Disruptive seems to be something of a buzzword these days, and it’s one that’s frequently applied to Tesla. The Californian brand brings a radical new approach to the way cars are designed, built and sold. This was easy enough to ignore when it was a few Lotus-based roadsters, but since the arrival of the Model S (some four years ago) the mainstream manufacturers have had to sit up and take note. Now, along with spiralling sales and a more affordable model waiting in the wings, Tesla’s much-anticipated Model X SUV is here.
Inside, there’s the trademark Tesla minimalism. Virtually all the buttons and switches have been relegated to the giant 17-inch touchscreen. The design is clean and simple as a result, with just the right blend of the futuristic and the functional.
In fact, that’s something that could be said about the whole experience. The performance is mighty – perhaps not quite as brutal as the 3.2 second 0-60 mph time for the Ludicrous spec P100D would suggest, but still otherworldly for a large SUV. Likewise, it can (to a certain extent) drive itself. Plus, of course, it has some of the coolest doors on a production car. And yet the general experience of driving the Model X is reassuring familiar.
Refinement is excellent; not just the barely perceptible whir of the motors, but also the notable lack of wind or road noise. Combined with the smooth and responsive powertrain and great visibility it makes the big Tesla a very relaxing car to waft round in.
Out of town, the Model X feels alert and easy to place, thanks to accurate steering with decent weighting and eager responses. You can occasionally sense the mass at work, but body roll is well contained and the regenerative braking feels quite natural.
Ride is generally pretty good, but it can’t match the silkiness of something like a Range Rover. There’s also the occasional rattle from the trim if you listen carefully. None of this is really a problem when you consider the step on that the Tesla represents in other respects. The boot is huge; the third row of seats is usable (although not exactly capacious) for adults; and it will do up to 336 miles on a single charge (think 250 miles or so in the real world) with zero tailpipe emissions.
And then we get to the Autopilot mode. We’re still some way from the point where you can take your hands off the wheel and catch up on some emails while zipping through central London. Think of it as an added layer on top of conventional radar-guided cruise control and you’d be closer to the mark. The system requires clearly defined white lines on both sides of the lane, which basically means motorways. It will deactivate if you take your hands off the wheel for prolonged periods and it won’t do its party trick – changing lanes at the flick of an indicator stalk – without them both firmly in place.
Nonetheless, there’s something deeply impressive, not to mention a little eerie, about feeling the steering wheel gently but firmly guide you this way and that. I kept glancing down at the instrument cluster, which displays a stylised representation of the surrounding vehicles, and it always seemed to be fully aware of its environment. The jump to full autonomy is not to be underestimated, but don’t be surprised if Tesla gets there first – and sooner than you might expect.
Of course, the Californian company won’t have everything its own way for much longer. Almost as soon as the Model X was announced, other manufacturers started unveiling electric SUV concepts. Once again, though, Tesla has beaten them to production. It’s going to be fascinating to see how this pans out.