Tesla Model SOperation Stack, Storm Rachel and a string of Belgian and Dutch motorways aren’t the typical ingredients for a road trip. But without wishing to go all M&S here, the Tesla Model S isn’t your typical car.

Elon Musk’s electric dream topped my list of must-drives as we entered 2015, so the chance to drive one from Tesla’s shop-meets-dealership in White City, to a funky hotel in Amsterdam was greeted with open arms.

For Tesla, this was a chance to showcase its ever-expanding network of Superchargers, including the newly-opened rapid charging point in Maidstone, Kent. The 17th Supercharger in the UK is part of Tesla’s plan to connect the entire country with the rest of Europe. At Tesla HQ, the talk is of a unified Europe, not of a potential break-up…

1. The Model S: a once in a generation car

2. Popmaster, Partridge and slipping into neutral

3. Operation Stack

4. Rain, traffic and more rain

5. Experiencing the Performance Pack

6. Electrifying the dawn raid in Amsterdam

7. Antwerp ring road: for the drive of your life

8. Better than that “awful Nissan Leaf thing”

9. London calling

10. Tesla Model S: What can I say?

Tesla Model S

1. The Model S: a once in a generation car

I’ll admit I was buzzing with excitement as I meandered my way through the slow-moving London traffic in my stone age diesel-powered car for my early morning rendezvous with the Model S. Rightly or wrongly, I consider Tesla’s four-door super-EV to be a once in a generation car. The kind of car you need to drive when new, if only to tell your grandchildren about it in years to come. “What was it like to drive an electric car with such limited range, grandpa?”, they might enquire. Who knows what the future will bring.

The Westfield White City charging station is the largest in the UK and it quite literally outshines the rest of the multi-storey car park, with its glowing red lights and futuristic looking Supercharger points.

8_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

There are currently 353 Supercharger stations across the world, giving a combined total of 1,930 Superchargers. Tesla’s plan to grow the network is both impressive and ambitious, but it makes the prospect of transcontinental travel in an electric vehicle a realistic prospect. Assuming you’ve forked out for a new Tesla Model S.

Buy a Model S with an 85 kWh battery and access to the Supercharger network is free. Owners of Model S cars with the lower 60 kWh battery can enable the system retrospectively. The rapid charge points can provide 80% of charge in just 45 minutes, with Tesla claiming a range of 170 miles is possible in just half an hour.

According to Tesla’s Head of Superchargers (cool job title, eh?), choosing a site for a Supercharger station comes down to the “mother and two small children” factor. In other words, the location must be well lit, safe and close to essential amenities, such as toilets, coffee and wifi. If the mother feels comfortable spending 30 minutes at the charging point, whatever the time of day, then it’s good to go.

As with any electric vehicle, the projected range is dependent on a number of factors, so making full use of the heated seats, climate control and smartphone charger will eat away at your miles. As will playing with the sling-shot acceleration of this supercar tamer. For the majority of the trip we’d be driving a white P85, which offers a potential range of 310 miles and 380hp from its electric motor. In standard form, the P85 retails at £58,300, but the press office had added around £20,000 of options.

2. Popmaster, Partridge and slipping into neutral

Being the gentleman (and with that price tag in the back of my mind), I let my co-driver – who had previous experience with the Model S – tackle the drive from White City to Folkestone, giving me the chance to become acquainted with the inside of the car. As previously reported, the headline act is undoubtedly the 17-inch touchscreen which dominates the interior. You never really get used to the sheer scale of the thing, but it’s fair to say all other touchscreens feel tiny in comparison.

13_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

The map mode is comical, bringing to mind images of those AA road atlases you can pick up in motorway service stations for £2.99. Or the one you’ll inevitably find hidden under the seat. Probably dated 2003. Curiously, especially given the Tesla’s space-age reputation, the map looks and feels a bit old school and because it works off the 3G connection, it can be incredibly slow to update. Goodness knows how it would perform in areas where a 3G signal is not available.

