It’s as fast as a Lamborghini, as luxurious as a Jaguar and doesn't use a drop of petrol, but can a Tesla Model S get to Wales and back? We test it long-distance
Tesla’s Model S is the electric car that confounds stereotypes. It can hit 60mph as fast as a Lamborghini, is as spacious as a luxury saloon and its Autopilot feature can even spare you the pain of a drive back into town, but can it hack the test of a cross-country family trip? Simon Lambert found out.
The future of motoring feels uncannily similar to my past.
I may be driving a state-of-the-art all-electric sports saloon rather than a small French hatchback, but constant glances at the Tesla’s range counter bring back memories of some late 1990s nervous calculations about just how far the last drops of petrol in my tank would stretch.
Moving to the country: The Tesla Model S is a relatively common sight in London but can this pure electric car hack a cross country family trip?
As we weave our way through the Cotswolds towards Tesla’s superchargers at the services just outside Oxford, my brain is juggling two figures – I’m trying to calculate how much faster the range is going down than the miles to our destination.
I have what’s known in electric car speak as ‘range anxiety’.
And so it seems does much of Britain. The Tesla is one of those cars that doesn’t just turn heads but also invites questions from the curious, with the inevitable one being ‘how far can it get?’
Tesla’s answer is a pretty ‘long way’ – potentially more than 300 miles under normal driving. But does that claim stand up to real-life use?
Can a car that’s as fast as a Lamborghini Huracan in a sprint to 62mph, as big and luxurious as a Jaguar and doesn’t use a drop of petrol, really do the long-distance stuff properly?
In the glossy motoring magazines, the obvious way to find out would be to map out a jaw-dropping route through Europe with a photographer in tow. If we were on Top Gear, we’d take it somewhere weird like Belarus.
But that’s not a proper real-life test. No, the best way to really work out if Tesla has cracked the future of motoring is to stick the kids in the back, fill the boot with a weekend’s worth of stuff and take it on a proper family road trip to the Welsh borders.
After all, what better way to sharpen the mind on range anxiety than knowing that the consequences of getting it wrong involve being stuck at the side of the road with an angry wife, two young daughters and an awkward phone call to make.
Of course, you could do that kind of road trip in any electric car, a Nissan Leaf or a Renault Zoe for example, but there are a few things that make the Tesla the one you’d want to do it in.
It’s been designed to look and handle like the best cars that Italy, Germany or Britain can offer. And with a £63,000 to £92,000 on the road price, it’s competing with some very good cars.
TESLA MODEL S
Price: From £62,700 (70D) to £92,400 (P90D)
0-60mph: From 5.2 seconds to 2.8 seconds
Top speed: 140mph to 155mph
Power source: 70kWh battery to 90kWh
Range: 292 to 346 miles
Superchargers provide 180 miles in 30 minutes
22 kW wall box up to 68 miles range per hour
Type 2 7.4 kWh home wall box provides around 22 miles an hour (common owner solution)
UK domestic socket provides 6 miles an hour
The P85D I had is also astonishingly quick, it can hit 60mph in 3.2 seconds.
Its replacement the new facelifted P90D can take that down to 2.8 seconds.
And most importantly of all, it also takes as little as 20 minutes to give the car a half charge using Tesla’s superchargers, a network of which are dotted at mainly motorway service station strategic spots and are completely free to use.
A slew of Teslas have made London the Model S’s natural British habitat, but they are a far rarer sight elsewhere. I was itching to discover if the future of motoring could hack it outside the M25.
The plan to test this out was to head for south west Herefordshire and the Welsh Borders where my cousin and his family live.
We would do a three-day weekend trip, with a leisurely drive up there, including a stop at the newly-reopened British Motor Museum, at Gaydon, and then do the full journey back in one run on the Sunday.
This required some planning, the reason being that there are three main ways to charge a Tesla to the recommended 80 per cent level.
A normal plug socket and its giant phone charger-style lead will take about 30 hours.
Alternatively, a special electric car charging point takes about 5 hours – a wall box version of which you can get installed at home, but these are usually less powerful and take 10 to 12 hours.
Each proper charge will cost about £5.
And then there is Tesla’s special weapon in the battle to promote the pure electric car, its supercharger network. These superfast chargers can give you a half charge in 20 minutes, or an 80 per cent charge in 40 minutes. If you’ve got a Tesla they’re free.
Using the superchargers is the secret to a long distance Tesla journey’s success, so I mapped out the route.
The supercharger bays at London's Westfield shopping centre provide a quick place to charge up
Our first day’s journey would be 178 miles, according to Google maps, on a route via the Hopwood Services superchargers at roughly 115 miles in, just outside Birmingham.
A stop and charge there should give us enough range to last the weekend, including a drive back through the Cotswolds, to the supercharger station at Oxford Services on Sunday afternoon and on to London.
