It’s a peculiar sensation, driving the Tesla Model S P90D. Knowing I have nearly 1000Nm of torque and 350kW at my beck and call, the ability to win stop light drag races against anything but the fastest supercars and being able to enjoy all of that without burning a single millilitre of dinosaur juice - it does strange things to a person.
Hell, pull a lever a couple of times, and the P90D LITERALLY DRIVES ITSELF. I had dreams about cars like this when I was a kid, but I never thought I’d see the day when such a machine would become reality.
It’s like driving with every cheat code turned on. Speed? You’re in one of the fastest-accelerating production cars on the planet. Supercars quake in its presence. Efficiency? Prius owners turn green with envy when you pull into the supermarket carpark.
The Tesla Model S has got it all, especially in top-dog P90D trim. It’s a burger with the lot that won’t make you fat, and it’s a tough act to beat. But what about range anxiety? The inconvenience of having to plug it in almost daily?
What’s a high-performance electric car really like to live with? We borrowed one for a week to find out.
Vehicle Style: Performance Luxury Sedan
Price: $169,500 (plus on-roads), $183,100 as-tested
Engine/trans: 375kW rear electric motor, 193kW front electric motor | direct-drive single-speed transmission
Fuel Economy: Not applicable
The Model S is now four years old, but the big-daddy P90D only came to Australia in the last half of 2015.
And with its built-in ability to be easily upgraded over its life-cycle with a flexible alloy architecture and a regular flow of vehicle firmware updates, the car isn’t really showing its age all that much - at least not mechanically.
Being a purely electric luxury sedan, the Model S P90D isn’t quite comparable to anything on the market in Australia.
However, considering its performance and general size we’d forgive you if you put it up against the likes of BMW’s M5, Audi’s RS 7 Sportback and the Mercedes-AMG E63.
And in the context of performance, it absolutely monsters them. Supercar acceleration in a practical five-door body is a pretty enticing mix, and having all of that with zero carbon emissions (provided a renewable source of energy is used) makes the Tesla Model S P90D a unique beast indeed.
- Standard features: Keyless entry, 12-way power front seats, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, trip computer, reversing camera, parking sensors, power folding and heated wing mirrors, parking sensors,
- Infotainment: 17-inch touchscreen infotainment display, Bluetooth phone/audio connectivity, internet connection with browser, 2 USB ports, 200W premium audio with digital radio tuner, voice activated controls.
- Luggage capacity: 744 litres seats up, 1645 litres seats down.
If you’re fond of minimal design, the Tesla Model S was created with you in mind.
There’s a refreshing openness to the cabin, with big windows, an expansive glass roof overhead and a floor that is not only completely flat, but almost entirely unencumbered by a centre console. There’s just a shallow tray between the front seats and a pair of USB ports, nothing else.
All up, there are just two physical buttons on the dashboard: one to open the glovebox, one to activate the hazard lights. Virtually every other function - from turning the temperature up to opening the sunroof to changing the radio station - is done through the gigantic glass touchscreen display.
It can get a bit tiresome having to cycle through multiple screens all the time, but at least you can display two “windows” at the one time and, say, have the navigation screen adjacent to the audio screen.
The rear bench features three equally-sized seats (a conventional bench is available with more generous outboard seats for two adults) and a flat floor across its entire width so nobody has to fight for a place to put their feet.
Three adults will fit across it, but unless they’ve got especially short legs they’ll all feel a bit lacking in under-thigh support.
The huge portrait-format touchscreen that resides in the dashboard is a glorious piece of technology, but some may find the rest of this interior a bit bare-bones.
There were times where we were pining for more cupholders or some lidded centre-console storage, and the lack of door-bins is another practicality faux-pas.
In many respects, form has been put ahead of function here. Then again, the storage space on offer is tremendous. Without needing to accommodate a fuel tank under the boot, there’s cargo space aplenty with 744 litres of seats-up capacity.
That rises to a minivan-like 1645 litres with the rear seats down, and though dual-motor Model S variants have less room in their “frunk” (or front trunk), there’s still room enough for a couple of backpacks or a modest amount of groceries.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 375kW rear electric motor, 193kW front electric motor, total system output of 376kW and 967Nm
- Transmission: Direct-drive single-speed transmission, AWD
- Suspension: Double-wishbone front and rear, air suspension with alloy links
- Brakes: Ventilated discs front and rear, four-piston fixed calipers at front.
- Steering: Electrically assisted, variable weight
Our test car was meant to be equipped with Tesla’s aptly-named “Ludicrous Mode”, a power transfer upgrade that allows the Model S to dump even more energy into its dual electric motors in a shorter space of time.
Unfortunately, our original car was in for repairs the week we were meant to collect.
But to be honest, that wasn’t that much of a downer. All P90Ds come with two drive-modes as standard - Sport and Insane - and when it comes to acceleration, Insane mode is more than adequate.
Ludicrous mode might slingshot you to 100km/h in a supercar-rivalling 3.0 seconds, but Insane mode isn’t that far behind with a 0-100km/h sprint of 3.3 seconds.
And there’s no launch control malarkey required to unlock such manic performance.
While other high-end exotica might have you prodding buttons, disabling stability control and holding down both pedals at once, the drag race launch sequence in the P90D is simple - just stomp the accelerator when you want to win.