Controversially, the infotainment screen is internet-enabled, even when the car is moving. This means the driver can – should they feel the need – browse the ‘net searching for… well, searching for whatever they like, just as long as it’s not on YouTube. Thanks to Tesla and its giant internet browser, I now know the real name of American singer-songwriter, Boz Scaggs. Ken Bruce’s Popmaster quiz should be a walk in the park for Tesla owners.

A slow and near-silent crawl through London finally made way for the relative freedom of the M20, where the Model S had a chance to stretch its legs. A potential crisis was averted when my co-driver mistakenly put the car in neutral while searching for the windscreen wiper. As we began to slow in the outside lane, the Tesla – with little panic – invited us to select either Drive or Reverse. While curious to discover what would happen as a result of selecting the latter at 75mph, a quick shift into Drive saw the Model S jolting away like the proverbial scolded cat. Much to the amusement of the plumber in his white van, who had started to undertake us.

17_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

By mid morning we had arrived at the brand new Maidstone Supercharger. It’s not the most exciting of places, situated between a generic office block and an empty gravel car park, but it’s extremely convenient for anyone travelling to or from the Channel Tunnel or the ferry terminals. It also ticks the mother and two children box, although it’s impossible not to feel a little like Alan Partridge as you wander across the neighbouring Hilton car park to order a skinny latte.

The Tesla experience opens up a world of opportunities you may never have otherwise experienced. My return journey saw me immersed in middle management and junior exec hell, surrounded by blue sky thinking, people starting their sentences with “So” and a chap named Andy being interviewed for a job as a trainee sales administrator.

3. Operation Stack

With the Model S fully charged and showing a potential range of 265 miles, we unplugged the charging cable and made our way down a sodden M20. It was the overnight wind and rain that had led the authorities to implement Operation Stack and predictability, the inside lane of the motorway held a long line of stationary lorries as we neared Folkestone. Delays were inevitable, to the extent that we considered a trip to Amersham, rather than Amsterdam.

21_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

But eventually we boarded the train, with the Tesla press office having the foresight to book the cars into the extra height category, which also gives you greater width. The Model S is a seriously wide car, something that is all too evident when you peer at the rear haunches in the door mirrors. It’s a big car to weave through a city centre and it can be equally nerve-wracking making your way through the tight confines of Le Shuttle. Making use of the EV’s creep function helped, leaving me only to worry about the expensive alloy wheels.

25_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

Bringing the Model S to a complete stop, much like the act of getting the thing moving, is quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before. There’s no start or stop button. No visible handbrake. And of course, no audible clue that the car has either stopped or started. It’s all a bit surreal.

We’ve heard of keyless entry and keyless start, but the Tesla Model S takes things to the next level. Set things up appropriately and the car will automatically unlock when you wander up to it. Then, in an act of pure theatre, the door handles – complete with ambient lighting – emerge from the doors. Talk about making the right first impression. But it’s not all for show. When the door handles are retracted, the Tesla’s aerodynamic properties are improved. Form and function working in perfect harmony.

Open the frameless doors and you’ll discover a sophisticated and simplistic interior, feeling more Swedish than German, which – in case you were wondering – is a good thing. Car fans will instantly recognise the Mercedes switch gear, but aside from that it feels bespoke and cutting edge. Tesla has gone for a premium feel, almost playing down the car’s eco intentions and it’s all the better for it.

18_Tesla_Model_S_Tesla

It’s clever, too, with Tesla deliberately targeting women drivers with a central compartment running between the two front seats, sized specifically for use as a handbag holder. A sexist feature? Not a bit of it. Every member of the opposite sex I’ve spoken to has said this is a great idea. And it sure as hell beats a takeaway hook on the passenger footwell.

