Tesla Model S (2017) review: We revisit Elon Musk’s most popular electric car

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It’s around 7:30pm when I arrive at the Superchargers of the Birchanger Green service station. It’s only my second day with the updated Tesla Model S and things are mostly going to plan. Tesla’s EV charging points are tucked at the very back of the station – away from the normal ones – and that means they’ve taken a while to find. I’ve arrived with 15% charge, and although the car predicted this two hours ago, my battery anxiety is off the charts.

As I’m messing with the Tesla’s’ touchscreen to open its “fuel” cap, out of the corner of my eye, I see the Falcon wing doors of a Model X begin to outstretch. “I have a great tip about the fuel cap,” a voice says from inside, and soon I’m listening to a Tesla owner in his late 40s. “Press the button on the Supercharger plug, and the cap will open automatically” he beams and, sure enough, it does.

He adores everything about his beloved Model X, even though the “even better” P100D came out just days after he bought his. It’s different to the Model S he had a few years ago, he adds, but it still makes perfect sense for him. After I tell him I’m reviewing the car, he shares some other bits of advice with me, such as which Supercharger bays to park in for faster charging, and the best speed  – 50mph, by the way – to eke out extra battery life.

It’s at this point I realise that living with a Tesla is unlike living with any other car. It’s like being a member of secret society, a classic car club and an Apple employee, all mixed into one. And it’s happened because the experience of owning a Model S – or any other Tesla, for that matter – is completely unique.


The updated Tesla Model S review

Before I dig deep into the whole experience, it’s worth talking about the Model S itself. Released five years ago, it’s the car that put Tesla on the map and one of the first cars I ever reviewed for Alphr. After the roadster, the Model S was an original, classy-looking coupe, and its tech was lightyears ahead of everything I’d driven.

In fact, it was ahead of the competition from Germany and the rest of the world too.  With its huge touchscreen, the promise of driverless technology and over-the-air updates, it’s fair to say the Tesla Model S moved the goalposts in terms of in car-tech.

Fast forward to 2017 and I’ve now driven many more cars, from the Audi A5 and BMW 7 Series, to Nissan Micras and self-driving Volvo XC90s. The Model S is still going, though, and now comes with a considerably bigger battery, styling tweaks and countless incremental updates to its UI and driving tech. But is it still ahead of the competition?

First things first: Elon Musk’s premium EV isn’t the technological trailblazer it used to be, and that’s because the old guard is catching up. In the last few months I’ve driven semi-autonomous Volvo, Audi and Mercedes cars and with the big brands queuing up to make their own electric vehicles, there’s a lot more competition than there used to be. To find out if it still has what it takes, I took an updated Model S house hunting with me and clocked up the miles driving from London to Peterborough and back.


Tesla Model S review: Design

The Model S looked a little odd when it first came out, but now its styling seems more natural. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen the same style on the new Model X, the new Roadster and the Tesla Semi but, whatever the reason, the Model S is now a more handsome looking car.

The front of the car has lost its odd fake grille and now has a much cleaner look than it did originally, just like the rest of the Tesla range. At the rear of the car, the Model S is unchanged – it looks a lot like a Jaguar XF and that’s very much a good thing.

Tesla Model S review: Interior and performance

I’ve spent a lot of time in high-end saloons since I first drove the Model S but the Tesla still cuts the mustard with its enormous touchscreen, embedded in that big centre console. And despite having a massive 21.5in of screen to update, the Tesla Model S has the most responsive maps, menus and general UI of any car I’ve been in.

As you probably know now, the Tesla’s entire infotainment system is set up like an Android or Apple tablet – but in reverse. There’s a dock at the top with an internet browser, phone, calendar, navigation, music and vehicle settings, while the rest of the screen is devoted to content. Some apps can be expanded and viewed full screen, while others will only ever occupy half of it.

In practice, the Tesla’s systems are lightning fast. The Satnav is quick and intuitive, and every pinch, zoom or scroll happens instantly. It loads routes fast, too, and it’ll map in Supercharging points if your journey requires it.


It’s not just in the mapping that the Tesla’s responsiveness shows, though. From searching for songs on the car’s own Spotify Premium account (via the embedded, pre-paid 4G connection), to browsing the web or flicking through vehicle settings. I remember the system being fast a few years ago but even after using so many other cars’ systems, I think it’s actually more impressive today.

When driving the car however, I found that all-touchscreen setup a little less easy to use. Every tap requires a quick glance and, although the Model S encourages you to use voice control, it would be nice to have the odd physical button or knob for navigating options and lists as you drive. It’s a slight distraction and one you’d probably not notice if the car has autonomous functionality.

Tesla Model S review: Cabin quality

For the last few years, Tesla has been criticised for the quality of its interior and while I’d disagree with that, there is something slightly strange about the Model S’ cabin. Perhaps it’s the types of plastics used, perhaps it’s the gear selector, which looks like one you’d find on a Mercedes A-Class, or perhaps it’s the way the windscreen wipers squeak a little more than you’d expect.


Whatever it is, the Tesla doesn’t quite have the solidity and sturdiness that other cars in its price bracket do. For example, the rubber seal of the Model S’ door looked a little looser than I’d expect. It’s not something I’ve ever really noticed on another car but on the Tesla it caught my attention.

Tesla Model S review: Charging and driving

Range is one of the most important factors in both buying and owning an electric car, but with the Model S it isn’t something most people will need to worry about – for two reasons. First, charging points are mapped seamlessly into any routes you plan, which means you don’t have to think about it. When I drove the car from London to Peterborough, the satnav suggested I top up the battery for 20 minutes during my journey and it automatically added the Supercharger as a waypoint.

What’s more, there are so many Superchargers around nowadays that finding one doesn’t create the growing sense of dread it used to. On my journey there were three different choices along the way and, although the Superchargers do thin out a little when you leave the confines of the M25, the 393-mile range of the 100D meant finding one wasn’t an issue.


Of course, driving the Tesla S is another unusual experience. Its power is smooth and progressive, and it makes fast, smooth driving actually quite fun. As with most EVs, you can feel the regenerative braking slow the car down and you can use it to coast into corners without braking. When you want to drive faster, the Tesla’s impressive acceleration is exciting – though no match for a proper sports car.

As for autonomous functions? The car I drove didn’t have Autopilot – I tested that separately in this review – but it did have regular cruise control and the usual parking assist features. What’s more, the Model S’ huge touchscreen provided a highly readable view of the environment when reversing.

Tesla Model S review: Verdict

Overall, the Tesla Model S is still an incredible car but instead of being miles ahead of the pack, it’s now more about offers a very different experience. Everything about the Model S, from the way it handles to the way it’ll tell you when it’s about to update, is unique.

The way suggestions from users make it into updates and improve cars years after release is totally different to anything else in the industry and, with cars like the Roadster on the horizon, you can see why people want the Tesla to succeed.


But the Model S also has strange faults I didn’t experience the first time I drove it. At one point, the entire navigation system switched off and appeared to reset while I was on the motorway. Moments before, the satnav’s voice was glitching like a dying robot.

These sorts of problems don’t inspire confidence but it’s good to know that the Tesla owner community is on hand to help out. It only takes a couple of minutes online to discover tips and solutions to the car’s many quirks. Despite being one of the most advanced cars on the road, those that own a Model S – or any Tesla – seem to be like members of a classic car club.

If that all sounds appealing, and you want to be on the cutting-edge of technology for better or worse, then you’ll love the Tesla Model S. If you want a car that’s everything you’re used to – just without a petrol or diesel engine – I’d certainly look elsewhere. 

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