Colin Hubbard continues his series of road tests. This time he turns a gimlet eye on the Tesla S85:
When the Toyota Prius was launched in the late 90’s I saw it as an ungainly looking car with a pointless hybrid power train that used more of the earth’s resources to manufacture then ship across the world than a sensible diesel saloon over its lifetime. It lacked sparkle, low down turbodiesel shove and more importantly, charisma.
In the late Noughties a little known company called Tesla launched an all- electric car based on a Lotus Elise. To get this straight, it had no back up of a petrol engine as the Prius did and so once it ran out of charge you were left stranded and the term ‘Range Anxiety’ was born.
What’s worse is that it was designed as a performance car, a vehicle for which you want to use all of the performance all of the time, not drive around trying to achieve the best range possible like an obsessive Prius owner. Just like a conventionally fuelled car, an EV will lose the range (electricity in lieu of fuel) when driven hard so the range drops dramatically if you are heavy with the throttle switch. Who in their right mind would want a car that can’t be refuelled on a journey? This really was a modern day milk float with a tiny real world range limited to your local area.
In 2012 Tesla then released the Model S, another pure EV car but with a larger 5-seater hatchback bodyshell which my uninformed mind quickly discounted as another fad as above and one for the likes of Will Smith to own, to be seen as caring for the environment despite it being parked next to a brace of supercars in his garage.
Just recently I watched an episode of ‘How It’s Made – Dream Cars’ which happened to feature the Model S. It explained the Tesla Brand, their goals, and more importantly I watched the car being made. Seeing a car in a magazine or even in the flesh does not give you any clues as to its make up or geography but seeing it being put together was a real eye opener.
First off there is no fossil fuel driven engine, this also means there is no complicated gearbox, fuel tank nor weighty cooling system required. There is also no mechanical link required from front to back and technically side to side but in the Tesla, as tested, it features a single motor just behind the back seat which drives both wheels.
Remove these bulky, heavy and fairly location dependent items from a motor car and you have lots of options to better suspend the wheels and package the interior, more importantly the batteries can be placed anywhere you want. In the case of the S85 they are fitted flat underneath the car between the 4 wheels so the centre of gravity is kept extremely low and provides near optimum weight distribution of 48% front and 52% rear.
At a recent manufacturers’ test day at Millbrook I picked the S85 over some pretty special cars such as Bentleys and Corvettes as I wanted to experience one for myself. The test route was the Alpine Circuit which is used by manufacturers to test a car’s handling and braking; not the usual habitat for what is pitched as a luxury car but it would be a good test of the handing with those low mounted batteries.
Let’s start with the outside.
I spoke with Georg Ell who is Tesla’s UK Director, a guy who is extremely passionate about the brand and sees huge potential both in the Tesla’s motoring world and also in the renewable electricity market with their ‘Powerwall’ – which is a battery for your house that stores electricity generated from your solar panels for when you need it most, at night, when the sun isn’t shining.
In addition, Tesla realise that their customers will want to take their cars on longer journeys and, at their own cost, are installing a series of superchargers up and down the country at Motorway service stations. The Supercharger is a DC rapid-charging station that provides an additional 180 miles of range in about 30 minutes. These are free to use for Tesla owners and while you would otherwise stop for a toilet break and grab a coffee you can also re-energise the car.
He explained the S Model’s overall shape is intentionally a fairly mainstream 3-box form so as to not alienate buyers. More radical designs may follow when the market has more confidence in the brand. Current Model S owners may accept something more radical in the future when they are sold on the brand and technology, but for now it needs to stay fairly restrained, unlike the bonkers BMW i3 and i8’s which have built on BMWs mainstream reputation.
The body style is a hatchback but it has been carefully sculptured to provide the most efficient shape with a class leading drag co-efficient of 0.24. The slippery shape is aided by the lack of cooling grills at the front as there isn’t an explosive metal box in there which needs lots of cool air. The roof remains fairly high at the C pillar and the rear window is slowly raked into a high boot lid which I assume is for better aero. This height does reveal a secret weapon which I’ll come to later. The overall shape is not remotely Germanic – which is the market place it is pitched against – instead it is best described as a slightly futuristic almost Japanese hatch/coupé.
On the inside
As you press the key fob all the previously flush door handles glide out; not just one end like an F-Type but out in parallel which is a classy touch. I’m sure it can be programmed to open just the driver’s door for security. The cabin is light and roomy and the driving position entirely conventional with the driver controls where you would expect them to be. The dash is dominated by a huge central portrait 17 inch touchscreen display which faces toward the driver and is used to operate and display the cars’ functions such as heating, suspension and entertainment controls. The front seats are reasonably comfy although they lack any lateral support but sports seats can be optioned.
In the back is a near-flat bench which sits 3 comfortably in what are separate perches, so you could sit an adult in between 2 child seats if required. Most luxury saloons favour individual rear seats with the centre seat a compromise and sat high up so 3 proper seats in the rear is a refreshing change. What is notable is the lack of storage. Okay, there is a large tray which is on the low floor between the front seats and somewhere to put your phone in the centre armrest, but there are no door pockets in either door and nothing in the back. This seems strange in what is a luxury family car where kids as well as adults expect somewhere to put their drinks, sunglasses and smart phones nowadays.