And if only to remind you that Tesla is a small company, still able to include highly individual touches, the audio volume goes up to eleven. You’re unlikely to find references to Spinal Tap on cars rolling out of Stuttgart or Munich. Whether you approve of such things is a matter of taste, but it helps to give the Model S character and personality, two commodities that could otherwise have been absent from such a vehicle.

4. Rain, traffic and more rain

29_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

Upon arrival in France, the conditions were less Spinal Tap and more running tap, with the remnants of Storm Rachel, which had battered the UK the night before, now giving continental Europe a thorough wash and blow dry. The conditions were less than ideal for a novice Model S driver, leading the concerned Tesla press officer, who had now joined my Model S-Club party, to remind me of the car’s rear-wheel drive configuration.

In truth, opportunities to unleash fury in the Model S were few and far between. The weather was atrocious and by the time we reached the outskirts of Ghent we were greeted by the full force of Belgian traffic. Not that we had any concerns over range…

Only we did. From showing a potential range in excess of 100km moments earlier, the display inexplicably dropped to zero, warning us to recharge as soon as possible. The press officer, who at first had seemed unconcerned by the red text telling us we wouldn’t make the Ghent Supercharger, then told us to switch off the climate control to save juice. A photo of the display was then taken to be sent to Tesla’s technical team. A glitch? Perhaps, but it happened on two further occasions.

Plugging in for a full charge at Ghent, we ventured across the car park to a meeting and conference venue, where we were greeted by a crowd of delegates seemingly enjoying a comfort break from their very important conference. With a bowl of pommes frites consumed, along with the unmistakable taste of English tea with cream, it was time for the next leg. This time we’d be heading for Oosterhout, one of the first Superchargers to be installed in Europe.

5. Experiencing the Performance Pack

It was at this point we were offered the chance to do a car swap, meaning I’d be driving a red P85+, complete with its enhanced Performance Pack. Until the imminent arrival of the P85D, this is as quick as things get in a Tesla, with the 0-62 time completed in a blistering 4.2 seconds. In the real world it feels much, much quicker, thanks mainly to the 442lb ft of torque at your disposal. However, being an older model it did without some of the recent upgrades, such as Auto Pilot, so I couldn’t help but feel I was slumming it. Yeah, right.

14_Tesla_Model_S_Tesla

With 198 miles showing on the digital display, we could have made Amsterdam with juice to spare. But with no charging facilities at the hotel, it was essential we had enough for a return leg to Oosterhout in the morning. Thinking ahead and planning your journey is a pre-requisite of electric vehicle ownership. And until EVs have the potential to offer 500 miles of range, thorough route planning will continue to be required.

But for the time being, the Tesla Model S is about as good as it gets. And you won’t find any complaints from me.

Driving the Model S P85 is an intoxicating and highly addictive experience. It’s quite unlike any other car you will have driven, and that includes other EVs. It never really manages to disguise its massive 2.1 tonne weight and it’s not a driver’s car in the traditional sense, but that doesn’t make it any less rewarding to pilot. You sense you’re sat at the wheel of a technical masterpiece, the very genesis of EVs offering genuine transcontinental potential. Something very special indeed.

Only it isn’t that special. Not in the Netherlands, anyway. Thanks to the government’s overly-generous tax benefits, the Tesla Model S is a common sight in the Netherlands. As much became obvious when we entered the outskirts of Amsterdam to be greeted with one, two, three, four Model S taxis. Students have never had it so good. In my day you’d feel privileged to be picked up in a Hyundai Stellar.

37_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

The drive from Oosterhout to Amsterdam was 100% motorway and in many other cars would have been 100% tedious. Not in the Tesla. Thanks to the 3G connection, you can connect to any radio station in the world, even creating your own radio station based on your personal preferences. Driving through a 1.5km tunnel in Utrecht, listening to disco hits of the 1980s, set to a backdrop of orange street lights, a string of red lights stretching out in front and the gentle glow of the ambient lighting package, is an experience I’ll never forget.

