First Thoughts: UK-Spec 2014 Tesla Model S P85

We’ve already given you our official review of the European specification Tesla Model S — but what’s it like stepping behind the wheel of a Tesla Model S for the first time, especially when your daily drivers are a 45 year old classic car and a 2010 Mitsubishi i-MIev? 

Our regular columnist and honorary staff writer Kate Walton Elliott finds out. 

What's it like stepping behind the wheel of the Tesla Model S for the first time?

What’s it like stepping behind the wheel of the Tesla Model S for the first time?

It is perhaps difficult for me to review a modern £100,000 luxury sedan in the way that most reviewers would. I spend much of my life dealing with the kinds of vehicles that belong at a far distant end of the spectrum. Classic cars who’s existence commenced in a world where the tag ‘De Luxe’ meant ‘it has a heater’ and where plastic-coated faux-wood-effect was considered a positive.

So when I slid into the seat of the Model S there was a period of reminding myself that a review can’t really consist of the phrase ‘ooh, so shiny’ over and over again.

It’s challenging to get any idea of what the reality of living with a car is in such a short space of time. With only a little over an hour behind the wheel; the majority of which was motorway, it can be nothing but first impressions, but those first impressions are perhaps what sells a car, because it’s rare to spend days behind the wheel of a prospective car before you throw down the cash.

And those first impressions are very positive. It’s a car that feels very considered. We travelled up in Nikki’s Volt, and in comparison to the Volt’s incredibly complex dash; the Tesla’s large touch panel, accompanied by a mere two buttons (hazard lights and the passenger glove box) is a delight. The interior manages to combine a feeling of spaciousness without feeling overly harsh or soulless. And perhaps that spaciousness is the impression that will stick with me the longest.

Clambering in to the Volt, one is ensconced in a sea of high tech looking plastic. It feels somewhat like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise; but at the same time it’s very enclosing. The centre of the car is filled with a selection of gadgetry; the Tesla in comparison feels neatly understated and incredibly clean.

And like Apple’s operating systems, there’s a degree of simplicity to the interface which hides the incredible complexity of what’s being achieved underneath. Of all the things about that interior, though, the object that I’d call an instrument cluster (were it to have any actual instruments) is perhaps my favourite piece of the user interface. The display is simple and remarkably uncluttered for the amount of information it’s imparting. The current usage and your speed are central, and clearly laid out; with information that is useful but is definitely secondary appearing off to the sides.

The quality of that screen, too, is exceptional.

Fit, finish and trim gets the thumbs up.

Fit, finish and trim gets the thumbs up.

As you’d expect on a car of this price, the seating position is adjustable in innumerable ways. A few moments got me reasonably positioned, but with my not hugely long legs, I found that the lowest corner of the 17″ centre display was just irritatingly where my knee wanted to rest. Having looked at other drivers relaxing in the car, this seems to be a common problem. It is a minor niggle, perhaps even barely worth mentioning, but after my brief experience I wasn’t “all in” on that 17″ display. Unfortunately, I also found the display was just a touch of a reach for me; I’d just have to stretch that tiny bit to adjust anything on it. Again, a minor issue, but one which just I noticed each time I wanted to tweak a setting.

But when we pulled up at services (for a comfort stop, rather than any actual need to stop) that display was one of the things that garnered a great deal of comment. People would look in and literally ‘oh-my-god’ at the massive screen. Despite the initial excitement it actually ends up having an fairly low information density. Whilst I’m sure once you’re used to it it ends up being a useful tool that you can successfully use whilst driving, because it lacks any tactile feedback, I personally found it less useful. And being as I’d no idea where any items were in the menus, tweaking or changing anything whilst driving was inadvisable. My personal feeling was, for once, that a slightly smaller screen nearer to your sightline would have been better – which would also giving a little more knee room, but I would suspect that’d remove the wow factor.

The voice recognition system also didn’t seem to get on with my accent. For example, one of the really rather excellent things the system can do (if you have the relevant subscription) is find-and-play a song from a vast array of tracks. So as we drove along, we variously challenged it to find a variety of musicians. But for almost every one, the passenger ended up correcting the recognised speech, Blur becoming Blue, and we won’t go in to what ‘Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside’ became! The defaults for the audio quality of those streamed tracks were surprisingly terrible, I actually found the first track we played – Blur’s Coffee and TV – was so poor as to be almost unlistenable. Upping it to high quality audio made things better, but the streamed audio still wasn’t quite as nice as I’d expected. You also have the option of internet radio; which is really fantastic (at least, for me, because I have a pretty eclectic taste in music), but I’m unsure if there’s a ‘search’ function which meant finding a specific station was pretty difficult. If it is there, it’s sufficiently non-obvious that I didn’t find it. It’s also reliant on 3G and as the coverage drops out, so does the audio. That’s not Tesla’s fault, but it is something that potential buyers may want to consider before selecting that option.

