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OFF-ROAD TEST

Tesla Model X





5 March 2018


South African-born entrepreneur Elon Musk is slowly but surely turning the automotive world on its head with his Tesla brand. The Model S sedan, the Model X SUV, the more mainstream ‘3’ and a new sports car concept that can do 0–100km/h in just 1.9 seconds. It’s a bit of a revolution indeed. To find out what all the hype is about, we drove the Tesla X in Australia.

The legendary McLaren F1, long considered to be the fastest car in the world, completes the 0–100km/h sprint in just 3.4 seconds.

A race-ready Ferrari 430 Scuderia needs 3.1 seconds to do the same. A BMW M4 DTM Champion Edition 3.8 seconds.

And here I am, sitting in the cockpit – because ‘cabin’ doesn’t quite cut it – of a Tesla Model X. It’s a massive SUV with six seats and acres of space. It weighs a hefty 2.5 tons.

This machine is said to be able to complete the same sprint in three seconds.

One-thousand-and-one. One-thousand-and-two. One-thousand-and-three. Boom. 100km/h.

It is, amazingly, faster than a McLaren F1. It’s only the modern brace of hyper cars like the Bugatti Chiron, LaFerrari and McLaren P1 GTR that are quicker.
To propel a hefty six-seater SUV with such ferocity there surely must be a Bugatti Veyron V16 under the bonnet, right? Or maybe an Apache attack helicopter turbine engine producing 1 200kW?

Nope. It actually has a system called Dual Electric Motor AWD: two big AC electrical motors, one for each axle. The two electric motors have a combined maximum output of 568kW.

Soccer moms have never had it this good.

A trip down memory lane
Before we hit the road, some poignant background information to paint the bigger Tesla and ‘X’ picture.

The Tesla company – named after electrical engineer and physicist Nikola Tesla who created the AC electrical motor in 1882 – was not, as is the common belief, founded by South African Elon Musk.

In 2003, the company was founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. It followed in the wake of General Motors recalling its fleet of sold-to-customers EV1 electrical cars, effectively canning the project.

The EV1 was the first volume-produced electric car, and just over 1 100 units were built. However, General Motors pulled the plug on the project (quite literally) after it deemed the new segment not profitable enough. Most EV1s were crushed.

Eberhard and Tarpenning believed in the tech though, and Tesla was born. They had the vision and the enthusiasm, but they lacked one vital ingredient to make Tesla cars a reality: funding.

Enter Elon Musk.

In 2004, Musk joined the fledgling automaker and led a so-called Series A financing round, or preferred stock sold to investors in exchange for their investment. A total of $7.5 million was raised, and Musk was appointed chairman of the Tesla board.

The company’s first car was the Tesla Roadster. The Lotus Group supplied ‘gliders’; essentially complete vehicles without powertrains. Tesla then added an AC electrical motor and lithium-ion battery cells, and by 2008, the Roadster hit world markets. It was expensive and exclusive, but it had a record-breaking range of 320km.

Between 2008 and 2012, more than 2 250 Roadsters were apparently sold in 31 countries.

Since 2007, billions of investor and grant dollars was sent Tesla’s way, with Elon Musk himself contributing a reputed $70 million. Daimler AG and Toyota both owned shares at some point, too. But to cut a long and very expensive story short, the company is today still running at a net loss, despite record numbers of cars being built and sold.

Two major contributing factors to this trend are excessive development costs, as well as production challenges. The new entry-level Model 3 sedan, essentially a R420 000 entry-level all-electric model, has been a particular headache. With a long order list, Tesla was supposed to deliver 1 500 in the third quarter of 2017. However, only 266 have been delivered.

Musk himself has admitted that the company has in the past possibly spent too much time and resources on developing ground-breaking new technologies, instead of keeping things simpler, and more cost sensitive. This also applies to the manufacturing process.

Quality issues and some bad publicity regarding new technology (Autopilot in particular) have certainly made the news headlines, but hardly seem to have put a dent in the fast-filling order books.

The most noteworthy controversy was the 2016 death of American Tesla S owner Joshua Brown. Brown was driving with the ‘S’ in Autopilot mode when it crashed into a truck at 100km/h. However, subsequent data analysis is said to have revealed that Brown had apparently ignored several warnings (both verbal and visually on the dashboard) to keep his hands on the steering wheel.

Apparently Brown also made no effort to avoid the accident through manual override, so it seems he wasn’t paying attention to the drive at all.

Tesla has since updated its Autopilot system. The Autopilot function will deactivate (along with plenty of warning) when drivers don’t heed the safety warnings.
Autopilot is just the tip of the technological Tesla iceberg. But let’s take the ‘X’ for a drive, and we’ll tell you more.

