Tesla Model S P90D: A normal person drives the 'best car' ever made

Drew Harwell found driving the Model S felt like driving an iPhone.
SUPPLIED

Drew Harwell found driving the Model S felt like driving an iPhone.

The first thing I Googled from the driver's seat of this US$142,000 (NZ$207,300) Tesla Model S P90D was a plea: "turn off tesla."

A representative of Elon Musk's heavily hyped automaker had just patiently explained everything I would need to know about the all-electric sedan, including how to enjoy its 480 kilometres of battery-powered range and how to turn on the absurdly fast "Ludicrous" mode.

But as I pulled in front of my home inside one of the US's most celebrated machines - a car that US Consumer Reports gave its highest rating in history, 103 out of 100 - I realised I had forgotten one tiny detail: I didn't know how to turn the thing off.

The answer is, well, you park it and walk away: A simple but uncomfortably alien gesture for anyone who has ever driven a car. And over a few confusing, exhilarating days with the Model S P90D, I realised just how much the future of driving will force us to relearn what we know about cars.

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Tesla Motors, the United States' youngest car company, had agreed to let me keep its newest model for a long weekend, and I was intent on driving and thinking about the car as a normal American driver might: caring for its place in the actual family routine, not just how it would look in a showroom.

There was one big obstacle to that: The price. The car starts at US$70,000 (NZ$102,200), although this one was fully loaded - with perks such as a US$35,000 90-kilowatt dual-motor upgrade - and cost about US$142,200, which seemed more appropriate attached to a charming central Florida bungalow.

Why should anyone care about a car that expensive? Because no other machine better represents how much the American driving experience is poised to change. In the 18 years since the Toyota Prius was introduced, virtually all of the big automakers' electric and hybrid offerings, such as the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, have been suburban dweeb mobiles, demanding sacrifices of style and still selling for far more than the traditional gas guzzler. The Model S is the best attempt at making an eco-friendly car that people get excited about.

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Musk has long called the Model S the first step toward making electric cars ubiquitous. "Step one: expensive car, low volume. Step two: medium price, medium volume. Step three: low price, high volume," he said last month. The carmaker's next model, after its just-released Model X SUV, is the Model 3, a mass-market electric car set to sell for about US$35,000 and start production in 2017.

Perhaps more important, other automakers are beginning to follow Tesla's lead. General Motors says it will start turning out its 200-plus-mile-range Chevy Bolt next year. It will cost about US$30,000 after tax credits. Kelley Blue Book just celebrated the new Chevy Volt, Volkswagen e-Golf and even Toyota's hydrogen-powered Mirai as the best and most affordable of the eco-friendly fleet.

Super-low oil prices and increasingly efficient gas-powered cars have zapped some of the juice from electric cars, but the Model S is futuristic in another way: Its new "Autopilot" mode can steer, change lanes and keep the car driving at highway speeds with minimal human intervention, one of the first publicly available ways to get a taste of self-driving cars. That feature is rolling out this week to thousands of Model S drivers via an over-the-air update, another hallmark of the Tesla brand.

Of course, that all could go to waste if people never buy one. And even the smoothest electric car is only as good as the network that keeps it charged.

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The new Model S can go from 0 to 60 mph (96.5 kmh) in an absurd 2.8 seconds, with horsepower that rivals the Lamborghini Huracan and other supercars that only bad guys in James Bond movies drive. It feels impossibly fast. You lightly touch the pedal and suddenly you're flying at 140 kmh. The first time I hit the pedal hard, I cursed.

Tesla

Tesla CEO Elon Musk shows off one of the company's supercharging stations. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

You know all the little ways a car tells you it's accelerating: The growl of the engine, the resistance of the pedal, the rumble in the seats? There's none of that here. You press the pedal in "Ludicrous" mode - which replaces the previous model's "Insane" mode, and actually accelerates your body faster than if you were falling to Earth - and soundlessly, instantly teleport to hyperspeed.

That power will go woefully underused cruising suburban streets. But even at city speeds, it keeps the car feeling responsive, agile and light. When we're driving one night, my wife says, "Damn, no other car is going to feel good after this."

Driving the Model S feels like driving an iPhone. The speedometer area just above the steering wheel is a screen: showing your music, turn-by-turn navigation, how you're using the battery. The dashboard between the two front seats is a screen: a 17-inch touchscreen the size of a sideways computer monitor, with maps, music, a Web browser, a back-up camera, your phone contacts and a calendar.

These screens handle everything, and you change the car's settings often by moving your fingers over a picture of the car itself: Slide down the moon roof, turn on the headlights, lower the suspension, heat the seats or steering wheel.The car is also loaded with sensors, cameras and radars that help keep it in its lane, stop before a crash and dodge speeding tickets; cameras watch for speed limit signs, which are projected onto a screen. It is baffling, cool and distracting, all at once.

Tesla

Multiple digital displays in the cockpit of the Tesla Model S. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Sensors in the car also show when objects get too close, estimating how many inches away they are (and beeping ever urgently the nearer they get). It's how you would design a car if you started from scratch today, and yet it demands you rewrite a lot of traditional driving rituals in your head. I kept reaching for a volume knob that didn't exist and looking back over my shoulder to reverse.

The car looks for updates over your home Wi-Fi network, can play Internet-radio stations such as Slacker over a crisp sound system that cranks "up to 11," and features voice controls you activate from a button on the steering wheel. Unlike when on my phone, I find myself actually talking to the computer. Saying "navigate home" or "play Beach House" alone in the car seems less embarrassing than, say, shouting at your iPhone to Google "tom hanks's age."

