Supercar in sheep's clothing? Driving the Tesla Model S P85D

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The Model S doesn't draw too much attention from non-car lovers, although fans of the brand pick you out from a mile away(Credit: Chris Blain/Gizmag)

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Electric cars have come a long way and if you want proof, look no further than the Tesla Model S. With its practical range, exceptional performance and intuitive application of in-car technology, the Model S has shoehorned the humble family sedan into the 21st century. The high performance Model S P85D takes the already-impressive P85 and adds another motor, turning it into an all-wheel drive, all-electric, supercar baiting rocketship. We spent a week behind the wheel to see how the premier e-motoring experience translates into the daily drive.

Hiding under the P85D's body are two electric motors, producing a combined 568 kW. If you're keen to see where all this power comes from, you're out of luck. Lifting the bonnet reveals a small storage "frunk" (yep, that's a front-trunk) where the engine is in most cars, and taking a wander to the back of the car reveals a capacious boot.

Looking around the outside of the Model S P85D, there aren't many hints to give away the fact that it will hit 100 km/h faster than a McLaren F1. Our P85D looked fantastic in its deep red with charcoal 21-inch wheels, but if you didn't know what you were looking for, the Model S just blends into the crowd of big sports sedans. We're sure that some owners will like the fact that their cars don't stand out, but some might be a little disappointed that this slice of the future doesn't look all that, well, futuristic.

On the other hand, starting the Model S comes with a definite dose of the futuristic. Walk up to the car with the key in your pocket and the chrome handles whirr out from the doors to greet you. Once you get in, there is no need to turn a key or even press a start button – you simply put your foot on the brake, put the car into drive and pull away.

It sounds like a small thing, but the small things are what sets this car apart from the crowd. Being able to get into the Tesla and simply pull seamlessly away from the curb fits perfectly with its slick, luxury character.

The Tesla's interior is beautifully designed and crafted, from the sculptural door grabs to the high-quality, chubby leather steering wheel that feels superb in your hands. We only noticed two things that don't quite fit meet our high-end luxury expectations. The first is the plastic buttons on the steering wheel, which would seem out of place on a Golf, let alone a car worth more than $100K. The other issue is that the soft, stitched leather seat won't go low enough. Granted I'm taller than your average road-tester, but I felt a little like I was sitting on, rather than in, the car.

Seat adjustment and steering wheel buttons aside, the Model S' interior is beautifully put together. The 17-inch touchscreen in the center console is a masterpiece, replacing the traditional array of buttons and dials with a simple interface for infotainment, navigation and car settings that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used a tablet.

The interface is slick and responsive. You're able to split the screen between two different functions, like navigation and media, or just take advantage of that massive screen real estate for full-screen google maps. The maps include live traffic updates, as well as little icons for charging stations and Superchargers.

The controls for the air-conditioning are permanently locked at the bottom of the screen for easy access and there's also a massive range of options for changing the way your car drives. There are three different modes for the steering, ranging from feather-light Comfort mode to the heavier Sport setup. Unless you're trying to carve corners there's no reason to take the car out of normal mode, which is more than adequate for most situations.

You can also access many of the functions using a scroll wheel on the steering wheel.

Depending on the way you've specced your car, the Model S is also available with fully adjustable air suspension, that ranges from stance-nation low to an extra high setting designed for steep driveways. As well as being able to manually put the car into its highest setting for particularly tough driveways or speedbumps, the car's GPS system will remember where you've used this mode and automatically kick-in on your return to ensure you always go scrape-free.

So far, you're probably getting the idea that you can customize almost everything about your Tesla. And you'd be right, because that little touchscreen holds the key to a world of personalization. Want your sunroof 72 percent open? Done. Not happy with the mood lighting on your doors? Turn it off. Too much power too fast? Dial it back and cruise.

Given this is an all electric car, the little charging icons on the car's maps are likely to be in the front of your mind whenever you're cruising around. Tesla claims the P85D has a range of 491 km (305 mi), but based on our experience that's not an easily achievable figure – although the amount of Insane Mode launches we subjected the car to wasn't necessarily normal, it took gentle highway driving to get our energy consumption figure sitting above the car's "rated consumption" figure.

Nonetheless the range is very practical, but there's still the issue of recharging to contend with. When your petrol or diesel car runs out of fuel, it takes five minutes to fill up and you're on your way. It's very easy to take this for granted.

In our time with the Model S we charged it twice at the Supercharger station outside the dealership, and both times it took about 50 minutes to charge to 85 percent full, which is a cap that the owner can set to prolong the lifespan of the battery pack.It's free to charge up at Tesla's Supercharger stations, but most owners will end up using a Tesla fast charger to top up the battery overnight, which means forking out for the extra electricity. Based on the average electricity rates in Australia where this test took place, that would mean between $20 and $30 for a full charge, significantly less than you'd pay for the petrol to take you the same distance the Tesla would.

