I recently spent several days driving the Tesla Model S — the torqued-up, all-wheel-drive P85D ($105,000) version — around Silicon Valley. I wafted up and down Bay Area freeways in electric silence, the car’s smooth adaptive cruise control doing everything but steering, and thus taking the edge off of the occasionally atrocious California traffic. (Full Autopilot is coming to Tesla soon, eventually permitting on-ramp to off-ramp autonomous drive.) The roads in and around the tech world’s epicenter are, of course, dappled with Model S’s by now, and for a few days I felt part of the SV/EV in-crowd.
My Tesla a-ha moment, however, came in a parking lot. Needing to charge up my loaner after nearly exhausting its 240-mile range, I called up the list of Tesla Superchargers on the car’s oceanic 17-inch central touchscreen display. Knowing jack shit about the geography of Silicon Valley, I picked one more or less at random, in Mountain View, and drove there in about 20 minutes. When I pulled in, the free high-speed charging stations were nearly full. Every Model S trim level was on display. I pulled into one of the few unoccupied slots, got out, and plugged my car in. It said I had about 50 minutes before it would be ready to go.
I looked around and noticed two things: 1) More than half of the Tesla owners were actually sitting there in their cars waiting for them to charge, either napping, goofing off on their phones, or, in one case, changing a diaper in the back seat; and 2) I was in the parking lot of the Computer History Museum.
It’s simply the best car in the world. Was then; is now.
On the first point, I had naturally assumed that most Tesla drivers plug their cars in and toddle off to shop in glamorous stores or crack open laptops while sipping coffee somewhere. But there they were, with no inclination but to sit and wait it out. These were daily users, long past the initial buzz of Tesla novelty. It was both a distinctly fresh and futuristic sight, as well as a sign that we’re on the brink of a new normal.
With no need for sleep, no blasé familiarity with the area, and no diaper to change, I went to check out the museum. Because it’s a Tesla, you can just walk away from the car with the key fob in your pocket, and it will retract the door handles and lock itself up. I spent the next hour strolling through the exhibits in the museum, which covers a lot of ground — early computer tech, lots of industrial-grade mainframe business (that I can only vaguely grasp) and plenty of personal tech (the Apple II that I used in middle school, the Commodore 64 that I had at home, the $100 Timex Sinclair that I saw advertised on the back pages of countless magazines). When I was done perusing, I returned to the Model S in the parking lot charging station. I unplugged, hopped in, and silently left for my next appointment.
Rolling back for a moment: I first drove the Model S soon after it came out, in 2012. At the time I called it the most revolutionary, most evolved and most exciting car on the road, as did many other critics and enthusiasts. Having just driven it again, I can only conclude one thing: I don’t need that many descriptors any more. It’s simply the best car in the world. Was then; is now.
Fanboy much? Maybe, maybe not. Of course there are many other cars that do many specific things better than the Model S. You can’t beat the track-ready handling of a Ferrari, the low-slung ferocity and menacing roar of a Lamborghini, the ethereal grace of a Rolls, the technical wizardry of a Merc, or even the hyper-alert vigilance of the latest safety-stacked Volvo. They all make amazing cars, but Tesla has something going for it that not a single one of them can truly claim: it is a tangible slice of the future. Its design remains the sleekest and most timeless of any car on the road, its forward-thinking eco-benefits are now beyond argument, and its power, particularly in this model, renowned. Though many cars try to be many things, they check off boxes at different levels: luxury, power, performance, handling, etc. Model S simply checks them all off higher.
There’s nothing quite like that particular thrill, the smooth acceleration of a pair of insanely powerful electric motors constantly at the ready.
The P85D has two electric motors, a new 221 horsepower motor in the front and the 470 horsepower one in back, generating computer-controlled, torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive that’s far more sophisticated and efficient than mechanical AWD systems. It’s also a more balanced and efficient power system than the rear-drive Teslas’ in general, not to mention more powerful, with a combined 762 horsepower and 713 lb-ft of torque. That’s enough juice to send the car to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds. The car launches like a rail gun, thanks to the instant availability of all that electric-motor-sourced torque. There’s nothing quite like that particular thrill, the smooth acceleration of a pair of insanely powerful electric motors constantly at the ready, as though you’re always in the perfectly-selected gear. Even though the P85D is nearly 5,000 pounds, you do not feel that weight. (Though if they could indeed shave some of it off, there would be a commensurate bump in speed.) It goes like a stealth fighter, and corners like a champ, thanks to the low center of gravity from the heavy battery’s placement underneath the floorboards.
The big news here, you might have heard, is the just-announced P90D option, which has a slightly bigger battery and a new 0-60 time of 2.8 seconds. That also adds on a Ludicrous Mode button, and I have high hopes about that development. The forthcoming Model X SUV will have a similar motor arrangement, and its own Ludicrous Mode that will help the SUV score 0-60 times of 3.1 seconds, undoubtedly making it the fastest SUV in creation.
The point in all this is that embracing eco-friendly electric power generates a raft of “merely” collateral possibilities and potential: fast acceleration, low CG, regenerative braking tuned to permit single-pedal driving, minimized road noise thanks to the noise-and-vibration-absorbing battery’s presence, and tons of juice to power everything from that cinema-sized screen to the more-than-adequate A/C to the tunable electric power steering. Furthermore, it takes advantage of every innovation Silicon Valley has to offer — that screen I keep going back to,
the ability to add features and updates to the car over wi-fi with the click of a mouse, the forthcoming autonomous drive capability and more.
In short, this is the car that our best scientists and engineers would build today if there were no cars before them, and no long institutional memory that seems to dictate every new decision. It’s the car of the future, and I fully expect that one day, Tesla will be asked to drive one up to the Computer History Museum — rather than any car museum first — and leave it there on permanent display.