In theory, this all-electric luxury car looks a hit. So is it in practice?

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The Tesla Model S is the first bespoke creation from the Tesla electric car stable of PayPal creator Elon Musk.

Its body structure is chiefly aluminium, with steel used only to add strength in key areas. Tesla says the resultant stiffness has allowed it to bestow the car with good dynamics despite its size and weight (more than two tonnes), even on 21-inch wheels.

The Tesla Model S is a true five-seater, and can be extended to a seven-seater with the addition of rear jump seats

Had you asked us 10 years ago for our bet on which manufacturer would be the first to introduce a viable, fast, practical and competitively priced all-electric luxury saloon to the UK, we would have looked to Germany or Japan, or even South Korea, for a credible tip.

The fledgling upstart from Palo Alto in the US, only incorporated in 2003, would not even have been a blip on the radar. But within a decade, Tesla has gone from CEO Elon Musk’s brainchild to deadly serious player in the unpredictable business of building – and selling – zero-emission cars.

Following the now-defunct Tesla Roadster, the Model S is the first prong in a plug-in trident of a plan that includes a smaller saloon and a crossover SUV in the not too distant future. On paper, the Model S is ideally placed to take sizeable bites out of the market share of Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz.

The Model S is unlike anything we’ve seen before wearing the now redundant tax disc, and it has the size, pace and, yes, range to compete with a conventionally powered rival. Does it have the finish, panache, quality and character, too?

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Read on to see if Tesla's Model S qualifies as current landmark or future landfill.



Tesla Model S 95D rear cornering

The Model S may look like a conventional – albeit intensely stylish – executive car from the outside, but only because Tesla has opted to make it follow visual conventions, and in part only because that’s what buyers are used to.

The truth is, though, that beneath its skin lies a mix of technologies whose positioning doesn’t actually relate to the straightforward bonnet, underneath which is a generous amount of luggage volume rather than an engine or even motor and power converter.

The Model S comes with a reversing camera as standard

Elsewhere, the Tesla Model S features an aluminium and steel monocoque whose front reinforcement and generous crumple zones afford it impressive crash strength.

The battery pack sits beneath the cabin floor and its subframe contributes to torsional rigidity, although the entire pack can be swapped out by a special automated jig within two minutes.

Buyers can pick from one of four battery options, which comprise of a 60kWh and a 75kWh pack, both available in all-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive configurations. Meanwhile the 85kWh pack has been replaced with a 90kWh pack which is good for a 346 mile range, 4.2sec 0-62mph time and 415bhp, while topping the range is the recently introduced 100kWh pack which extends the cruising range to an incredible 393 miles.

But Tesla aren't done there, with those looking for a bit more performance can opt for the P100D, it may only be able to travel 381 miles per charge, but produces 603bhp and 713lb ft of peak twist from its twin electric motors, and has the capability to crack 0-60mph in 2.5 seconds. To put it in perspective the P100D is 0.7sec faster than a McLaren F1, no slouch even in today's world of hypercars.

If you’re wondering how the Model S can come with such a leggy claimed range, look no further than the battery. It uses conventional lithium ion battery cells, just like most electric cars, but here they have a capacity of 90kWh. Think of it as a big fuel tank; a Renault Zoe’s usable range is provided by 22kWh of battery technology.

As a result, the Tesla will take relatively longer to charge if you’re pushing the same level of current into it. And a Model S will accept charge from a regular household socket (at 11kW) if you want it to. Most Model S buyers will recharge using a 7kWh home charger, while Tesla's Superchargers, which provide up to 120kWh of power meaning your Model S could have be at half charge in 30 minutes, will pick up the recharging strain on the road, with more than 200 Supercharger locations across Europe.



Tesla Model S 95D interior

The advantages of the Tesla Model S’s powertrain become as plain when you begin to explore the cabin as they are every time you drive past a fuel station. The extravagant freedom from convention is almost worthy of a concept car.

You’ll find evidence of it the first time you open both bonnet and boot and see the cargo volume that’s split between them: an estate-trumping 1795 litres. Only a pure EV could deliver packaging like it.

