As a relatively low-profile Czech motoring journo, I couldn’t expect Elon Musk to hand me the keys for a long-term press loaner. Or any other kind of “official” experience with Tesla, as they aren’t even sold officially in our country. But I did manage to get my hand’s on one via a friend’s father is an avid fan of EVs. As soon as the Nissan Leaf entered the European market, he bought one even if it meant to order it in Spain (about two thousand miles away) and have it trucked here. And when he learned about the Tesla Model S, he placed an early order, which made him one of the first few people in this country to own a Model S (a fully loaded P85 version, no less). Now, there are probably a dozen in Czech Republic.
The nature of the test somewhat limited my experience with the car. I wasn’t allowed to spend time with it alone, not I could take it very far – we had about and hour of driving. And since I had to sign an agreement that I’ll pay for any damage done to the uninsured car while I was behind the wheel, I wasn’t really hooning it. But still, it was enough for me to form an opinion about the car.
They say the first impression matters most. When I came up to my friend’s house, the garage door opened and sleek, burgundy colored machine silently rolled out, I was truly impressed. This thing isn’t “pretty for an EV”. It’s just pretty. If you park it side-by-side with the current crop of the fashionable “four door coupes” like the Porsche Panamera, BMW 6 Gran Coupé, Mercedes CLS, Audi S7, or even supersedans like the Aston Rapide and Maserati Quattroporte, it will not seem out of place. It will hardly be the prettiest among them, but it will not look like an ugly duckling or a golf cart stumbled in the posh meeting accidentaly. And that is a nice start.
The thing is, Tesla doesn’t want to sell you this car because you need it – that’s not even really possible with an EV at the moment – but because you want it. And the show continues as you come closer. The door handles are hidden, and pop out as you approach with the key in your pocket. It improves aerodynamics, and it look wicked cool. I just wonder what will happen when those door handles malfunction after some time – which they surely will. They’re not even connected to the lock mechanism mechanically – it’s all electronic. I suspect that Tesla owners will start carrying bricks with them, just in case.
The interior continues in the same vein. Old fashioned types who like tactile controls will be dismayed at the tablet-like interface of the Model S. Most auxiliary functions, starting with satellite navigation and radio, and ending with setting up the HVAC or opening the sunroof, are controlled via the giant iPad-style glass screen in the middle of the dashboard. It looks cool, but changing the temperature or tuning the radio at 70 mph and having to take your eyes off the road is more than a bit unsettling. I think that with the first facelift, Tesla will pony up some cash to buy a few more buttons and knobs from Mercedes (all the tactile items, like window buttons, steering column stalk and steering column shifter, are from current MB cars), and offer us real controls for HVAC.
And the rest of the interior? You can best describe it as “different”. It is certainly well made, on par with most competitors, but it keeps surprising you with strange shape and outside the box solutions. One of the more interesting is the absence of the centre console. Altogether, the interior is very much love/hate affair. You can’t criticize it for materials or assembly quality, but some people will just dislike it for being too moden. But I think majority of potential customers will feel right at home here.
When you first put your foot on accelerator, the Tesla feels much like your typical hybrid in EV mode. If you’re not used to it, you’ll be fascinated by the noiseless movement and ever-present torque, noticeable even if you’re light on accelerator. But if you’ve driven, say, an Infiniti M Hybrid before, the silence, nor the strange power delivery will not surprise you. And in city driving, you can’t even find out anything interesting about suspension. You feel that the car is quite comfortable even on the low-profiles, and very stable due to its two tonnes of weight. But it’s nothing extraordinary compared with the likes of the aforementioned Infiniti.
But the interesting part comes when you pass the city limits. You’ve probably read that the Model S has 416 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque. But here, you also have those 443 pound-feet of torque right from zero revs. Everytime. Without any lag. I have to say I’m not sure what to compare the Model S to. I have driven just a few cars with around 400hp, and none of them accelerates with such ferocity. It was much more similar to the 470hp Nissan GT-R. But imagine the GT-R operating in silence and serenity. If you’re not used to driving a really quick car, the Tesla Model S will shock you.
