Tesla Model X road test: All-electric self-driving SUV for the school run

Elon Musk’s cars have the tech and the spec to impress but what are they like to drive?

Electric car giant Tesla is coming to Ireland next year with four super charging stations. Video: Michael McAleer/ Tesla

Make: Tesla

Model: Model X

Year: 2016

Fuel: Electric

Date Reviewed: October 17, 2016

Wed, Oct 19, 2016, 05:29

   

It’s hard to explain the physical force involved in hurtling you towards the horizon from standstill to 100km/h in 3.4 seconds. In virtual silence, save for a bit of wind noise. The nearest most of us have come in the past is the shove back into your seat as an airplane roars down the runway.

Imagine having that kind of power on tap at the flick of your right foot. Then try it in autopilot mode. Ludicrous? That’s exactly what it is. And that’s what Tesla bills the high-speed setting on its new Model X and revised Model S.

It’s worth remembering just how ludicrous this acceleration is, for this is Tesla’s new Model X crossover SUV, a great big six-seater, similar in scale to an Audi Q7 or Range Rover Sport. Yet its P100D version is able to beat nearly every production Ferrari and Porsche off the starting line.

As Elon Musk’s electric car firm prepares to enter the Irish market in 2017, we got the chance to spend a few days with the Model X.

Where do you start with the Model X? The “falcon” rear doors? The enormous touchscreen in the central console that controls everything from opening and closing the doors to the vehicle dynamics and the air-conditioning? The styling of the car, with its ugly front nose that suddenly makes you realise that front grilles are more than just for engine cooling? Or the technical details, which even impress those who don’t know a combustion engine from a bicycle pump?

For a car firm with less than a handful of actual cars on Irish roads, the marketing of its brand has been a masterstroke. The brand is better known than many car firms with metal on the road for more than a decade.

Part of that is the allure of the new motoring age, a combination of an electric car with a practical range, combined with a wave of new tech that includes Tesla’s early-stage self-driving system called autopilot mode.

Tech razzmatazz

The Model X is loaded with wow factor. Let’s start with the key fob, which incidentally is shaped like a toy car Model X. You can use it to remotely open any of the doors. Not impressed? Well, you can also use the Tesla app to summon the car to drive remotely to your door. You simply set the car to memorise the short route from your driveway or garage to the front door and it will drive itself to meet you at the touch of a button.

In Europe legal rules limit the distance to 12 metres and the car must be in sight, but in the US the system operates up to 200 metres from your phone. The system uses its various sensors and radars from autopilot to avoid hitting pets or plant pots. It will even open the driver’s door upon arrival.

Then there are the rear “falcon” doors that flip up and fold over. The full effect is loaded with tech razzmatazz, but these doors delayed the launch of the car and are rightly criticised for being over-engineered.

A new age electric crossover SUV able to outrun your average supercar off the line and master autonomous driving on main roads does not need this gimmick. In fact, most people we talked to pointed to the doors as one of the key areas of concern about long-term reliability. And if they are that critical to the car’s DNA, then why aren’t they on the front as well?

Inside and the first thing everyone comments on is the centre dash touchscreen. It’s enormous. Think Apple iPad Pro on steroids. All new Teslas are fitted with a Sim card so they are constantly online. That means features such as your Spotify playlists are to hand, or you can go online.

The sat-nav can be a fullscreen aerial photo, which you can zoom into with a pinch, just like on any tablet computer. The screen is the heart of everything from opening the little cover on the recharging point to setting the suspension, the driving modes, opening and closing the doors and even adjusting the seats.

The Model X comes in either five-, six- or seven-seat format, so this is a proper family car. The third row, like most seven-seaters, is really only for children and encroaches into the bootspace, but at more than 5 metres long, there is plenty of room to play with; the firm claims a maximum cargo space of 2,180 litres, a sizeable van. Indeed, Tesla makes much of the fact the Model X is available with a towing hitch. The electric SUV can pull up to 2,250kg.

Admittedly some of the switchgear, such as the steering-mounted gearstick and electric window switches, is standard issue Mercedes-Benz and some of the underpinning plastics could be better quality, but with all the gadgetry and performance, you sometimes forget this is still priced against a regular premium SUV.

All-wheel drive

And so back to the performance. Our test car was the P90D with Ludicrous mode, capable of a range of 467km on a single charge, a top speed of 250mk/h and a 0-100km/h time of 3.4 seconds.