To quote Del Amitri, by the time we reached the Amsterdam hotel, everything was dead and every third car was a cab. Having been on the road since 5am, I was mentally if not physically shattered. I went to sleep at midnight, my head spinning with electric dreams. By 4am I was up, showered and checking out of the hotel. This was a dawn raid with a difference.

6. Electrifying the dawn raid in Amsterdam

Thanks to the car swap the night before, I had no idea how much range I’d have in the Model S. I knew I needed at least 59 miles to reach the Oosterhout Supercharger, so was relieved to see just over half a green bar on the dash, with a predicted range of 116 miles. No problem, I thought.

39_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

Despite the freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation and a complete lack of coffee, I started the journey in good spirits. Heated seat set to the max, climate control set to a comfortable 24ºc, iPhone charging from the USB port and Five Live’s Up All Night streaming from the internet radio. Life was pretty good. Perhaps a little too good.

For the first time on the trip, I suffered from range anxiety. With my co-pilot from the day before taking the easy way out and flying back from Schiphol, I was now driving solo. Away from the carefully orchestrated route planning laid on by the press team and under the cover of darkness, I had a moment of panic. The anticipated range was dropping quicker than the rate at which I was covering ground. The Model S features a handy chart that highlights the charge left in the battery now, along with how much you’ll have left at your destination.

I’m not going to pretend I was in any real danger of grinding to a halt on the hard shoulder of a Dutch motorway, but I was clearly being too gadget-happy for my own good. The phone was unplugged, the heated seat switched off and – until the car started to steam up – the climate control was turned off, too. I stuck with the dulcet tones of Dotun Adebayo, if only to provide some company as I contemplated life on the hard shoulder.

Within a few miles the projected charge started to climb and as I got closer to Oosterhout, I became less worried. But then, with less than 1km to go, the Tesla warned me that the cold weather was having an impact on my project range and, worse still, I was unlikely to reach my destination. When you’re turning into the car park, such a warning feels like an empty threat, but it’s quite a concern to see it dropping from 18% charge to nothing in a matter of seconds. This happened too many times during the trip for it to be a one-off glitch.

44_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

Thoughts of having a coffee at 6am were quickly dashed when I found the McDonald’s to be shut. No 24-hour service in this small Dutch town. I didn’t fancy walking in to the Dutch equivalent of the Travel Tavern, so I remained in the car with the heated seat switched on. It’s quite something being able to watch the car slowly replenish itself, a bit like devouring a health pack on Tomb Raider. To have the knowledge that this added juice comes at no charge is a bonus. With little else to do, I fired off a few tweets, blissfully unaware that my UK followers were still tucked up in bed.

7. Antwerp ring road: for the drive of your life

Before I left, two other Teslas emerged out of the darkness for an early morning charge. It’s a strange sub-culture of Model S ownership, with cars appearing out of nowhere and drivers sat waiting in the cabin, illuminated by the light of the touchscreen. The night before, a chap who owned the first Model S to be sold in the Netherlands told us he had to wait 30 minutes as all eight Supercharger points were in use. It’s imperative that the charging network grows as the popularity of EVs increases, as nobody will want to wait over an hour, when filling up with conventional fuel takes a few minutes.

54_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

Exactly 45 minutes after arriving and with near enough a full charge, I departed and headed for Ghent. A few miles later I was in Belgium and muttering something to myself about the good old days of European border points and the sense of excitement when crossing into another country. Still without coffee or anything to eat, I passed two McDonald’s (both of which were shut) and, not wanting to subject the Model S to a petrol station forecourt, I decided to soldier on to Ghent and its vibrant and welcoming meeting and conference venue.

