Yesterday, I took a test drive in a white Tesla Model X P100D. Here are some of my first impressions.
First off, Tesla has proven to be a new breed of company entering the car business, with an incredible future ahead. Tesla demonstrates the essence of my preachings of how real innovation requires a company to rethink everything from a new and better normalization of truth. Upstream innovation in the car business no longer held back by the stale inheritance of downstream suboptimization the incumbents are so often stuck with.
Beginning with the way Tesla’s people interact.
Sell the value first, then sell the price
Tesla behaves differently, starting with the first people you meet, who are not salesmen but more pre-sales engineers. Indeed, Tesla deploys a model fundamentally different from Land Rover, Audi, BMW, whose salespeople readily admit they know little about the integrated electronics that make the driving experience unique. Instead, Tesla deploys the high-tech sales model akin to Oracle’s, where the pre-sales engineer knows everything about the car, joins you on (in my case a 45-minute) test-drive, wherever you would like to drive, and makes you want one. And then, when there are no more questions left to answer, tosses it over the fence to a Tesla sales-closer in a completely separately scheduled engagement to discuss financials.
So, from the start, the experience of understanding the capabilities and value of the vehicle is separated from paying for it. Smart, because salespeople who can not explain the intrinsic value of a car come across as ignorant and desperate order-takers instead.
The beast inside
The Tesla Model X P100D I drove comes in at around $160K, no small sticker-price for an SUV with a 360-mile radius. Upon first entry, the car looks remarkably clean with no superfluous buttons and controls. A massive single iPad style panel in the front center console controls virtually everything, with a few highlights showing up in the dashboard behind the steering wheel. I was surprised by the absence of a heads-up display projected in the front window, as most premium brands do these days. Who needs a dashboard nowadays?
The entry into the car is extraordinary, made easy with remote control opening of any or all doors. The fold-open wing passenger doors allow for extremely easy access, even for a relatively tall guy like me. The front entry is also better than any other car, as the doors seem to open wider and offer an easier step-in. The interior looked a tad uninspiring and empty at first, yet full of automatic features, such as proximity sensors, that makes the need for dials, locks, pulls and levers dissipate.
The best feature inside, for me, was the quality of the seats, both in the front and the rear. Made from some synthetic material, and in white on this model, I found these seats to better than any of the other cars I recently tested. Requiring very little adjustments and with well-positioned door armrests uniquely shaped to, what a novel concept, contour the human body, providing a comfortable resting place for the upper limbs. The glove-box is small, with just enough space for perhaps a pair of gloves atop the car’s manual you frankly do not need. More room is available in the side-door pockets. Adjustable cup holders for driver and front passenger are available right under the center console, along with two USB slots for phone charging.
The half-dome front windshield was impressive, giving the feeling of flying in a small Bell helicopter with views all around. The size of the window made me wonder how you could escape the glare of the sun on a 4-hour drive down south, despite the built-in polarization dimming some of the sunlight. A little puzzling is the inability to adjust airflow to individual passengers except by using the front console. I did not notice any airflow controls for rear passengers, despite experiencing overall air control to be better than other cars: silent and comfortable.
Storage in the back is impressive when the third row is folded down. I did not test the third-row seats, as I have never been a fan of putting loved-ones in the crumple zone, but not a bad option for bussing kids around on the island. Two cup-holders are available in the back along with two USB chargers, that is about it.
Insane in the membrane
This Tesla is a silent and a well-balanced beast. From touring around town to moving about on the freeway, this car performs very well in all circumstances. Steering is tight and accurate and you literally hear no other discernable sound than the 22-inch sports tires, on this model, plowing the road. A very peaceful experience that undoubtedly diminishes fatigue on long road trips. The suspension is adjustable in ride height and corresponding firmness, even though this model showed an error on the console, and we apparently had experienced the toughest ride-height all the way. Normally, the car should automatically adjust ride height and firmness to road circumstances and speed. To no avail on this “clunker”.
Gear shifting takes place on the steering column, just like on my old Citroen DS, with a double tap-up for drive mode and a single-tap down for reverse. No other gear shifting needs to take place, which makes it the ultimate vehicle for dummies. Dummies who enjoy accelerating in 2 seconds from 0-60mph that is. Ludicrous mode on this vehicle is insane, as you feel a slight lightheadedness as the car easily speeds past the 80 mph mark, still accelerating, according to youtube videos outperforming a Lamborghini.
I managed to scare the Tesla employee when I decided to accelerate merging on to the island’s main drag and the curvature of the trajectory made the steering feel disproportionately locked up to the immense power of acceleration applied. A rather firm correction applied by me to the other side prevented us from running into head-on traffic. So, it appeared insane mode may need some slight paradoxical corrections to improve the safety of fun. At no time, however, did the car feel unstable, quite a feat.
On that note, the stability of the car is quite incredible. As I am used to quite a bit of tilt on a comparable Volvo XC90 SUV I use on occasion, the Tesla showed no noticeable tilt in any circumstance, possibly thanks to the low center of gravity of the large battery pack under the floor. Not even during its insane acceleration.
And then it was time for some self-driving capabilities. Split up in cruise and self-driving modes, the car appears faithfully aware of other vehicles around it. Slowing down when the car in front slows down, accelerating back up to the posted maximum speed, and staying in the middle of the road, only periodically warning me to take back control when road signs and lines disappeared on the island’s more rural roads.
On one occasion I decided to take control away from the self-driving mode when two bicyclists, riding in line, and on the side of the road were undetected by the system and scraping them appeared unavoidable. Perfect this system is not, and relying on it becomes a continuous correction of false positives and false negatives, instead of a totally relaxed relinquishment of control.
This “clunker” also appeared not to recognize the parking spots an earlier test-drive in a brand-new Volvo recognized and parked without fail. No comparison from a location perspective, but even the Tesla employee could not understand why the car would not recognize the spot and park itself. A crowd of onlookers watched us creep closer and closer to the parked vehicles in an effort for the car to do its magic. To no avail.
Despite the unresolved and rather annoying myriad of electronic imperfections of the car, the Model X is a fantastic vehicle to drive and haul people and goods around in. The souped-up, big battery and high-performance characteristics of the P100D may not be worth your personal budget and individual requirements. Pricing of the low-end model X starts around $75K with a smaller battery and smaller range. For puttering around on the island I live on, the range of this car more than suffices, but I cannot see myself hopping from one lucky fast-charging station to another on my unscripted road trips.
The charging problem (or density) must be resolved for me to buy into all-electric vehicles, and at that point, with a few more evolutions of Tesla under its belt, I will give test driving them another go. The proprietary charging stations may be another way for Tesla to generate revenue when the Model 3 launches, it is free to MODEL X and S users, but I would rather see the company strike deals with Shell and BP to provide charging at every one of their gasoline outlets, a chicken and egg problem requiring time.
Regardless, hats off to Elon Musk on pointing a very solid way forward.