I was being so good, doing all the unglamorous car reviewer stuff. Driving in a congested area, inching through start-and-stop traffic, running over rough asphalt. After about 30 minutes I'd had enough. I switched the driving mode to Insane and mashed the throttle away from a deserted traffic light. Bad idea.
My phone shot out of the compartment below the massive display and slammed into the back of the center console, shattering the screen.
The D just killed my phone.
Admittedly, it already had a crack, but this blunt force trauma ruined it. And that was my first lesson with the Tesla Model S P85D: Anything unsecured will go from potential projectile to unguided missile in a fraction of a second. Six-hundred-and-eighty-seven pound-feet of instant-on torque will do that. Please inform your spleen.
Of course there was never any doubt that the P85D's performance was going to blow my feeble little mind. Videos of people chortling and screaming and dropping expletives from the passenger seat are practically a meme now. Between the two motors doling out a combined 691 horsepower and the massive grip afforded by sending instapower to all four wheels through Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires, the P85D manages something no other family hauler on the planet is capable of: 0-60 in 3.2 seconds, and soon, 3.1.
Just let that sit for a second.
That makes the P85D the world's quickest four-door production vehicle. Even the fanboy favorite Dodge Charger Hellcat, with its maniacal 707 horsepower V8 and weighing some 600 pounds less only manages to hit 60 in 3.7 seconds. That should be a game-changer on its own, but it's not.
I had the good fortune to drive Elon Musk's personal Model S a little over two years ago. Despite being handmade for The Man, it was still rough. The interior panels were a bit off, bugs in the software detracted from a cool UI, and there was an overwhelming sense that I was driving the most technologically advanced kit car ever created. In software parlance, it felt like a "Gold Master" edition – working, shipping, but not quite fully baked. That's not the case anymore.
After two and a half years of working out production kinks, issuing nearly 30 software updates, and dozens of hardware upgrades, the Model S feels like a real car, but better. It's quiet and comfortable, carries a new breed of prestige and luxury, has enough space to move half of my worldly possessions (tested), and when the urge strikes there's a button on the touchscreen that says Insane. Add in enough range for daily driving and the Supercharging infrastructure that's continuing to expand for long-distance road trips, and I never once suffered the pangs of range anxiety (more on that later).
That evolves the Model S from just a toy for Silicon Valley's man-child elite or neo-hippy anti-vaxxers who loathe cars but still need to shuttle their kids to gluten-free summer camps. It's a car that does everything you need and, with the performance of The D, everything you want. But does it does it differently. And I really can't stress that enough.
The Model S is unlike anything I've ever driven and the performance is like nothing else I've ever felt. Not just the speed, but the odd combination of tranquility and violence that really has to be experienced to be understood. And I'm still not sure if I can fully wrap my head around it.
The Model S might have one of the best asses in modern automotive history. It's simple and elegant and the subtly flared fenders hint at the torquetastic menace underneath. Combine that with a sweeping profile, the (optional) carbon fiber spoiler, and the (optional) 21-inch grey wheels with the (standard on the P85D) red-painted calipers peeking out from behind, and there's an aura of grace and pace that has to have Ian Callum nodding in approval.
But I've never felt the front end. The massive ovoid grille detracts from an otherwise faultless design, and why Franz von Holzhausen couldn't strike a balance between style and minimal drag – which stands at an ultra-low 0.24 Cd – is best left to designers and engineers to battle out. With the Model S nearly three years old, it's almost due for a styling refresh, but then again, Tesla doesn't adhere to the product cycles of normal manufacturers. Also, chrome. There's a bit too much for my staid tastes, and given the means, I'd black-out the window surrounds, door handles, and trunk trim. But that's just me.
If you're into post-modern Scandinavian designs, the Model S interior is a masterpiece. If you're used to being ensconced in what passes for Teutonic luxury, you won't get it. But oh my god the space.
The obvious advantage of slapping a body and interior over what's essentially a slab of battery and a pair of motors pays multiple dividends when it comes to packaging. There's the trunk, which is positively massive – with or without the rear-facing child seats – and another bin underneath a carpeted cover that's big enough to fit more luggage than the original Tesla Roadster. Then there's the "frunk," which cedes a bit of space to the addition of the front-mounted motor, but is still more than capable of fitting an overstuffed backpack, a duffel bag, and Ru Paul's makeup kit.
Hauling stuff is one thing; living in it is another. Because of the lack of a transmission tunnel, lightened interior colors, and the copious amount of sunlight that comes in from the (optional) glass panoramic roof, the Model S feels overly airy. There's space to move and breathe, and it feels like a spaceship's lounge more than a oversized luxury barge. And one of the biggest gripes from owners – stiff, shoddy seats – has been rectified: Tesla is now offering a pair of Recaro front thrones and they're magnificent, even if you have a hard time getting to the controls wearing a watch.
Imagine shoving yourself into a leather- and Alcantara-lined pneumatic capsule and being sucked into the horizon. But with less wind noise. It's brutal and punishing and I'm surprised Tesla doesn't require a doctor's note and a disclaimer every time someone selects Insane on the carputer.
But I've experienced high-power drag launches before. This is different. You've got the enlarged rear motor putting out 470 HP and the front motor delivering another 221 HP. Stomping on the throttle – not pressing, stomping – puts all of that grunt to the wheels instantaneously. There is no wheel spin. There is no drama. From a standstill it's epically violent; on the road, at speed, it's merely completely fucking nuts.
