Review: Tesla Model S P90D
“The sad thing is,” I say to my passenger while slowing down in the newest Tesla Model S, “this is becoming less fun as I get used to it.”
I stomp on the accelerator, again. The car rockets to more than 60 mph in three seconds. I grin involuntarily, again.
“I take that back.”
The Model S P90D, the latest and very much greatest version of Tesla’s sedan, is the best electric car ever made, one utterly unmatched in performance and among the best when it comes to range.
More than any EV that’s come before, the P90D capitalizes on all benefits of electric propulsion: Instantaneous torque that offers stupefying acceleration, and a smooth, quiet ride. Plus, you aren’t burning gasoline.
Elon Musk has once again given the world a car that is among the most thrilling things on the road, not just for what it delivers, but for what it promises.
Caption: The Model S P90D, the latest version of Tesla’s sedan, is the best electric car ever made. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: The P90D capitalizes on the upsides of electricity-powered driving: Instantaneous torque for drool-inducing acceleration, and a smooth, quiet ride for the rest of the time. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: Tesla promises a 0 to 60 mph time of 2.8 seconds. Our testing hit 3.2 in imperfect conditions. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: The only exterior sign of “ludicrous” capability is the underlined P90D badge. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: The P90D I borrowed for a week was well over its $108,000 MSRP, loaded with options that brought it up to $142,200. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: The 21-inch grey wheels are a $4,500 option. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: Last year, the upstart automaker finally gave the Model S a radar and forward-facing camera. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: It’s got 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors as well. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: Those tools enable active safety features like adaptive cruise control and the abilities to brake if a crash is imminent and stay between lane lines. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: Tesla says it will soon give the Model S “autopilot,” a limited take on autonomous driving that will keep the car in its lane on the highway, and a safe distance from other cars. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: As you approach the car (with the key in your pocket) the door handles slide out. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: The interior of the car is sleek and stylish. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: Like every Model S, the P90D comes with a 17-inch monster touchscreen that controls just about everything. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: The digital dash clues you into the car’s range, energy use, and radio station. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: Unlike a little sports car or a city-focused EV, the Model S is a car you’ll want to take on real road trips. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: The best part about pulling over to recharge? Getting back on the highway means you get a lovely long ramp to enjoy that acceleration. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
The P90D is Tesla’s most advanced electric car to date. The P is for “performance,” and D refers to the dual-motor setup that enables all-wheel drive. The 90 is a nod to the 90 kilowatt-hour battery pack, which Tesla says boosts range by about 6 percent. That’s good for nearly 270 miles, though you get closer to 300 in the slightly less potent 90D. Pretty much every other EV on the market delivers 100 miles, max. Of course, they cost a whole lot less.
The P90D I borrowed for a week was packed with options, pushing the $108,000 base price to an eye-popping 142 grand. The extra dough gets you more supportive seats, sweet 21-inch matte grey wheels, a panoramic glass roof that rivals Montana in square feet of sky, and attractive, but useless, carbon fiber “décor accents.” The air suspension is a $2,500 upgrade of the standard coil springs, and automatically adjusts the car’s height to improve aerodynamics (and therefore range) on the highway and keep you from scrubbing the undercarriage on a steep driveway.
The one option that actually matters is inconspicuously listed on the window sticker as “battery performance.” For $10,000, Tesla will give your car what Musk calls “fairly advanced and exotic electronics.” The Model S’ acceleration always has been limited by how much current it can pull from the battery—about 1,300 amps—without popping the fuse to protect the electronics. So Tesla developed a fuse with sophisticated electronics and its own lithium-ion battery. That let the engineers give the system a smaller margin of error and the ability to draw 1,500 amps.
What all of this means to those of you without a degree in electrical engineering is the car has absolutely silly acceleration. Musk claims the car will hit 60 from a standstill in 2.8 seconds, putting it on par with, oh, the Lamborghini Huracán and McLaren 650S. Achieving such eye-popping acceleration requires engaging something Musk, never one for understatement, calls “Ludicrous Mode.” No, really. It actually says that on the dashboard display. (Ludicrous is a step up from the “Insane Mode” offered in the P85D; owners of that car can upgrade their electronics for $5,000 plus labor.)
