If the scent of lavender and the feel of Lycra on clammy flesh are your kind of thing, you won’t find anywhere better than cycling mecca La Coquillade. Set in the hills of the Petit Luberon, a rosé-growing idyll between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence, this hotel has been created by a Tour de France team owner and attracts moneyed MAMILs with its scenic bicycle routes and experienced coaches.
Correctly sizing up my level of fitness, I was invited to ride around the surrounding villages on an e-bike, meaning I could avoid my twin allergies of Lycra and physical exertion. The electric power was in keeping with my other mode of transportation for the week: A Tesla Model S 100D.
I chose Provence as my destination to size-up the Model S’s charge range. The £90,000 100D has the longest range of any Tesla – up to 393 miles. Would a blast to the south of France induce range anxiety? Could it match the cross-country pace of gas-guzzling rivals from Mercedes-AMG and Porsche?
First impressions: the Model S is serene. There are no gears, there is never-ending torque, it is silent, and the ride is perfectly suited to motorways. Stick it in semi-autonomous mode and cue up the in-car entertainment. This trip was going to breeze by. I boarded the Eurotunnel at Folkestone, where there’s a Tesla supercharging station that topped me up in minutes as I waited for Le Shuttle to arrive.
But then a slight hitch: I should have requested one of the wider carriages, as the metal kerbs on the regular ones are rather narrow and high. The Model S is wider than any car in its class; squeezing it into the petit carriage risks scuffed alloys.
At Calais, I set the enormous sat-nav screen – 17 inches and with cinematic resolution – for La Coquillade. It’s 640 miles away, sticks to the autoroute till Avignon and, all being well, should take just over nine hours. I jumped onto the A26 and headed south-east in the direction of Reims. The car works out the re-charging spots I’ll need to take along the route to reach my destination. If you drive less economically than the speed limits dictate it will recalculate.
Then a bigger hitch: an hour into France I had a run-in with a nail. A flat tyre icon illuminated on the dash. I got out and put my ear to the rubber – it hissed like a snake.
I rang the bilingual Tesla people, who were able to summon a recovery truck. It arrived with the wrong sized tyre. High performance 100Ds take wider tyres than the base models most frequently found in France. My mission was re-routed to Paris, me in the cab of the recovery truck and my Model S loaded on the back. A chum in the 15th arrondissement was kind enough to put me up in his guest bedroom while the Tesla was sent to a garage on the outskirts of the city. This is the price of being an automotive outlier. By 10am the next day the car was returned with a shiny new 245/45 Goodyear. Time to reset the stopwatch. La Coquillade was now 550 miles away. Factoring in luncheon in Lyon, I should be there in time for aperos.
The thing you need to get your head around when driving a Tesla is that it’s not like a regular car. It’s more like an iPhone. For starters, everything apart from the steering and indicators is controlled through the dashboard-mounted computer screen. All the features are apps, from the climate control to Spotify. And you charge it just like you would your smartphone. Charging takes much longer than it does to fill a regular car with petrol, but you don’t need to do it all in one go. I would therefore pit three times between Paris and Avignon, when I could probably have gotten away with one long stop, giving it a 25-minute squirt each time rather than a full 70 minutes.
Tesla superchargers can be found at most major motorway services, giving you time for a coffee every couple of hundred kilometres. It’s actually a very civilized way of motoring through France. It’ll take an hour or two longer to get from the tip of the country to the bottom than it would in an internal combustion car, but that’s only about a 15 per cent delay, and you’ll arrive on the Riviera bright-eyed thanks to all the espressos.
Having said that, Tesla’s quoted range is rather dependent on a cruising speed of around 55-60mph. If – and I’m not saying I did, Your Honour – you attempt to drive from Paris to Avignon in five hours, the Tesla will hurriedly recalculate that you require twice as many stops as it first suggested. And if you keep pushing, you’ll get a warning that if you don’t slow down, you will not make your destination and your corpse will be pecked at by vultures on the hard shoulder.
Tesla boss Elon Musk is basically Hugo Drax from Moonraker. He wants to colonise Mars, and says the people he sends there should be “prepared to die”. But for all his madness he is a genius, and quite an amusing one
The P100D is the top-of-the-range Model S, with its notorious Ludicrous Mode enabling 0-60mph in a Lamborghini-crushing 2.5 seconds. My 100D, which has the equivalent of 417bhp to the P100D’s 605, is a tad slower but it’s still supercar quick. Zero to 60 takes 4.1 secs and the instant surge out of roundabouts is thrilling. The advantages over the P100D are that it costs a whopping £40,000 less (ludicrous in more ways than one, clearly) and has greater range – further than pretty much any other production EV, in fact. But if you keep flooring the throttle to give yourself what might be termed a ‘Silicon Valley facelift’ your battery will drain itself like a drunk in a bus shelter. As it was, I made Avignon in six hours and it felt pretty effortless. No more flat tyres, at any rate.
