By Tom Bailey
Plenty of cars have a 'sport' mode - but only has an 'Insane' mode. Meet the futuristic Tesla Model S P85D. The latest all-electric saloon from the precocious young Silicon Valley car marque founded by ex-PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, the P85D is pure science fiction on wheels.
Not that it looks it from the outside. The phrase 'sober as a saint' comes to mind. Still, when you step inside, it's clear this is no Merc-a-like tourer for travelling salesmen. We've seen the Model S before and were impressed with its 300m range (most competitors offer 80-150m). But the P85D now combines that range (ok you'd have to drive like Miss Daisy to get near 300miles - it's 250 miles in the real world) with spectacular performance.
The centre console is comprised of a giant, 17-inch touchscreen. Tap Insane mode and stamp on the accelerator and the P85D hits warp speed before you know it. A 0-60 of 3.2 seconds puts it in the same league as a Ferrari 458. You can watch the profanity-ridden reactions to Insane mode here.
An important vehicle
Aside from being fitted with a giant iPad, the tech includes 'superhuman' Autopilot functions, a fast-charging 85kWh battery and the Tesla app, which allows the owner to check the charge, lock/unlock the car, start the car, honk the horn (handy for freaking out car park attendants), flash the lights and set the cabin temperature.
These are just some of the reason that we'd describe it as the most important car of the last 20 years. It's truly disruptive bit of technology - that happens to come on wheels.
Let's not kid ourselves, though. Tesla's first 11 years have been a rocky - last year the firm recalled of 29,222 Model S saloons due to, ahem, 'excessive heating of an adapter'. But with the P85D, Tesla is finally proving that all-electric's are a viable alternative to Audi, Beamer or Merc. Sure, the P85D starts at an eye-watering £79,080, but that includes free access to Tesla's network of private Superchargers, along with the slower 'Type 2' points that any electric car can use. Even if you charge the P85D at home, a full 'tank' will only cost around £5.
No wonder Tesla wunderkind Elon Musk, who bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain iron-clad comic book superhero, is currently planning a manned mission to mars. Perhaps he's going in search of Tesla's meteoric share price.
But back to earth. The P85D is one of the few all-wheel electric drive cars (EV's are huge in Norway, where stiff taxes on fossil-fuelled cars make electrics and hybrids a no brainer). It achieves this with dual motors - hence the P85 'D'. There's no gear box, of course, but no sign of the motors in either the generous rear boot or capacious front boot (froot?). The two hidden motors, each about the size of a small tree trunk, are tucked over the front and rear axles. The front motor develops 221bhp while the rear deploys 470bhp - that's a kidney-crushing 691bhp in total.
The space and time-bending linear torque catapults the car forward at a terrifying but exhilarating pace. The experience is enhanced by the eerie, distant whirr of the electric engine rotors. Sadly, you'll have to switch off 'Insane' mode and artfully manage the battery - a thin slab spread across over the car's entire floorpan - to achieve a range anywhere close to its officially rated range of 300miles.
But enough background, time to take it for a spin. As we walk towards the car, the motorised door handles whirr out of the bodywork to greet us. There's no start/stop button - you just flip a stalk on the steering column into Drive, put your foot down, and it silently leaps forward.
While Google's self-driving car has already clocked up 700,000 hands-free miles - and spawned life-affirming YouTube videos of blind men 'driving' to a Taco Bell - Tesla plans to realise its self-driving dream in phases.
The P85D is already equipped with all the hardware: a forward-looking camera, radar (so it can 'see' through fog) and 360-degree sonar sensors. The plan is to gradually switch on the Model S' autonomous driving functions via over-the-air firmware upgrades every 3-4 months. The most recent, 6.2, includes traffic-aware cruise control, automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning and camera-enabled automatic high/low beam Xenon headlights. It's quite hard to crash. We tried - gingerly.
The car's camera can read road signs, meaning we could cruise smoothly on autopilot at the correct speed limit on any road, without fear of falling foul of the new breed of digital speed camera. If the car ahead slows to a total stop, it can deal with that, too. The blue 'Cruise' badge on the digital dash glows to show us the adaptive cruise control is still tracking the car in front.
Nudge the indicator to overtake, and the car automatically puts the hammer down (assuming it's clear). And because the P85D knows what country it's in, it won't let other P85D drivers abuse this feature by pulling douchebag undertaking moves down the inside lane.
