Elon Musk launched his vision for an affordable, attainable electric car earlier this month. But before the Model 3, the tunnel-boring, interplanetary businessman had an idea for an all-electric SUV. With supercar doors and acceleration to match, the Model X is unlike any other family four-wheel drive we've driven – but does it have substance to match the show-car sizzle? We spent the weekend in the Model X P100D to find out.
By now, you probably know a thing or two about how Tesla builds its cars. The lithium-ion battery packs are housed under the floor in a skateboard-style chassis, with motors on both axles for a unique brand of all-wheel drive in range-topping models. Any car with a D at the end of its name has dual-motor all-wheel drive, those without it are rear-wheel drive.
The other thing you need to take into account when playing the specification game on a Model X is the number on the badge. Our P100D tester had a 100 kWh battery pack, the base 75D has a 75 kWh battery. Based on our experience, people will care less about the battery capacity and more about the range on offer.
Range and how long you need to charge the battery are always top of the agenda with electric car newbies, because people do not trust batteries. Blame your phone, laptop, tablet – everything that runs on battery power seems to go flat at the worst possible time.
Mercifully, our range topping Model X offered more than enough range for most people, most of the time. The cheapest version will cover 417 km (259 mi) on a full battery, and our 100 kWh tester has a claimed 542 km (337 mi) of range. Given most people commute less than 40 km every day, range during day-to-day driving simply shouldn't be an issue. Unless you're the sort of person who goes out on a Saturday night with nine percent charge remaining in your phone, that is.
Here at New Atlas, we like to back up our words with action. So, rather than writing about the excellent range on the Model X, we decided to load it up with friends and head through the suburbs of Melbourne, into the city and then on to the Surf Coast for a plate of scones. At just over 300 km (186 mi), it's the sort of trip the Tesla should be able to comfortably cover. Should.
No early wakeup is nice, but the Model X provides plenty of toys to distract from the crisp morning air. The driver door automatically opens when you walk up, the mirrors extend and the rear spoiler pops up, ready for action. Those rear Falcon Wing doors don't need any introduction – they pushed production of the car back by almost two years, and make what should be a very simple process very complicated – but we defy you to watch their mechanical ballet and not be impressed.
The interior easily matches the overt showiness of those doors. The dash is dominated by a 17-inch touchscreen charged with controlling infotainment, climate control and all the different drive mode options. It can be daunting at first, especially for drivers accustomed to the systems in German luxury cars, but the learning curve isn't particularly steep. Tesla has absolutely nailed the interface, to the point where the vertically-oriented panel could be the latest tablet from Samsung or Apple.
Like the Model S with which it shares most parts, Model X has fantastic heated seats and a lovely chubby steering wheel. Drivers are faced with a digital readout which, though still impressive, isn't nearly as exciting as it was when the S launched. Blame the VW Group, which has since released its excellent Virtual Cockpit. No conventional car manufacturer offers anything like the massive swept-back windscreen in the X, though.
The internet was awash with people suggesting it would be a nightmare in direct sunlight when Elon Musk announced the car, but we didn't have any issue with glare during our time behind the wheel. We did find the curved glass caused an odd ghosting effect on bright, shiny objects from some angles though, to the point where multiple drivers noted oncoming head lights "floating" in low light. Strange, but not a show-stopping complaint.
If the futuristic cabin isn't enough to wake you, just punch the accelerator. In P100D spec, the Model X has something called Ludicrous Mode, the logical next step from Insane Mode. The 100 km/h (62 mph) sprint takes 3.1 seconds, but figures can't prepare you for the way this six-seater lunges off the line. One of our developers summed it up, telling me it "squeezes the leather smell out of the seats when you accelerate" with the wide-eyed excitement of a kid on Christmas morning. But not everyone was so verbose: the most common reaction to Ludicrous launches was just f#@k!
At highway speeds, there isn't much to spoil the serenity in the cabin. With no engine noise and very little tire rumble or wind noise, the Model X is a lovely place to spend time at highway speeds. The only real blight on its long-haul credentials is the fact Autopilot wasn't fitted to our test car. That means this shining six-figure beacon of futuristic motoring won't even maintain a gap to the car in front, something most entry-level hatchbacks will do.
