Test Drive: Tesla Model S P100D

Courtesy Tesla

A new Model S variant adds all-wheel drive and supercar speed from two electric motors.

I’m driving one of the fastest cars in the world, the Tesla Model S P100D, on a vehicle-clogged Westside Highway in Manhattan. The Model S is at the top of the range of the electric cars offered by Tesla and while the cutting edge automaker eschews traditional model year designations, the P100D with all-wheel drive is one of the latest Model S variants. Among the selectable driving options is a “ludicrous” mode for zipping from zero-to-60 mph in 2.5 seconds. Alas, the only thing I’m finding ludicrous is New York City traffic.

Then suddenly I get a small taste of the power generated by the car’s two front and rear electric motors. Inexplicably, a gap of about 100 yards opens up in front of me like Moses parting the Red Sea and I shoot forward before a sea of metal fills the lane again. The car accelerates quickly, but it does so quietly. The engine roar I might normally anticipate with an internal combustion engine is absent. The P100D is supercar fast but in this instance, speed and stealth go hand-in-hand.

Then, just like that, the momentary miracle passes and I’m back driving in what locals abjectly call real-world conditions. And in some ways, this is more telling. The P100D creeps forward in stop-and-go traffic just like a normal car without any abrupt fits. There is a low center of gravity that makes turns and lane shifts a smooth glide. And amidst city-din, the quiet cabin is calming. 

The interior is roomy, impressively designed, and comfortable, albeit it is dominated by a 17-inch touch-screen monitor. At first I thought such a large screen was nerd overkill, but I came to appreciate the amount of real estate available as it makes working through the vast menu of control settings much easier. These include an auto pilot mode—a step away from autonomous driving—that still requires a gentle touch of the wheel and works well in the slow moving traffic I’m experiencing but is designed to function at speeds of up to 90 mph. A more tongue-in-cheek control is a “bioweapon defense mode” air filter that can be turned on to super-clean cabin air, a function I wished would activate of its own accord in response to preset semi-apocalyptic conditions.

Courtesy Tesla

There is no doubt I’m driving the future, but it's an imperfect one at the moment, principally due to range. While more charging stations are popping up all the time, they are mainly in urban areas and on an east-west interstate axes. When I plotted a big-screen route from New York City north to Lake Placid, in upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains, only one charging station appeared about halfway through the route. Under the best of circumstances, this would add another one hour and 15 minutes to about a five-hour drive. Practically speaking, it turned the vast Adirondacks region into a no-go zone.

That said, the P100D has a range of 315 miles and a residential charger can top off the battery overnight—assuming you have a garage, a scarce and expensive commodity in New York City where street parking is the norm and block-long extension cords are not. As much as I admired the Tesla P100D, the range issue gives me pause at present as my idea of personal transportation means being able to go wherever there is a road. Still, if an electric vehicle is part of a long- and short-haul garaged family fleet, it makes sense from a variety of environmental and economic standpoints. And in a Tesla P100D, the fun bar is set very high; that makes me impatient for the charging infrastructure to improve.

$140,000; tesla.com.