This is just… Ludicrous
The black Tesla X P100D is fitted with optional 22-inch high performance tyres, wrapped around impressive blacked-out rims. There’s a discreet, retractable wing on the tailgate.

Parked in front of the Tesla dealership in Melbourne, the P100D fills the parking space comprehensively. It is massive and imposing, at over five metres long and almost 2.3-metres wide.

There’s an obvious problem. There are cars parked on either side of the Tesla, pretty close, too. So opening the wide opening front doors and the Falcon rear doors will obviously be a tricky affair.

“No worries, mate… just press the button on the key fob,” says the Tesla man.

I must just mention the key fob in my hand… it’s the same shape as the Tesla X. A universal, more affordable key fob with a Tesla badge would also have done the job. But this bespoke item adds a sense of occasion. You know, without any doubt, a special motoring experience beckons.

I press the rear door button on the fob, and stand back. The one rear door starts opening, but no sooner is it ajar than a second hinge kicks into action, lifting the door up instead of sideways, out of harm’s way. It never even came close to the car parked next to it.

The same principle applies for the front doors, which are hinged at the front… sensors will stop them opening too far, bumping into an object. We get into the X. Pressing a button sees the electrically operated door swing closed.

This is where the ‘cockpit’ part comes in, because describing the controls and front row pews in the X as a ‘cabin’ would be like describing a 386 computer as cutting edge.

First, there is the windscreen. It extends all the way to above the front passenger’s heads, for a far more panoramic view. Foldable sunvisors are mounted on the A-pillars. The rear-view mirror is positioned in a normal position, mounted on the glass.

The instrument panel and dashboard is an eclectic mix of familiar and new. Most prominent is the massive 17-inch tablet-style screen. The touchscreen system controls the vast majority of the Tesla’s features, from climate control to satellite navigation to vehicle settings to Autopilot selections.

Ahead of the driver is a normal looking steering wheel. Behind the wheel lives a TFT screen, which displays speed and range and other functions (selectable by the driver). There is no traditional gear lever on the floor. Instead, drive modes are selected via a stalk on the right side of the steering column.

This stalk, as well as the one of the left that controls the cruise control and probably a few other functions, too, looks very familiar. That’s because they are the same ones used in Mercedes-Benz cars. At least that would have resulted in a measure of cost saving.

“Right mate, let’s set the drive mode before we go,” says the man from Tesla, located in the front passenger seat. He deftly presses a few icons on the big touchscreen, and we land up at three options; Comfort, Standard and Sport.

“You normally have those three modes to select between,” he continued. “But this is the P100D Ludicrous version… so you can also select the ‘Ludicrous’ setting.”

“We’ll have some of that Ludicrous, please,” I reply, trying my best not to giggle out loud.

Ludicrous is, well, it means exactly what the name suggests. The P100D gets the most powerful 100kW/h battery option, and in this mode, the battery pack microprocessor sends every ounce of current to the pair of three-phase, four-pole AC induction motors with copper rotors for a full blast of 568kW of power.

But the really staggering number is the maximum torque: although Tesla doesn’t officially seem to quote a number, independent tests on dynos suggest around 1 400Nm of twist! 1 400 Newton metres! And because there is no lag in an electric motor, that torque is immediately available.

I hook reverse through the familiar Mercedes-like stalk behind the steering wheel. Thankfully the Tesla is armed with a barrage of sensors and cameras for these kind of situations, because there are a lot of blind spots. It is huge. We make it out of the parking lot, slowly, and without any drama.

Moments later I turn onto the main road, feathering the accelerator pedal. It’s a relatively narrow street, but the bulky X doesn’t feel quite as bulky on the move. The cabin is eerily quiet, too, of course, thanks to the electric drivetrain. And it’s comfortable.

“How’s the climate control, mate? All good?” asks the man with the Tesla badge on his shirt.

“All good, thanks,” I reply, using all my willpower not to bury the go-fast pedal in the luxurious carpeting. Not yet, anyway.

The Tesla is fitted with a medical-grade, high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter system. It has three modes: circulate with outside air, re-circulate inside air and a bioweapon defence setting. The latter option creates positive pressure inside the cabin to protect the occupants. Why one actually would need such an option is not clear. But it’s there.

“Okay mate, as soon as we join the freeway and you see it’s safe to do so, you can step on it.”

This is it. I stop the big Tesla at a stop street, and check for a gap. This part of the freeway has an 80km/h speed limit. So my test would be from standstill to 80km/h.

There’s a gap, and I plant the pedal.

Dear Lord! In approximately 1.5 seconds we’re doing 80km/h, and I have to lift off again! With all that instant torque, the X doesn’t merely accelerate, it’s more like being strapped into a giant slingshot that shoots your forward. Or being blasted into space by a giant rocket. It’s like having a temporary facelift, the skin pulling tight and eradicating all those wrinkles.

