It’s dusk and I’m on a deserted Michigan road about to engage something called Insane Mode in the 691 hp Tesla P85D. It’s the sort of tongue and cheek reference you come to expect after spending a day behind the wheel of this car. But words are simply that. The effect of Insane Mode is what I’m here to see. In the passenger seat is my dad. Someone who drag raced semi-professionally in the 60’s and is well acquainted with fast cars. I prepare him like a P85D driver learns to do, telling him to “hold on and make sure you put your head back.” He looks at me as if I’m being a touch dramatic. I just smile, release the brake and bury the throttle.
In the P85D you can hear the actual noise of speed. The sense of speed is heightened without the noise of machinery. But the whoosh that your mind processes at this moment is nothing compared to the physical jolt that your body is grappling with.
With 0-60 mph achieved (in a shade over 3 seconds) I slow the Tesla Model S and turn to my dad. Visibly shaken and full of wonder, he turns to me and says, “I was not prepared for that.”
As a Tesla P85D driver, you quickly learn that there is no way to prepare passengers for the acceleration of Insane Mode. 0-60 in 3.2 seconds is the headline figure. But it’s the violence of the 687 ft lbs of torque being delivered the instant you floor it that you feel the most. Turbos in internal combustion engines have dramatically increased torque at low revs in recent years. But there is simply nothing that can compare to an electric engine in this regard. And there is no electric engine under the hood or any car on earth that can compare with the Tesla Model S P85D.
But 0-60 in 3.2 seconds isn’t the only trick the P85D pulls. The Model S is an astounding vehicle in every way. The further you dig into the design and build quality the more you’re impressed. Despite poor economies of scale from such a small manufacturer, Tesla has managed to create a car that achieves an extraordinary level of engineering quality. From the feel of the controls to the design of the seats, the Model S feels as if it’s the culmination of many years of manufacturing and design experience. Above all else it’s this sophistication coupled with the excellence of the electronic powertrain that has always impressed me the most about the Tesla S.
Now add 691 hp and all wheel drive to the equation and you have perhaps one of the single best products ever made to transport humans on the ground.
The Drive & the Feel
Yes but how does it feel? How does it reward the driver? These are the core tenets of BMW’s best products and why this site exists. It’s also the hardest attribute for BMW’s competition to copy over the years. Does the Tesla P85D compete at this level?
In a word yes. But it’s important to note that the P85D is no match for the delicacy of an M3 or even the overall feedback and feel of an M5. What it does do is stack up decidedly well against vehicles like the 575 hp X6M. While both cars have similar weights, the P85D has the majority of its weight as low to the ground as possible thanks to its electric drivetrain. This gives the Tesla the feel of a car that weighs 500-700LBS less. Along with an extremely sophisticated traction control, it also allows the P85D to better the X6M’s 0-60 time by a full second.
The steering in the Model S isn’t alive in your hands like even the electrically assisted M4 is. But there’s enough positive linear feedback and weight that the driver has plenty of confidence placing the car in corners – more so than in the X6M but slightly less than the M5 or M6. However the real surprise is how well the P85D does when pushed hard in corners.
There’s a stretch of remote (and quiet) road in western Michigan that I’ve been testing cars ever since I had my license. It’s a series of tight corners mixed with fast sweepers that has served as a great litmus test for suspension dynamics and steering feel. In particular there’s two corners that will always expose a car’s limitations at the ragged edge. M cars typically eat this complex alive. However standard BMWs (most recently the M235i & 4 Series) all wallow and struggle in the same way and in the same spots every single time. So my expectations for the 4,900 Model S P85D through this complex weren’t high. Yet through the sweepers there was no folding of the right rear suspension and no signs of struggle at all. The P85D simply ate the corners alive with almost all the composure and confidence that the best M cars have. But the thing that really surprised me half way through the course was the precision coming from the inputs. The steering remained well weighted and communicative and the brakes were easily modulated giving me the kind of feedback that builds confidence turn by turn.
My expectation is that I would eventually hit the car’s limits. If this was the Nurburgring, there’s little question that the Tesla’s ability to modulate its weight and limit brake fade would be tested much more seriously. But on this rather demanding public road the P85D felt supremely confident and ultimately confidence inspiring.
The Tesla Model S P85D isn’t perfect. Its range of 253 miles isn’t bad but the limited fast charging infrastructure meant that our 500 mile road trip required careful planning with plenty of math. Neither of which is my strong suit. But putting that aside for a moment this is a car that gives enthusiasts plenty to smile about.
The tech of the Model S dominates from outside in. The 17” screen the first thing many notice as they enter the cabin. The idea and even execution of this phablet style center stack looks simple but the reality is that it’s a huge accomplishment. Putting every function of the car behind a 17” piece of multi-touch glass is nothing less than bold.
Truth is that you miss the tactile feel of buttons and the way-finding they offer. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a peek into the future. Stepping into a new BMW after living with the Model S is like trading in an iPhone for a flip phone. So stark is the difference that you begin to question things that never occurred to you about automotive interfaces and interior design. Sure modern iDrive software works well but there’s no denying it’s less compelling than iOS or Android when it comes to fluidity, speed and intuitive interaction. While Tesla’s system isn’t perfect (Skeuomorphism is everywhere within the interface) it’s hard to deny the approach signals the future of automotive interfaces. How can you not love a 17” touch screen full of Google maps?
That feeling seemed to be echoed by everyone who sat in the car. The screen (and the rest of the interior) became not just a focal point for questions and conversation about the car but an example of how Tesla was an innovator in a sea of sameness.