And whoever calibrated the P90D’s traction control software deserves some hefty raise. No matter how challenging the surface, be it wet roads, tram lines or just plain ol’ lumpy tarmac, the P90D hooks up every time with scarcely any wheelspin and no wiggles of the bum.
Grip is huge - and likely a function of the car’s formidable mass. With just a driver aboard it weighs 2.2 tonnes, with much of that weight coming in the form of the Model S’ battery packs.
But unlike the heavy components of a conventional car - its engine, transmission and fuel tank - the batteries in a Model S are distributed between the axles and at the lowest point in the chassis.
By centralising its mass, the Tesla Model S feels a lot nimbler than something that weighs about the same as a LandCruiser ought to.
Push it hard over some bumpy corners and the air-suspension feels a little bit bouncy. It could use some stronger rebound dampening to help control body movements, but that’s about all we can gripe about.
After all, for a car that rolls on gigantic 21-inch alloys the Model S delivers quite impressive ride comfort.
The Model S’ hardware story is certainly impressive, but it pales in comparison to the software that controls it all.
As part of Tesla’s commitment to continuously add capability through software updates (which are delivered over the owner’s home wifi connection and installed automatically), the Model S range now boasts an optional self-driving feature called Autopilot.
Costing $3600 (or $4500 if retrofitted after delivery), Autopilot takes driver-assist systems like active cruise control, lane keep assist and blind spot monitoring to the next level by tying these systems together and using their sensors to keep the car within its lane on a highway (or any road with clear lane markings) with minimal intervention from the driver.
And while most cars with lane-keep assist will freak out if you take your hands off the wheel for more than five seconds, the Model S is far more tolerant.
With just a couple of quick pulls on the cruise control stalk to activate Autopilot, we drove entirely hands-off for many kilometres at a time before the car timidly reminded us to put our hands back on the tiller.
All that’s needed is for the Tesla’s on-board cameras to be able to detect at least one lane marking, and Autopilot can be activated. It’ll even work on suburban streets at lower speed, though with frequent intersections and stops it becomes more of a hassle than a help.
Autopilot will even change lanes for you if you activate an indicator while cruising, with the P90D’s sensors constantly scanning 360 degrees around the car to keep tabs on other traffic - the relative positions of which are shown live on the instrument panel.
Once it detects a big enough gap, it smoothly glides into the next lane. Magical. This is the closest you’ll get to a self-driving car right now, and it’s technology that will surely cut down on fatigue during long-distance drives.
But what about the charging situation? Well, it definitely requires an adjustment in how you drive, especially if your trip may come close to breaching the car’s range.
At 505km on a single charge, the P90D’s range should be more than sufficient for most city-dwellers.
During our week-long test it was more than enough for a couple of day’s driving, with a couple of trips to and from the airport completed without topping up at the fast chargers located at Melbourne airport’s short term car park.
Of course, if you’re, ahem, enthusiastic with the throttle, that range will shrink dramatically, so using the car’s energy-saving modes can help you exercise some restraint if you need to maximise your range.
And here comes the Tesla’s biggest handicap: its recharging time. Using the emergency charge cable in the boot only resulted in glacial charge times off a 10-amp household power outlet. Feel like waiting 13 hours to go from a little over 50 percent to a 100 percent charge? Yeah, us neither.
On a 10-amp plug it supplies around 12km worth of charge per hour, but the 15-amp wall box that every owner will have fitted to their garages slashes charge times significantly and provides around 47km worth of juice per hour.
And that’s how most are expected to keep their cars topped up. Pop it on the charger each night much like you would your phone, and that dreaded “range anxiety” should never trouble you.
If you need a quicker charge there’s always Tesla’s slowly expanding network of fast-charging stations that can refill a P90D’s battery in around an hour (and for free), but for the battery’s sake it’s not recommended to use them all the time.
In short, you’ll need to plan your life with a little more detail if you want to make the most of a Tesla.
There’s no such thing as quickly chucking some petrol in the tank, so if you forget to top up your batteries before a longish trip you could be left stranded. Adjust your mindset, though, and you’ll be fine.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - this model scored 35.45 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: Stability control, traction control, ABS, EBD, brake assist, active cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, Autopilot self-driving mode,
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The P90D is the performance flagship of the Tesla range, so we’ll do what’s fair and line it up against other large luxury sedans and fastbacks.
Know this, however: none of them come close to the P90D’s straight-line speed, and all cost many tens of thousands of dollars more. Even without the $14k Ludicrous mode upgrade, the P90D zips to 100km/h faster than all of these cars and completes a quarter-mile drag race in just 10.9 seconds.
The only car that comes close to that level of thrust is the Porsche Panamera Turbo S, but at 3.8 seconds on the 0-100km/h sprint it’s still well behind the Tesla. That said, all of these petrol-powered super-sedans can refuel in a much shorter time than the electric Model S...
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The Model S just gets better and better, and the P90D is the best of the lot. The longest range, the fastest acceleration, the most grip, it’s got it all.
And with the self-driving capability of the latest software update endowing it with a semi-autonomous mode, it’s also easier to live with on the daily commute. You can’t quite sit back and read the paper while the car drives you to the office, but my gosh we’re getting tantalisingly close to that becoming reality.
The Model S is a bona-fide glimpse into what the future of motoring will be like. Zero-emissions, relatively cheap, exceptionally easy to drive yet with no compromises on performance.