network remains a big bonus too, but while you might expect the Plaid to vanquish all comers in our new rapid-charging test, Porsche, Audi, Hyundai and Kia’s 800V cars will charge very slightly faster. Even so, a 10-90% charge in 38 minutes is still very quick. 


Tesla Model S Plaid static

Tesla set out to make the fastest-accelerating production car on sale, and it has certainly done that. This car brings a level of performance previously seen on only multi-million-pound hypercars to an otherwise sensible executive saloon. And while £113,480 is hardly affordable, it’s very cheap compared with similarly accelerative cars. In terms of performance for the money, the Model S Plaid is a triumph. 

It’s a good car in other areas as well. It’s impressively efficient and has a long range as a result. It’s also spacious, and although its tech won’t be to everyone’s taste, it works well and does something different from that offered by other car makers.

However, while the Plaid is sufficiently pleasant on the daily grind, its refinement isn’t enough of a distinguishing feature to excuse the handling, which is at best lacklustre. At worst, it feels remote and off-putting, particularly if you explore the Track mode. Do that and you will find the standard brakes simply inadequate.

The Plaid is a hugely impressive achievement, but we expect a performance saloon to be more than a one-trick pony, no matter how impressive the trick. 

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.