Every now and then an invention comes along that changes everything. Electricity, the internet, Spanx. At first this new idea seems a bit silly. Critics scoff: what’s wrong with fire, it’s served humanity perfectly well for centuries; who needs email, paper and pen will do me just fine; ew, are you seriously expecting me to squeeze my bits into that? And then slowly but surely, the strange new idea catches on for the simple reason that it works.
The Tesla is one of those ideas. Unless its powerful lithium battery is superseded by a better invention very soon, the company’s vision of an all-electric car that outperforms most of its combustion engine rivals in terms of performance, convenience, enjoyment and practicality will be a game changer.
The Model S, which replaces the company’s first commercial car, the Roadster — which launched in 2008 and is now no longer in production — is to the luxury family sedan what the iPhone is to a Nokia. It makes most of the high-performance cars I have driven and enjoyed seem hopelessly outdated.
The technology in this car is both astonishing and unnerving. It lies in wait for you like a slumbering beast, sensors primed. As you approach, the electronic brain detects your presence. The car’s central console, the size of a large iPad, winks into life and the door handles and wing mirrors slide open, ready for action.
The latest software update flashes up on the command console. Google Maps unfolds, displaying your location while Spotify — standard on all models — offers you the latest music releases. The internal temperature, preset via the app from the comfort of your bathroom, is just as it should be. No more freezing mornings, no more de-icing. The battery icon appears on the dashboard: 100 per cent, miles available 380, or thereabouts.
Forget everything you think you know about electric cars. This is not some rechargeable tin can, good only for parking sideways and virtue-signalling on the school run. This is a proper performance automobile, a whole new breed of vehicle, a brilliant, intuitive, constantly evolving piece of automotive AI.
It is also a little scary. It accelerates like a rocket (0–60 in 2.4 seconds for the highest performance model), the G-force pinning you to your seat. But it’s a gentleman too. Press a button on the Tesla app, and it will back itself out of a parking space for you. Forget your dogs in it on a hot day (heaven forbid) and you can open the sunroof remotely. It’s basically much cleverer than any driver. If I were a science fiction writer, I could well imagine a world in which humanity is enslaved by the Tesla, forced to worship its creator, the great god E-Lon who lives preserved for eternity in the Imperial Palace of Musk.
Luckily it’s a touch too toppy for any of that nonsense just yet. The entry-range price for the Model S is around £62,000, and the top-of-the-range version costs more than £100,000. That said, the car it most reminded me of in driving terms was the delectable Aston Martin Vanquish, which I spent a very happy weekend with a few months ago. That costs £200,000, without petrol.
The Tesla, by contrast, comes with 1,000 miles free charging a year. The special ‘superchargers’ that are now dotted around the country and all over Europe (one of the features of the car’s in-built satnav is that it guides you according to their location) gives you a range of 170 miles in just 30 minutes and costs a few pounds. Or you can plug it in at home.
Later this year, the next phase in Tesla’s plan for world domination will see the launch of the Model 3. Prices are not yet confirmed, but it ought to come to market in the UK somewhere around £28,000. That will place it in direct competition with good-quality petrol-engine family cars. If the Model S is any indication of what to expect, they had better watch out.
But none of this matters unless the car itself is any good on the road. Which it isn’t. It’s awesome. Powerful, responsive, dependable in every driving situation. This a car you can completely trust. What’s especially delicious about being behind its wheel is that you can drive like the devil, safe in the knowledge that your eco-halo is shining brightly for all the world to see. No one can touch you. You are saving the world, one mile at a time.
Performance: 0-60, 2.4 seconds
Top Speed: 155 mph
Road Tax band: A
Model: S 90D