If you have the optional Tech Pack you can devote the touchscreen entirely to web browsing

But you’ll be even more struck by the enormous touchscreen on the centre of the fascia. Like an extra-large iPad turned portrait, it’s used to control everything from the air conditioning to the selectable ride height of the air suspension.

It also relays information about battery charge, energy consumption, the sat-nav and the audio system and, at a stroke, eliminates the need for individual buttons for the sunroof, demister and charging port door release. In some cases, this convergence adds complication to what ought to be simple processes. But mostly it seems light years ahead of ordinary cockpit functionality.

The sat-nav system is a ‘buy one get one free’ deal. The primary system operates via the instrument binnacle and it’s low on detail but reliable and easy to use. The secondary system can fill the entirety of that 17-inch touchscreen and relies on a decent 4G connection to access Google mapping. This can make programming a bit slow when you’re out in the sticks, but it works brilliantly where there’s good mobile coverage.

As a part of this technological masterpiece, Tesla has endeavoured to incorporate numerous autonomous systems, which it aptly names Autopilot. It allows the luxury electric car to steer within a lane, change lanes, adapt its speed to traffic and scan for and parallel park automatically.

You also get an AM/FM/DAB tuner but no CD player, and you can stream music via Bluetooth or USB. The radio accesses internet radio, and the web browser offers endless amusement value – where the data connection allows. Audio quality is good.

Specify the optional Tech Pack and you get Bluetooth, wi-fi and a permanent 3G data connection, which feeds information into the sat-nav, web browser and audio system. It will even connect to your home wi-fi network when updating its firmware for a faster transfer speed. Bluetooth connection takes less than five seconds.

Overall, the Tesla's interior is comfortable and attractive, with a few caveats. The seats should be more supportive and oddment storage more generous. Headroom is a bit tighter than we’d like, although it is still sufficient for all but the tallest occupants.

Material quality could be better. The veneers and accent trims on the fascia look pleasant from a distance but don’t stand up to close inspection. That could have been because our test car was a prototype, but whatever the cause, it’s a quibble in a roomy, bold, fresh and singularly modern cabin.


Tesla Model S 95d side profile

It wouldn’t be possible to combine the Tesla Model S’s remarkable refinement, potency and calming ease of use in one combustion-engined saloon.

Install a sufficiently large piston engine to deliver the same outright speed as this all-American EV and – unless you’re Rolls-Royce – you’re likely to end up with noise, vibration, complication and even physicality in the driving experience. None of which the Model S suffers in the slightest.

The Tesla Model S gains speed effortlessly

Modern performance saloons are made better by some of that, of course – but that’s not what the Model S is about. Rather, it’s like the 21st century’s equivalent of the old V12 Jaguar, BMW or big Benz: torquey, suave, relaxing – a privilege and a rare pleasure to just waft around in.

The genius of its delivery is all about instant, perfect accelerator response. Flatten it and the now defunct Model S 85D we tested, takes off from a standing start with the ferocity of a super-saloon. We timed the car at a 4.7sec two-way average to 60mph, which is marginally slower than Tesla’s claim. But it’s also faster than the Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG we timed – a car that was burning fossil fuel at a rate of 7.8mpg.

The Tesla Model S can’t sustain being flat out for very long, however. For short bursts of full-power acceleration, the electric powertrain works brilliantly. But we couldn’t complete one flying lap of the dry handling circuit before the battery, inverter and electric motor tripped into safe mode and cut peak output by at least 50 percent.

Nevertheless, the Model S likes to stretch its legs. But even more wonderful is how precisely and effortlessly you can meter out that pace. Surges of force from that electric motor carry the Tesla forwards like a stiff breeze does as it hits the spinnaker of a racing yacht.

And its response borders on the incredible at the most normal of speeds – 40mph – where the reduction gearing puts the powertrain simultaneously at peak power and peak torque.

At motorway speeds, where most EVs are out of their depth, the Model S strides on comfortably, able to pick up an extra 20mph in a moment.


