What Car? says...
Ever wondered what it’s like to be strapped into Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket? Try driving a Tesla Model S – it's about as close as you'll get on terra firma. That’s especially true of the top-spec Plaid version, which can sprint from 0-60mph in less than 2.5 seconds.
Indeed, the Model S is arguably one of the best ways to demonstrate that electric cars are not just about zero emissions and zero fun. Everything about it is designed to indulge you – from the supercar-embarrassing off-the-line pace to the sleek looks and jaw-dropping technology.
Of course, we’re used to every Tesla being filled with tech, but the Model S takes things to the next level. It comes with the latest infotainment touchscreen (which can tilt to face the driver), the latest software, a redesigned steering wheel with no indicator stalks and even a tablet computer in the back so passengers can control the climate and infotainment system.
The thing is though, while the Model S is filled with toys, the electric car market has become more and more competitive, meaning that this latest version has tough competition in the form of the Audi e-tron GT, the BMW i7 and the Porsche Taycan. Can it really stand that kind of heat?
That’s what we’ll be exploring in this review, plus we’ll look at how the Tesla Model S compares with its cheaper sibling, the Tesla Model 3. We’ll consider important elements including how it drives, how far it goes on a charge, how well it’s built and how easy the tech is to use.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
As with all electric cars you get instant and seamless acceleration the millisecond you put your foot down. What comes afterwards is what marks the Tesla Model S out, though, because its rate of acceleration is beyond what many supercars can manage.
That’s especially true of the Tri-motor, 1000bhp, Model S Plaid, which repeatedly managed a 0-60mph sprint in 2.4 seconds when we tested it on a private mile straight course. We don’t doubt that, on a properly prepared surface, it’d go even faster. For reference, the fastest Porsche Taycan Turbo S will go from 0-62mph in 2.8sec.
Even if you don’t go for the fastest version you can expect rapid performance, with the Long Range getting two electric motors and still managing an official 0-62mph sprint of 3.1sec, which is faster than the Audi e-tron GT RS. It's officially capable of travelling around 394 miles on a single charge and – given the efficiency of the Tesla Model 3 and Tesla Model Y – we don’t doubt it’ll get close. The Plaid will officially go 373 miles, almost 100 more than the Taycan Turbo S.
Suspension and ride comfort
Air suspension is fitted to the Model S as standard and is superb at keeping you comfortable on motorway trips, especially if you avoid the biggest wheels.
The news isn’t quite so good on beaten-up town roads, which unsettle the car at times and cause it to thud. However, it stays on the right side of compliant and is significantly more forgiving than the Model 3.
If you want better all-round comfort, try the Taycan. Despite being more of a sports car it rides really well on any surface and at any speed.
The downside of the Model S’s relatively soft suspension and its extra weight is that it's not quite as eager to change direction as the lighter Model 3 – let alone the unbelievably nimble Taycan, which is the best electric car by far when it comes to handling. If you view the Model S as more of a luxury electric vehicle, though, it's still pretty composed compared with most rivals, and comes with light and accurate steering.
One major draw is all the driving tech you get. Its Autopilot self-steering and adaptive cruise control system work really well on motorways, keeping you a set distance from the car in front as well as centred in your lane, even through bends. It’s surprisingly effective at making long journeys less tiring (you still have to keep your hands on the wheel and your attention on the road, because Autopilot can hand back control quite suddenly).
You can upgrade the system so the car can park itself, change lanes semi-autonomously on motorways and be summoned with your smartphone at low speeds. If someone parks too close to you in a car park for you to open the doors and get in, you can simply drive the Model S out of the space using your phone.
Noise and vibration
In and around town, the Model S is incredibly smooth and quiet, even when compared with most luxury cars. Indeed, with no combustion engine, there's no noise at all when you’re stationary and it stays eerily silent at 30mph.
Once you pick up the speed, there’s more road noise on a motorway than you get in the Audi Q8 e-tron, the BMW i7 and the Mercedes EQC but it’s quieter overall than the Jaguar I-Pace. Also, there's more wind noise than you'll hear in a Taycan.
The brakes are very smooth for an electric car. Most put energy back into the batteries using regenerative braking and that can give a very inconsistent pedal feel, but the Model S’s brakes work just like a regular car’s. All the energy recuperation comes when you lift off the accelerator, and the deceleration effect is so strong that you hardly need to use the brakes at all during normal driving.
