Tesla Model S Test Drive – Gadget on Wheels

Recently on a cool, windy day in Sydney’s inner northern suburbs, I had the pleasure of test driving a Tesla Model S. A P85+, no less. These cars are the evolution of Elon Musk’s grand plan to get us off fossil fuels for our regular commute. They’re not cheap, but there’s a very good reason for it; they are a massive gadget with wheels that will take you places.

Some background: I’ve been one of those Prius drivers you’ve probably heard or seen for the last 3 years. A Prius C to be exact, the compact version of Toyota’s venerable Prius family of hybrid (petrol motor with electric motor). The technology under the hood is interesting in itself, helping the Prius C be the economic model. My driving average falls in line with the rated average of 4.3L/100KM on a normal week, with some individual trips on my 50KM commute reaching as low as 3.6L/100KM.

But Tesla wants to do away with all this fossil fuel guff. And for good reason: the investment in renewable energy is increasing globally every year. Full electric cars such as the Tesla aim to reduce ownership costs by only costing you the electricity to recharge the car (if you aren’t using their Supercharger network) and overall service costs. So I thought I’d check it out for myself and see what the fuss was all about.

The Sydney Showroom is fairly new in St Leonards, about a 15 minute walk from the train station. The showroom itself is laid out simply and stylishly – I hate comparing it to Apple stores, but the concept is the same. There were 2 Model S’s on display, a Model S dual motor chassis, and even Simon Hackett’s Roadster  sitting in a corner. The usual display of paint colours, interior trim and seat options were on a wall, as well as 2 Macs to let you interact or even order one on the floor! An iPad Mini appeared with the Terms and Conditions of the test drive, and we were off.

Tesla Model S 70D

You’re given a quick tour of the car’s outside, before being ushered into the drivers seat. The first thing you notice is the car is already on; the main screen and dashboard are lit up and you’re ready to go. It becomes apparent very quickly that this is more than a car; its a connected computer with wheels and seats. It has a Telstra SIM card (for Australian models) to connect you to the internet, which is the heart of the experience from the driver’s seat. You’ve seen the big 17″ LCD centre screen and the LCD dashboard, but it’s not really until you see it work together that it actually “makes sense”.

The connected experience starts with the audio – streaming through the Rdio service is included by default and works a treat. You can connect your phone via Bluetooth of course if you prefer your own music or podcasts. Google Maps is integrated into the car – enter a destination and it will calculate the course, determine if you have enough range to make the trip or suggest charging stations to stop at. Approve the course and turn-by-turn directions will appear on the dashboard, so you can concentrate on the road with directions not far away. If you sync your calendar with the phone, the car will even prepare itself for the trip by cooling the cabin, working out the route and telling you if you need to leave early due to bad traffic. With the right garage door, there are even plans for the autopilot to be able to open it and back itself off for you.

The whole computerized experience when driving the car feels like that. As if one of the car’s developers realized we were in the future, and thought “What would I want a car to do if it could do anything?”. The car ‘turns on’ when you walk near it with the key fob, with the door handles popping up from their seats and the console turning on. With optional air suspension, it will remember where you tell it to raise the car (driveways, potholes, etc) when you drive near it. Splitscreen on the centre console means you can turn on the rear camera (the rear window is surprisingly small) while having maps, media or climate control open as well. Planned autopilot is just a software update away, installed automatically with that always on internet connection. Pretty much anything you thought would be cool for a car to do, the Model S ticks the boxes.

The connected experience extends to the charge. While I didn’t see it in action, the charge ports opens up automatically when the connector is near it, letting you plug in. The main screen tells you the battery percentage and remaining time. There’s even a smartphone app that lets you see these details. Even more impressive, is you can schedule when the charge starts – so if you have solar panels and want to use that power for your car, simply schedule the charge to occur at times when the sun is up, either through the centre touchscreen or the app. The navigation system can also factor in charge times for your journey, telling you how long you need to wait to charge the battery during a stop. For your home, you would need to spend some money to get an electrician to install the wall connector to give you the best at home charge rate – there is a 240V portable adaptor, but the charge rate is a measly 26 miles per hour. Tesla has committed themselves to building the supercharger network in Australia, to help take away those lingering range anxieties.

Amazingly the Model S functions as a car as well. I was lucky enough to drive the P85+, the fastest Model S in Australia. The fastest production sedan in the world (according to the rep) is the P85D, but isn’t available in Australia as yet (delivery dates are slated at November at the time of test drive). Push the ‘gear’ stick on the right of the steering column into Drive and away we go. Sure enough, its fast: the power indicator on the dash is arguably the equivalent of a tachometer, and at not even two-thirds the way up the scale the speed limit was blown past in seconds. There isn’t much of an experience like torque availability at the moment you touch the throttle, and to do so with no engine noise is surreal. However the accelerator scales the torque well, so it is surprisingly easy to take things easy with a more docile acceleration available at a lower throttle percentage. Family car in the streets, straight line monster in the, well, streets.

