I drove a Tesla … or rather, it drove me (and it can drive you too)
Tesla, just about everyone on the planet has heard of the electric car company and all are in Wizard-of-Oz like awe… Jane Speechely gets her hands on the wheel of a Tesla Model S.
UNTIL NOW, TESLAS have remained an unaffordable dream for many who have been enticed by the power brand’s carefully-crafted image. Cutting edge technology, environmental credibility, and the mysterious aura of the charismatic Elon Musk.
But now, thanks to a new Australian-first business, you can hire a Tesla for the bargain price of just $319 for a few hours. Which means muggles like me can find out what it feels like to drive a car that retails for around $138,000 on the road. They loaned us one for the afternoon, so we could write this article.
So, what’s it like to spend a few hours in the car of the future? Well, it’s quite an experience.
First, they’re a challenge for us motoring journos.
Normally when we review a vehicle, along with our opinion and description of the experience, we’d include a lot of standard facts and figures that help to compare different vehicles. Things like engine size, number of cylinders, fuel tank capacity and fuel consumption, even service intervals.
Absolutely none of which applies to the fully-electric Tesla. It’s literally incomparable.
If you like your numbers, there are still a few we can throw around, however. We drove the Model S 70, where the 70 stands for the 70kWh battery. It produces around 235kW of power and will drive you around 360km when fully charged. There’s also a 90 model that’ll take you a bit further.
The key is pretty cool.
Recently here on Practical Motoring, we’ve had some lively discussion about the lack of ‘key’ in ‘car keys’ these days. But if you’re a fan of smart design, you’ll love Tesla’s version.
The key is shaped like a small, stylised version of the vehicle. Click on the roof to unlock and lock the car (try to resist the urge to do this a dozen times, just to watch the door handles extend and retract).
Press on the bonnet to open the bonnet. Press on the boot to open the (you guessed it) boot. Such sweet simple logic!
It’s bigger than you expect.
Friends and colleagues who are seeing the car for the first time inevitable remark upon its size. Perhaps it’s the Tesla’s reputation for sporty performance that leads people to expect it will be smaller. Or maybe we’re used to electric cars being more compact? Either way, make no mistake, this is a full size, five-seat luxury vehicle.
All in all, it’s just under 5 metres long with a 3-metre wheelbase, and just under 2 metres wide with mirrors folded. To put it in perspective, it’s about 15cm wider than the current model Camry.
The 17-inch screen should be in every vehicle (and probably will be one day).
Imagine all those plastic dials and switches in your centre console – stereo and climate controls, hazard lights, seat adjustments, etc. – were replaced by one, big screen. That’s the Tesla experience. It’s not completely seamless – we struggled a couple of times to find our way back to the home screen – but most of the time, it’s oh so easy.
They actually come fitted with a SIM card as standard, so it’s streaming 3G internet all the time. This means everything from navigation to Spotify music is available at the touch of a fingertip, without relying upon your phone and its data supply.
Honestly? It makes you feel a bit like you’re driving a car in 2050.
It’s not as quiet as you’d think.
The lack of engine noise in electric cars is well known, but that doesn’t mean it’s a quiet ride.
Other road sounds, including road and tyre noise, are very apparent, and may be made more obvious thanks to the lack of engine noise to mask them?
It’s a very smooth, comfortable ride, but don’t expect silence.
The acceleration is awesome. AWESOME.
This was the first surprise of the day for me. I’d heard about the slingshot acceleration of the Tesla, thanks to the lack of the lag that you get with a traditional engine (and no gears to change). But it really does have to be experienced to be believed.
I’m not really sure how to describe the sound that comes with the acceleration, except to say it’s exactly how you imagine the car of the future would sound. This coupled with the pick-up had me grinning from ear to ear when I experienced it in the passenger seat, and prompted audible gasps and ‘woo!’s from my passengers when I was driving.
Worth noting that, while taking off from a stop is impressive enough, the real fun is had when speeding up while on the move. Picking up from a starting point of 20-40kmph, even if only to 60 or 80kmph, will throw you back in your seat.
Sadly – or maybe fortunately – the infamous Ludicrous mode (named after this scene from the movie Spaceballs) wasn’t installed on this model. If it was, it would’ve gotten us from 0-100km/h in around 3 seconds.
‘Range anxiety’ is definitely a thing.
Too many joyrides for my workmates meant that, by the time we set off to try out the run to our nearest highway charge point, the range estimator had us on 4% battery on arrival. Throw in a couple of stops for photographs along the route, and we were pushing our luck. Hey, we did say we wanted the full ownership experience!
About half way along our trip, our Tesla started shifting into a lower power mode to make sure we reached our destination. This included advising a lower speed and not allowing us to use the Autopilot, for example.