The current suite of Autopilot features are, however, just a taster of what's to come. Tesla say firmware updates are coming soon that will switch on the car's ability to automatically take over the steering when the driver indicates to overtake, handing control back once the pass has been performed successfully. Before that, there'll be self-parking, which will see the car size up suitable gaps when creeping down a busy street in search of a parking spot. Again, it'll take over the steering, acceleration and braking to slot you into a space.
One of the most exciting forthcoming features is calendar synching. The car will synch with your phone, check the traffic and determines when you'll need to leave for your first appointment. It'll turn on the climate control, open the garage door and pull out to meet you at the curb. Which sounds awesome and creepy in equal measure.
Inside, the Model S' party piece is a huge 17-inch capacitive touchscreen display complete with Google Maps. Essentially, it's a giant iPad with an OS that looks suspiciously like Apple's. No bad thing. There's virtually no switchgear, apart from the stalks on the steering column, so the entire car - from the ride height to the severity of the regenerative braking - is governed by its idiot-proof menus. Sadly, some of the most useful functions are buried a little too deep for our liking.
The screen itself can be split in half, displaying Google Maps on the top and everything from one-touch phone number dialling to an internet browser window on the bottom. The P85D comes with free 3G mobile broadband. If you wanted to check your emails, you could, but we recommend stopping. There's a selection of media apps, including support for TuneIn podcasts and voice-controlled music streaming courtesy of RDIO. Of course, the voice search, along with Google Maps, relies on a 3G signal, which can be a little truculent in certain parts of the UK. (*Cough* North Wales). Thankfully Tesla has partly addressed this issue including conventional GPS sat nav directions, which function even when G-Maps is down.
Other features include two USB ports for media and power, Wi-Fi connectivity, 12-way power adjustable heated seats and DAB radio. All of which draw power from the battery, having a noticeable effect on the fluctuating range prediction on the dash. Which brings us onto…
Range anxiety is easily the biggest barrier to electric car adoption. On past Model S test drives, we've found ourselves switching off all the necessary features - just as you might switch off Bluetooth on your smartphone - to save power and preserve battery.
The good news is that the Model S innovative chassis design accommodates a massive 85kWh battery (the more compact BMW i3, for example, has a measly 22kWh battery). The bad news is that the massive battery is very heavy and can take over 24 hours to juice up at a UK wall socket (with the optional home adaptor). Not what you'd call practical.
Thankfully, Tesla has been beavering away on a network of 120kW fast (and free) superchargers across the UK and Europe. Capable of delivering an 80 per cent charge in 40 minutes, or a 50 per cent in 20. The ideal being that you keep the P85D topped up at home, and use the Superchargers for big road trips. You can find a global map of the network here: supercharge.info. There are 21 locations from London to Edinburgh, with hundreds peppered across Western Europe. Except for Spain. So if have an intense liking for Spain, don't buy a Tesla.
To ensure you never end up out of juice, Tesla aims to 'end range anxiety' with it's new Trip Planner software. Select a destination and the Google-based nav routes you through the appropriate Superchargers for your trip. At each stop, Trip Planner notifies you via Tesla's phone app when you've enough charge to continue your journey without conking out.
The price is right
Even the UK government's £5,000 plug-in car grant can't put much of a dent in the P85D's price tag. Though the cheaper, 60kWh Model S starts at just over £50,000. If you do major mileage, and the Model S is probably the only current electric car capable of clocking up serious motorway miles, things start to look very interesting indeed. 20,000 miles in an equivalent combustion car will cost you roughly £3,000. In the Model S it'll be under £800 in electricity. And that's paying for every electron. Charge up at Tesla's free-to-use superchargers and it won't cost you a penny. With no road tax, low company car tax and lease deals from £500 a month, this car might be more attainable than you think.
The true test of the P85D isn't actually the car itself, as excellent as it is. Instead, it's Tesla's network of superchargers across the UK and Europe. If they continue to multiply, the Model S will become a truly viable (scorchingly-fast) long-distance car with broad appeal - albeit at quite a price.
T3 Says: The best all-electric car money can buy. Quicker than most so-called sports cars and finally a viable long-distance tourer thanks to Tesla's Superchargers. Not even the fact that 50-year-old TV impresario Simon Cowell drives one can cramp it's style.