The interior layout, fit and finish
Driving position and dashboard
Finding a comfortable driving position in the Tesla Model S is mostly easy. The pedals are well set, in line with the seat and steering wheel, and the seat and steering wheel move electrically. You adjust the seat with buttons on the side of the seat but – as with the Tesla Model 3 and Tesla Model Y – the steering wheel and mirrors are all adjusted through the infotainment screen.
Unlike the other Teslas the S has its instrumentation directly in front of you on a digital screen, instead of clumped into its central touchscreen. That’s good, because you can read your speed or the remaining range easily. You don’t get indicator stalks – instead, you get buttons on the steering wheel for indicating, washing the windscreen and honking the horn. It takes some getting used to and we prefer the more traditional setup of its rivals, including the Porsche Taycan.
Something else that takes getting used to is that, no matter where you live in the world, you’ll always find the driver’s seat is on the left. That’s a decision from Tesla that affects both the Model S and the Tesla Model X – and one we suspect will put off many UK buyers.
Visibility, parking sensors and cameras
On a whole, forward visibility is decent and you have a good view out at junctions and it’s easy to judge where the nose is. The big issue is the fact that the Model S is left-hand drive, making it harder to get a good view of your blind-spot when changing lanes, something that’s not helped by the wide rear pillars.
Luckily, there’s loads of tech to help you out and give you slightly more confidence. For example, pressing the indicators gives you a video feed looking out from that side of the car, and you have a constant diagram on the driver display showing roughly what’s around you (it sometimes gets a little confused, so we wouldn’t trust it 100% of the time). When it comes to parking, you get standard front and rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera.
LED headlights are standard, but you can't have fancy adaptive matrix LED headlights that can remain on main beam without blinding other road users – a helpful feature that's fitted to some of the electric car rivals.
Sat nav and infotainment
It’s almost a rule that Tesla models feature hardly any switches or buttons inside, but the Model S takes it to another level by removing almost every button and switch. With the exception of the touch-sensitive buttons on the steering wheel, everything is controlled through the very big 17in central touchscreen that has sharp, high-definition graphics and can be tilted left or right.
At first glance, controlling everything through the touchscreen sounds pretty overwhelming, but while we’d prefer a solution like the BMW iDrive rotary controller, Tesla does touchscreen controls better than pretty much anyone. It's certainly friendlier to use than some rival systems, such as the Taycan's smaller, fiddlier screens. Shortcuts for key systems, such as sat-nav and media, are always on display, and you can have multiple menus up at the same time. You scroll, pinch and swipe like a tablet, and the software is very slick.
To stop you getting bored when you’re charging your car, the system contains all sorts of toys, including Netflix, YouTube, web browsing and proper computer games – we even connected a Playstation 5 controller. Despite all that, you can’t have Android Auto or Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring, so you might miss some of that functionality. Wireless charging is included and software updates and new features arrive over wifi, rather than you having to visit a dealership.
Interior quality has been a sticking point for Tesla in the past and we certainly weren’t all that impressed with the build quality of the previous Model S. Thankfully, we’re happy to report that the new version is a vast improvement over the old car.
There’s lots of wow factor and plenty of showroom appeal, thanks to its minimalist, sci-fi look, and the good mix of materials. You feel like you’re sat in a car wearing the Model S’s price tag.
In fact, our only main demerit is that the materials still feel pretty plasticky and aren’t as nice as what you’ll find in other equally expensive rivals, including the Audi e-tron GT and the Taycan.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
Front-seat occupants who more than six feet tall get plenty of space. Unusually, the panoramic roof helps to increase head room, while the wide interior saves you from rubbing shoulders and there’s loads of leg room.
Storage space is pretty impressive. You get a huge central bin under the sliding cup holders then another reasonable sized cubby in the armrest. On top of that, you get a relatively small glovebox and door bins that can hold a large bottle of water and some other gubbins (the old Model S didn’t get these).
The rear floor is completely flat, with no hump running down the middle of the car, so there’s no obstruction for a middle passenger to clamber over. There isn't much foot space under the front seats, though, and the rear-seat squab is set quite low in relation to the floor, which doesn't make for an ideal seating position.
Six-footers might find that head room is slightly tighter than in the Tesla Model Y but they won’t have any complaints about leg room and there’s enough shoulder room to fit three tall adults with little issue.
