Some have already judged the first bespoke effort from cutting-edge American electric carmaker Tesla as the second coming of the automobile. But can the Tesla Model S possibly justify the hype? It’s certainly a lot of pressure to heap on a premium executive saloon.
Yet Tesla chief executive Elon Musk appears to be one of those game-changing radical thinker types, who might have made an exceptional Bond villain in another life (he bought the actual Lotus Esprit submarine from The Spy Who Loved Me last year, just for fun). In this life, however, he’s recently given away all of Tesla’s patents in an effort to accelerate the electric car revolution. Mad, but true.
So, the Model S. About the size of a BMW 5 Series and sleekly modern on the outside, it attracts a surprising amount of attention, especially once people notice it isn’t making any noise. Around town you travel in a bubble of combustion-free silence, leaving open mouths in your wake.
It makes you want to open the window and shout: “You should see what it’s like in here!” Because the absence of petrol or diesel power is only part of Tesla’s re-imagining of the automotive experience.
For instance, there is no key. Instead you get a pebble-smooth talisman in the shape of the car, which you keep in your pocket like a totem from the movie Inception. Detecting its presence as you approach, the Model S activates its pop-out door handles and unlocks automatically, and once you’re seated behind the wheel it’s ready to go. No starter button, just select Drive and you’re off.
Or you will be, once you’ve stopped staring at the enormous 17-inch touchscreen display that occupies the entire centre console. This controls everything from the air conditioning to the web browser. The satnav is Google Maps, just like it is on your laptop or smartphone. The whole thing is so slick it makes every other car seem out of date. The instrument cluster is also entirely digital; it’s a wonder you don’t steer using a joystick.
Instead, the driving is reassuringly conventional, except for being so quiet you tend to startle pedestrians and cyclists. It’s also incredibly fast; not so much an electric car as an electric star ship. The top spec version has 416 horsepower and can accelerate from 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds. What’s particularly arresting is the torque – the muscle that gets you moving – and electric motors deliver everything they’ve got instantly. No other executive car on the planet reacts with such finger-snap intensity, no matter how fast you’re already travelling. If this is the future, sign me up.
Such performance comes at a price, of course. If you want the maximum rocket you’re looking at £74,200 before options, and although this includes a battery that’s good for over 300 miles it’s not like you can just pop to the petrol station to refill it. For routine travel you just plug it in overnight, but even with Tesla’s promised high-speed “Supercharger” network (free use of which is included in that purchase price), longer journeys will require careful planning.
Still, build quality and safety levels are impeccable. And though the ride and handling fall short of the best conventional rivals, no way is this enough to put you off buying one of these remarkable, status quo disrupting machines. If you’ve always wanted to be part of a revolution, this is your chance: don’t just believe the hype, embrace it.
CJ Hubbard works for motoringresearch.com.