Mapping out that route obviously took more consideration than the drive would in a normal car, a matter slightly complicated by the UK’s supercharger network being somewhat skewed to one side. London and the South are well served, the Midlands, North and South West get a few each, but head towards Wales and its borders and there’s a sizeable gap.
Of course, you can still use a normal electric car charging point, of which there are plenty around, but that requires a lot more waiting around and is a lot less convenient, especially if you’re staying in the middle of the countryside for the weekend.
The night before the trip, I headed for the bank of superchargers at Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.
We left on the Friday morning with 187 miles of range. We arrived at the Motor Museum, at Gaydon, with 59 miles of range after a 95 mile journey.
Somewhere we had used up 33 extra miles of the initial range that the Model S had suggested. That didn’t seem too bad for a mix of city, motorway and A-road driving, triggered by a circuitous route to dodge a closed section of the M40.
While we spent the afternoon wandering the Motor Museum, we plugged in and added another 50 miles or so courtesy of its standard electric car charging point. Then it was back in the car and off for a proper fill-up at a supercharger.
Tesla's Superchargers imitate a petrol pump and you simply plug the lead into the car's port
It was at this point the Tesla’s Autopilot feature became a blessed relief.
Heavy, late Friday afternoon traffic on the M40 is no one’s idea of driving fun, so being able to let the car take over is a nice feeling.
So what does it feel like to be driven in a semi-autonomous car?
Unnerving, is the initial answer. The feeling of the steering wheel moving underneath your hands is quite frankly odd and there’s a gnawing worry that the Tesla won’t stop itself in time.
However, while you may feel the car pilots itself in a way you wouldn’t – perhaps turning at a slightly different angle or braking a bit later – its moves are pretty much faultless.
It works by using a combination of adaptive cruise control, which aims for a set speed but will even slow you to a halt and pull off again in traffic, and the car’s ability to steer itself.
That’s done by reading the white lines on the road and if you want to change lanes you push down the indicator, and once the car has worked out it is safe to do so, it will move across.
Tesla had given two warnings: only use it on the motorway – where lines are of a certain standard - and keep your hands on the wheel.
You soon get used to Autopilot, and ultimately I suspect human error is probably more likely to crash a Model S than the car itself.
At Hopwood we stopped for our first real supercharge. The Model S plugged into its bay, we headed inside for coffee and hot chocolates.
This is when you discover that long-distance Tesla motoring is ideal for travelling with children.
Under normal circumstances, 20 minutes into a service station stop I get seriously itchy feet. ‘Why is this taking so long? Stop messing around. Get back in the car,’ is the usual refrain.
With the Tesla, the weight is lifted off your shoulders. The longer you stay, the more the car charges. All that’s needed to keep that relaxed feeling is a quick check of the phone app that tells you the car is still merrily charging away.
Obviously, this way of filling up is not going to suit the business traveller, for whom even five minutes spent filling up with diesel is painful, but for the casual long-distance motorist spending half-an-hour at the services every 200 miles is no great shakes.
Certainly not when the payback is that you get to drive an exceptionally quick luxury sports saloon without paying a penny for fuel.
Superchargers can deliver a half charge in 20 minutes and a network has been dotted around the country at strategic spots such as Hopwood Services (pictured) just outside Birmingham
Time wasted at Hopwood services, it was time to push on. The Tesla was now charged back up to about 260 miles of range – and this would be the bulk of its juice until Sunday afternoon.
The Model S easily ate up the remaining hour-and-a-half’s journey. On the M5 and M50 the car felt every bit the equal of any top-of-the range rival executive express wearing a Jaguar, BMW or Mercedes badge. In choppy traffic it was a soothing influence and then when the traffic thinned out it shone as a fast motorway cruiser.
Coming off the motorway and onto the winding roads from Ross-on-Wye across below Hereford gave it the test I’d been waiting for. Here you might expect the hefty Tesla to come unstuck – despite an aluminium construction those heavy batteries mean the car comes in at 2.3 tonnes. That’s roughly half-a-ton heavier than a Jaguar XF, which is a similar size.
But it’s a huge credit to Tesla that the car is a joy to drive on A and B roads. You can tell it’s got some weight, but the Model S hustles along at a remarkable pace, turns in nicely with decent feel from the steering and the four-wheel drive power is quite astonishing.
In the all-wheel drive Model S that power comes from two motors; one driving the front set of wheels and one driving the back. The torque from those engines goes straight to the wheels and it feels rocket-ship fast.
Off the motorway you also encounter a strange Tesla sensation that takes some getting used to – the feel of all that power combined with near absolute silence.
There’s no roaring engine pushing you up the road and no gear change, just the slightest noise from the electric motors and the tyres on the big wheels.
So, does the Model S cut the mustard as a driver’s car?
Put it this way, the following morning I eagerly volunteered to leave the wife and kids and drive alone to the shop to get eggs and bacon – and I’ll admit that B-road run to buy breakfast may have been longer than necessary.
