Driving a Tesla - driving any EV, really - is an experience. If you've never done it before, the first time is a revelation. I'm lucky enough to be able to say that my first time in an EV was at the Tesla Roadster launch event in 2006. During my first time behind the wheel of an EV, again in a Roadster, this time a few years later, I couldn't believe how easy it was to just will the car go where you wanted it to. Instant torque is real, people, and it'll change your life.
While I've been lucky, my EV story is not all that different than the trek towards battery powered cars that hundreds of thousands of people around the world have found themselves on in the last decade. In 2016, it's easier than ever to get behind the wheel of an electric car, especially if one with an 80-to-100-mile range is enough for you. Solid, used Nissan Leafs are available for cheap and brand new all-electric cars are available from most automakers (sadly, sometimes only in California). But the EV universe is getting ready for a true paradigm shift: a new generation of battery-powered cars that could redefine electric mobility for hundreds of thousands of people. The expected standard bearers for this new era are the upcoming Tesla Model 3 and the Chevy Bolt. Both will offer more than 200 miles of range for around $35,000, before incentives. And they're coming sooner rather than later.
Which is what makes driving a Tesla Model X right now so interesting. First delivered to customers in September 2015, I was finally able to drive one this week thanks to a generous owner in Oceanside, CA, Randy Hansen. Hansen has purchased five Teslas, and has a second X due to be delivered any day now. The X that he allowed AutoblogGreen to borrow for a long afternoon was a gorgeous $144,950 Signature Red P90D that included the $10,000 Ludicrous Speed option. In other words, it's the best version you can get right now. As I gleefully tested the car on residential roads and highways in the area, I got to thinking about how Tesla's third model (after the Roadster and the Model S) operates - and how the X predicts the future. And, of course, how it drives.
You can make the X function the way you want it to, within reason.
For a review, the issue is that there's no one way that the Model X drives. Any number of things are controlled by software, so the driver can adjust them and even easily save your preferred settings. Other fancy vehicles may let you save your seat and mirror positions, but the X can be taught how you like your adjustable regenerative brake level (standard or low), whether you want the creep function on or off, what the steering mode should be (comfort, standard, or sport) and which acceleration mode to use (sport or ludicrous), among other options. The suspension is adjustable, as well, and you can set it to automatically lower when you go above a preset speed. In other words, you can make the X function the way you want it to, within reason.
We tested a number of these options, but found that no matter how you set things, the X is stable, quiet, and aggressive when you want it to be. For the record, we liked the standard regen (one-foot driving is just a delight), comfort steering and, of course, ludicrous acceleration complete with the optional warp speed Easter egg. We didn't try to burn the tires during our test because the car belonged to a private citizen, but the good news is that you can get the warp speed visuals even if you're standing still.
If you've driven a Model S, then you'll feel right at home in the X. The X is bigger, obviously, and heavier, but from the driver's seat, you could easily forget which one you're in. You sit a bit higher, but the 17-inch touchscreen that controls many of the CUV's functions is just like the one in the S, and the dashboard is also similar. Performance, too, is the same quiet, quick, and powerful experience that any Model S driver is used to.
Ludicrous acceleration turns everyone else at the stop light a small dot in your rearview mirror.
The beauty of playing with all that instant torque on public roads is that speed limits just tell you how fast you can go, not how quickly you can get up to that top speed. A ludicrous acceleration run, even only up to 45 mph, turns everyone else at the stop light a small dot in your rearview mirror.
Since the cabin is well-insulated and quiet, you can heat the motor whine a bit, but it's nothing too troubling and it is negligible when you have the HVAC fans on and music blaring. With everything off, you can honestly hear birds chirping outside, with the windows all closed up.
One big difference between the S and the X is noticeable when you look up. The Model X has an unbelievably big windshield. It's like a standard windshield and a moonroof merged into one pane of glass, without a crossbar to block your vision - or the sunlight. The stock windshield has a tinted upper section that fades into clear glass by the time you get to where the visors click into place (there are these quirky little flip-visors on the side that can snap into place to block the sun, but only when it's at a limited angle range), but the basic tint level is not enough. Our tester had a darker tint that came all the way down to the visors. And that's exactly right if you're going to be driving an X in a sunny place. As cool as the endless windshield is, more often than not, I want to be able to block the sun from beating down on my balding head.
With the Model X, Tesla has made driving feel even more futuristic.
With the Model X, Tesla has made driving feel even more futuristic. The Model S might be able to extend its door handles when you approach, but the X will literally open and close its doors for you. If that's not enough, you can control the falcon-wing doors, the frunk, and the trunk from the key fob (shaped, of course, like the Model X). You can also open and close everything - including the front doors - from the touchscreen. If you start to shut the doors but want to get going before they're totally closed, the X will start to move, beeping as it goes. The videos I've watched of the Falcon doors opening have been impressive, but to see in person just how short the distance is that they need to open up is tremendously impressive. Even so, I'm not convinced that the extra cost of designing and engineering them, plus the extra weight and the fact that they don't always work, has been worth it. Tesla doesn't need to reinvent every wheel.