Now this is the point where you’re going to have to bear with me, especially if you’re a resident of Belgium. Because for me, the simple act of piloting a Model S through the congested traffic on the Antwerp ring road is something I’ll never forget. At times the traffic slowed to a crawl and the speed limits shown on the gantries changed so often I could have sworn I’d won the Euromillions jackpot. But driving the Model S is as relaxed and laid back as any other car I’ve driven. The instant acceleration makes darting in and out of the gaps in the traffic a real joy. And I’ll readily admit that on a number of occasions I allowed a gap to form in front of me, just to take advantage of the sling-shot thrust. Yes, I’m a big kid.

Sure, the novelty would soon wear off and my 36 hours with a Model S needs to be look at through a pair of rose-tinted spectacles, but I was having so much fun with this car. Never before, and perhaps never again, would Dutch and Belgian motorways be so exhilarating.

By 8.30am the Tesla Model S was receiving its final European charge. The plan was to give it enough juice to take me back to London, bypassing the Maidstone Supercharger. Giving myself a few man pride points for successfully navigating from Amsterdam to Ghent without the merest sniff of coffee, I wandered dozily across the welcoming bosom of the meeting and conference venue. Having ordered a coffee, I was told I was in the wrong restaurant for breakfast, so I pinched a pain au chocolat from the banquet laid out for the Imperial Meat Processing Company of Belgium conference that was gathering in the lobby.

50_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

Safely cocooned in my Tesla and with the batteries slowly reaching maximum charge, the silence was soon broken by a leaf blower, being wielded by a chap who looked suspiciously like somebody from the Foo Fighters. But my primary concern, aside from the ungodly hour at which to wield a leaf blower, was just how primitive a petrol-engined machine suddenly felt. I was clearly being won over by the electric vision of the future.

At that point I was joined by a fellow Tesla Model S driver, who deserves kudos points for ordering his Model S in a lovely shade of brown. He’d only owned it a week and was having trouble opening the charging flap. After a few minutes of turning it off and turning it on again, we managed to synchronise the act of pressing the open button and prizing open the flap. Success, but something he would need to get fixed under warranty.

His previous car was a BMW and he told me the Model S suited his needs to a tee. More often than not he’d charge from home, but when – as in this instance – he was required to attend a meeting in Ghent, he simply left the car at the charging point and walked across to his meeting venue a few hundred yards away. Very little in the way of inconvenience and a glimpse at how the future could look with more Superchargers, and indeed other charging points, across towns, cities and even villages.

8. Better than that “awful Nissan Leaf thing”

But enough of that. With a potential range of 248 miles showing on the display and around 200 miles to go to White City, I set off. The Model S may have been fully charged, but a rather tepid coffee and a fun-size pastry hadn’t exactly been a supercharged breakfast. Never mind, I had a train to catch.

From that point on I stuck to a steady 120km/h, doing my best to maintain good progress while preserving battery charge. Thanks to the Tesla press office, my tunnel crossing was brought forward from 3.50pm to 12.50pm, making my early start seem worthwhile. But my arrival at the gates led to an unexpected bonus as I was fast tracked on to the 11.50am crossing, meaning I’d only be waiting for 20 minutes.

11_Tesla_Model_S_Tesla

With my boot searched for stowaways, I was given a thorough briefing on where I’d been and what I’d be doing. The wonderfully amiable lady was full of questions about the Model S, praising its “beauty” and asking if it was better than that “awful Nissan Leaf thing”. Naturally I said yes, but then had to break the news that the car I was piloting would cost in excess of £70,000…

For boarding I set the ride height to the maximum, giving the Model S the look of an urban crossover. Amazingly, the Smart Air Suspension is linked to GPS, meaning it will automatically raise or lower to suit moments on your journey. Useful if your commute involves a nasty speed hump or your driveway is of a certain angle. It’s ultimately going to be of use when driving through floodwater, too, because all those batteries won’t mix well with water…

Once on Le Shuttle, I shut down the car, something you have to do manually, as the car will essentially remain idle unless you say otherwise. Theoretically at least, I had enough charge to reach White City, with the project 126-mile range easily exceeding the 74-mile trip to basecamp.