Driving on public roads pockmarked by bumps, potholes, and other imperfections, I may or may not have clocked a personal best of 3.2 seconds. As much as I would have liked to match Musk’s claim, it’s worth remembering 3.2 seconds is exactly what the legendary McLaren F1 delivered. In a sedan weighing more than two tons, it is stupid quick.
That acceleration isn’t limited to getting off the line. Internal combustion engines deliver max power at higher RPMs, so there’s an inevitable, if slight, pause between when you get up on it and when you feel the kick in the seat of your pants. Electric motors don’t have that problem. They just spin faster. Push the go-pedal in the Model S and you simply fly forward, no matter your speed.
What’s more, it does this silently, without any of the racket associated with internal combustion. It’s kind of like that scene in Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon makes the jump to light speed. Suddenly you’re thinking, Oh shit, I’m going 99 mph.
The Model S is too big to feel as nimble as a sports car, but the massive battery that essentially comprises the floor of the car provides an almost subterranean center of gravity. That keeps all four wheels glued to the asphalt and allows surprisingly aggressive driving. (You don’t need to spend $1,000 on the carbon fiber spoiler, unless you really like the look.) It takes real effort to lose traction on a winding road, and if you do, the car quickly corrects.
What’s especially nice about the Model S is it becomes a remarkably serene luxury sedan the moment you stop hammering on the pedal. The car is nearly silent, the ride remarkably smooth. It helps that late last year, Tesla gave the car a radar, ultrasonic sensors, and forward-facing camera that enable active safety features like adaptive cruise control and the ability to brake if a crash is imminent and stay between lane lines.
Tesla says that sometime soon, it will use an over-the-air software update to give the Model S “autopilot,” a limited take on autonomous highway driving that will keep the car in its lane and a safe distance from other cars. The feature is, however, behind schedule, like just about everything Tesla does, given Musk’s propensity for over-promising.
In the meantime, the Model S offers adaptive cruise control that makes highway driving way more pleasant, and a lane keeping feature that steers you back if you start to drift out of your lane. That bit overcorrects, so if you take your hands off the wheel, the Model S will carom down the highway bouncing from one side of the lane to the other, Pong-style.
About Those Cupholders
My main qualms with the P90D are all the same things that have always annoyed me about the Model S: The sleek, stylish interior favors form over function. There are no cupholders in the backseat. That’s stupid. And as big as this car is—get the $3,000 rear bench for the way-back and this thing will seat seven— there are precious few places for your stuff. There’s an optional “parcel shelf” (at no cost) and a shallow, impractical bin on the floor, between the front seats. That’s it. Some more practical pockets (like in the doors, where nearly every automaker puts them) would make life in the car a bit nicer.
That matters, because unlike a little sports car or a city-focused EV, the Model S is a car you’ll want to take for real road trips. You’ll have to drive like a boring person to get the 265 promised miles of range, but Tesla’s growing, international network of Supercharger stations can get you back on the road with a nearly full battery in about half an hour. Trust me. I’ve done it.
The best part about pulling over to recharge? Getting back on the highway means you get a lovely on-ramp to enjoy that acceleration.
The weirdest thing about the P90D is that it’s the newest Tesla you can buy. By now, we were supposed to be rolling in the Model X, the all-electric SUV that Musk promised would be on the road in 2014 until it wasn’t. Now he says this year, really, promise. The X is supposed to bring in new customers, and prove to the world Tesla’s more than a one hit wonder.
We haven’t yet seen the X, but you can spot signs of it in this car. The dual motor system provides all-wheel drive, key to the appeal of an SUV. The 90 kWh pack will help offset the extra weight of the bigger car, to the point where Musk says the X will offer up to 95 percent of the range offered by the Model S.
And, like this car, the X will come with Ludicrous Mode, which Musk says will catapult the truck to 60 mph in about 3.3 seconds. I can’t wait to get behind the wheel. As long as there’s somewhere to put down my soda.
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