“It’s alright, isn’t it?” states/asks the Tesla man, with a slight hint of a giggle in his voice.

“Yeah, it’s damn alright,” I manage, still shell shocked.

“How about trying out the Autopilot system, then? Just press the cruise control stalk on the left of the column,” says he.

I click the stalk inwards, and the sign blinks on in the instrument cluster: 80km/h.

“Perfect, mate. Now you just have to keep your hands on the steering wheel… a very light grip will do. It’s a safety feature to ensure that you still pay attention to the road and traffic conditions, and can react accordingly,” says Bruce.

Ah, cue Joshua Brown, the ‘S’ customer who failed to pay attention.

Autopilot is a revelation. Using four cameras that can see up to 400m up the road, radar and sensors and other sorcery, the Tesla will maintain the set 80km/h in the traffic. So it will follow the lane, brake and accelerate.

If you’re brave enough, you can also select the ‘overtake’ function. When it is safe, the X will indicate, change lanes and accelerate past slower moving traffic.
It’s time to head off the highway again. As we hit the off-ramp, and with a clear road up ahead, I give the Tesla a boot again. Not even a full blown one – just a ‘hey, how you’re doing’ kind of boot.

From the corner of my eye I can see the Tesla salesman being pressed into his seat, his head snapping back. Dear Lord! Tesla says the X will accelerate from 80–120km/h in less than two seconds… and after that momentary blast, I have no doubt that it can do it, as impossible as its sounds for a six-seater SUV weighing 2.5 tons to defy gravity in such a way.

We’re in the suburbs, with plenty of traffic, so blast time was over. Time to learn about some other Tesla tricks.

The X is a permanent Wi-Fi hotspot, and it is also linked to the Tesla headquarters computer system. If you park your Tesla at night, and the on-board computer detects a systems upgrade, it will automatically download the update. So, when you slide in behind the leather steering wheel the next morning, your vehicle may boast some new features it did not have the day before.

Mind, that also begs the question of security, especially in a country such as South Africa. If some smarty-pants computer boffin manages to hack the Tesla mainframe, can it then instruct your Tesla to start up and drive right over to the thief’s liar? That would not be cool.

Sound far-fetched? Consider the Tesla’s ‘Summon’ feature. Using the app on your phone at a shopping centre, you can summon your X through an instruction on the phone. The Tesla will activate, manoeuvre itself out of the parking space, and drive itself over to where you are patiently waiting.

The science fiction doesn’t end there. The Tesla’s on-board systems also have the ability to learn and replicate patterns. Take the air suspension system, for instance. If the parking garage at your office has a big speed bump, you can manually select a higher riding height to ensure that the front bumper isn’t scratched.

If you perform the same lift a few times, for the same speed bump, the computer will remember the action and use the GPS location system to automatically raise the suspension every time you approach that bump, without the driver needing to lift a finger.

Cor blimey. It is a thinking car, and also a form of artificial intelligence (AI), a field in which Musk has personally invested heavily.

“Shall I crank up the volume on the sound system?” asks the Tesla lad. “This model has the Ultra High Fidelity set-up.”

This system has 17 speakers and a sub woofer, versus the standard audio set-up of, er, just nine speakers. A familiar pop song fills the vast cabin, pitch perfect.

I check the rear-view mirror, and for the first time really take note of the four seats behind the front row of pews. There are six seats in total. Each seat is similar to a business class seat on an airliner: luxuriously trimmed in leather, spacious and electrically adjustable.

“Why six seats?” I ask, “And not five or seven?”

“Customers can order their X vehicles as they prefer. So we offer five, six and seven seat options,” answers the Tesla man.

There are other options, too, including self-presenting front doors. When you approach your Tesla X, the doors will automatically open and, once you’re inside your car and touch the brake pedal, the door will close. Enhanced Autopilot is another R70 000 option. The standard Autopilot system has one camera… with the Enhanced option you get four and 12 ultrasonic sonar sensors that provide 360 degree coverage around the vehicle.

If the Enhanced Autopilot is still not cool enough, you can transfer another R42 000 and have the Full Self-Driving Capability system. The cameras are doubled to eight, and you literally get into your Tesla, tell it where you want to go, and the vehicle will take you there. This system is not readily available though, it depends on local autonomous driving legislature.

We turn into the Tesla dealership parking area, and I park the big SUV in a tight parking spot, mostly to check if those falcon doors will really open as advertised. They do.

