I know it’s not a popular view, but I rather like Elon Musk. Not so much the man himself, more what he represents: the quintessential mad scientist, a real-life Doc Brown (the nutty professor from Back to the Future), virtually incapable of functioning as a normal human being yet blessed with a genius I cannot help but admire.
Everything he does is borderline insane. He shoots cars into space, wants to save humanity by colonising Mars — and refuses to listen to reason even when his antisocial behaviour threatens to torpedo his business. In short, the man is completely incorrigible but also endlessly entertaining. And he makes exhilarating cars.
Over the course of the past decade, the image of the electric car has gone from a tin can on wheels that will barely get you to the corner shop to one that can easily match the style and power of any petrol-driven equivalent. And that is largely thanks to the pioneering spirit of Tesla under the guidance of Musk. Mad he may be, but he has a talent for making the impossible happen.
Whether or not battery-powered cars will prove the ultimate solution to the world’s pollution problems remains to be seen. There are many who argue that lithium batteries are just as damaging to the environment in their own way as fossil fuels. Nevertheless, the fact remains that if you want a car with the power and buzz of an old-school gas-guzzler but the eco-credentials of a bicycle, Tesla leads the way.
But only just. Mercedes-Benz and Audi both have production-ready electric sport-utility vehicles poised to take on the Tesla Model X in terms of performance and battery life (always Tesla’s USP). Jaguar Land Rover has just unveiled the I-Pace, and even Porsche is planning a rival, the Taycan.
The one undeniable advantage that Tesla still holds over rivals is the investment it has poured into making charging easy, fast and accessible. The company has 1,332 fast-charging stations in key locations, with 10,901 charging units worldwide. They have also just introduced a rather clever ‘destination’ charging programme, partnering with hotels, restaurants and shopping centres that offer customers assistance and perks. And since the chargers only work on Teslas, this represents a distinct advantage. For now.
Ultimately, though, it will come down to whether the cars continue to live up to expectations. Which brings me to the Model X, Tesla’s flagship SUV. At a starting price of £78,300, the Model X is in many ways quite a neat expression of the Musk persona: a lavish combination of the bizarre and the brilliant. For example, it has a wholly unnecessary panoramic windshield that, yes, makes you feel like you’re in the cockpit of a fighter jet but is also a bugger to clean — and God forbid you should ever chip the damn thing.
And yes, it has really cool gull-wing doors (very Doc DeLorean) which are festooned with sensors so you can open them in the most awkward of spaces. But I found them time-consuming and fiddly to operate, and I’m not sure that in the long run they wouldn’t drive one mad.
Astonishingly, it doesn’t have a built-in wireless phone charger (or if it does I couldn’t find one), which for a car that in many ways is basically a giant mobile phone on wheels is just wrong. And lastly, Tesla can’t spell. For the entire two days that I drove it, the centralised computer screen thingy that controls everything insisted on referring to me as the ‘diver’ instead of ‘driver’. Lols, as they say. All that tech, and they forgot the spell check.
Other things are unquestionably brilliant. It has super-efficient kinetic engine braking, so that instead of having to put your foot on the brake pedal to slow down the whole time, you just ease off the accelerator and the car decelerates while at the same time replacing battery charge. And the windscreen wipers are genius: they have little holes along the length of them, so that during a screen wash (which you have to do a lot owing to the enormous nature of the windscreen), the liquid comes out in a very satisfying even shower instead of squirting over the roof and into the eye of the driver behind you.
And while the ‘Sport’ bit of its SUV title is taken care of in typical Tesla style — it will accelerate from 0 to 60 in under three seconds — the ‘utility’ bit has not been neglected. The weekend that I test-drove it my best friend also happened to be moving house. Owing to an altercation with the removal men, she was left stranded with an extra roomful of stuff. The Tesla’s Tardis-like capacity to absorb the general flotsam and jetsam of family life — stray boxes of books, old duvets, sports equipment, paintings — was truly impressive.
As for the drive, it’s nothing short of thrilling. Goes like an absolute bomb, handles like a dream (four-wheel drive, see) and is so much fun on the open road it’s almost a scandal. Will Tesla survive the onslaught from the big beasts of the car market? I hope so. It deserves to.
ENGINE | ELECTRIC
PERFORMANCE | 0-60, 2.9 SECONDS
TOP SPEED | 155 MPH
CO2 | 0
PRICE | FROM £78,300