What it's like to drive a Tesla Model S in the UK

In a nutshell: more fun and more practical than you might expect, despite the high upfront cost. The right-hand drive model of the Tesla Model S has just arrived in the UK and it instantly transforms the story of electric cars in this country. Instead of being a glossy, distant, sometimes Hollywood-ised drama taking place along the West Coast of America, I find myself looking at a sleek, relatively unostentatious saloon parked up in the grey drizzle of Canning Town, East London. And I'm holding the keys.

I mess about with the pop-out doorhandles; I take photos of the double helping of front-and-back boot space; then I quickly slump into the driver's seat before anyone asks to see the license that I forgot to bring to the test drive.

There's a huge amount of technology in this £98K ultra-spec version, which costs twice as much as the lower-performance base model. It's dizzying at first: a primary split-screen LCD panel in the centre of the dashboard, with a smaller section at the bottom for climate and car controls, plus another LCD dash behind the wheel that replicates some of the same information from the main unit. This includes a small-screen view of the GPS, which you can just about make out through the gap in the steering wheel.

The dash system on the top-spec Tesla S

It's a lot to take in, so better to ignore it, at least for now. I push (or rather "click") out of neutral using an implement that would, in a normal British car, have triggered the windscreen wipers. Then I pull out of the parking slot, keen to get out onto the stilted sequence of bus lanes and CCTV cameras that is otherwise known as a London public highway.

The hi-vis men at the gate have their backs to me and don't hear me coming, even when my front bumper is almost nudging against their heels. Window down: "Hello gents, would you mind?" Startled, they clear the way and I press the metal for the first time.

Woah! I find myself apologising to the Tesla representative sitting next to me. "Sorry, I didn't realise it'd be quite so..."

In a fossil fuel car, even a sporty one, it can take a couple of explosions from the transmission before you really feel the horsepower. And by then you're half-way to the local magistrate's court. It's different with the Model S: The accelerative high is legal, clean and delivered in an instant-action pill with no side effects, regardless of how fast or slow you were travelling before you swallowed it.

A silent punch of g-force, then you simply level out when you hit the speed limit and act as if nothing naughty just happened. Once you've completed overtaking, or joined the A-road, all you can hear is tyre noise and your own breathing. It's like abruptly losing your wanted level in Grand Theft Auto.

Tesla S car controls

Aside from the acceleration, the car feels familiar and European. It's a matter of minutes before I'm dangling my elbow out of the window and enjoying a sight-seeing tour of the postmillennial architecture around the A13. I'm told that Britain is over-represented on the team of engineers that designed this vehicle, and I can believe it.

The dash is starting to make sense by now. The upper panel has six different screens to choose from, ranging from media to the Bluetooth phone interface. The lower panel is showing a large view of the map. But then the Tesla rep switches this to a view of the car controls and finally merges the two panels into one big one. A paradise of customization.

I experiment with the "Sport" mode, which toughens up the steering, while the "Comfort" mode makes everything light and easy. The "Creep" mode mimics the gentle tug of a regular engine when you touch biting point at the traffic lights. Speed bumps feel fine with suspension on "Standard" -- or at least no worse than you'd expect given the big alloys. Meanwhile, switching the regenerative braking mode from "Standard" to "Reduced" hardly feels any different -- just a tad more deceleration when you lift off the power -- so I keep it as it is and enjoy the feeling of creating energy instead of consuming it.

Based on five miles of driving, which was broadly representative of the stopping and starting in London, my average projected range is 316 miles on a charge. That's a figure I only ever see on the dash of my Audi after spending £60 at the petrol station, snacks not included. With a Tesla S, an overnight charge from the mains probably costs less than a fiver (rough guess). Or it's free for life from your nearest Supercharger, which will take 20 minutes to give you 100 miles of range, or 75 minutes for a full charge. I'd probably only need to re-charge once every couple of weeks, as I'm told the car holds its energy very well when it's parked up overnight, unlike Tesla's old Roadster.

Tesla S predicted range after London test drive

But then you have to think about the purchase price: £98k for the top-spec luxury model, £70k for the luxury model without extras, and £50k for the entry-level option. Even Tesla's CEO, Elon Musk, admits that's "more expensive than we'd like." When I meet him, I think he looks a bit like a car salesman. I suppose that's what he is, at this precise moment, but he also has the confident demeanour of a man who has amply proved his point. A man who has lapped Ford.

I ask him how long it'll be before I can afford one of his cars, given that I could only stretch to £15,000 if I sell my Audi and push my credit to the max. "Three years from now," he says. "Our third generation will cost £25,000, and when you factor in the free fuel and tax savings, your budget should cover it."

Elon Musk

I'm convinced he's right. In three years I'll be driving an EV of some sort. Many of us will. Musk is a man who delivers; and he'll deliver a Tesla S to your house within four months if you place an order in the UK today. By which point, he says, you'll be able to traverse the entirety of "southern England" thanks to the rapidly expanding network of Superchargers along major corridors.

For now though, I'm still in Canning Town, enjoying a taste of my future and someone else's present. About to use my wife's Travelcard to get home. Gotta love the Jubilee line.