Tesla’s Model X, with its sci-fi doors and silent running, maddens and delights equally.
Tesla has gone, in just 15 years, from making modified Lotus Elises to creating this, the Model X — arguably the most-talked about SUV of the moment. It’s a direct development of the Model S saloon and uses that car’s chassis (with its huge lithium-ion battery stack mounted under the floor and between the wheels) and interior, with the enormous portrait-oriented touchscreen and almost button-free dashboard.
Price-wise and space-wise, it’s a competitor for the likes of the Audi Q7 and BMW X5, but in reality it doesn’t have a direct competitor, at least until next year and the release of Jaguar’s all-electric I-Pace. With as many as seven seats available, and that guilt-free electric powertrain, it could just be the most fashionable vehicle on the fee-paying school run.
Of course, what will get people talking even more than the battery drive and the impressive acceleration are those roof-hinged doors, which make every entry and exit a deleted scene from Star Wars.
Stylistically, the Model X is a Model S with a raised roof, but sadly it’s not as successful as the lower-slung saloon, looking more than a touch too egg-like in its profile. A dark colour can somewhat hide that, but it’s not the best-looking big 4x4 around.
The cabin is rather more successful, with plenty of space and decent room in both the rear-most row of seats, and even the boot behind those seats. There’s a false floor, under which you usually store your extra charging cables, and there’s a handy extra 187-litre luggage compartment in the nose.
The seven-seat layout, with three individual seats across the middle row, is likely to be the most popular, and key to making the most of the layout are those ‘Falcon’ doors. Hinged both from the roof and under their own windows, and bristling with sensors to try and ensure they bash neither persons nor scenery, they can be opened with less than one-foot clearance to the side, and when fully extended, they allow you to lean easily into either rear row of seats, especially useful if you’re helping kids get buckled in.
Fold all the seats flat (or electrically scoot the middle row forward and down a bit, depending on the layout) and you can cram as much as 2,180 litres of luggage into the car.
That’s all pretty impressive and, given those doors, engagingly sci-fi, but up front, things are rather less good. That massive 17-inch touchscreen rightly dominates the dashboard, and it’s far better, easier, and more slick to use than at first you might think. What might have become a disaster of distraction in fact proves nothing, or at least little, of the sort.
The main all-digital instrument pack is also impressive, and its simple layout means that you can get things setup and working the way you want them to with relative ease.
The issues come with quality. While our 90D test car (one up from a base 75D, but lacking the extra power and performance of a 100D or P100D model) had a pleasing combination of light-hued leather, carbon fibre inlays and Alcantara suede trim, there’s still a sense that Tesla’s quality is not quite yet up with its premium German competition.
Our test car was full of noticeable rattles and squeaks, and while it’s at least partially true that one notices such things more without the distraction of combustion, should they really be there at all in a car that costs, at minimum, £87,000?
How does it drive?
The first question is ‘how does it accelerate?’ and the answer is ‘rapidly.’ A more powerful-still P100D model has the full-on Ludicrous Mode and Porsche-bothering potential, but this mid-ranking 90D model can still give M3s and AMG Mercs a fright.
Its twin electric motors, one driving each axle, develop a combined 416hp, but of course the real story is the torque. The 90D develops 485lb-ft from the millisecond your foot steps on the not-gas pedal, and the Model X propels itself to 62mph from rest in just five seconds. That’s close to BMW M-car pace from a seven-seat family SUV. While it’s certainly not as devastating as the P100D model, it’s more than sufficiently brisk for anyone’s purposes.
The drivetrain is actually the Model X’s best point — it’s utterly smooth, effortless and, with the strong braking effect of the electric motors regeneration when you lift off, you can essentially drive it with just the one pedal until you need to come to a complete stop.
Sadly, neither the chassis nor steering can keep up with the excellence of the power delivery. The steering is mostly well weighted, but feels faintly rubbery and artificial, and never connects the driver with the road properly. Perhaps that’s a lot to expect from such a ground-breaking electric car, but rivals, such as the Audi Q7, BMW X5, and Range Rover Sport, do the handling thing much better.
All-round visibility is fine, and helped by a surround-view camera system, but the huge windscreen pillars are a bit of an impediment on long, right-hand corners.
There’s not much of a benefit in ride either. All Model X cars come with adjustable air suspension as standard, but the ride feels quite unsettled at times. True enough, we were driving at times on mountain roads with some quite appalling surfaces, but it’s also quite noisy, with road roar that’s at times oppressive.
There’s also no getting away from front seats that just feel a bit too narrow for proper comfort. A small thing, perhaps, but given the armchair comfort of most rivals, a bit of a missed opportunity.
Unquestionably impressive is the range, though. According to the official lab tests, the Model X 90D should put 303 miles between charges, while 200 to 250 miles seems eminently doable on the basis of this test drive. That’s, clearly, not as good as the four-figure ranges possible from the diesel-engined competition, but given the expanding Supercharger charging network, and a slight change of mind-set, it should be more than sufficient for most purposes.
Should I buy one?
If you fancy yourself as both car-nut and tech-geek, then there really is no other choice. In spite of its youth and small size, Tesla has become the world’s most talked-about car maker and the Model X amply demonstrates why.
Those incredible rear doors would be worthy of discussion alone, but it’s the smooth, effortless electric drivetrain that takes the plaudits. Forget even the environmental arguments for a moment — this is a hugely satisfying way to power a car.
It’s a shame then that the chassis, and some of the quality, can’t keep up with the innovation, or the price. If you desire electric motoring with seven seats, you might be better off going for the Model S saloon (with its optional rear-facing jump seats in the boot), which has a much better-sorted chassis and is more refined.
The Model X needs either some updates (physical ones, not over-the-air software fixes) or a second generation before its true potential can be properly unlocked.