Interestingly, and perhaps this is a simply a limiting factor of EVs, but it didn’t feel massively quieter than either the iMiEV or the Leaf. A little less road noise was transmitted, but not so much as to be strongly noticeable. Unlike the transition between, say, a (modern) Fiat 500 and, say, a modern Mercedes, in which the difference in transmitted engine and road noise is quite significant; the near silent transmission on all of these cars perhaps makes it more difficult to substantially improve the cabin noise without essentially building a car that consists solely of soundproofing!

The cabin wasn't as quiet as Kate Walton Elliott expected it would be.

The cabin wasn’t as quiet as Kate Walton Elliott expected it would be.

But enough of me rambling about the inside, how is it to drive?

Very few modern cars are awful; they can be bland, they can have hideous turbo-lag or nasty delays on the engine management, but it’s rare for a modern automobile to be the equivalent of the truly awful Yugo 45. Competence is a minimum standard that we all expect from a vehicle. The Model S is far more than mere competent. It’s delicious. The amount of customisation you can achieve in the way the car ‘feels’ (hard/soft steering, multiple suspension settings) mean that nearly any driver could configure it exactly to their liking.

The Model S was, as I had it configured, very neutral to drive; which is most certainly not a criticism. Astonishingly, for such a large car, it doesn’t feel big. Planted, certainly. Its size is belied by the smooth ride rather than by any feeling of being too big. Perhaps this is at least partially because it simply feels like it has endless power available. Unlike the nice test drives out in the middle of nowhere, or around incredible, but empty, test tracks; this test took place on a busy motorway and through the outskirts of Bristol’s suburbia. And the Model S handled it with aplomb. The only moment I was struck by the size of the Model S was pulling through narrow residential streets with cars parked up both sides.

Although perhaps that’s something that would become second nature with sufficient acclimatisation.

Similarly, something else which may be a matter of acclimatisation: the cruise control. Once set it offers two levels of adjustment, increments of either 1 mph or 5mph. However, both as a passenger and as a driver I found the change in speed when adjusted via cruise control to be quite abrupt. Whilst it was certainly useful to have a cruise control that’s actually very responsive, a little less vigour in the speed changes would be more comfortable.

As for range, well, we drove back from London and were not by any means gentle. We toyed with the Model S’s incredible acceleration; we fiddled with the cruise control; we dinked with the ride hight. All of that and we got home with around half-a-charge. Range anxiety isn’t something that I’ve frequently encountered, but in the Model S it is simply a ridiculous notion. As we sat in London and it popped up ‘nearby superchargers’, and you look at them and go, ‘Oh, we could drive to Belgium and charge there’… suddenly you reconsider the way you’ve been looking at EVs.

Finally, as someone who mostly drives classics, I find the relatively small glass area on the rear of modern cars, Model S included, quite restrictive (although as someone who specialises in emergency medicine I appreciate the reasons for it). Whether this is noticeable to those more used to modern vehicles is something of which I’m not sure. But in the Model S the difficulty is effectively overcome by the rear view camera which provides an excellent field of vision and, in day time at least, was superior to the rear view mirror.

Model S: What you'd expect

Model S: What you’d expect

The Model S is marketed as a paradigm-changing car; and in many respects it is. It really gives the lie to the concept of electric vehicles as small, slow and inadequate for long distances. As a vehicle to hoover up motorway miles, and carry you in both style and comfort over massive distances, it is probably unrivalled in the EV market. Indeed, in all honesty, although I’ve not had much call to drive luxury saloons from traditional automakers, it’s probably simply unrivalled.

But outside the incredible EV performance, in many respects it’s very much what you’d expect from a luxury saloon. And I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing. As one of what appears at the moment to be the final generation to think of the car as a necessary requirement for modern living, I wait with baited breath to see what auto manufacturers will do to entice the next generation in. And also to see what will happen as the concept of car co-operatives and car clubs changes the way in which vehicles are used. As the model of ownership changes, the automobile will no doubt adapt, and the ways in which that will happen are as yet unclear. The Model S doesn’t yet speak to that at all which is unsurprising, but perhaps a little disappointing.

But all that said, the Model S remains a phenomenal saloon. Were I to have £50,000 going spare, there would be one on our drive, no question. The change from our iMiEV, where every long distance journey is accompanied by substantial planning (Where are the chargers, where are alternative chargers, are there any massive hills that will denude the car of miles quicker than a box of chocolates on a nurses’ station) to the Model S in which the journey from Bristol to London is ridiculously easy, and stops are entirely based on your needs, not the car’s, is astonishing. With improvements in battery technology, these changes will trickle down to the lower end of the market, but right now, at this moment in time, the Model S is far and away the best long distance EV available.


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