Tesla Model S 95d cornering

If the Tesla's armour has a chink, this is it. On a mixed route across typical UK roads, the Model S conducts itself with more than acceptable dynamic competence, but it’s nothing special.

Our test car was fitted with Tesla’s now retired Performance Plus Pack chassis mods (wider rear tyres, stiffer anti-roll bars and uprated dampers), this is a fairly softly sprung saloon that does isolation better than driver involvement. And that’s exactly as it should be.

The Tesla Model S exhibits reasonable balance and body control

Without the suspension modifications, the car’s cosseting rolling refinement might have better stood out. As it was, the test car neither rode nor handled with any particular brilliance.

That said, the Model S is every bit as good as you’d expect it to be on both fronts, given that it’s Tesla’s first proper fist at a car. It’s also probably every bit as good as it needs to be for something whose ultimate selling point is largely unrelated to how perfectly it rides a bump or sweeps around a corner.

Driven as fast as its powertrain will allow, the Tesla Model S’s chassis can certainly hack the pace, but it doesn’t bring much sporting engagement. The air suspension allows the usual few degrees of gently bumbling, constant body movement on a testing road, but nothing too discouraging.

Ultimately, it controls pitch and roll very well. But it never makes you feel connected to the contact patches. There are three assistance settings for the power steering, which is sensibly paced – but, similarly, none of them provides much road feel. The Comfort setting is by far the most pleasant.

Our experience suggests that a smaller wheel and tyre, combined with Tesla’s softer chassis set-up, would be the way to configure your car. On the 21-inch rims, a bit of road roar took the edge off the car’s natural advantage on mechanical refinement above 40mph.

Above all else, quick as it undoubtedly is, you want this car to be quiet as well. Its appeal comes from that unlikely juxtaposition of remarkable pace and incredible calm.


Tesla Model S 95D

Our touring economy test isn’t designed to bring the best out of an EV, yet it produced a result from the Tesla Model S of 383Wh/mile, giving a 222-mile range on a full charge when specified with 85kWh battery, which has been superceded by the 90kWh version.

Including our performance tests, the car averaged 411Wh/mile overall but, out on the road, we frequently saw trip economy of less than 300Wh/mile. On a typical motorway run, expect a range of 220 to 250 miles. If you’re prepared to cruise at a 50-60mph A-road pace, 300 miles would be routinely achievable.

Stretch to the 90kWh battery as it makes a real difference

That’s about three times the real-world operational range of a 24kWh Nissan Leaf, but it won’t be enough for everyone, despite the fact that Tesla's range of Superchargers can have your car back at full charge in under an hour and has removed a vast amount of the range anxiety that exists around EVs.

But for most UK drivers, it’s probably enough to work with, balanced against one key reward: you’ll never need to buy petrol or diesel again. A full charge, at average off-peak rates, costs less than a fiver.



4.5 star Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S brings credibility, luxury and useful range to the electric car market.

Of the electric cars that we’ve road tested during the re-emergence of the EV, only three have managed to complete our full set of track tests, photo shoots and road assessments without the assistance of a trailer. All three have been made by Tesla.

The Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid is the only real alternative, but its EV range disappoints

Finally, it seems, here’s a company that understands the workings of the automotive consumer. Small cars are already cheap and use very little fuel. So making an electric one of those work for everybody is going to be a very hard task, as their sales, or lack of, demonstrate.

With a luxury car, though, Tesla has found it easier to gain price and performance parity with its rivals. It has been able to offer a vast range by fitting vast batteries and has found a customer base more open to the new technology and with more resources at their work and home to counter the drawbacks.

Overall, it’s clear that the Tesla Model S certainly delivers a highly credible steer, a large, hushed premium cabin and massive load space with a nicely futuristic touch. It is, without doubt, the best of its breed (of which there are few) and for a select niche, it will make financial as well as environmental sense.

Practical, refined and, above all, desirable, the Model S is a triumph.


Tesla Model S 2013-2021 First drives