Tesla Take 2 with the Model S P90D

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I got my first taste of the Tesla magic in 2015 when I drove a Model S P85D. It made one hell of a first impression, and I was totally blown away. I felt like I had just experienced the true next step for the automobile, capable of blistering acceleration, superior practicality and sublime comfort, all in a single package. Oh, and did I mention it was green, too? I was enamored with it then, but I was curious to see how the Tesla would fair the second time around, now that my initial fascination had worn off.

I was recently able to take a spin in the new, facelifted, Model S P90D. This drive was much better than the first one. It lasted much longer, the roads were much better, and I got to try out some of Tesla’s amazing new features (including Autopilot). I also gained more perspective on the Model S, what it is, and what it is not.

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There is so much hype around the Tesla brand. It’s been popularized and politicized to the Nth degree, but none of that would be possible unless the product itself was truly formidable. The truth is Elon Musk knew exactly what he needed to do to get the electric car to “catch on.” He didn’t need to make another bitchy little economy hatchback, he needed to make a dream car, one that would floor the entire world. For the electric car to work, people had to lust after one, not merely settle for one. With the Model S and Model X, he’s certainly succeeded there.

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Looks and style, for better and worse

I always loved the sleek style of the Tesla Model S, and now they’ve gotten rid of the fo-grill at the front, allowing it to fully embrace its identity as an electric car.

The Tesla Model S is definitely has an attractive style similar to that of an Audi A7 or Porsche Panamera. It’s a luxury car through and through, and nobody will mistake it for anything else. Tesla has also established their brand’s styling pretty well at this point. People will know you’re driving a Tesla, but they won’t know which Tesla, and that brings me to a problem I’ve had with the Model S all along…

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The base model Tesla Model S 60 starts costs around $70,000, but it looks almost exactly the same as the Model S P90D that costs more than twice as much and sprints 0-60 in less than half the time. When you see a Tesla go by, you have to look at the letters on the rear trunk lid to tell which one it is. There’s no special aggressive styling for the high performance models like there is with BMW M-Cars or AMG Mercedes, and I find that pretty disappointing in a car that commands so much money. Maybe it’s my personality, but I want people to know that I’m driving “the fast one.”

It also doesn’t really count as a “sleeper” for me because all Teslas are pretty fast. It’s a far cry from an unassuming family sedan with a big engine swapped under the hood. People know Teslas are quick in general, so it’s more of a disappointment when one isn’t a P model, rather than surprising when one is.

I get that they’re going for a unified brand identity, but Tesla could, and should, do a little more for the personal brand image of us high performance enthusiasts. It just makes the car even cooler when it has the looks to match the performance.

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The P90D’s performance is astounding where it matters

Supercars are awesome, and their performance figures are incredible, especially top speed. The only problem is that there aren’t too many places you can actually do 200mph+. Most racetracks simply aren’t big enough, and open roads where it’s possible are few and far between. Even in the places you can hit such speed in the real world, like the autobahn, there aren’t that many times when traffic and weather conditions are right to do so. In practice, top-end performance is largely just a talking point for most drivers.

The Tesla Model S P90D is limited to 155 mph, which is way more than fast enough in the real world. It will, however accelerate on pace with the fastest cars in the world, and I do mean bonafide million dollar hypercars. 0-60 mph has been clocked at 2.6 seconds, matching the Bugatti Veyron and beating many other insane cars including the McLaren P1. Quarter mile wise, the P90D has run 10.9 sec @ 122 mph, or faster than a Ferrari Enzo as well as all of last generation’s hypercars, and right on par with today’s supercars. Through the quarter mile, up to around 120 mph the P90D is literally supercar-fast.

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What did those numbers mean on my drive? Well, when I floored it up an on-ramp, my sunglasses, which were on my head, hit my friend, sitting in the back seat, right in the face. The P90D is fast enough to make you change your personal habits. There’s no leaving your phone on the dashboard, no leaving large full cups in the cupholders, and keeping sunglasses on top of your head is just not going to work.

Most of my drive this time around was on the highway, and I had a few full throttle runs from 70 to 120, or so. The power delivery is totally smooth and totally uninterrupted. The command you have in traffic because of the Tesla’s instant and ferocious acceleration is awesome. If you want to pass someone, there’s literally nothing they can do to stop you, no matter how much they try, or how emasculated they are in their Toyota Sienna. In a Tesla Model S P90D, nearly nobody on the road can even hope to compete. I’d drive like a total dick if I had one of these every day, simply because I could.

At a stop light, even very few supercars could hope to beat this Tesla for position in a merging lane. The reason is how easy a Tesla is to launch hard; there’s no launch control procedure, you simply just floor the throttle and your 0 to 60 sub-3. The other cars that can do such a launch require launch control to be activated, and then they make a lot of noise, often chirp their tires, and attract a whole lot of attention to themselves. You could launch a Tesla in front of a doughnut shop with six cops eating breakfast, and none of them would notice if they weren’t already watching. You couldn’t do that in an Aventador or a 488…

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Off the line acceleration is where the Tesla shines the brightest, and being electric the acceleration delivery is instantaneous. The P90D’s  electric motors have the equivalent of about 762hp combined, and that’s with little or no drivetrain loss. It’s always right in its powerband, there’s no waiting for revs to climb, and as a result you can actually use 762hp to squirt from 15 mph to 40 mph, or 0 to 30 mph. Tesla even advertises passing acceleration, 45 mph to 65 mph, at a mere 1.2 seconds. It’s a real weapon at all typical real world speeds.