More than anything, though, is the experience of simultaneously hurling yourself into the void with only a slight whine and a hint of wind noise. Words truly fail, so instead, I'll let my father-in-law summarize it thusly in this awful video he took [NSFW language, natch, and vertical potato]:
Two things to consider when it comes to braking in the Model S: the brakes themselves and the regenerative braking when you lift off the throttle.
I love regen. Easing up on the accelerator immediately slows down the car to recoup energy, but the impact on driving style is magnificent. Unless I was barreling into a tight corner, all I had to do was lift, turn, accelerate. This kind of behavior causes you to recalibrate your flogging tendencies, but the learning curve is shallow. With the regen set to its maximum (standard) setting, there's no need to tap the brakes to settle the car. It just does it. There's less weight transfer, but it gently guides you into smoother transitions. When the time comes to slow down with authority, the Brembos are easily up to the task of hauling all 4,936 pounds quickly and drama-free, but obviously repeated stabbings will elicit some fade.
Most high-power performance sedans err on the side of a punishing ride to reassure you that you're driving something hardcore. That ain't the S. The Smart Air Suspension ($2,250) combined with the aluminum chassis delivers this striking balance between road-holding and wafting. Bumps and ruts don't upset it, but ticking the options on the touchscreen for the lowest suspension setting and the tightened steering just amplifies what makes the Model S so good to begin with.
Two and a half tons. That's like trying to make an F-150 hustle, and yes, you feel it. But here's where the difference between the Model S and any other sports sedan really comes out.
On an open, winding stretch of Skyline Road the P85D feels at home. It's a road I know, and the Tesla hunkers down and devours it. But underneath the sheer speed is that battery pack and extra motor, mounted oh-so-low in the car. Through high-speed sweepers and cambered corners is this thoroughly odd sensation of ample mass sliding underneath you, but it never feels cumbersome. There's a certain amount of security that comes with hurtling that amount of weight with such a lower center of gravity through corner after corner, and the tires and motors do their best to keep it in check. There's grip for days, more than I expected, and the only time the Tesla felt out of its element was in the tightest, single-lane switchbacks that vein out from Skyline. Good sports sedans shrink around you; the Model S doesn't, but that seems like a lowly demerit given everything else it's capable of.
Obviously this is a tricky one. The Model S has a single speed, fixed gear "transmission" with no need or reason to shift, so rating it is tough one. Collectively, we're going with how well it works handling all that power and delivering it when you need it, and it does that brilliantly. Acceleration is instantaneous and mid-corner adjustments are predictable and approachable. The thing just works, so… huzzah for programming.
You've seen the screen, that 17-inch monolith that handles all the things. And it's what convinced me that touchscreens can work – not just well, but brilliantly – in cars.
Because of the size, all the buttons are scaled up to suit. There's no hunting or pecking or fumbling around. A brief glance down is all I need to change the interior temp and get the seat heater roasting in the morning. After a few days, I didn't even bother looking for the Control button – I just felt the bottom left corner of the screen and pressed.
The user interface might be looking a little stale compared to what we're seeing on our phones, but it simply works and works well, although pinching and zooming on the maps can be a bit choppy. The touchpoints are big and clear, the flow of the UI is as simple as an Apple product, and the stuff that matters works quickly and seamlessly. I opened the web browser once, just out of novelty, but the important things – projected range, music, and navigation – is just there, waiting for your command, and in the case of the navigation, mirrored in an easy to comprehend map on the instrument panel.
But that screen does get smudgy.
Like the interior, Tesla is going for minimal flourish and maximum effectiveness, and the only reason it isn't getting a 10 is because it lacks one thing: a larger array of voice controls. You can tell it to play a song or make a call, but there should be more. It's something Tesla says is coming as soon as, according to Musk, "voice controls actually work." Props.
Tesla fitted the Ultra High Fidelity Sound Package to this particular D. For $2,500 it sounds – literally – like a no-brainer. If you're going to splurge on a Model S, particularly the P85D, that seems like a pittance to pay for a solid audio system with strong bass, clear highs, and a stereo that goes to 11. Yes, seriously. It's not mind-bendingly good, but it's solid, brought down by the fact that the lone streaming service is Slacker – Pandora, Spotify, or nearly anything else would be a plus given what this thing costs. It needs more apps, particularly given all the potential for gadgety goodness.
As you've surely surmised, there are a lot of options on the Model S. Tesla has taken a play out of the German's book when it comes to pricing, particularly for a luxury vehicle.
Start with just the 85kWh battery-equipped model and you're at $79,900. Add in the suspension ($2,250), the wheels and sticky rubber ($4,500), new seats ($3,500), the Tech Package with (non-functioning, yet) Autopilot ($4,250), and a $1,000 carbon fiber rear spoiler and you're already knocking on $100k. Then you add the Performance Dual Motor package for $34,600. Damn.
Total tab: $129,820. Double-damn.
But consider the competition. What's a fully-loaded Porsche Panamera cost? An S63? An Alpina B7? Cars that costs just as much, if not remarkably more, but can't touch the P85D's performance. Or more importantly, its character. What's it worth to drive the future? To haul your kids around in a supercar-crushing family sedan? To experience something so remarkable that it completely changes what we think about cars and handling and performance? And then do it every day. That's immeasurable, just pony up the cash for the extra phone insurance.
Engine: Dual Electric Motors
Power: 691 horsepower (221 front motor, 470 rear motor), 687 pound feet of torque
Transmission: Single Speed
0-60 Time: 3.2 (3.1 after software update)
Top Speed: 155
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 4,936 pounds
MPG: 89 MPGe