Later that morning, I tried to convince my cousin Jamie - a fellow car nut since childhood - that the big red spaceship I had parked on his drive was not just a fancy bit of technology flown up from London but also a great driver’s car.
He seemed unconvinced until I took him out for a spin. We drove the winding roads from his into Wales and then on a straight and empty stretch, tested the Tesla’s party trick: Insane mode’s supercar-quick 3.2 second race to 60mph.
This feels quite literally insane and has now been replaced on the new P90D by the optional Ludicrous mode with a 60mph dash in 2.8 seconds. I presume that feels ludicrous.
Jamie arrived back at his house raving about the Tesla.
Of course, the peril of all this driving enjoyment is that you are eating up that precious range. We plugged the Tesla in at my cousin’s, via the normal home plug but charging this way is painfully slow. Tesla quotes six miles for every hour it’s plugged in.
The Tesla Model S can be plugged into a normal home socket using its special lead but that can require some inventive methods to make it work. Unable to park the Tesla next to the cottage, Simon Lambert had the lead out of a window and threaded through a fence
Later that evening back at our AirBnB, we plugged the car in again. Here we had to weave the lead out the kitchen window and through a fence to where the Tesla was parked.
Ideally, I would have left it charging overnight but I was faced with a dilemma. To do so would have meant leaving the front window open and the cottage unsecured all night. With my three and five-year-old daughters there I didn’t want to chance it. Reluctantly, I unplugged the car before heading to bed at midnight.
After a trip down the road to my cousin’s the next morning, we left there at lunchtime with almost 150 miles of range and about a 110 mile journey to do - over the Cotswolds to the Oxford Services supercharger.
In theory, this was fine but knowing the range would go down quicker than suggested made it a challenge. I was confident we’d do it, but I definitely didn’t want to be proved wrong and grind to a halt.
There was one slight problem, this was a drive I was looking forward to: cross country on B and A roads, a stretch of motorway and then a run through the Cotswolds on the A44.
As expected, the first hour of spirited driving saw the miles on the range going down faster than the miles on the road.
What was difficult to judge was how much quicker the range was falling versus how far we still had to go.
This was a problem exacerbated by being unable to swap to our exact slightly shorter route on the big screen Google Maps sat nav, instead of the one it thought was quicker.
As we got to the long, steep two-lane sweep up Fish Hill on the run up to Broadway Tower, a BMW M5 arrived on our tail. It was a prime opportunity to let the Tesla show the German hero car a clean pair of heels. But by this point we’d gone from nearly 50 miles of range to spare over and above our journey length to a buffer or just under 30 miles.
I let the BMW race off into the distance. A wise move as when we got to the top of Fish Hill, the Tesla shot me a warning message. If I wanted to make my destination, I needed to stick below 55 miles per hour.
Reluctantly, I relaxed my heavy right foot into a more sedate drive through the countryside, with a healthy dose of range anxiety thrown in.
My initial plan had been to not tell my wife Katherine about my range fears. She could clearly see my shifty glances from dials to map, however, and so the inevitable question arrived: ‘Are we going to make it?’
The next hour was spent driving at up to 55 miles an hour on the twisty A44. I stuck the Tesla in range mode, limiting creature comforts like heating and air-con to conserve juice, and tried to drive as smoothly as possible.
The range stopped going down quicker than the miles. Despite the temptation to start Googling the nearest supermarket or garage with a normal electric car charging point, we ploughed on.
It looked like we were going to stick at about the 20-odd mile buffer we were on.
A run in stop-start traffic round Oxford had me a bit worried, but then it freed up and we were on the move.
We sailed into Oxford Services and the welcome embrace of the red Tesla supercharger bays with 24 miles to spare. We’d done 105 miles in two hours and 19 minutes and lost an extra 20 miles along the way.
The Tesla made it to Oxford Services with 24 miles of range to spare - an hour later it had supercharged back up to 233 miles, ready for the run back into London
We’d made it. Celebratory coffee and hot chocolates and a mooch round the services beckoned. An hour later, we were back in the Tesla with 233 miles of range on the clock.
A Sunday run down the M40 into London called. As the motorway traffic grew choppier, Autopilot went on and I let the Model S take the strain.
We arrived home 52 miles later in North London via the stop-start North Circular and A1 with 166 miles of range showing. That heavy traffic journey had lost us 15 miles of range. Not bad when you consider the similar effect such a journey has on fuel consumption.
The Tesla jaunt was over. It had made it to Wales and back. And while I’ll admit there were points when I had wished superchargers were as common as petrol stations, it had been very little hassle. There was no need for anxiety.
There are points you could pull the Model S up on against its big luxury European rivals, but there are many things they can’t match the Tesla on too.
With your own home-charging wall box, some supercharger station route-planning and a bit of common sense driving when needed, the Model S is a viable option against its petrol or diesel-driven rivals.
The next morning I handed the Model S back. And I’ll admit that this devotee of the internal combustion engine was very sad to see that electric car go.
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