Seat folding and flexibility
As standard, the rear seatbacks split and fold in a 60/40 arrangement, for when you need to carry longer loads, which isn’t as versatile as the 40/20/40 split seats that you get in the Porsche Taycan.
Because there isn’t a big engine sitting up front, you get storage beneath the front bonnet to complement the enormous conventional boot at the rear.
That rear boot is accessed via a wide-opening powered tailgate and is as roomy as those of some estate cars – it dwarfs the luggage space of a Jaguar I-Pace let alone a Taycan. In total we managed to fit in 11 carry-on suitcases (using both boots), and that still left the massive well under the rear boot's floor for all the charging cables. If you travel with lots of luggage, this could be the electric car for you.
The rear seats can fold down flush with the boot floor and give you an almost flat extended load space. Helpfully, there are buttons in the boot to make the seat backs drop, saving you the hassle of walking to each rear door to do it.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
Costs, insurance groups, MPG and CO2
While you can get a new Model S Long Range or Plaid in the UK, you can only buy them from Tesla’s available inventory and you can’t build your own. Regardless, as a cash purchase, the Long Range is slightly more expensive than the Audi e-tron GT and about the same as the equivalent Porsche Taycan 4S. Meanwhile, the top-spec Plaid is far more expensive but still matches the Taycan GTS and costs less than the e-tron GT RS.
Like all electric cars it's a ridiculously cheap company car. Your benefit-in-kind tax (BIK) payments over the next few years will be next to nothing, and vastly cheaper than a similarly priced petrol or diesel car. On top of that, you get access to the Tesla Supercharging network, which has more than 500 charging points at over 60 destinations around the UK.
That's way more than the number of chargers there is in the Ionity network, which is the only one that can compete on charging speeds. Tesla are yet to confirm full charging times for the Model S, but a Supercharger will give you 180 miles of charge in 15 minutes.
Equipment, options and extras
Tesla has yet to reveal a full equipment list for the Long Range and Plaid but, on top of the infotainment and driver assistance tech, you can expect plenty of luxuries.
If the Model S follows in the footsteps of the Tesla Model 3 and Tesla Model Y both versions should come with everything you could ever need, including four-zone climate control, power-folding door mirrors, metallic paint, heated seats (front and rear), a heated steering wheel, a panoramic sunroof and keyless entry that can be activated via an app on your smartphone.
The Model S comes with a four-year/50,000-mile warranty, with the battery and drive unit covered separately for eight years or 150,000 miles, guaranteeing a minimum 70% retention of battery capacity.
As a bonus, Tesla's wireless software updates can fix glitches and add features while you're asleep, rather than requiring you to book your car into a dealer.
In the 2022 What Car? Reliability Survey, Tesla as a brand finished joint 19th position (with Porsche) out of the 32 included manufacturers. That puts it one place above Audi and ahead of Mercedes (joint 23rd) but below BMW in 16th and way below Lexus, which topped the table.
Safety and security
The list of safety technology includes automatic emergency braking (AEB), and blind-spot and lane-departure warnings, all of which helped the Model S achieve the maximum five-star rating from Euro NCAP in 2022. When we read the crash report in detail, it was very commendable, with the Model S scoring very highly when it comes to protecting both adults in the front and children in the rear.
As for security, as well as the usual system, there’s something called Sentry mode. When enabled, this uses the car’s external cameras to start recording when the car is approached after it’s locked. So, if someone tries to break in or drives into your Model S when it’s parked up, the cameras will record the incident.
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As a cash purchase at the time of writing, the Model S Long Range will cost around £90,000, which is slightly more than the Audi e-tron GT and around the same as the equivalent Porsche Taycan. The seriously fast Plaid, meanwhile, costs around £110,000 – less than the most expensive Taycans and the e-tron GT RS.
As is often the case, range depends on which version you go for. Officially, the Long Range version can travel 394 miles between charges, while the tri-motor Plaid can manage 373 miles.
Yes. In fact, the Model S is faster to 60mph than pretty much anything else on the road. That’s especially true of the rapid Plaid version, which managed to sprint from 0-60mph in just 2.4sec in our tests on a closed circuit.
|RRP price range||£93,480 - £113,480|
|Number of trims (see all)||2|
|Number of engines (see all)||2|
|Available fuel types (which is best for you?)||electric|
|Available doors options||5|
|Warranty||4 years / 50000 miles|
|Company car tax at 20% (min/max)||£187 / £227|
|Company car tax at 40% (min/max)||£374 / £454|