The Model S has regenerative braking, to try and get capture some of the power used to accelerate by using the electric motor/motors in reverse to slow the car and generate electricity. In the Prius this is done with the brake pedal (about an inch of play in the brake pedal gets the generator braking the car), but in the Tesla the braking kicks in as soon as you pull off the throttle at speed. Being used to taking the foot off the accelerator pedal to cruise, coming to a very rapid stop was unexpected. You soon understand how it works and start compensating for it – slowing down for a slower speed limit is done by reducing throttle percentage instead of the brake pedal. Need to come to a quick stop, you take the foot right off the accelerator. You only need the brakes for either an emergency stop (thankfully not on this drive), and when coming to a complete stop (electric regeneration tapers off rapidly the slower you are travelling). This in itself saves you using brake pads, which is another consumable item that wont need replacing as often. Like most things, the regenerative braking force is configurable in the settings page on the centre console.

The steering weight is also adjustable from the centre console. 5 minutes from the dealership we got a a hill with some nice bends and the steering was changed to Performance, which is a heavier setting and allows you to get stuck in without worrying about ‘twitchy’ steering. The low centre of gravity (thanks to the battery cells on the floor) lets you push it hard without fear of slipping or sliding. The steering also adjusts to the other end, with a ‘fast’ setting available for your inner city driving needs. The feedback through the wheel was noticeably absent (although it had more life than a Commodore I drove in the past), but in contrast the ride was fantastic, even with the large wheels, low profile tyres and pockmarked roads. Road noise was minimal, it felt effortless to drive with the lack of draining road noise.

Even on a small city drive, it’s hard to avoid the smarts of the car. It’s always calculating your range based on how you drive the car, giving you an approximation on the dashboard, and a more precise value on the centre console. Electric cars have always had a stigma associated with range, so this visibility into the range of the car as well as how your driving changes the range is a pretty important inclusion. This then feeds into the navigation system to work out if you can make your destination.

The quick 20 minute test drive was great to be able to get hands on with the car, but not quite enough time to see the quirks and problems. The front seats were comfortable and fully adjustable, but the lateral support felt a little lacking (even though this wasn’t a drive to test the limits). From a distance the interior looked solid, there wasn’t enough time to go over it in detail – several reviews have suggested the stitching is off in places or not sewn in properly. But this was a sales test drive and not a review. The best of the car was on display and it was an amazing experience.

The burning question of course, is: Is it worth the money? The cheapest model, the 70D, starts at $119,325 drive away in QLD with no options, with the P85D a whopping $181,913 without options. Autopilot, smart air suspension and audio are all separate, additional packages. Like most new generation items, you often pay the way forward as an early adopter. When you get the full Model S experience, it’s apparent there has been a lot of thought put into how the car works, from how it drives and handles, to how it integrates various systems into a single platform. It’s pretty easy to gush over the little things in the whole experience. It’s a computerised gadget with wheels, there is no doubt.

But despite all the fun and awe, there’s always questions. Is it easy for someone to ‘hack’ the car’s systems? How private is your sync’d personal data given it’s internet connected? And what happens if a system fails? Privacy in the age of big data is a massive concern that has reared its head with Tesla. While their intentions are noble and they seem to offer an opt-out system, it straddles the line between being functionally required (to alert Tesla of an issue with a car or help with autopilot) to crossing the line and misusing the data for their own good. It’s an issue consumers will battle more of in the coming years, as the ‘connected’ world extends into areas never thought possible.

What about I, the author. Would I buy a Tesla Model S? If I had the money right now, I would have no hesitation in getting a Model S (even with the long wait time for delivery). Despite living in Brisbane with no Supercharger network until 2016-17, the home rechargers would suffice, and the current range is more than enough for my daily work drive. The ‘coolness’ factor and driveability of the car straight off the bat wouldn’t leave the novelty stage for quite a long time. It’s stylish design turns heads, and throwing in the gadget-like practicalities of this connected car to a work environment would all be part of the fun. The only concern is around privacy and sharing of data, so going over those options with a comb would be a definite requirement.

Practically, it is a lot of coin for a car that isn’t a luxury model, but a future car. Tesla have positioned themselves in the premium end of the market and for good reason with a unique and innovative product. One can hope they release a mid-sized model in the $50,000-$60,000 region with similar characteristics, experience and range. It’s hard to see this happening in the short term while they struggle to keep up with demand for both the Model S and the Model X. The affordable Model 3 is reportedly set to launch next March with delivery in 2017, but with no other information it’s hard to put this forward as a solid option.

There is no doubt the Model S is a brilliant car. The way technology integrates with the car’s functions is something the car industry hasn’t seen before, and being all electric means it gets the well used ‘game-changer’ moniker. But this is a gadget for the wealthy of us who like cars, want to adopt early and want to make the shift away from petrol. The thought of never visiting a petrol station again is very compelling, but the list price isn’t there for most of us yet. Our main hope is someone takes up Tesla’s open patents and gives the rest of us a valid choice.

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