Whereas Australia's Supercharger network is currently limited, though there are plans to have charge stations running from Melbourne to Brisbane by the end of 2016. In the US there are now 197 Supercharger Stations, meaning it's far easier to plan long-distance travel without worrying about running flat along the way. The number of stations is also growing rapidly across the globe – Tesla says there are already 500 active Supercharger Stations worldwide with 2,818 total charge points between them.

Maybe the best way to deal with the Model S' claimed range is the same way you'd deal with the claimed fuel consumption sticker on a conventional, petrol car. It's nice in theory, but in reality it won't be achieved unless you drive like the accelerator is made of glass.

... and you might find that difficult to do, because the Model S P85D's acceleration is absolutely breathtaking.

There's an instant wave of torque beneath your right foot, ready to throw you silently down the road at just a moment's notice. It's not like driving a petrol car, where you put your foot down and wait for the gearbox to find the right gear, or for the revs to rise. The accelerator is not a normal throttle pedal, it's a switch that just dropkicks you down the road.

At any speed there's so much torque available that every gap in the traffic is open to you, all you need to do is dip the throttle beyond halfway and you're there.

Even more impressive than the car's rolling acceleration is the way it launches from a standstill. When the driver has put the car in "Insane Mode" and floors the throttle, the Model S just flings itself down the road with intensity unmatched by anything else I've ever driven. The acceleration off the line left everyone in the Gizmag office breathless and giggling, shocked by the way the car leaps off the line. Making the whole experience more surreal is the fact that there is no swelling of revs, no big engine to accompany the whole experience.

Initially, we expected that lack of noise to be problematic. There seems to be an unspoken consensus among motoring enthusiasts that noise is essential to any exciting driving experience, but after driving the Tesla I'm willing to challenge that. Yes, there's something great about the sound of a big, burbling V8, but silent acceleration has a certain charm of its own.

It's worth pointing out that "silence" doesn't mean that the Model S puts dozy pedestrians at risk – from the outside, the car emits an audible hum. In our time with the car not one pedestrian stepped out onto the road as if they hadn't heard it. When filming we could hear the P85D coming from a fair distance away. As well as giving the car a character of its own, the Model S' silent motors make for a very relaxing driving experience on the highway. Aside from a bit of wind noise, there's almost nothing to disturb the serenity in the cabin.

Move off the highway and into town and regenerative braking starts to play a big role in the way you drive this car. Set in its most aggressive regen mode there's almost no need to touch the brake pedal, you can feel the car pulling energy into back into the battery to the point where you barely need to touch the brakes.

This can make for some jerky driving before you're accustomed to the way the regen kicks in, but it doesn't take long to get comfortable. After half a day in the Tesla, I almost rear-ended a few cars in my own, non-electric car because I was expecting the regen to kick in.

You might not expect the Tesla to be too effective when the road gets twisty, but for a big car it can still get up and dance. Even though it weighs well over two tonnes (4,600 lbs), most of the mass is set low in the chassis, and the air suspension does a good job of keeping the car flat in the bends.

Although it doesn't give you much feel through the wheel, the steering is nice and weighty in Sport mode. In contrast Comfort mode is so light you can steer the car with just a pinky.

So, how do we sum up the Tesla Model S P85D? It's an incredible car. The 17-inch infotainment system is better than any other system we've used. You'd never tire of its breathtaking acceleration, and it would make a beautifully quiet and refined daily driver for people who have the garage facilities to charge it. It's also one of the first electric cars to provide an alternative to the BMW M5, Mercedes E63 or Audi RS6 for thrill seekers chasing a different experience.

It's also a huge step on from the Lotus-based Roadster, combining that car's electrifying performance with seating for five and a huge boot. You could drive the kids to school, or your partner to dinner and they'd never know about its incredible acceleration, or the sheer power those electric motors can produce when unleashed.

The claimed range of 491 km (305 mi) brings it closer to the practicality of a gas-powered vehicle, but charging the car takes time, and this makes planning important. In urban environments it's unlikely to be a serious issue, but you can't just set out for a cross-country jaunt on a whim.

The Model S is also expensive. US pricing for the P85D is $105,000 ($87,500 after tax incentives) and in Australia, our optioned to the hilt P85D (carbon fiber rear lip spoiler, Premium interior and Lighting package, Smart Air Suspension system and the Subzero Weather Package) is worth AUD$206,018. Whichever way you look at it, that's a seriously big sum of money, even for an all-electric masterpiece.

Check out our video review below for a taste of the thrilling Tesla Model S P85D in action.

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