Richard Aucock | May 2015
Tesla is being good to Britain. We drive on the left, yet we’re not denied factory-built right-hand-drive versions of its extraordinary Model S full-range EV. It officially launched here in 2014 and sales are, from a standing start, already in the hundreds, growing by the week as the dealer network grows too.
We even enjoy Tesla Superchargers here, those ultra-fast (and free) recharge points that can fill the 300-mile-range battery in the time it takes to drink a latte and check some emails. London to Edinburgh in a zero-emissions EV? Not a problem if it’s a Tesla.
Now, we’re getting an upgraded model – an all-wheel-drive Model S, with two electric motors; an additional one joins the existing rear-mounted motor, sitting up front (and munching into, although not devouring, the front luggage compartment). Soon, a Tesla spokesperson told us, there will be just a single rear-drive Tesla Model S; the rest of the range goes all-wheel drive, courtesy of Dual Motor tech and signified by the ‘D’ in the name.
Why? Several reasons. One being, surprisingly, it’s more efficient. This clever car can juggle between motors, using one or both when it’s most efficient, and also flipping between front and rear motors on long trips to ensure they’re always operating at the most efficient temperature.
But the other significant reason is traction. Or, rather, the challenges of not breaking it when deploying the Tesla’s monster power and torque. The top-line P85D we’re testing here has supercar power. Genuinely. How does 701hp strike you?
Sending this through just two wheels can, at times, be sub-optimal (as McLaren’s Ron Dennis might say). Four-wheel-drive traction means grip between four wheels, not two – so more can be transferred to the road without being pegged back by traction control.
The key acceleration figure bears out the logic of this thinking: 0-62mph takes just 3.1 seconds. We have checked it, and it is correct. Extraordinary, no? This modern but unassuming saloon car is Porsche 911 Turbo S fast, yet with local emissions that match a Nissan Leaf. With deliveries about to start in the UK, and with prices starting from £85k (before the Plug-in Car Grant is taken off), what do lucky owners have in store? We found out.
What’s the Tesla Model S P85D like to drive?
We found the rear-drive Tesla Model S jaw-dropping for acceleration, response, intensity and energy. The P85D takes it to another level, one barely believable for what’s still a luxurious and urbane BMW 5 Series rival. It’s incredible.
This isn’t acceleration, it’s hyperdrive. You have two acceleration modes: Sport and Insane. Insane was our default. It really is insane. It’s claimed to generate 1G of acceleration force and, using a smartphone app, we confirmed this. It is also the only road car I can remember that ‘rollercosters’ your stomach each and every time you give it the full beans: it’s a thrilling, incredible sensation that has you shaking with excitement.
Just as amazing is the traction you sense when deploying this. There is no metering of power or torque, no restrictions from the physical grip of the tyres; the P85D bites and drives hard, on all surfaces, at all angles. Floor it out of a gravelly dual carriageway layby and you can be up to the speed of the traffic in an eyeblink – faster than either you or the traffic around you can comprehend. It’s warp drive that, thanks to all-wheel drive, now comes to virtually any situation.
It’s not all about just straight-line acceleration though. All-wheel drive makes it more tenacious on British B-roads, too. The Model S was already a surprisingly wieldy thing for one so large (4,978mm long), heavy (2.5 tonnes) and wide (1,984mm), largely thanks to the sense of a lack of mass at the front end.
The P85D further enhances this with the ability to deploy ridiculous drive forces, instantaneously, in virtually any situation. Electric drive means power is delivered hesitation-free, and 701hp means said power is colossal: distribute it between all four wheels for ample stability and you’ve something almost peculiarly tenacious on tight UK roads.
Should you buy a Tesla P85D instead of a sports car?
So, all this performance, delivered so uniquely, with added practicality, eco saviourness and standard-setting onboard tech: surely the Tesla P85D’s a smarter buy than a slower, dearer and less practical Porsche 911?
We can see why some would think so. For £85k (or, with options, £105k for the test car – reduced to £100k with the government grant), it offers supercar pace that has already led to umpteen YouTube videos showing the P85D taking on all comers in acceleration races. Y’know, Lamborghinis, McLarens, Ferraris, that sort of thing.
This is why those who like the idea of an everyday supercar such as the 911 may steer towards the Tesla as a leftfield alternative. So it would be unfair to point out the EPAS doesn’t have anything like a 911’s feel or feedback, that you notice its considerable size in a way you never would with the compact 911, and it feels decidedly saloon car-like behind the wheel rather than like a low-slung sports car. Buyers would get all that.
The fact it performs so well, offers so much practicality and has the world-saving kudos that comes from it could just clinch it in this sector that buys cars just as much for how they look and what they say about them as how they drive.
And it’s here where the Tesla could do a bit more. The interior is great, with real wow-factor, so it’s a pity the exterior can’t quite match it. A touch more finesse, a bit more sharpness of the lines, a bolder front end, all would help the Model S’ potential to sway supercar buyers. It’s a big car but could do more to hide it – and could do a lot more to shout about the fact it’s so high-tech and groundbreaking.
Oh, and why do the visual changes for the P85D amount to little more than a different badge, bigger wheels and red brake calipers? This car is a rocketship, Tesla – shout about it!
Verdict: Tesla Model S P85D (2015)
The Tesla Model S P85D is a striking, memorable car that you’ll talk about for months for one reason: acceleration. Extraordinary acceleration. The pace, and the forces it generates, are astounding and the fact this is combined with an EV range of nearly 300 miles is even more amazing. It’s an other-worldly achievement.
Buy it for these reasons and you’ll be delighted. Buy it instead of a Porsche 911, or a BMW i8 PHEV supercar, and you might yearn for just a touch more sophistication of style and final chassis tune. Here’s where Tesla’s youth arguably shows through – not in a stark way, but it’s now competing in an exalted sector, and these tiny differences matter.
But the fact many will still consider the Tesla instead of a premium alternative shows just what the firm’s achieved. And, with the P85D’s almighty acceleration bettering almost anything else on the road, it’s now far more than just a quick EV with a big range. It’s a quick EV with a big range and warp drive as standard.
Rivals: Tesla Model S P85D
- Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid
- BMW i8
- Porsche 911
- Audi R8 e-tron
- Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid
We’ve mentioned the Porsche 911; for many buyers, the Panamera S E-Hybrid is likely to be a more obvious challenger. And if they really do want a supercar, there’s also the BMW i8 and forthcoming Audi R8 e-tron. But maybe the Tesla’s practicality is the big win for you? Then the Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid might appeal – as might the £30k list price saving…
Specification: Tesla Model S P85D
Engine Two electric motors
Gearbox Single-gear electric, four-wheel drive
Price from £85,000
Torque 442lb ft (600Nm)
0-62mph 3.1 seconds
Top speed 155mph