Here’s a question no one has ever asked: “How can I get an enormous van that weighs more than 6,000 pounds, rockets to highway speed in less time than it takes to sneeze, and has enormously silly doors like you’d find a DeLorean?” It doesn’t matter that no one ever asked it, though, because the Tesla Model X is amazing. Even if it is a $150,000 minivan.
(Full Disclosure: Tesla wanted us to drive the Tesla Model X so badly that we paid, ourselves, to fly out to San Francisco. From there, we paid, ourselves, for the hotel. From there, we paid, ourselves, for an Uber to the Tesla assembly plant in Fremont. Tesla was kind enough to give me a tour of the Fremont factory, and loaned me a Model X. It came loaded with a full tank of electricity. I drove it to the Gigafactory and back. We paid for our hotel by the Gigafactory, too. I think it all came down to around $1000, total.)
Okay, so that’s a bit of a weird thing to say. Especially when you consider that early Model Xs had a plethora of quality issues—issues Tesla claims to have solved, and which the Model X I drove did not have—and it is, according to Consumer Reports, less reliable than a Dodge. Is that really all there is though? Do we discount everything because door handles don’t always, um, work?
Because there once was a time when the world would go ape over unusually fast vans. There were wild show cars like the Ford Transit XJ220, and the Renault Espace F1. These were considered the bonkers fever dreams we lusted after. Complete sleeper vans that would utterly annihilate any mere sports car—or Australian—that happened to cross their path.
Which was great, for the time. “Ah, dreams,” we’d all say, and then go back to pretending that the C5 Corvette had the vaguest, most remote resemblance to a good car. “Automobiles such as these will never happen.”
And while the Tesla Model X isn’t quite a minivan, it does meet the barest criteria for one. Seats seven? Check. Weird doors? Check. A revolutionary propulsion system that hurls it towards the horizon just as quickly as the vaunted McLaren F1?
Hmm. I don’t think that one is standard minivan fare. But I’ll take it.
There is no pleasing everybody. When people want an SUV, they want a big mean off-roader. Or they want a delightful little scamp, more goat than machine, which will climb up hills with ease thanks to the fact that its design is seven million years old and it weighs an entire ounce.
When people want something with gullwings, they want a classic Mercedes SL or a DeLorean.
The Model X is not an SL, a DeLorean, or a goat. What it looks like, in fact, is a strangely mutated and overfed Model S that weighs more than 6,000 pounds. And it’s exceedingly easy to be a boor about how wrong that is, about how it’s a bit like a washed-up manatee that looks silly and the trunk slopes too much and how the hell does all of this work.
But then you realize that the front windshield actually recedes up into the roof, giving you an enormous panorama out the front, and the doors actually go up and they actually go down again, and it actually makes people happy.
I’m honestly not certain how many cars on the road nowadays, regardless of price, make people happy. A Lamborghini? That just makes people think you’re some rich, obnoxious hoser. A new Beetle? Beetles are boring. The Jaguar F-Type? I’ve seen that, sure. But everywhere I went, though, for some reason people wanted to take pictures of the electric smoothed-out box-thing.
And if a car makes people happy, well then I really can’t complain about that. Okay, sure, it’s not the prettiest. And those fancy doors may or may not have a tendency to crush things. But it does the trick, and what door doesn’t crush things when you close it on water bottles and/or people?
On the inside, it’s bare and minimal, dominated by that huge tablet-like center screen, which I’m sure Tesla says was an intentional design choice and not because they couldn’t afford to put more doodads in there or make the speakers pretty or whatever. That is what everyone else does.
Though Tesla isn’t about doing whatever everyone else does. Okay, so it doesn’t make the speakers pretty. But you can sit in those back seats and peer up through the doors themselves, since they’re double-hinged and have a window in the top.
Weight is the worst thing a car can have. It turns cornering into the vehicular embodiment of a flop sweat. It turns acceleration into a re-enactment of a human truck pull. It cuts range down to anything within eyesight, and no further. With everything inside it, the Tesla Model X P90D that we drove weighed over 6,000 pounds.
So, on paper, it should drive like hot, wet garbage. It should sway and wallow and highway acceleration should be a painful, drawn-out affair. And with those electric batteries, an old person would tell you that the range is crap.
But none of that is true. With Ludicrous mode, the P90D’s dual motors will spit out 532 horsepower and 713 pound-feet of torque, launching it to a manufacturer-claimed zero to 60 time of 3.2 seconds. And I believe that, because trying to say it’s akin to feeling like you’ve jumped off of a massive cliff isn’t even remotely accurate. Because Teslas tend to be faster than that.