The powerband does taper off as speed increases, though, and the P90D’s performance over 100mph is not as astounding as it is lower down. 0-150 mph takes around 22 seconds, and by that time a Bugatti Veyron is already clocking 200 mph. In fact, a BMW M4 takes around 21 seconds to hit 150 mph, so the Tesla doesn’t remain hypercar, or even supercar fast up top.

I’ll put it this way: 0-80 mph it’s a hypercar, 80-120 mph it’s a supercar, and above 120 mph it’s a sports car. But again, it has the ferocious performance where you can actually use it every day on your commute. Compared to the BMW M5 I drove, the Tesla P90D will leave it for dead under 80 mph, but on a 80-120 mph pull the M5 is more rapid as the speed climbs higher. This brings me to my favorite thing Jay Leno says about cars, the performance that matters on the street is what a car will do between 40 and 120 mph. The Tesla’s sweet spot is 0 to 120mph because of it’s instantaneous electric torque. I definitely call that a win.

Also, keep in mind, it brings all of this insane acceleration while weighing over 4,800lbs, and that brings me to another point.

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This Tesla Model S is not a sports car

I know it’s ludicrously quick, but being a sports car is much more about handling prowess than straight line speed. I took a few turns fast in the P90D during my drive, and it was surely competent, but it’s not the sort of car that wants to be pushed, further and further, toward limit of grip.

The P90D does drive pretty tight with the settings set for sport, and I’m sure lots of people who haven’t driven a real sports car with vigor will say “it drives like a sports car.” But it most definitely doesn’t. The Tesla’s handling is initially “sporty”, and it stays that way if you lean it into turns a bit, but if you keep pushing its heft becomes apparent, and that’s before the tires start screaming. You’ll be going pretty fast by that point, but it’s near 5,000lb heft will come unbuttoned. The Tesla is a barge at heart, but it’s not a barge that can dance like a BMW M5 can, and that’s why it’s not a sports car.

That said, I don’t think Tesla is really marketing the Model S as a sports car, more as a “sporty” luxury car with blistering acceleration. It’s a car meant for everyday roads and everyday drivers, not a racetrack, and it handles just fine for that.

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It also drives itself (kind of)

Tesla’s Autopilot has been in the press a lot, and not always for good reasons. I had a nice stint using Autopilot during my drive, and I have some mixed feelings about it. The system itself, and the way it works is very impressive, but the name “Autopilot” is entirely misleading in my opinion.

The car does not fully drive itself, but it does do a lot more than the cruise control in every other car on the road. Autopilot should really be thought of as a very fancy cruise control, and not as the car driving itself. It was great on the highway. It will steer and stay in the lane on its own, and it will change lanes at the flick of a lever. It also slows down and speeds back up to the set speed automatically. Gradual highway turns are no problem, but any sort of sharp turn should be driven manually, as the system has proven to get confused there. It’s a great system, and you can genuinely relax more with Autopilot than you can with normal cruise control. That said, you should never check-out too much, you need to stay in the mindset that you are driving.

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Sadly, a few people have made the mistake of thinking Tesla’s Autopilot actually meant “autopilot”, and they didn’t survive to learn from their mistake. Honestly, I think Tesla may have assumed their client base was a lot smarter than they really are when they chose the name. Most Tesla owners aren’t car people, and most definitely don’t understand how the car works. I don’t care what tax bracket you’re talking about, most people are pretty dumb in most ways. Someone may be great at executing corporate finance, but to them, “Autopilot” still means the car can drive home all on its own. I’ll give Tesla credit, Autopilot is the closest thing to a self-driving-car out there right now, but it still has a ways to go before it’s a true autopilot system in the way that 99% of people would presume from the name.

You absolutely need to maintain your attention on the road when using Autopilot because the system can switch back to your control at any time. When it does, you need to know what’s going on around you. Reading a book or watching a movie while you drive is not a “thing” yet, and don’t even think about having a face-to-face conversation with someone in the back seat. Be smart, and you’ll be fine with Autopilot. You don’t need to have your hands hovering inches away from the wheel, but you do need to be ready to take back control of the car.

Now, I should also mention that Tesla’s Autopilot system operates with a “hive mind”, and, consequently, it is learning and improving every single day. The data from every Tesla out there is being sent back to one source, and the more time people spend using Autopilot, the better it will get.

Tesla’s Autopilot is a great feature, one that surely sets Tesla’s products apart as the next steps forward for the automobile. I just wish they had called it something a little more accurate for the status quo. It falls short if you’re expecting a true “autopilot”, but it blows every other cruise control system out of the water.

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The second time around, the Tesla was still very exciting, but some of the hype had worn off, and I was able to see some of its imperfections more clearly. None of that is really a bad thing, though, because progress is made through taking chances, and things are never perfect until they have had the time to be refined.

The Tesla brand is all about moving the automobile forward, and Elon Musk is building a portfolio of similar brands in different fields, aimed at moving humanity forward. People identify with that, big time, and I think that’s the driving factor behind Tesla’s success. The car is great, but most people are really buying the brand identity. Being able to smoke the guy in the Ferrari at the stoplight is just a fun bonus.

-Nick Walker

MoM Score: Tesla Model S P90D
Primary Function: Driving Experience: 2
Secondary Functions: Luxury(2) Practicality(2) MPG(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2
Final Score: 10 / 10


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