However, it’s not just rocket quick: take your foot off the accelerator and power starts to fall off immediately. Even at “Ludicrous” speeds this two-tonne SUV’s stopping ability is straight out of cartoons. The Model X is all-wheel drive, with front and rear motors.

When you tire of throwing passengers into their headrests, you can quickly flick the cruise control stalk 10 times – another bit taken from the Mercedes parts bin – to engage Tesla’s Autopilot mode.

Several premium cars now offer a level of autonomous driving, aimed at motorway stretches where all they have to cope with are other vehicles going the same direction on well-marked roads.

Back in October 2014, Tesla started fitting hardware to its Model S cars allowing them to engage with software updates for autonomous driving. These included the likes of forward radar system and forward-looking cameras, 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors positioned to sense up to 5m around the car in every direction at all speeds and a digitally controlled electric braking system.

In the driver’s seat with your hands off the wheel and your feet off the pedals it’s still hard to feel confident that the car will brake in time or notice that upcoming bend. Even after 30 minutes of testing the system I still was grabbing back control more regularly than I probably should. It is meant to ease the driving experience, particularly on long motorway trips, but that’s for much later.

Right now, sitting on tenterhooks ready to take over is far from relaxing and that’s the Achilles’ heel of these systems: trust. Reports of the fatal crash in Florida involving a Tesla in autopilot mode only serves to increase wariness of autopilot systems.

Recent surveys also show that aggressive drivers reckon they can bully autonomous cars, programmed to prioritise safety. I have witnessed that first-hand in Spain, where a Volvo we were testing in self-driving mode was effectively stuck in the same spot as other motorists dived into the sizeable gap our car maintained with the vehicle in front. Tesla and the rest have a bit to go before self-driving systems are used for more than impressing your friends.

In terms of its range on a full battery, the Model X claims anything between 489km and 467km, depending on the version you buy. When charging the Model X, you can use the usual ways of plugging it in overnight. The firm offers Destination charging points that can add 100km of range per hour of charging.

At its supercharging stations – four of which are being built in Ireland next year – we plugged our Model X in for a 30-minute charge and it replenished the battery to more than 50 per cent. After two hours of motorway driving and various ludicrous tests we still had a 40 per cent charge in the battery.

Until Tesla opens its Irish store next year, buyers will have to import from the firm’s UK stores or through its website. The latter is a feature that sends shivers down the spine of many dealers: the idea of motorists buying cars directly from the manufacturer.

Prices start at £69,500 (€76,900) for the 75D entry-level version, rising to £114,800 (€127,000) for the high-performance P100D version. All will qualify for the electric vehicle tax reliefs in Ireland of up to €5,000. There is an eight-year unlimited mileage warranty on the battery and drive unit and a four-year or 50,000 miles limited warranty on the rest of the car.

Those prices are in line with the luxury premium SUVs from the established German brands, but includes the sort of futuristic wow factor none of the Germans can match.

Niggling question

One niggling question hangs over the Model X: what happens when the tech thrill wears off? After several months of ownership, what’s it like to live with the falcon doors and the regular nightly recharging?

I reckon the falcon doors would start to annoy me after a week, while the rather slow automatic doors would be usurped by physical force. The touchscreen is no more annoying than the one fitted to the latest Volvos and increasingly common on new cars in all classes.

What would keep my interest and admiration would be the performance, pace and the fuel savings. Tesla is setting the pace for the automotive sector at a time of absolute disruption in every corner of the industry, from driving to power sources, from the way we buy cars to the way we transport ourselves.

Rightly it is aiming its tech at the upper end of the market first, where buyers are more immune to the rapid pace of change. As they expand down to more affordable vehicles, the brand looks set to grow its presence on our roads. On the continent, Teslas are being used as taxis in the Netherlands and Sweden. Its cars are also a common sight on Norwegian roads, where in March 2014 the Models S became the best-selling car overall in the market.

For the money and – the looks – I’d opt for the Model S saloon over this behemoth. It does everything the Model X can but without those falcon doors.

At these prices Tesla volumes in Ireland will not be huge, but if public interest is a gauge, then the Silicon Valley firm has a ready market amongst Irish buyers. They just need to keep a very close eye on the speedometer: 100km/h arrives remarkably quickly and so could the penalty points.

Lowdown: Tesla Model X

Electric powertrain with a 90 kWh battery pack capable of a range of between 467kms up to 489kms on a single full charge.

0-100km/h: 3.4 seconds with Ludicrous mode

Top speed: 250km/h

Prices: Starting at £69,500 (€76,900) in UK

Our rating: 4/5

Verdict: The future for the SUV set