We Took an Electrifying Ride In Tesla's Model S P90D

The maximum-performance Model S is pretty ludicrous, even when it isn't in Ludicrous Speed mode.
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The maximum-performance Model S is pretty ludicrous, even when it isn't in Ludicrous Speed mode.
Tesla Model S driving

Relax. You’re gonna make the light. The TeslaModel S P90D accelerates like the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System catapult on the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, silently pressing its occupants into their seats while the car gathers astonishing speed. 

Yes, there are some internal combustion-powered cars that can match the 2.8 second 0-60 mph acceleration time of the maxed-out $125,700 P90D when it is switched to Ludicrous Speed (which tops the previous Insane Mode) and maximum battery power is enabled. But they produce the acceleration with much sound and fury, which is lovely if you’re at the track and appreciate the performance.

It is less lovely if you just want to squirt through an intersection before a traffic light changes and you’d like to do that with as little attention-getting fuss as possible. Even better, as you pass under the finish line, er, traffic light, a lift of the accelerator pedal sends the Tesla into regenerative braking mode, recovering some of that energy you just wasted.

Conveniently, it also quickly sheds some of that potentially extra-legal speed, doing so just as discretely as it added the speed. Perfect.

The P90D is the current pinnacle of Tesla’s line, with the largest available 90 kilowatt-hour battery pack, all-wheel drive and the latest software release 6.2 featuring goodies like Ludicrous Speed (That’s a reference to a capability of Dark Helmet’s ship in the Mel Brooks classic Spaceballs) and autopilot.

Another update: the “creep” button. Unlike Ludicrous Speed, this is not a pop culture reference to a Radiohead song, and it isn’t a behavioral suggestion that you send unwanted sexts. Rather, when switched on, it causes the car to creep forward when the driver releases the brake pedal, mimicking the behavior of a conventional automatic transmission car for driver familiarity.

The company might well consider another nod to established custom by adding a “start” button to the dashboard. The Model S is smart enough that if you're carrying the key, you needn’t do anything to unlock the car on approach, and once inside, needn’t do anything to drive it other than press the brake pedal and put the car in Drive or Reverse using the stalk on the steering column. That’s it.

When you are done, you just put it in Park, get out and walk away. It defies convention in a way that may let fan boys geek out, but just seems utterly at odds with the experience of anyone who has ever had a dead battery from leaving a car switched on. Until driver experience and habit changes, an affirmative “off” seems like a good idea.

Although the Model S has now been on the road for a couple years, Tesla has continued to improve on its basic electric drive foundation through the addition of the performance-boosting second drive motor and the sensors needed to support autopilot functions.

While the early Model S was a good car, the current iteration delivers the sort of functions that customers shopping for six-figure luxury sedans expect. Tesla’s autopilot function is somewhat nebulous, because the company is adding capabilities to it incrementally.

The test car had adaptive cruise control that is the best such system I’ve yet driven. This is partly because it is the newest, and each new one surpasses those that have come before, and it is partly because an electric drive system lends itself to the kind of precise and quick response needed by such systems.

The cruise control system is easy to adjust on the fly, letting the driver choose the following distance and accurately maintaining that. I’d like to see it maintain a following time, rather than distance, so that the distance automatically increases with speed. A close following distance that makes sense around town feels less like following and more like drafting at highway speeds.

One bit of particularly welcome intelligence for the cruise control system is that it recognizes passing maneuvers and accelerates the car during the lane change to help speed the pass.

Using cruise control is key to achieving the Model S P90D’s EPA-rated driving range of 268 miles. It is also important to set it at 60 mph or less. Setting it to 70 mph for some interstate driving seemed to shorten the range by about 15 percent.

In addition to testing the car, I also had the chance to test Tesla’s newest Supercharger station. The company is building a nationwide network of quick-charging stations that customers can use for free. The build-out plan show on Tesla’s web site is seemingly out-of-date, as the company is now adding stations in the hinterlands to assist with road trips across the expanse of America.

I was able to go to the new one on Interstate 81 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where the company plans to add more to give east coast drivers a north-south alternative to I-95. Tesla says Superchargers will add an 80 percent charge to the battery in about 30 minutes.

My visit saw the car go from about 90 miles of driving range in the battery to about 180 in that time, which was a useful increase, but not the 80 percent I expected. If road-tripping with an electric car, budget ample time for charging.

Back in urban areas and driving in stop-and-go backups, the Model S autopilot is the best in the business, smoothly edging forward and stopping as needed, with none of the delayed reactions that other drivers view as invitations to swerve into your lane.

One situation that the Tesla’s autopilot still doesn't handle well is the need to intentionally let other drivers merge into your lane, either because a construction zone is closing their lane or because they are merging from an on-ramp.

In either case, while the driver can plainly see the situation developing with the car in the adjoining lane preparing to merge, the Model S steadfastly holds its gap to the car ahead, making the driver look like that guy who never lets anyone else in.

So you have to brake, deactivating the cruise control and forcing to reset it to continue in autopilot mode. I don’t want to turn autopilot off, I just don’t want it to drive like a jerk. This seems like a ripe opportunity for future software improvements.

The company plans for autopilot to actually steer the car too, and this is a capability that Teslas like the one I tested will gain through software updates, so current owners of these late-model cars will get the benefit of such future upgrades. The company updates the car over the air, and to help with this, the Model S asks to join your home WiFi network so it can exploit your home internet connection’s speed when doing updates. Those guys in Mountain View know a thing or two about tech.

One other area where I’d suggest a nod to convention in place of the re-programmable sci-fi touch screen interface though, is the sunroof. The Model S has physical switches controlling its side windows, as it should. But to control the sunroof, the driver has to switch to the appropriate screen from whatever screen was on the display or configure a steering wheel dial for the job.

I understand the company’s desire to clear the dashboard of unnecessary switches and buttons, but the sunroof needs a physical switch for the same reason the side windows do; frequent use demands the convenience of a dedicated switch.

See, this is especially important when driving the Model S. Because while you’d have time to deal with navigating through infotainment screen menus to open the sunroof while waiting at a traffic light in other cars, as I’ve explained; in the Model S, you’re gonna make the light.

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Photos by Tesla Motors