Charge points are popping up all over the place – in public space and at many hotels, for example – and Tesla has them mapped in to the on-board navigation, so they’re easy to find (it was only our cheekiness that put us at risk of an unscheduled highway stop). Many of these public and private charge points are convenient, but are generally slower than the Tesla Supercharger points – charge times quoted range from 20-30 minutes for rapid chargers, to several hours.
Frustratingly, there are already a couple of different styles of fitting on the market, but your car should come with an adapter; and some networks will require you to register first and swipe a card.
There are 8 of Tesla’s own Supercharger stations (with three more set to come online by 2017) with a total of 200 destination chargers located all over Australia, including one about every 200km between Sydney and Melbourne. We visited the one in Goulburn NSW, and to take our near-empty battery up to around 80% took about 50 minutes.
The charge cable locks in place when you lock the vehicle, so – again, as strange as it may seem – you can do what we did, and walk away to have dinner somewhere while your car is charging.
And yes, you can charge your car from your standard home power point – it’ll just take a lot longer (generally, overnight). Tesla recommends you have a proper home connection installed which will charge at the rate of about 80 kmph per hour.
The Auto Pilot is actually pretty handy.
Of course, the big-ticket feature of the Tesla is the autopilot mode, often referred to as ‘self drive’.
It’s very easy to turn the feature on – you just flick the wand on the left side of the steering wheel toward you. From there, you have two options.
Flick it once to switch on Adaptive Cruise Control, which is regular cruise control improved by the use of the forward camera and radar. This keeps you a safe distance from the car in front, automatically slowing down or even stopping as necessary.
Flick it twice, and you’ll be in full Autopilot mode, which has the addition of autosteering, which uses the camera to sense lines on the road and automatically keep you on track. Note this is distinct from lane departure assist, which will alert you if you cross the line, but won’t steer you back.
Now is good time to remember that you really must keep your hands on the wheel. The law says you’re responsible for controlling the vehicle at all times, and while your legal argument will be the least of your worries in an accident, the ‘it wasn’t me, it was the Tesla’ line definitely won’t hold up in court.
Following this accident in the USA, Tesla actively reminds you of this fact regularly, so if your hands do stray off the wheel, you’ll get a flashing reminder to put them back. Ignore this, and the subtle flash becomes more urgent beeping. Keep ignoring it, and your car will assume you’re either a total goose who shouldn’t be behind the wheel, or you’ve lost consciousness. Either way, it will slow down, pull over and switch on the hazard lights for you.
With this knowledge, we give the autopilot a few cautious tries, and it’s actually not as terrifying as I expected. Many Tesla owners save it for highway use but as Slava (the owner of this Tesla) shows me, it works just as well in peak city traffic. Just be prepared for the fact that the car brakes and turns a lot later (and more sharply) than you or I would – it takes some getting used to.
The second big surprise of the experience is how useful the autopilot really is. It really feels very comfortable to cruise down the highway with hands gently resting on the wheel. You can feel a little more confident in turning (some of) your attention to changing the music, checking progress on the GPS, or chatting with your passengers, without feeling as compromised.
Bonus: flick the wand four times to unlock one of the notorious Tesla ‘Easter eggs’, the Mario Kart Rainbow Road feature from Nintendo 64, with matching soundtrack (see it in action here).
When you don’t need a motor, you get a lot more storage.
Even when you know what to expect, it’s pretty strange to pop the bonnet and not find an engine.
The Tesla has a surprisingly large boot with a couple of hidden extra spaces, and a generous bonus storage cabin under the bonnet as well.
Combined with 60/40 split fold rear seats, you’ve got just under 900 litres of storage space. Not bad for a sedan.
So you want to get behind the wheel? Here’s how.
The Model S 70 we drove is just over a year old, and which retailed for about $112,000 plus on-road costs as the entry level of the range.
If that’s still out of your price range, the new Model 3 should land in Australia in mid to late 2018. It’s the more affordable addition to the current range and can expected to retail at around $60K plus on-road costs.
But if patience and commitment aren’t your strong points, there’s a new Australian start-up than has the solution. Eveeh (pronounced ‘eee-vee’, www.eveeh.com.au) has a fleet of two Teslas – with plans for more – that are available for hire in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
They can be used locally, but the energy-conscious company is particularly keen to see them used as an option for travelling between the three cities. Driving to Melbourne might take some extra enthusiasm, though one customer recently hired a car to drive from Sydney to Melbourne and back in a 24-hour period, just for the Tesla experience.
But particularly for the much shorter drive between Sydney and Canberra – and with a special introductory flat rate of $319 – this could be a real game-changer.
And if you book before Christmas, you’ll get a Christmas hamper plus $50 off a future rental.
Can you see yourself switching to an all-electric car? Would $60k be enough to get you into a Tesla? How about the option of hiring one for a few hours?