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A brief encounter of the Tesla kind

S.Muralidh | Updated on July 19, 2018 Published on July 19, 2018

What is it about Teslas that makes buyers become rabid fans? We go to a dealership in the US to find out

Two events that were widely reported in news media earlier this month put Tesla as a unique electric vehicle manufacturer in perspective. Both of them offer insight into how big Tesla’s impact has been despite its relatively small real world footprint; and both reaffirm that Tesla’s cars attempt to be much more than just transportation.

One such news item was that of a Texas-based engineering student who proposed to his girlfriend in a Tesla Model 3. He used the sketch pad Easter egg in a rental Model 3 to pop the question and his fiancé (now) said ‘yes’ while she was behind the wheel of the Tesla. Both are students and can’t even afford a Tesla yet, but are both huge fans of Tesla cars and of Elon Musk, the California-based company’s maverick Chief Executive and an avid tech evangelist.

The other bit of news was that of Musk himself admitting that Tesla has only now attained ‘real car company’ status after the weekly production run of the Model 3 touched 5,000 units in June this year. The announcement by the Tesla CEO of reaching a much delayed target, originally due to be achieved in December last year, was in turn mocked by Ford Motor Company’s Steven Armstrong who tweeted saying that 7,000 units (combined weekly total for Tesla) is what Ford produces in four hours!

But Tesla’s appeal hasn’t been dampened by its limited production runs or by the fact that the company doesn’t have a long history in the automobile industry. On the contrary, its futuristic lifestyle positioning and nifty features in its cars that tug at buyers’ heartstrings have managed to make it aspirational even for those who would otherwise be considering European luxury cars. Elon Musk’s genius is his ability to weave a bit of magic into every Tesla Model and enable them to get into the lives of owners in ways other than just offering personal mobility.

Look Ma, no hands

The bit of magic most talked about in Teslas is, of course, the autopilot function and the so-called self-driving ability. I’m still firmly of the opinion that calling it ‘autopilot’ is very misleading and has probably led to more and more Tesla drivers attempting the illegal — letting go of the steering wheel and being wantonly distracted. Many buyers have tried this without realising that Teslas are not certified as driverless cars. Many others are living under the assumption that they should buy one because of this feature. Case in point — my brother’s neighbour living in Fremont, a locality in California that is not too far from Tesla’s factory, who insisted last year that after buying one all he has to do is plot his trip on the Tesla’s navigation system and sit back while it drove him to the destination.

 

 

There is no denying that Tesla’s autopilot has a head-start over some of the other manufacturers in its extent of on-road testing with autonomous driving systems. And while the whole subject of self-driving or driverless cars is still evolving,

it makes Teslas even more interesting because the ones on the road are effectively behaving like test mules by sending back information, while simultaneously also receiving ‘on-air’ updates automatically and remotely from a sort of central server. In fact, a Tesla showroom employee claimed that the latest update also allows the cars to warn nearby Teslas about the location of a bad pothole (after going over it and registering the impact on the car).

All of these contribute to the lure of the Tesla. Most people who buy a Tesla aren’t doing it just because they want to make a ‘eco’ statement, but because they believe these to be future-proofed vehicles that are designed like the best modern luxury cars and also deliver on-road performance that is better than the best in each of their segments. Also, every one of the other ventures that Elon Musk has stepped into and applied his trademark disruptive, ‘lateral-thinking’ innovation has helped fuel the story around Tesla directly or indirectly.

Dealership experience

I have driven the Model S by privately coordinating the experience; however, on a recent visit to New Jersey in the US, I decided that it may be an opportunity to seek a test drive through an official channel. So I fixed up an appointment at a newly opened dealership in the area.

On the hour and day of the appointment, I reached the dealership to find a minimalist design building in glass and aluminium cladding, very much in keeping with the brand’s high-tech image. Inside, the three models on offer were all on display sitting on wooden flooring, with all the accessories and options neatly displayed on mounts on the walls.

 

The representative who was to take me through the test drives apologised for not being able to offer the Model 3 (sigh), but said that the Model X and the Model S had been charged and readied for my experience. While the paperwork was being done, I sauntered into the car service area and found a spotlessly clean workshop. Four Teslas were being serviced with just a couple of engineers working on them.

With only a few moving parts and so little that needs regular maintenance, Teslas (and EVs in general) need to come into the workshop much less often compared to conventional fuel cars with internal combustion engines. The only storage tank dispensing any liquid on the Tesla workshop was for brake fluid.

Model X

The first Tesla that I got to drive out of the dealership’s parking lot was the Model X. I opened the driver’s side door, and instinctively reached for the large button on the B-pillar to open out the rear double-hinged ‘falcon wing’ doors and admired that rear three-quarter view.

The Model X looks quite stunning and seems even bigger in the flesh than I imagined (or was it the doors playing a trick on my eyes?). Fit and finish quality is fantastic; another surprise for me since my earlier encounter with the previous gen Model S made it seem duller than German luxury cars in the same price range.

The Model X’s cabin is crisp and plush. The test drive car sported a white leather theme with real wood trim on the dashboard and centre console. Clean panels and aesthetically finished stitching make the cabin feel as good as any of the luxury cars in that class. The interior is extremely well-lit and airy due to the windshield that stretches up and over the front two seats; also offers passengers a panoramic view.

With a five or a seven-seat configuration, the Model X can be versatile with its accommodation of both passengers and luggage. It is said to offer the most space for a crossover SUV; have to remember, though, there is luggage room in the front too — no engine under the bonnet!

Model S

Like the Model X, the test drive unit of the Model S too was a 100D spec. The fit and finish quality of the current S is much better than the predecessor. There is soft touch plastic, leather and wood trim in the cabin. The dashboard layout bears a certain Tesla signature similar to the design of the nose and bonnet grille in all three Tesla vehicles. Also similar to the X, the huge 17-inch touchscreen infotainment system is quite literally all of the centre stack and since most of the functions can be accessed or controlled either by using the touchscreen or be voice-activated, there is no need for any other conventional control buttons or knobs.

The S I drove hadn’t yet received over-the-air updates, but the Model X had already received the latest update for the ‘autopilot’ system and was capable of detecting more of the vehicles over a bigger range in the other lanes near and around itself. Once the steering wheel symbol pops up on the instrument cluster along with a display of the other vehicles near me, all I had to do was flick up the autopilot stalk twice and the car slipped into autonomous drive mode. The Model X could slow down, speed up, stop at signals (if there was a vehicle in front) and start off again all by itself; of course auto lane change was also part of the package.

The system does remind and urge me to hold the steering within a few seconds of my letting go, but obviously it would seem like there are a lot of Tesla users who aren’t obeying.

The Model S too had most of the autopilot functions. Both the vehicles feel planted and very confident on the road even at high speeds. A lot of the credit goes to the low centre of gravity, thanks to the battery pack being located under the floor of the vehicles.

Both feature a whole list of creature comforts and safety equipment; so no compromises on that front. The Model X is also said to be the only electric vehicle with a towing capacity of over 2,250 kg.

The Model S and X I drove were not the performance versions, and so didn’t feature the ludicrous mode. But the acceleration performance is still ridiculously fast. The Model X (0-96 kmph in 2.9 seconds) especially left me white-knuckled and my shoulders shoved into the seat when I floored the pedal. Despite expecting the rush, I still wasn’t fully prepared for the kind of ‘electric’ acceleration that Teslas can deliver.

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Published on July 19, 2018
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