I exited the A7 after Châteauneuf-du-Pape and took the D900 deep into the Luberon. Here, I was able to get a feel of the Model S’s dynamic driving abilities. Conclusion: perfectly decent, but it’s less at home on B-roads than As and a Maserati Ghibli would be far more satisfying. Given the motor’s characteristic of constant torque, it is inherently point and squirt and therefore less fluid than its rivals. It feels like you’re driving in a video game. But the steering is good and the chassis’s not bad, albeit a little heavy.
The car was revamped just over a year ago and the 100D packs the company’s newest tech. Nevertheless, the Model S is six years old. It’s a testament to its design that it still looks fresh and the driving experience remains futuristic.
Tesla boss Elon Musk is basically Hugo Drax from Moonraker. He wants to colonise Mars, and says the people he sends there should be “prepared to die”. But for all his madness he is a genius, and quite an amusing one. He started selling flamethrowers just for a lark. His tunnel boring company is called The Boring Company.
My Model S comes with ‘Bio-Weapon Defense Mode’. Yet Musk’s Trumpian opposition to the press in response to criticism of his new Model 3 compact car’s production and delivery issues, plus the ongoing safety setbacks with fully autonomous cars, seems to be leading to a meltdown, both personal and corporate. For the last few years Tesla has been the coolest car company in the world, yet the mainstream motor manufacturers appear to be winning the war of the EVs and self-driving cars.
It is achingly picturesque in Provence. Atop a hillock, gazing onto the grapevines, cherry orchards, cypress trees and olive groves, La Coquillade stands out. This is a spa hotel you just know is owned by a very Swiss multi-millionaire. It comprises a restored and reconstructed 11th century hamlet, originally established by Cistercian monks, with cream stone and grey-blue shutters. The rooms are a minimalist expanse of plain white walls and cloudlike sheets. It’s the sort of place you can imagine Daniel Craig’s 007 checking into while recovering from a groin injury.
It attracts Tour de France lovers with its postcard-pretty cycling routes around the Vaucluse and proximity to the challenging Mont Ventoux.
There’s an electric charger for the Tesla, which should see its battery brimming in about six hours. The car park is also stuffed with Porsche Macans, all with bicycle boxes, and if you come without you can always rent. The on-site bike shop has wheels worth up to £12,000. I’d be sticking with the theme and benefiting from some electric assistance via a Stromer e-bike. Chris Froome wheezes and sweats around these tracks, while I would be as fresh as a daisy.
The hotel and surrounding Aureto vineyard is owned by Andy Rihs, the aforementioned Swiss who first made his money in hearing aids and now indulges in his passions for wine and cycling. He owns the BMC bike brand and racing team, which competes in the Tour.
The hotel is a leisurely ride from the cobblestoned artistic haven of Lacoste. Pierre Cardin owns the chateau that crowns it, which was once home to the Marquis de Sade. Closer still is the handsome ochre outcrop of Roussillon. Previous residents include Samuel Beckett and the author of A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle. Indeed, there are several notable ex-pats within a 30-minute circuit; John Malkovich lives in Ménerbes, Ridley Scott has a place in Bonnieux. Progress isn’t really a thing here, which is key to its charm. The locals still drive 2CVs. Most detest President Macron. Introduce them to the Tesla and they don’t know what to make of it.
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After a few days touring the Luberon with renewable energy, my own was restored. It was time to take the 100D the 750 miles back to London. It’s a car unlike any I’ve driven before and, as a long-distance cruiser, I loved it.
Tesla has a lot riding on the next 12 months if it’s to keep improving. Musk’s meltdowns, both on Twitter and in the boardroom won’t help the faith of customers and shareholders. Critics say it’s time for Tesla to enter a new chapter, appointing an executive from Volkswagen, Toyota or Ford to run it. But then it would lose its individuality. Craziness is part of the brand’s DNA.
I took a picture of the car in front of the Marquis de Sade’s castle, in Lacoste. He spent 32 years living in an insane asylum. If they’d lived in the same era, I bet he and Elon would have seen eye-to-eye. Personally, I want a bit of eccentricity in my automobiles. I also like being able to drive to the south of France without spending a penny on fuel. Free supercharging sounds nuts, right? But it’s real. And we have Elon Musk to thank for it. I’d borrow his wheels and drive to France anytime, though I’m not sure I’d follow him to Mars.