After around an hour on the highway, our electric road trip swung toward the Great Ocean Road that winds its way along the coast of Victoria. Before sunrise and it's one of the best driving roads in Australia, but tourist traffic means you'd be lucky to get a clean run after about 8 am. We arrived at 11 am on a beautiful, clear Saturday.
Rather than letting the steady stream of white Toyota Camry rentals ruin the mood, we decided to play a see how far we could go without pressing the brake pedal. The electric motors become makeshift dynamos when you lift off the throttle in the Model X, pulling energy back into the battery for a handy range boost under deceleration. It's decidedly odd to start with, and new EV drivers are likely to find themselves pulling up well short of stop signs and traffic lights in their first few hours with the car – turns out, we spend a lot of time coasting in our internal combustion vehicles.
The regenerative braking – coupled with a 2,300 kg (5,070 lb) kerb weight – encourages a smooth approach to driving on tight, twisty roads, one where you back off the throttle and try to slow the car without leaning on the middle pedal. Ludicrous Mode makes the P100D feel like a sports car in a straight line, but you can never really escape the mass of those batteries when it comes time to live out your F1 fantasies.
After setting off with a full battery, we arrived in the seaside town of Lorne – our halfway point – with 57 percent charge remaining. Based on some rudimentary maths, that figure has us arriving home with 14 percent charge remaining. Given my near-new iPhone tends to die with 15 percent showing, and my MacBook Pro has been known to drop 10 percent charge on a whim, 14 percent isn't nearly enough to feel comfortable.
Turns out there was nothing be afraid of. Whenever you enter a destination into the Tesla's navigation system, it estimates how much battery you'll have left when you arrive. Pulling out of Lorne, it estimated we'd arrive back at the Supercharger station with 21 percent remaining – and it turned out to be incredibly accurate.
Our 301.7 km (187.5 mi) loop was completed with 20 percent of charge left, having averaged energy consumption figures of 240Wh/km. Based on that performance, real-world range sits somewhere in the vicinity of 375 km (233 mi). Before you jump into the comments and (in all capitals) that is almost 200 km (124 mi) short of the claimed range, try and remember the last time your internal combustion car matched the fuel use figures in the brochure.
Owners won't be taking cross-country jaunts without some serious pre-planning, but that range figure is perfectly usable for most people, most of the time. That's where electric cars are in their development. Some of the smartest minds in the world are working to squeeze better energy density out of lithium-ion cells – and charge them faster, which is arguably a bigger concern.
Running out of petrol isn't a huge issue because when you do, it takes five minutes to fill up. But running dry in the Tesla is a different story, because no matter how many charging stations there are, it still takes a long time to go from zero to 100 percent charge. This isn't a new problem, but the fact you need to stop for at least an hour when the range gets low is frustratingly prohibitive. Super-fast charging or battery swaps can't come soon enough.
There are also some tradeoffs involved in choosing Tesla over more established manufacturers. Our Model X had done 4500 km (2796 mi) but there was a persistent creak in the dashboard, and the Falcon Wing doors were noisy over uneven road surfaces. The door handles didn't line up on one side of the car, and the covered center console feels a bit cheap given the list price. More on that in a second.
The all-conquering cool factor that comes with owning a Model X means that these things probably don't matter to the early adopters at the moment. But the little things still make a difference, especially if Elon Musk wants to push into the mass market with the Model 3. We want to see Tesla succeed, but that means holding its to the same standard as other high-end luxury cars – and our Model X just fell short of the standard expected of a car that costs AU$288,995 (US$157,500 in the United States) drive away.
Don't think we didn't like the Model X. We absolutely loved it, and didn't want to hand the keys back after our all-too-brief stint behind the wheel. Ludicrous Mode never gets old, and the Falcon Wing doors are show-stoppers the whole family can enjoy. With Autopilot fitted, the car also is about the closest thing we have to autonomous driving right now.
There aren't many six (or seven) seat cars on the market capable of making a carload full of people giggle like school children as it accelerates away from a set of lights, or making a bunch of motoring-averse millennials clamour for photos. The Model X isn't perfect, but it has something missing from so many cars – a sense of fun. If that isn't something to be celebrated, we don't know what is.
Product page: Tesla