Open the bonnet (front boot) and there is a useful 150 litres of luggage space which is a bonus as it also has a large rear boot. Open the boot lid and the Model S reveals its pièce de résistance in the form of a pair of rear facing child seats. This £2,500 option is not a simple bolt-in job but features an actual safety frame with added bumper bracing in the event of a rear crash. The high hatchback glass and low boot floor (no exhausts or fuel tank remember) meant the extra 2 rear seats are fairly roomy and make this one of the most stylish 7 seat family cars on the market with the front boot taking care of luggage.
Powering the car is an 85kWh three phase four pole AC induction motor which generates 357bhp and 325lb/ft retrospectively, which isn’t a massive amount to lug around an overall kerb weight of 2108kg. To put that into perspective, a typical Jaguar XF or Mercedes E Class weighs approx 1750kg, some 350kg less.
The back wheels only are driven by just one motor and there are no gears, just a single speed drive inverter with variable frequency drive. Suspending duties are done on optional £2,500 Smart Air Suspension which has the ability to raise or lower the ride height on the move and give a very good ride quality combined with great cornering ability. In addition, in conjunction with the GPS, it can raise the ride height for known inclines, for example if you have a particularly steep drive or regularly drive over a particularly aggressive speed bump it pre-raises the car when close by.
Driving the car feels plain weird at first as everything is eerily silent. Tesla didn’t feel the need to add the placebo of an engine noise like a BMW M5 which is synthesised through the hi-fi, you just enjoy the silence – that is the Tesla way. The lack of actual gears also takes some getting used to but you quickly accustom to the drive and it soon becomes quite relaxing, quite luxurious and very smooth.
When you do give it full throttle it blows you away with the pure pulling power of the electric motor. There isn’t an explosive power delivery but there is pure relentless and immediate acceleration with no let up to change gear waiting for the boost of turbo power or the higher revs of a naturally aspirated engine. There is also little noise, vibration or change in pitch to mask the forward forces: just the full fat 357bhp and 325lb/ft at anytime you want it which is why it feels so quick and defies the 0-62 time of 5.4 seconds by feeling much faster.
The suspension does a fabulous job of handling the 2108kg and around the hill circuit proved to be exceptionally capable of dealing with the hill routes, inclines, sharp direction changes and fast sweeping corners. All this while also providing a well damped comfortable ride. A testament not only to the handling but also to the stealthy lack of engine noise is that I didn’t get any yellow flags waved at me by the Marshals despite going at higher speeds than a previous drive Nissan GT-R, which even when chaperoned did get me a yellow flag. I even gave a Cayman GTS a bloody nose, passing just after a corner although that may have been down to the driver and not the Cayman’s ability but it goes to show just how capable it can be.
The key to the handling is where the mass is located. It is all very low down and spread equally across the floorpan of the car which despite being fairly heavy means the balance is fantastic, so the suspension has a much easier job. Spirited driving did highlight the lack of lateral support in the front seats and also the poor positioning of the pilot-orientated 17 inch touch screen monitor which my knee constantly knocked into during right hand corners.
Braking performance was good on track but did feel odd as the car is keen to ebb unused braking re-gen at every opportunity – maybe too keen – but that seems to be the Tesla philosophy, to look after the range and battery level wherever it can. If you let off the throttle you can feel the regenerative braking kick in and slow the car down which means if you are slowing to a junction you have to balance the throttle to gently slow down otherwise the car will stop too soon.
I’m ecstatic I got behind the wheel of the Tesla as it far outreached my expectations of a pure EV car. The wow factor of the full power at any time it is called for and the exceptionally low centre of gravity has to be experienced to be believed and I’m now a huge fan. I’m looking forward to testing other EV cars such as the BMW i8 and ultimately the Tesla Model S with dual motors powering all four wheels capable of 0-60 in 2.8 seconds. Yes you did read that right – 2.8 seconds to 60mph from a luxury hatchback.
The interior packaging has been used to good effect with the spacious, low and completely flat floor giving more options than a fossil fueled counterpart. More attention needs to be given to interior storage with door pockets and cup holders all round which are what is expected in a modern car. Personally I would spec sports seats as the standard seats look a little basic and need more support. With a realistic range of 265 miles if driven sensibly and the makings of a supercharger network Tesla has broken through some of the barriers of EV ownership and to me seems to be the Apple of the car world.
The basic car as tested is £59,435 which is terrific value for money for what is offered, plus the buyer benefits from free road tax, cheap servicing (it just needs a check every now and again) and a lack of fossil fuel costs; just the cost to charge it up at home or work. Tesla don’t have to make cars, they want to make cars and want to make the experience as user friendly as possible. With unique and clever designs and the constant strive to set up the supercharger network, Tesla are here to stay and that is a very good thing. If you get the opportunity to drive a Model S then grab it, you will not regret it.
Positives – immediate acceleration irrespective of speed, clever interior packaging, smooth ride.
Negatives – front seats lack side support, info screen catches knees when cornering, lack of cabin storage.
Specification – Price – £59,435 (after £5k EV grant)
Engine – 85kWh Three phase four pole AC induction motor
Transmission – single speed drive invertor with variable frequency drive
Drive – rear wheel drive
0-60mph – 5.4 seconds
Top speed – 140mph
Power – 357bhp
Torque – 325 lb ft
Range – 265 miles
CO2 – 0g/km
Kerb weight – 2108kg