“Hope you enjoyed that,” said the friendly Tesla man. “My colleague will take the key fob, thanks… he’s just going to move it over to the Supercharger station.”
I watch the P100D silently exit the parking space, and head over to a nearby charging station. This is where the million dollar question comes in: here’s a six-seater SUV that weighs 2.5 tons, but can also do 0–100km/h in three seconds. Surely it can only do 100km per charge, if not less?

“It can actually reach an average of 460km per charge,” says the man. “If you are going to be using Ludicrous mode all the time, at every opportunity, it will obviously be less than that, but here in Australia, regular speeding offences is not a good plan.”

Over 450km per charge? Golly. What about charging then? Surely that must be a pain?

“You get standard adaptors with your vehicle that can plug into common household outlets, and allow up to 80km of range per hour of charging. Leaving it on charge overnight will definitely give you full charge,” replies the Tesla-shirted man.

Tesla has also installed a network of so-called Super-chargers along popular routes in Australia. You simply pull in, hook up and the system charges up to 270km of range in just 30 minutes. Lastly, there are also Destination Charging sites located at some restaurants, shopping centres, hotels and resorts. Again, you can just plug in.

If you are really into the renewal energy business, you can have Tesla’s Powerwall (home battery system) and a solar panel system installed at your house. So not only will your house be running on renewable energy, your Tesla car will be, too.

I throw a last curveball: “What about warranties then? And battery life?”

“All Tesla models come with an eight-year/infinite distance battery and drive unit warranty. And there’s also a four-year/80 000km limited warranty on the vehicle. Although we haven’t reached that eight-year threshold for the minimum battery life yet, it is thought that the batteries will actually last much longer than that. In another few years, the price of batteries is expected to be much more affordable, too, so replacing a Tesla’s entire battery pack will not necessarily cost a small fortune,” says the Tesla man.

I bid my host farewell, and slide in behind the steering wheel of my petrol-powered SUV. I even had to open the door myself.

It’s like swapping the latest model MacBook Pro computer for an antiquated 286 with a floppy drive.

I had a taste of the future of the automobile. And it was amazing, mesmerising, and ludicrously fast.

Will Tesla cars make it to South Africa? No public announcement has been made that Tesla plans to enter the South African market. But, despite the fact that we purportedly sport a third world infrastructure and Tesla technology is evidently aimed at first world driving conditions, I’m going to stick with ‘never say never’.

Nissan sells its Leaf here. Ditto with BMW’s i3.

Here’s holding thumbs. Both of them.

Tesla X P100D Ludicrous
Motors Two three-phase, four-pole AC induction motors with copper rotors
Power 560kW (193kW front motor, 375kW rear motor)
Torque About 1 400Nm
Battery pack 100kW/h
Range (claimed) 460km
Drive system Drive inverter with variable frequency drive and regenerative braking system
Suspension Independent all-round, double wishbone front and multi-link rear, with Smart air suspension system
Brakes Ventilated discs (front and back)
Tyres Goodyear Eagle F1 265/35 R22
Spare wheel None. Tyre repair kit optional
Traction aids Electronic traction and stability with integrated vehicle dynamics control
Ground clearance Up to 205mm
Weight 2 508kg
Towing capacity (braked trailer) 3 500kg
0–100km/h (claimed) 2.9 seconds
Top speed 250km/h
Price R1.4 million (in overseas markets)

Safe as houses
The Tesla X became the first SUV to score the maximum five-star rating in every test conducted by the USA’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), making it the safest SUV ever tested by the organisation.

Time to rob a bank?
In overseas markets you will need the equivalent of about R1.4 million to park a Tesla X Ludicrous in your garage. If Tesla products ever do make it to South Africa, they will be subject to hefty import taxes. Our government also does not offer any tax benefits. In the USA, a R105 000 federal tax credit is available to all Tesla customers.

Quality issues? What quality issues?
In 2017, the Britain-based What Car? title published its annual reliability survey. With more than 14 000 customers interviewed, the survey focused on cars less than three years old. In the electric car category, Tesla’s Model S came in last, with 52% of customers reporting faults. Still, this doesn’t seem to perturb potential buyers: Britain recently became the biggest Tesla market in Europe.

Used, but not abused
If a brand-new Tesla is a bit rich for you, there is always the option of buying a refurbished used model from the company. For instance, you can pick up a Model S sedan (with 60kW/h battery and rear-wheel drive only) with only 45 000km on the clock for around R640 000. No Tesla Model X vehicles are listed at this stage.

Get your Roadster now!
The upcoming four-seater Tesla Roadster, said to be the fastest car in the world, is now available on order. It can do 0–100km/h in 1.9 seconds, reach a top speed in excess of 400km/h and still do 1 000km on a charge. Oh, and this all-wheel-drive speedster has 10 000Nm of torque. Want one? You can put your order in… for just R3.5 million.

Text: Danie Botha. Photographs: Tesla