75D-tesla

Tesla Model S 75D (tesla.com)

Last weekend we had a test drive in a Tesla Model S 70D, from Tesla’s Bristol showroom. For those not in the know, Tesla is a relatively new, US manufacturer of high-end electric cars. Nevertheless it is now valued higher than Ford in terms of its share valuation. The Model S is a large sporty-looking car with a very large battery and correspondingly large motors (and of course quite a high price). It has gained a bit of a reputation among electric car geeks for its performance, since even the lower-end models have fantastic (and virtually silent) acceleration. Tesla only makes electric cars, and doesn’t need to advertise, since demand outstrips supply at the moment.

The “70” in the model name denotes a 70kWh battery. That’s enough to power the average house for up to a week. Tesla fit batteries from 60 to 100kWh, giving a range of about 210 to 390 miles. “D” denotes dual motors, and there’s a “P” prefix for the performance models.

The car we drove had autopilot, dual motors (so 4 wheel drive) but otherwise was a standard Model S car. By contrast the latest model, only in production for a matter of weeks, was sat in the car park, an S “P100D”, (it can do 0 to 60 in less than 2.5 seconds), sporting a “17” number plate. The salesman who took us out had not even had a go in that one yet -so we weren’t going to get a drive!

The car is of course very well equipped, with a huge touchscreen controlling most aspects, so it’s certainly more than a large sat-nav. Individual profiles for different drivers means the power seat and steering wheel automatically adjust. Personally I’m not sure I’d like to lose physical controls for things like heating, but it’s clearly good for keeping production costs down and future-proofing. Tesla continually develop the user interface; this is, after all, like most modern cars a rolling computer. Regular updates are sent over the air; even the acceleration has been improved on some models through software upgrades. Apparently automatic parking was added not long ago. More recent cars than the one we drove have more sensors and “autopilot 2” is in the works.

Driving the car is a pure pleasure, very quiet of course as it’s all-electric, and seamless hard, silent, acceleration when asked. It’s hard to compare noise between cars but I’d say my Nissan Leaf has less tyre noise (it has smaller tyres after all) and is just as quiet overall. Even this non-P version can do 0 to 60 in 5.4 seconds. In practice a 30-60 dash was just one stab on the long-travel accelerator. We took in some B-roads bordering the Severn Estuary and cornering was very flat, with no perceptible body roll.

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The autopilot was probably the aspect that impressed me most however. The car has “intelligent cruise” where it keeps a set distance from the car ahead. You enable this with a single pull on the cruise stalk. The next step up is automatic lane control, two pulls on the stalk, where the car keeps to the lane. It will even change lanes when you indicate, then maintain position relative to the cars in the new lane. It tracks the cars around you using cameras and radar, and these are displayed on the colour dashboard. Our car couldn’t see the cars approaching from the rear quarter and so once I had to cancel a lane change; presumably this will be fixed in autopilot 2. Obviously any manual acceleration, braking or steering cancels you out of autopilot mode.

Electric cars already reduce the effort involved in driving by eliminating the gearbox and clutch, just as an automatic ICE car does. I’ve noticed this in my Leaf, and I first experienced how much effort it saves on a 250cc Honda twist’n’go scooter many years ago. Autopilot means that boring motorway trips become a lot easier and less tiring, and arguably a lot safer too. There are already stories of insurers offering lower premiums the increased autopilot use; this seems logical since the computer won’t “have a bad day”, take unnecessary risks or break the law like a human invariably does!

One has to have a go at auto-parking of course; simply driving slowly past parked cars in the car park lets the Model S know you’d like to park, and once it sees a spot, a “P” appears in the dash. Select park on the touchscreen and the car reverses into the space.

Nice touches abound in any high-end car like this; for example the charge port is completely hidden in the rear light. A nice little triangular stainless steel button opens the glove compartment.

For those without £50k+ burning a hole in their pocket, the Model 3, in production now and due to arrive in the UK in 2018, promises much of the Model S tech with a much smaller price tag; starting at $35,000. There are some 500,000 ahead of you in the reservations queue however. Nissan’s next Leaf promises “pro-pilot” and looks potentially even more impressive than what we saw on the Tesla. Interesting times indeed.

The real surprise? How a 4 year old Leaf doesn’t feel like a poor relation to the Model S. Especially given that my particular Leaf only cost as much as the Model S self-driving option!

Thanks to Tesla Motors at Cribb’s Causeway in Bristol, go check them out as they’re really very nice folks.

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