Tesla continues its chase for volume with the all-electric Model X SUV. Riding on much the same underpinnings as the existing Model S, Elon Musk’s ballistic breeder bus is much more than a showy set of doors.
WHAT IS IT?
Offered with five, six or seven seats, the Model X targets both traditional SUVs and the upper echelons of the minivan market. It retains the trademark concussive acceleration and slick control systems of the Model S but adds a few party tricks of its own. ‘Falcon Wing’ rear doors and ‘Bioweapon Defence Mode’? Yes, seriously.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
Model X arrives more than two years late, so we’ve been champing at the bit for a while. We know the company can do headline-grabbing stunts like no other, but can it get down and dirty by making the Model X properly family friendly?
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Model X retains all the things that made the Model S such an intriguing proposition. The pace, the surface-skimming centre of gravity and the surprise-and-delight touches are all present. As a practical SUV, the Model X gets a more mixed report card. That hasn’t hurt demand, though, and Tesla will shift all the allocation that Australian importers can lay their hands on.
PLUS: Acceleration; refinement; charisma; space; smart technology
MINUS: Slow rear doors; second-row seats don’t fold; expensive
THE WHEELS REVIEW
IS THIS the year’s most significant new car? Wall Street thinks so.
Tesla only made 50,000 cars last year while GM made nearly ten million, yet Tesla’s stock market value is already two-thirds that of GM ($US30bn versus $US44bn). Wall Street has clearly swallowed Elon Musk’s promise to grow output tenfold – tenfold! – in just two years, as the cheaper Model 3 hatchback goes on sale.
But first we get this Model X SUV. Tesla’s second volume model after the Model S sedan, it’s expected to more than double Tesla sales on its own. It’s a fascinating car in its own right, and will tell us a lot about whether the Tesla hype is justified.
The first thing you will want to know about is those mad, double-hinged 'Falcon Wing' rear doors, intended to require less space to open than conventional doors and give better access from either side. Instead, they've just given Elon a headache. Getting them to work delayed the launch, early US customers have reported problems, and there’s already been a series of over-the-air software updates.
Our test car’s doors opened and closed with a wobble, and if I stood in their way they pushed me with sufficient force to take a step back before they figured out there was an obstacle. Their practicality is dubious (no roof rack, and good luck if there's snow), their reliability remains to be proven, and the Model X just doesn't need their kerbside theatre when everything else about it is so good.
The conventional driver's door powers open as it senses you approaching, and closes automatically when you put your foot on the brake. Okay, that's another gimmick, but the biggest windscreen in any production car – it arcs over your head like a fighter-jet canopy – really isn't; the effect is sensational.
The rest of the cabin architecture is familiar from the Model S, so there's minimal switchgear and pretty much everything is controlled from the swimming-pool-sized central touchscreen that remains, for me, hands-down the best user interface in the car industry.
In the Model X, it also includes the (optional) Bioweapon Defence Mode (that's its actual name), which uses positive cabin pressure and a medical-grade air filter to scrub the cabin air 400 times cleaner than the particulate soup outside. It's intended for the worst city pollution, but Tesla claims it will actually protect you from a bioweapon attack. I didn't test it.
There's also the option of five, six or seven seats. The third row will take a six-footer, just, and leaves a huge boot when folded flat into the floor. The second row doesn't fold but each seat is mounted on a single post, allowing space for bags or third-row occupants’ feet. It's a clever system, but I suspect that SUV buyers might prefer them to fold.
But why are we discussing boot space when we have an SUV that will out-accelerate a Ferrari to 100km/h?
Dynamically, the Model X feels little different to a Tesla Model S. Range is 470-490km, depending on spec. The batteries are in the floor so the car's centre of gravity is about as low as it can go, and the taller, heavier SUV body makes little difference to its astonishingly composed, agile and refined ride and handling.
Choose the full-house P90D version with Ludicrous mode enabled (it's Musk's geeky Spaceballs reference) and this seven-seat all-wheel drive will use its 396kW and 967Nm to crack 100km/h in 3.4 seconds. The motors on each axle deliver colossal traction, balance torque and grip instantly, and of course produce all that torque instantly.
The Model X is as fast as a Ferrari, and over the first few yards feels like we expect the Bugatti Chiron will. So long as he can keep his doors working, I don't think Elon's going to have any strife shifting them.
Model: Tesla Model X P90D
Engine: Two electric motors (193kW front, 375kW rear)
Max power: 397kW (combined system power)
Max torque: 967Nm
Transmission: 1-speed fixed gear
0-100km/h: 3.4sec (claimed)
Price: $150,000-$220,000 (estimated)
On sale: December 2016