Even taking its flaws into account, the latest car from the disruptive tech giant is a game-changing machine
Forgive the intrusion of a seven-seat SUV onto these pages this month; were the car in question not so interesting and potentially important it would not have even made it into the magazine. But whether you like the idea of the Tesla Model X or not, this is a fascinating car, unlike any other on the road. It also comes from a company whose market value last month exceeded that of Ford, despite selling just 76,000 vehicles last year, compared to Ford’s 6.7 million.
To compensate, next month I promise at least one car with more than 600bhp, two seats and zero practicality.
The Model X is the world’s first all-electric Sports Utility Vehicle, or at least that’s what it says on the tin. What, exactly, qualifies it as an SUV is not clear. To me its looks, interior, roof line and absence of any traditional SUV hardware – save permanent four-wheel drive – make it seem far more like an MPV people carrier, but large MPVs with their mothership image don’t sell well at any price let alone at about £100,000 with a few basic extras, while SUVs just about drive themselves out of the showroom. So an SUV it is, at least if you work in Tesla’s marketing department.
The Model X uses the same electric drive system already found in the successful Model S saloon, and can be specified with five, six or seven seats. Whichever you buy, your Model X will come with the ‘falcon’ rear doors that, when opened, make the car look like an enormous insect from some post-apocalyptic future. The doors are not exactly elegant and you’re going to need to be happy with the attention they’ll earn at school chucking-out time, but they’re not gimmicks.
It’s not just the enormous aperture they provide in the side of the car that makes getting in and out of both the second and third row seats so easy, but the fact they cut so far into the roof. There’s no longer any need to crouch or contort yourself, you can just step out, even from the rear seats once those at the front have been electrically tipped forward. Nor do you need to watch where you’re parking: because they’re double hinged, the doors will open with just one foot of clearance so you’re more likely to be unable to get in the front seats (which have conventional doors) than the back. It has sensors galore that Tesla says ensure nothing should ever get trapped, but I stood under a door as it was closing and it got close enough to my head for me to lose my nerve and duck out of the way.
The driving environment is magnificent, dominated by two screens: the windscreen that extends over your head with a sufficiently dark graded tint not to require sun visors, and the computer-sized 17in central display screen that puts all others (including the far smaller instruments screen in front of you) to shame. It takes a while to learn how it works but, unlike other complex systems, does become intuitive.
Behind you, the cabin is enormous. You have to decide how many seats you want and the standard five is fairly pointless unless you’re regularly going to need the additional luggage space. I like the six-seat option which provides the third row but omits the centre seat from the middle row. It makes being in the back even easier, it offers perhaps the best balance between occupant and luggage space and includes third-row air conditioning and heating, all for just £3000 extra. On the downside the middle seats only tip forward and don’t fold flat though the rears do and, save a few cup holders, there’s nowhere to store the normal detritus of family life.
You can buy your Model X with 75, 90 or 100kWh batteries, the last of these available as either in standard or ‘Ludicrous’ configuration. Even the least powerful will hit 60mph in 6sec flat, the Ludicrous better than halving that time. The mid-range 90kWh car I drove takes 4.8sec, a tenth quicker than even the Audi SQ7 with its preposterously potent triple-charged 4-litre V8 engine, the only other seven-seat car on sale with performance to touch it.
The Model X feels faster even than that because of the instantaneous power delivery, so quite what Ludicrous spec feels like I can only imagine. But you are always aware of the mass that’s being accelerated – almost 2.5 tonnes of it before you start installing additional seats – and when straights turn to corners, it shows.
Tesla makes much of the fact that the way the batteries are laid out flat along the floor of the car provides a centre of gravity no car powered by internal combustion could hope to emulate, but it has not made best use of this advantage. Tesla has chosen stiff spring settings, so at least body roll is minimised in corners and grip levels are reasonable, but there’s no steering feel, no escaping the sense of mass that has to be moved. Unlike its straight-line performance, there is nothing remotely engaging about the way this car handles, even by the standards of seven-seat transport.
To many this won’t matter because few buy such cars – even those as quick as this – to hurl about. But all will feel short-changed by the usually mediocre and occasionally downright poor ride quality that these misguided spring rates confer. Doubtless you’d notice it far less in its native America, but here the car is too often caught out not just by potholes and sleeping policemen, but also by everyday lumps and bumps. It is the car’s most serious failing.
Unless, of course, you count range. The official figures say this particular Model X will do 303 miles on a charge, but this is a fantasy. Work on the assumption that you’ll do well to beat 200 gently driven miles on a sunny day and rather less if driven hard or in the cold, wet and dark. The Tesla ‘supercharging’ network is expanding all the time and is claimed to be able to add around 170 miles of range in half an hour, but a £400 home charger will add only 22 miles per hour of charge so is only practical if used overnight. And you now have to pay to use Tesla’s superchargers: you get around 1000 free miles per year, thereafter it’s about £20 per ‘fill’.
So the Model X is not perfect and it will not be for everyone. Indeed the limits to range and its considerable cost means it’s likely to be a niche player for a while yet. But the car is brilliantly conceived and with just a little more care in the execution – chiefly its suspension tune and on-board storage space – it could be improved further still. But in its looks, performance, interior and technology it has a full measure of what customers shopping in this part of the market really crave more than anything: the ability to stand out from the crowd. Its success will be deserved.
Lithium-ion battery back with twin
POWER TO WEIGHT
171bhp per tonne
TOP SPEED 155mph
range 303 miles