The Model S exudes the benefits an electric car has over fossil-fuelled alternatives; Supercharger network makes it more usable than ever

We’ve been led to believe that the internal combustion engine is old-hat and that electric cars will be the future.

Not that long ago, that would have been a dire and scary proposition, but electric cars have gone through a renaissance and now some are even becoming desirable. This change of reputation is, in part, thanks to Tesla and its venerable Model S; a premium, fast, and usable electric sedan car.

The latest version, the P100D, takes these attributes that have made the Model S so sought-after and amplified them to create a four-wheel drive, luxurious vehicle that’s also, with a 0-100km/h time of 2.5sec, the fastest accelerating sedan car ever.

The Model S combines such incredible performance with an effortless driving experience making it an astoundingly effective machine for covering ground. With a maximum range from 400 to over 480 kilometres (depending on which spec you choose) and an expanding network of supercharger points that allow the Model S to top up its battery in a remarkably short space of time, it’s also one of the most usable electric cars on the market.

When it comes to pure thrills nothing else about the Model S can match its ability to accelerate. That’s mostly because it’s such a remarkable party piece, but equally the Model S isn’t a car that comes alive in a corner or allows a driver to really get under its skin.

Performance and 0-100 time

There are multiple versions in the Model S range, badged 75, 75D, 100D and P100D. That all looks very complicated, but it’s actually relatively easy to understand the letters and numbers, which refer to the kWh rating of the battery pack. Essentially, the higher the number, the longer the Tesla’s range and better the performance.

The D refers to “dual-motor” and means those cars are four-wheel drive, using a motor on each axle. The P stands for “performance” and those cars also have the Ludicrous Speed upgrade and air suspension.

The slowest Model S, the rear wheel drive 75, can still hit 100km/h from a standstill in 4.3sec, a more than respectable time for a big sedan. The rest of the range gets quicker still, until you reach the latest and fastest iteration yet, the P100D. With its acceleration set to Ludicrous Plus mode – an almost secret setting in the infotainment system that triggers a warp speed-style animation to appear before it’s engaged – the top-spec Model S accelerates from 0-100km/h in 2.5sec.

Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, wanted to create a car whose performance could match that of the McLaren F1 – a car Musk used to own in his earlier entrepreneurial days. Not only has he achieved that, but the P100D has rather trounced the F1’s oft-quoted 0-100km/h time of 3.2sec, going a full 0.7sec quicker.

The acceleration the Model S is capable of is most astonishing at low speeds, and particularly off the line where it shoots off without any fuss or wheelspin, just a significant jolt forwards. It loses some of its impact while on the move, but the Model S can still pile on the speed at a respectable rate on to a limited top speed of 250km/h for the entire range.

Engine and gearbox

Every Model S has an electric motor mounted at the back axle to provide drive. However, the D models have an extra motor on the front axle to make them four-wheel drive.

The two motors in the P100D give more than a hint as to why it’s so accelerative, combining to produce around 441kW.

Because the Tesla Model S doesn’t have a regular engine it doesn’t use a traditional gearbox with multiple ratios and some means of selecting them. Instead, the drive from the high revving electric motors is sent through a reduction gear, which converts high motor speeds to more appropriate wheel speeds. The motors provide enough torque at any revs and are able to spin at a larger variation of speeds than an internal combustion engine, there is no need for a gearbox.

The savage acceleration of the Model S, especially the P100D, means you don’t long for the noise and drama of an internal combustion engine. But in an age where engines that have had all their character lobotomised by turbochargers have become the norm, that’s perhaps not a huge surprise. Ten years ago, when sedan cars had big burbling V8s or screaming V10s the Tesla’s effective but clinical approach might not have been quite enough to distract die-hard enthusiasts.

Ride and handling

If you’re completely new to the Tesla Model S then the starting procedure might be a little baffling, leading you to search in vain for a starter button or ignition slot for the car-shaped key. But rather than being inconveniently placed or deliberately difficult to find, there is no ignition or any means of turning the Model S on; it’s simply ready as soon as you climb in. From here, all you do is depress the brake, pull down on the Mercedes-sourced, column-mounted gear selector and then squeeze the “throttle” – perhaps more accurately an accelerator pedal – to pull away.

The lack of engine noise, although slightly eerie to begin with, means that the Model S feels incredibly civilised. Silently wafting down a road just oozes a sophistication that isn’t available on even the most expensive, premium cars. A calm and supple ride complements the quiet cabin, the first hint of anything other than total serenity is some breathy wind noise, but rather than being dominant it’s only really audible because there isn’t any engine noise to help drown it out.

What makes this refinement even more appealing is that, whenever you choose, you can unleash the Model S’s incredible, instant performance. The contrast between such luxury and supercar acceleration doesn’t lose its novelty.

With such a soft ride, and the thought of such phenomenal acceleration figures, you expect the rear end to squat considerably – almost to the point the bodywork might drag on the floor – as soon as you touch the accelerator pedal. But surprisingly, the entire car tenses and the forward thrust remains just that, rather than a force that’s trying to heave the body from the chassis.

This staggering acceleration begins to skew your opinion of what sort of car the P100D is. On thrust alone it’s in supercar territory and it causes you to critique the rest of the car by the same unfairly high standards. But it pays to remember it is still a big, heavy sedan.

With the throttle releasing such savagery, the rest of the controls feel somewhat lacking, initially. They aren’t, though. The brakes, for instance, might not be forceful enough to rearrange your internal organs but they are strong and effective, and should also be commended on how well they cope with intense abuse. The Tesla’s rapid acceleration means you often need to scrub off a lot of speed, and given the novelty of the instant speed never seems to diminish, you need to do so frequently. You’d think that hauling up the Tesla’s 2239kg bulk (or 2108kg for the two wheel drive models) so often would cause major issues, but the brakes continue to work well.

The brakes need to handle repeated hard work in part because of the cornering style the Model S seems to prefer. Its ability to gain speed means that, no matter how slowly you navigate a bend, you can regain your speed within moments of exiting. It’s easy to get into the habit of slowing down excessively just to accelerate away.

But the P100D is hardly cumbersome through a corner. It turns in with just a small degree of roll and rotates just enough to have you pointed towards the apex at a rather impressive speed. The steering doesn’t send a great deal of detail to you hands, but the Model S transmits enough information for it not to feel completely remote.

Carry a touch too much speed and you do detect a hint of understeer, but it’s fleeting and dealt with by the car before it materialises into anything worrying. The Tesla’s acceleration when exiting a corner is just as impressive as it is in a straight line, and equally without any real hysterics or loss of grip – just a display of incredible traction and grunt.

Despite this, it’s not an easy chassis to take advantage of. Although the controls, the steering, throttle and brakes are good in isolation, they don’t integrate with one another especially well, and that makes it difficult to be smooth and calculated with your inputs. Stepping off the throttle drops the speed excessively thanks to the car’s brake regeneration. With such a dramatic effect on the car, whether forward movement when the accelerator is depressed or significant deceleration when lifting off, it’s tricky to make minor adjustments, and frankly impossible if you want to be smooth.

Turning off the regenerative braking (which is very easy to do through the infotainment screen) improves things but it reveals the brake pedal doesn’t have a linear and progressive influence on the brakes.

The Model S is very much a refined and considered sedan car but its supercar-style acceleration isn’t quite matched by the dynamic abilities of the chassis. However, that doesn’t stop it being able to rival some of the best sports sedans on sale now. WILL BEAUMONT