That said, it is nice to see some useful innovations that I will miss as I go back to other vehicles. While it took some getting used to as I got in and out of the X all day, the amount of work it does to greet you when you walk up holding the key fob is astonishing. If you approach from the front, the driver door will crack open a few inches and then swing all the way out as you walk past. If you approach from the rear, it'll just pop all the way open. Once you sit down and step on the brake, the door close automatically. There's no on/off switch anywhere, so depressing the brake pedal will get the car ready to go as it seals the cabin. The X automates these everyday things to a degree that you feel like other cars just aren't as invested in your well-being as you get ready to go somewhere. Of course, the X also has Tesla's Summon feature, for an even more enhanced experience in just getting into your car.
The futuristic feel is cemented by the X's giant touchscreen.
The futuristic feel is cemented by the X's giant touchscreen. Just like in the S, it is visible and usable at all sorts of viewing angles, works without too much difficulty, and allows for way more options than a million buttons would give you. And I'm a guy who usually loves physical buttons in cars. I guess it just took someone to do touchscreen right. Aside from the "buttons" on the screen, it displays an excellent and easy-to-use back-up camera, can access the Internet, and even use some third-part apps. Just like the Model S, the X has the beta Autopilot software, which makes it possible to not touch the wheel for miles and miles of driving.
Since the X is an SUV, it's about more than the driving experience. There's a U in there, and the X does offer a lot of utility. You can order it with up to seven seats (ours had six, with the middle two on special Tesla-designed posts. Hansen's biggest complaint with his X after just over 5,000 miles is that these post seats are overkill. He said a simple three-seat bench in the middle would give you tons of cargo space while still providing plenty of places for people to sit. I sat down in the back seats and they are plenty big and comfortable and easy to get in and out of thanks to the Falcon Wing doors, which swoop up from the sides at the touch of a button. Musk wanted the doors for his five kids and Hansen said it works well in his daily life with his grandson. Hansen also uses a bike rack attached to the rear tow hitch, since roof racks don't play nice with those Falcon Wing doors.
All of this bleeding-edge future tech comes with its share of quirks.
All of this bleeding-edge future tech comes with its share of quirks. I had some trouble with the navigation system, where it just stopped giving me a blue line to my destination, a few times, and Hansen said that he's learned how to reset systems when something goes wrong. As an early adopter, he's willing to deal with whatever difficulties come up. Those Falcon Wings have a tendency to not open because they sense something in their way, even when the coast was clear. They don't always close 100 percent correct, either, jutting out maybe 1/8th inch from body sometimes.
In the three months since he's had the car, Jensen has gotten a dozen over-the-air upgrades to add features or fix bugs. When he brings the car in for service, numerous other items have been changed or fixed (all at no extra cost). Tesla has changed the actuators in the doors, for example, and swapped out the carpet for the correct six-seat version. Brake warning lights sometimes come on that need to be reset by turning the car off and on. If the navigation system gets stuck, Hansen has learned he can press the two dials on the steering wheel for a few seconds to fix it. This technique will reset all of the software that not required to actually drive the car, and so it's just a good idea to do now and again as the X evolves in his garage.
The fact that Tesla is calling its upcoming car the Model 3 should tell you something about the X. The X isn't really the company's third model. It's a modified S that's had a few more years of engineering and company growth behind it. And as such, it's full of hints - good and bad - about the Model 3 and Tesla's future. The X is the latest bridge to get the company from where it started to the next chapter.
It is now obvious that Tesla can build an astonishing vehicle.
Yes, it is now obvious that the company can build an astonishing vehicle. The S is mind-blowing and, just as were were all about to recover, the X blew our mind again. But a $100,000 car should be impressive. Pretty soon Tesla is going to have to start making "cheap" cars for the everyday car shopper. Since the average new vehicle transaction price last year was around $34,000, the Model 3 is coming to market with the right price tag for (potentially) millions of buyers.
All of the problems with the X don't mean that it is half-baked. It's more like a rare steak. Some people will be totally happy with a bit of blood when they slice in to their hunk of meat. Others will want everything cooked through. The will want a car that's "done," in other words. When you're dealing with clientele that can afford to pay over $100,000 for their car - maybe sometimes for their fifth Tesla - you can be pretty sure they'll stay with you through thick and thin. They don't need to wait for the meal to be totally cooked to eat it. They're hungry now.
But once it's time to for Tesla to ramp up the production line and crank out many thousands of EV meals for the people who today can only aspire to own one, people who maybe have been lusting and saving for years, delivering an undercooked beta product with features that aren't quite ready for prime time could be a tough sell. It's tough to know for sure how the Model 3 will play out, since Tesla has some of the best brand loyalty in the automotive world, and so perhaps the company can get away with things that would doom a buggy Toyota or a Ford. In either case, driving the Model X is a ton of fun. It is an excellent study in where Tesla is today. The company has some a long and amazing way since showing off the Roadster in 2006. It still has a long way to go until the arrival of the Model 3.