Yesterday evening I received a text from my colleague saying there was an opportunity to drive a Tesla Model S. The bad news being it was that it needed to be in the next 60 minutes. Well I abandoned the washing up, and jumped in the car to head out and meet Sigurd Magnusson. He is an electric car evangelist and is looking after one of New Zealand’s few Tesla Model S electric cars until it goes on display at the Go Green Expo this weekend at the TSB Bank Arena in Wellington.
If you’re not familiar with the Tesla Model S, it’s basically a fully electric supercar. Available in rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive versions with varying levels of performance from fast to Ludicrous. Yep, the fastest model S has “Ludicrous Mode” which can catapult this rather big seven seater car from 0-100kph in 2.8 seconds! This is achieved using electric motors on each axle mated to, in this case, an 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack. 60kWh and 90kWh versions are also available.
Teslas are not officially available yet in New Zealand, you have to travel to Australia to buy one, but there are about a dozen in the country now. A network of chargers is slowly being rolled out, including one soon to be installed in Taupo, which should make a day trip from Wellington to Auckland a reality. 70 fast chargers have been ordered which will be rolled out progressively up and down the country. Check out charge.net.nz for more details. The EPA’s quoted range is 426km, and a full charge with one of Tesla’s 120W Super Chargers takes around 90 minutes.
I was waiting eagerly in the car park when the Tesla rolled in towards me, gliding along almost silently. The Model S is a big car. In photos it looks like it’s about the size of a Mondeo but it’s bigger than it looks, at over 2m wide and nearly 5m long. I think the massive 21” wheels add to that illusion. Walk up to the car and the flush door handles motor out, allowing you to grab them and open the door. Sitting in the driver’s seat is a bit different to most cars, mainly because of that enormous vertical 17” touch screen in the centre console. The instrument cluster display is a second large LCD.
The electrically adjustable leather seats are nice and comfy, and the flat-bottomed wheel is nice to hold. Rear legroom is decent, as you’d expect in such a big car, and the completely flat floor means the centre rear seat is properly usable. No need for a transmission/exhaust tunnel in the Tesla! Open the rear hatch (electrically operated of course) and there’s a large boot. Two extra rear-facing child seats can be folded out from the floor but they are strictly for smaller people as you can see from the photo.
Open the bonnet and there’s a second large storage space, at the rear of which is a neat Tesla bag which contains the charging cables. The batteries are in the floor to give the car a low centre of gravity and the rest of the car is cleverly packaged to hide the mechanics and electronics away and make this feel like an ordinary car.
After a few quick photos it was time for the part I had been waiting for – the drive!
There’s no handbrake to release, no start button, as long as the key is in the car, press the brake pedal, put the car in drive using the column-mounted shifter to the right of the wheel, then press the accelerator to make it go. The car moves forward so quietly, it’s kind of eerie. Setting off from the traffic lights you can feel the instant torque from the electric motor and if you press the pedal harder the car leaps forward with some enthusiasm, the quiet acceleration whine gradually increasing in pitch. I launched the car from the lights once, when the lights changed at a crossroads, and by the time I was past the line at the far side I was already slightly over the speed limit, and no time seemed to have passed. The Tesla is fast!
Moving around town I didn’t really notice the car’s size. It’s a big car but doesn’t seem to feel bulky or hard to fit into gaps. It has parking sensors all round which help in tighter spaces, and some models have auto parking. I don’t know if this did, there wasn’t time to test everything.
There are hundreds of settings and features available via that huge screen – audio settings, adjustments for steering weight, ride height, controls to open the boot and charging port (though the port opens automatically when the plug gets near it). So many gadgets to play with!
Most of the time I left it on the power graph which shows in real time how much power is being used, or how much energy is being regenerated by braking or “engine braking”.
Out onto the motorway, and everything was so quiet. Other cars suddenly seemed really loud as they passed. Cruising along at 100kph feels like 60 it’s so effortless. This car could get you into trouble if you’re not careful. I thought that the lack of any gears would feel strange but I didn’t notice it at all. There’s just instant acceleration available at any speed, and the Tesla just whooshes up to the speed you want.
The indicators take a bit of getting used to as they are on the bottom left about 8 o’clock, with a cruise control stalk above them at about 10 o’clock. I thought the big screen might be distracting when driving, but it’s not, it’s just there, doing its job.
Driving up the steep incline of Ngauranga Gorge seemed just as effortless as the flat motorway, and coming down again, the regenerative braking effect from the motor slowed us down naturally to about 70kph without me touching the brake, and increased the range by a few km too. The “engine braking” effect is more pronounced than in fossil fuel cars but you soon get used to it, and for me it works well as I usually tend to use engine braking rather than the brakes.
After a little bit more cruising around central Wellington it was time to give the Tesla back. An hour really isn’t enough time to do a review of this car, it has so many features and is such a cool thing. But it gave me a feel for the car at least. I’d love to get my hands on one for a week or two and do a proper test, with some open road driving. From what I could tell it felt like the Tesla would handle pretty well. And that instant power would become addictive on the twisties I think.
On the way back to my car we stopped off at a charging point to park up the Tesla and swapped into Sigurd’s daily drive – a Nissan Leaf. I had a short drive of the Leaf as well. The cost of this car is much more accessible for a normal person at from $39,990 new, and is available and supported in New Zealand. Second-hand Japanese imports can be had for around $20k. The Leaf has a range of about 150km on a full charge, which doesn’t sound that much, but think about how many km most people do in a normal day’s driving. I bet it’s well under 50. Like your phone you just plug in the Leaf each night, and each morning it’s fully charged and ready. Sigurd says it costs less than a dollar to charge after his normal day’s use or about $2 for a full charge. Like the Tesla the Leaf is bigger than you expect from photos, maybe a bit bigger than a Golf or Focus. There’s good rear leg room and a big boot. The interior is pretty nice but the dash is quite plasticky. And it drives just like a normal car, except quieter and with no gear changes.
The good and the bad.
What do we think?
The Tesla is something special. Inside it feels a bit like a spaceship at first with the big screens but it soon starts to feel normal. But the way it goes is far from ordinary. I found myself thinking that there’s really no compromise to this car. Anyone can get in and just drive it. The range of 400km would cover the majority of trips for most people. Yes the cost is a factor, but for the technology and thought that has gone into this car I don’t think it’s overpriced. It’s a new way of thinking about cars. Is it the future? Maybe, maybe not but it’s certainly a departure from the fossil fuel cars we have now, and that should be applauded.
Thanks very much to Sigurd Magnusson for his time, and for giving us the opportunity to drive the Tesla Model S.
You can see this car in person this weekend at the Go Green Expo November 21st and 22nd in Wellington at the TSB Bank Arena.
|Vehicle Type||Electric Supercar|
|Starting Price||Around $120,000|
|Tested Price||Around $200,000|
|Engine||Electric motor driving the rear wheels, producing 285kW and 440Nm|
|0 – 100 kph||5.6 seconds|
|Kerb Weight||Approx 2100kg|
|Length x Width x Height||4970 x 2187 x mm|
|Cargo Capacity||150 litre front trunk, 744 litre rear trunk|
|ANCAP Safety Ratings||5 stars|
|Warranty||Every Model S includes free long distance travel using Tesla’s Supercharger network and an eight year,|
infinite kilometre battery and drive warranty.