Is that justified? Is it really that much better than BMW’s iDrive? Yes and no. New BMW’s have advanced Bluetooth and smartphone connectivity that is decidedly more advanced than Tesla’s (which uses only Bluetooth to connect to phones and won’t allow you to browse music libraries). While I found other small limitations within the software, it seems clear to me that Tesla’s approach (which is one that most modern software developers use) will eventually win out with its sheer flexibility and consumer centric philosophy.
Range Anxiety and Math
Yes it still exists despite what Elon Musk has pronounced. The first night I had my Tesla P85D test car the software that ran the car and its navigation system was automatically updated overnight with highly anticipated release 6.2. While the release had a number of new features, there was one that stood out.
With this release the Model S continually monitors and advises you when you are at risk of driving beyond the range of any known charging locations. When this warning is triggered, the Model S will provide you with a list of charging locations within range, which include Superchargers, Destination Charging partners, and locations where you’ve previously charged. The idea is that, when you get this warning, you can then simply select a charging destination from the list and the navigation will seamlessly get you there.
Yet range anxiety still exists when you’re stretching the limits of the Supercharging or even normal charging network. My weekend trip included several legs: Chicago to Holland MI then to South Bend IN and finally back to Chicago. Luckily there were a couple well placed Supercharge stations. The first from Chicago to Holland MI gave me a chance to stop and get juiced up just outside of St Joseph MI next to the foodie destination that is known as Panera Bread. After a salad heavy with iceberg lettuce and thick with “Asian style” dressing I returned to the P85D to find I had added almost 100 miles to the range. My god Tesla knows how to make electricity flow. A good thing since I was heading to a house with suspect extension cords. My backup plan was to drive the P85D down the street to one of Holland’s many public (and shockingly free) ChargePoint stations. As luck would have it, the draw from the garage wasn’t enough and (as expected) the extension cord game was pretty weak. So off I went with a friend in tow to the ChargePoint where my $124,000 Tesla had to be street parked overnight.
No question this is not typical behavior for Tesla owners. If you invest in a P85D you’d be a fool not to go the extra mile and invest in a garage charger. But the fact remains that the lack of infrastructure (while growing quickly) demands an extra level of consideration before long trips.
The next morning, not only did I see that wonderful 253 number pop-up in the range, I also had fully updated software.
My final stint with the Model S included a multi-stop day starting in Holland MI and first heading to South Bend IN (stopping once again at the St Joseph Panera Supercharge for a quick 50 miles of juice). After some drips of juice in South Bend (charging from a standard 110v is about 3 miles each hour) I headed back to home base in Chicago with (gun blazing) 23 miles to spare.
There is no doubt in my mind that, if you own a Tesla, you will have “EV Charger” in your google maps history all over the place. Is it enough to dissuade you from considering the P85D as a competitor to an M5 or similar? The short answer is no. Here’s the thing. Assuming you’re going from a fossil fuel vehicle, a potential Tesla owner has to re-learn many of the second nature procedures that have been ingrained in us. It’s not impossible and frankly it’s not hard. But it is an adjustment that takes some time to get used to.
Summing It Up
The Model S is an extraordinary car that has been designed and built from the perspective of a consumer product rather than an automotive one. Much like Apple does with its product and iOS software updates, Tesla is constantly tweaking both the physical product and software underneath it. The result is an ownership experience that is very different – and in talking with a few owners – quite rewarding. The feeling among those I spoke with is that Tesla is constantly building credibility with owners with these tweaks and new additions to functionality. Through these constant improvements, Tesla is continuously adding value to the investment owners have made and (equally important) keeping the brand top of mind. Much like Apple does with those software updates, every few months owners receive new functionality or options that are designed to make the ownership and driving experience more enjoyable.
Executing against that promise of constant improvement isn’t easy. It takes planning and more crucially a well designed infrastructure and solid expertise to pull it off. Yet Tesla, a start up automotive company, seems to do it flawlessly.
This of course is just part of the full Tesla Model S P85D ownership experience. Combine this with the ability to win any stoplight battle you’ll ever have (while using a fraction energy that ordinary cars use) and you have a very compelling case. But none of this would matter if the Model S P85D didn’t feel worth the money. And at $124,000 that’s a tall order. Yet our Black on Black test car did and then some. There are still a few rough edges here and there but the Model S is such a thoughtful product in both physical and digital ways that you immediately forgive them. Further you also expect Tesla is working on updates to anything less than perfect as we speak.
The fact of the matter is that the further BMW gets away from products with the immediacy and feedback it’s been known for, the more a vehicle like the P85D competes and wins. Over the course of 4 days and 600 miles, the 691 hp Tesla P85D made more than a credible case for itself against the world’s best four door sedans.
The Model S compares to everything from a 5 Series to a 7 Series within the BMW range. However the P85D’s most natural rival would have to be the M6 Gran Coupe. While the BMW is the more serious driver’s car at the track, the P85D is faster 0-60 and far more efficient. It also is arguably much more of an interesting technical achievement. Does it win in a head to head shootout? While we didn’t have the cars back to back I have driven both extensively. Based on those individual experiences I’d call it a toss-up. The M6 Gran Coupe has the character and drama that I’ve always loved. Yet the P85D is faster, more efficient and frankly feels surprisingly more refined as a consumer product. I say surprisingly because this is a start-up and the Model S is Tesla’s first car built from scratch.
It seems impossible that a car from a start-up could be this good. Incredibly fast and surprisingly well made, the P85D redefines expectations at every level. And that isn’t just good for those looking for a $124,000 691 hp vehicle. It’s good for the entire automotive world.