With someone else’s $150k car, you don’t have much appetite for backroad hooning, so I can’t tell you how the Tesla behaves over 70-75mph. But both owner and son told me that over 90 or 100mph, the Model S runs out of steam very fast, so it will not be an Autobahn missile. If you were used to the heavy acceleration your German sports sedan offered above 120mph, you’re out of luck – it’s nearly the car’s top speed. And even just keeping it there will squeeze juice from the battery at alarming rate.
So what did I find during our backroad jaunt? Quite a lot, actually. And I was more than a little bit surprised. I fully expected the silent, serene experience. I was prepared to the brutal acceleration. But the revelation came when we entered the twisty stuff. The back roads in Czech Republic are usually not stellar, so most German sports sedans, or sporty, pretentious versions of ordinary diesel sedans, are awfully uncomfortable. They’re built for the Autobahn and smooth Teutonic roads, not for our cratered stuff. The Tesla? It was compliant, smooth, like it was flowing slightly above the surface. And yet, it wasn’t floaty in the way old American cars or Citroëns are. It was alert, agile and offered loads of grip, and fantastic traction out of the corners. It was possible to get the rear slip just a little bit, and with ESP off and more courage, it would probably go sideways nicely.
And it was fun to drive, even with these rather low limits in place. It didn’t feel heavy, and even the steering felt nice – not really feelsome, but nicely weighted. After a while, I started wondering: Who the hell did the suspension tuning on this thing? The Model S felt polished, refined… it felt finished. I’ve driven too many cars from established carmakers that felt like the development team just packed their bags at the 80% (cough, Alfa, cough) to believe that this was developed and tuned by a start-up car maker with no budget.
With its combination of compliance and comfort with grip and agility, felt distinctively British. If I had to liken the Model S driving experience to any other car I’ve driven, I would say it’s much like the Jaguar XK – just a with maximum torque from 0 rpm. And it was not only similar to the XK, it was generally Jaguar-ish. And I would bet that the suspension development of the Model S took place on British roads, which are a lot like ours – broken, bumpy and unsettling to most German performance sedans. Bear in mind that the car I tested wasn’t equipped with “Performance Plus” sports package, which includes a stiffer suspension.
So, is the Tesla just another flash in the pan, or does it stand a chance of “making it”? Will it be a fad, or are we looking at the automobile’s future?
Frankly, I don’t know. This very much depends on many factors far beyond the scope of my review. The price, the cost of recharging, the real-world range, the development of better batteries…
But there’s one thing I know. If you can live with the range limitations – with a real-world range of over 200 miles (based on owner’s words), many two-car households can – the Tesla Model S is a great car. Would I choose it over an equivalent Jaguar, BMW or Maserati? I don’t know. But it would be a serious contender, based on driving experience alone. The feel of the electric motor may be a bit of a novelty, but I suspect it will also be very addictive. Competitors offer large V8 engines, burbling and gargling like some monster from the past. This feels like the future – and while I absolutely love the sound of a good V8, I would be tempted to trade it for this. For the first time ever, you can buy an electric car because you like it, not because it’s electric.
Photo credit: Ondřej Zeman, www.rallyphotos.cz
@VojtaDobes is motoring journalist from Czech Republic, who previously worked for local editions of Autocar and TopGear magazines. Today, he runs his own website, www.Autickar.cz and serves as editor-in-chief at www.USmotors.cz. After a failed adventure with importing classic American cars to Europe, he is utterly broke, so he drives a borrowed Lincoln Town Car. His previous cars included a 1988 Caprice in NYC Taxi livery, a hot-rodded Opel Diplomat, two Dodge Coronets, a Simca, a Fiat 600 and Austin Maestro. He has never owned a diesel, manual wagon.