9. London calling

But partly through a serious need for caffeine and reports of congestion on the M20, I chickened out and pulled in to the delights of the Maidstone Supercharger. A quick splash and dash, in a uniquely electrical sense, was soon completed and I made my way back for the final leg. I didn’t really want to hand the car back and could have quite easily have driven on to my home in Devon. There’s even a new Supercharger at Darts Farm, Exeter.

Realising that may not have gone down well at Tesla HQ, I ventured across London and soon realised that the Model S was attracting almost as much attention as the tourist hot spots. Clearly the Pearl White paint and the 21-inch wheels helped, but this thing was outshining the Ferraris, Maseratis and Bentleys I was sharing the roads with. School girls stopped to take a look, sharp-suited execs paused their conversations and people on buses nudged their fellow passengers, keen to ensure they had a glimpse of this futuristic American beauty.

61_Tesla_Model_S_Motoring Research

Is it beautiful? That’s for you to decide. It’s certainly attractive, with its side-profile by far its greatest angle. It’s not a radical design, not by any stretch of the imagination and throughout the trip I noticed hints of Audi, Jaguar, Maserati and even bits of new Mondeo and Saab 9-3, so it’s not going to be remembered for its groundbreaking style. But for its inner workings and ability to single-handily raise the profile of electric vehicles, the Model S deserves its place in the automotive hall of fame.

Let’s remember, Tesla has no heritage beyond 2003. And Elon Musk is notoriously tightfisted when it comes to spending money on promotion, refusing point blank to spend any money on advertising. And yet everyone seems to know about the Model S, even if they don’t know its name or what it actually is. Only the most hard-nosed critic would refuse to give Tesla credit for what it has achieved in such a short space of time.

I pulled in to the Westfield shopping centre, put the plug in for the final time and walked away from the car, stopping only to watch the door handles disappear into the car. As a chap in an RS5 drove past, doing his best to ensure I heard the sound of his 4.2-litre V8 engine, I realised just how little I had missed the sound of the engine. I fully expected the lack of an engine note to detract from the overall experience, but the fact is, I didn’t even think about it until the very moment I stopped the car for the final time. Whether that says more about me than the car is up for debate.

10. Tesla Model S: What can I say?

Tesla Model S
But I’ll readily admit that I was totally won over by the Model S experience. From where I sit, an easily achievable 250-mile range and a network of free-to-use Superchargers makes Model S ownership a viable prospect. Sure, the £58,300 price tag for a naked P85 without options is a small obstacle to overcome, but this has the potential to be a very rewarding car to own.

An eight-year battery warranty, free access to the Supercharger network, 380hp through the rear wheels and a 0-62mph time of 5.4 seconds may be the headline figures, but it’s in the real world where the Model S is at its most compelling. No, it’s not perfect and given the price tag, you’d have every right to expect perfection. But the complaints are no different to those you’d find on a ‘standard’ car.

The ride is too firm and and the Model S is easily unsettled, not helped by the bling 21-inch alloy wheels of my test car. The steering is too light and artificial, not inspiring enough confidence to drive in a manner you may otherwise have wanted to in a supercar-shaming rear-wheel drive car. And even though the steering wheel and driver’s seat offers a multitude of different positions, I never once found a perfect driving position. Heck, my co-pilot could barely walk after a day travelling in the car.

But I’m nitpicking, because the Tesla Model S is an astonishing car. By the time the Model X has arrived, the Supercharger network will have expanded even further and Tesla will have grown as an organisation. Goodness knows what it will achieve with the future BMW i3 rival. In the meantime I urge anyone who hasn’t driven a Model S to give it try. In comparison, your archaic motor car, with its crude internal combustion engine will feel outmoded, outdated and out of touch. And that’s a statement coming from a dyed-in-the-wool petrolhead.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Boz Scagg’s real name is William Royce Scaggs.