Tesla, the darling of the alternative-power car makers, has made more progress in a few short years than the likes of Ford, General Motors and even Toyota when it comes to electric cars.
The American firm, co-founded by Elon Musk of PayPal fame, has not only made great strides technology-wise, but has also achieved much in terms of brand awareness. But Tesla is a fraction of the size of a traditional car maker, and it’s this that’s likely to have enabled the bullish firm to outmanoeuvre the lumbering giants who still have one foot in the previous century.
While the current focus is on Tesla’s premium market Model S, the firm’s original foray into electric was with Lotus Elise. The car’s 200-ish mile range and rapid acceleration were ample trade-offs for the patience required for charging the car.
Tesla’s moved on from the Roadster to the Model S, an altogether more upmarket and refined proposition, that’s not really a saloon but a large five-door hatchback. The car’s appearance is risk averse when viewed from a more adventurous European perspective, but that’s where the comparisons end.
The car’s voluminous hatchback boot, which is big enough to accommodate two rear-facing child seats if desired, is bookended by an impressively capacious front boot like what you’d find with Porsche’s Boxster, Cayman and 911 family.
Even the car’s cabin trumps many of its rivals. There are no bulky oily bits underneath to impact on cabin space, which is why the big Tesla offers its occupants a near flat floor, a generous amount of legroom and, upfront, oddment storage space where you’d normally find the gearlever and handbrake.
Where the Model S really differs from the usual premium suspects is in the ownership proposition and how it drives. And remember Tesla’s first model, the sporty Roadster? The firm has well and truly nailed its colours to the performance saloon mast with a supercar-baiting variant boasting two electric motors.
Heading up Tesla’s admittedly modest Model S line-up is the P85D, an all-wheel drive model complete with a similar electric range to the lesser variants and a zero to 60mph sprint time of 3.2 seconds. To put that into perspective that’s Porsche 911 Turbo territory. Not bad for a five-seat car positioned size-wise between BMW’s 5 and 7 Series.
The key to this performance is Tesla’s use of twin motors – one at each axle – producing a combined 682bhp and a similar amount of torque. And it’s the latter’s “twist action” that has the wow factor, as even the best supercar in the world can’t spin up its turbos fast enough to match the P85D’s rocketship-like acceleration.
The car’s onboard electronics determine how best to direct the power, just like with a conventional 4x4 system, when grip levels change or the driver wants to have some fun. Crucially, the same trickery is used to optimise the car’s battery capacity, which results in the company claiming that the P85D’s extra performance doesn’t come at the expense of a poor range.
It’s a hoot to drive, delivering the no-lag acceleration electric cars are famous for, only magnified tenfold. Grip is impressive and, despite the car’s size, it really does feel capable of worrying anything from the high performance end of the respective BMW, Audi and Mercedes catalogues.
Equally at home on low grip gravel and snow as it is on Tarmac, the Model S P85D goes about its duties emitting nothing more than a distant whine. Purists might bemoan the lack of a macho V8 soundtrack, but there’ll be an equal number of enlightened early adopters who will find the experience pleasingly futuristic.
If you want the last word in on-the-limit handling, this Model S falls short of being the ultimate driving machine; BMW and its rivals still have the edge. But the gap is closing.
Plus, to get to full speed in the P85D you need to activate the car’s aptly-named “Insane” driving mode. I don’t expect Audi to follow suit with tongue-in-cheek names of its own any time soon. But I guess that’s the difference between the establishment and the start-up generation.
THE FACTS: TESLA MODEL S P85D
0-62MPH: 3.2 secs
TOP SPEED: 155 mph
CO2 G/KM: 0 g/km
ECONOMY: 300 mile range
DESIGN: Four Stars
PERFORMANCE: Five Stars
PRACTICALITY: Three Stars
VALUE FOR MONEY: Three Stars