Getting on the highway was, as a result, hilarious. It was a joke that never got old. I’d get on to the onramp, the person behind me visibly irritated in my rear view mirror by this fat, dumpy wagon in front of them. Surely it would take forever to get to any reasonable, safe speed.
Foot all the way down and you’re just launched. All of that torque arrives instantaneously, and it’s like the massive fist of God himself is trying to make your face one with the headrest behind you. It’s intoxicating.
I did it again and again.
But maybe this was some sort of one-trick pony. Virtually anything can go fast in a straight line if you dump enough power and torque into it. It’s not exactly a complicated formula.
Being as I did most of my driving in Reno and on the highway, both of which are straight and flat and boring when it comes to actual driving, I had to hunt elsewhere to find my gold.
I found Virginia City, a nearly abandoned town built on silver. Virginia City was and still is the archetypal boomtown. Back in the 1800s it exploded in size thanks to the nearby Comstock Lode, the first of the great Western silver veins. By the 1870s 25,000 people called it home, including a young writer who called himself Mark Twain. Now it’s home to just 870, and the ones left seem to mostly be involved in the tourist trade, hoping to lure fans of the Old West.
The map between Virginia City and Reno heralded a ribbon of pure, noodly asphalt. I hoped it was as empty as Virginia City itself was supposed to be.
In this sort of situation, you’d have to hope for something like a Caterham or a Morgan Three-Wheeler, something with no roof and nothing powered so that you could truly feel each and every inch of the grandeur that lay before you.
I had a Tesla Model X. Which actually, surprisingly, wasn’t that bad. Alright, so it didn’t exactly have the steering feedback of an old Porsche 911, and it obviously wasn’t exactly a featherweight.
But despite the three tons holding it to the surface of the Earth, it wasn’t atrocious. Almost all of that weight is actually down on the bottom of the car, so the center of gravity is quite low. The air suspension lowers the SUV further still, so it’s not much higher off the ground than any other car would be. And with a 52 percent over the weight over the rear axle, it’s not nose-heavy, either.
So as your mother used to tell you, sometimes it’s not how much you weigh, but how you wear it. And the result was actually a damn good surprise. Which makes sense when you consider Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s general automotive philosophy – it should be fun to drive when you want it to be fun, and then it should drive itself when you’re just sitting in traffic.
And rest assured, it’s a Tesla. So it drives itself.
I don’t think it’s out of the realm of sanity to say that the Tesla Model X is one of the most advanced cars on the road today. Its self-driving system, Autopilot, is definitively the best semi-autonomous system there is right now, hands down. Disputes about its safety rate aside, competing public systems from Mercedes and Volvo aren’t yet in the same league.
And it’s got a head start on automakers in other realms, too. Virtually everyone is trying to make some sort of electric car now, but that’s all Tesla makes.
Tesla has its own network of fast-charging Superchargers too, and with more than 700 Supercharger stations dotting highways, not once was I hurting for juice. The thing fills up with juice in about 20 minutes, and it’s usually more than enough for another 200 miles or so at the very least.
Should your car come under biological weapons attack while you’re just sitting there at a Supercharger station, it’ll keep you safe from that, too. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m still not willing to fully test that. But if it helps, you can also close all the doors remotely to ward off any invaders.
Okay, so all of this wonderment does come at a cost. The Tesla Model X is not cheap. Not even close.
Ours cost an eye-watering $149,000. With the P100D upgrade now available, plus all the hardware for full autonomy, your Model X might cost even more than that.
But here’s why I’m thinking it’s worth it, if you have a spare 150 large lying around. Not only is it actually a roomy car that drives well, but it is the future. And for all the crap we give Elon Musk about his bad takes, he clearly does have a sense of humor, building Easter eggs into seemingly every facet of the car, and he clearly does care about how it drives. And the Model X is festooned with things it doesn’t need to get people to buy it—like gullwing doors and stupid-fast acceleration—but that are there just to give it all sense of whimsy.
And if we’re not encouraging automakers to take risks, to build cars with character, and to imagine a future that’s both safer and more fun for people that actually want to drive, then what is it we’re doing?
Truth be told, if we had to build an electric minivan ourselves, the Tesla Model X might be the car that we would build. Though we might have it make a little more noise. And ours would be a whole lot worse.