The Model S is roomy, comfortably seating five (or seven, with an optional backward-facing bench). You could easily fit a couple of baby seats, or cram in the haul of a big grocery-store shopping trip in the spacious trunk and "frunk," the under-the-hood front storage area where most cars keep the engine. (The electric motor that drives you is hidden beneath your seat.)

Yet the car still ends up feeling less like a family wagon and more like a sleek, minimal, vaguely Scandinavian bachelor pad. There are two cup holders, which is the ultimate first-world problem to complain about, until all the kids have soda in their laps.

The closest thing to a key is a little remote that looks like a tiny Model S - a toy for a toy - on which you can tap its back or sides to pop the trunk or unlock the doors. You can also totally ignore it: When the car senses your smart key coming closer, it flickers to life, unlocking the doors, pushing out the door handles (which recede when you walk away) and illuminating the screens. Push down on the brake pedal and the car is ready to drive.

The ease of it all can feel almost magical. I go out for a drive and an hour disappears. I stop at a light and there's nothing but silence, sun pouring through the big windshield. One morning before work, I open the door and the car's Internet-radio station is already playing one of my favourite songs. I wonder as I glide through traffic: Is this what people who buy US$140,000 cars feel like all the time?

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The magic lasts a few hours. Owners of electric cars often charge their cars overnight in their garage, but I wanted to use one of Tesla's Superchargers, part of a national network of free charging stations that promise 80 per cent of juice in about half an hour. Grab the nozzle, bring it to your car and the fuel door automatically swings open. Voila, free (Tesla-funded) power. Totally foolproof.

Except: When my wife and I get to the Supercharger, inside a mall parking garage in Bethesda, Md., the place is swamped. We drive instead to the nearest public charger, a small kiosk outside a SunTrust bank, where we delve into the still-rocky world of non-Supercharger electric charging: For US$1 an hour, we watch as the battery sips on a trickle, a little over 1.5km every 2 or 3 minutes. Every one of these stations is different, in recharge time and cost, a confusing addition to the already-annoying dearth of places to charge. Imagine if every gas station served a different blend of fuel.

The Model S gets 480 km on one charge, which leads the industry and is incredibly promising for the future of electric mobility. You forget all of that when your battery gets low. The problem of "range anxiety" in electric cars remains very real. When you're near E and there are no open stations around, you realise how much you take for granted the simple pleasure of having a gas station on every corner. You become obsessed with your battery percentage, like how I imagine teenagers feel about their iPhones. You imagine waiting for a tow truck in your fancy corpse car, like a US$140,000 sucker.

My wife and I drove an hour north of DC to a lovely, pastoral stretch in rural Maryland between the small towns of Sunshine and Unity, and all I could think about was that maddening little progress bar on my dashboard, dwindling ever closer to extinction. I began to deeply sympathise with my electric brothers and sisters who get only 96 km on a single charge. Are their lives always this full of dread?

Finally, we pull back into Bethesda and attempt another go at the Supercharger. Two men are charging their cars at the two main stalls, chatting, naturally, about Tesla, and I overhear one man say, "If you can't afford it, don't test-drive it. It'll ruin your life." We sneak unsubtle glances at their progress bars as we lean back on our car to wait.

Tesla

Extra storage space under the bonnet of the Tesla Model S where the engine is in most cars. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Nationwide, there is one public charger for every 10 electric vehicles, and competition for them can grow heated: Stories of shouting matches and secret unpluggings of strangers' cars abound. It's the busy-laundromat problem for rich people, and for once I totally get it. When you are stranded with thirst and people are gulping happily at the water fountain, you can't help but feel spurned.

Soon, one of the men offers to leave early and let us plug in. I go to open the car and the handles have receded. I ask him how to push the handles out (click twice on the little toy remote's roof) and then he shows me the right way to close the "frunk" (softly, with two hands, instead of slamming). Then, silently, he drives away.

Tesla has long been a Rorschach test for investors. It has delivered fewer cars to buyers than it said it would; delayed for years the rollouts of cars such as the Model X, its heavily touted sport-utility vehicle; and set prices often far higher than expected. The company's stock has slumped 9 per cent over the past year on worries that they're better at marketing than delivering.

And yet I find that the best representation of the Model S comes from two of the many people who were curious about the car during the weekend and who were both, coincidentally, DC police officers. One thought it was beautiful but said the charging infrastructure was still far too weak for electric cars to make sense. The other officer jokingly asked if he could be the valet.

That's the Model S P90D: the sleekest Band-Aid on a larger wound Tesla can't really control. It is a feat of automotive engineering (as the car people say), and yet it is still damaged by the same thing hurting every other dinky electric car: too few chargers in a gas-station world. The Superchargers go a long way toward correcting that, but they are spottily placed and in high demand.

The driver who dutifully charges every night may have no problems on a daily commute. But forgetting to charge or pushing for a longer trip can bring a level of anxiety the traditional driver may not be used to. A nationwide road trip is theoretically possible, but the driving public will want convenience, too.

I missed the car when I gave it away - the quiet of the drive, the smoothness of the suspension, the power and speed - but it also felt a bit refreshing to not have multiple screens in my line of sight. Electric cars are coming rapidly, perhaps for the good of the planet. But for now, I appreciate not having to worry about a progress bar.

 - The Washington Post

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