Review: 2015 Tesla Model S P85D

Apr 17, 2015 09:30 AM EDT | Jeff Jablansky

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The eastern end of Long Island is a cold and lonely place in the winter months.

When you're out of fuel in Montauk, gas stations are scarce but available. If that fuel is electricity, because you're in an electric vehicle, and the only charging station around is offline, it's a potentially trip-ending moment.

Thanks to the extraordinary performance and range of the Tesla Model S P85D, the most powerful EV in production, we learned that wasn't the case for us on a recent road trip. With a range of over 200 miles per recharge, the 691-hp Model S P85D is an astounding example of what the future might hold for electrification in drivetrains. (It didn't hurt, too, that a network of Tesla evangelist chargers exists, and we benefited from a short home recharge.)

We spent several days with the Model S P85D to see if we could live with as few compromises as possible in an EV-and contrast some of our past experiences. After over 300 miles behind the wheel, we came to several conclusions.

See what we discovered about life as a Tesla driver.

What is it?

The Tesla Model S is the brand's second model, and its first sedan. The P85D is the quickest, most powerful of the Model S lineup, eking the title away from the P85. The "D" stands for dual-motor, which means that this Tesla has motors in the front and rear wheels, making it an all-wheel-drive powerhouse.

On the outside, it's indistinguishable from the P85, as well as most other Model Esses. (Large wheels give away the P85 designation.) Inside, it's mostly the same story. The Model S P85D is essentially a stealth fighter.

How does it drive?

Trust us: You've never driven anything like a Model S P85D before.

Yes, there is the promise of 691 horsepower from the two-motor system. Yes, it uses Tesla's single-pedal driving method, in which the Model S begins regenerative braking whenever the accelerator is not depressed. Yes, it's eerily quiet at idle. And, yes, power comes on subtly. You can reliably drive the P85D without ever knowing how much power lies underneath the accelerator pedal.

When you do step down, it's as if the world flashes before your eyes. The torquey thrust pushes all occupants back into the seats with an actual shudder, and power comes on instantly. The idle silence remains throughout the launch, which is sure to shock anyone who drags a Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro. Repeat the process, and torque is limited up to one-half, but it can still be fun.

On cold, winter mornings, it took a while for the Tesla to OK our request for full power, owing to a need to warm up. (Think of it as an iPhone running on temporarily reduced power in extreme temperatures.)

Steering has nice weight to it, and the brakes are perfectly fine in most everyday scenarios. The air suspension does a nice job of modulating bumps in the road, and it's adjustable with memory; the Model S will remember, and automatically adjust, the suspension for low curbs and other situations. Treat the P85D like the performance car that it has the potential to be, and the driving experience is a little different. Over some hills and gullies, we learned that the Model S P85D is an impressive performer, but no Mercedes-AMG beater.

Charging the Model S is part and parcel of the driving experience, and you can now count us among emphatic believers in the Supercharger system. In typical electric-car charging scenarios, 240-kW Level-2 chargers provide double-digit recharge per hour. The first time we pulled up to a Supercharger, at JFK airport, the readout suggested over 200 miles per hour. It was enough to make me wonder whether spontaneous combustion was imminent. When we did have to charge at less-powerful stations, and then test another EV several weeks later, it was a letdown to not have amazingly quick charge at our disposal.

There's an important aspect, too, about driving a Tesla and interacting with other Tesla owners. A flash of the beautiful front headlights does the job of a nod and a wave. Drive and act accordingly.

What's it like inside?

Like a mobile Apple store. We like how simply everything appears to be laid out, and we imagine that the digital dashboard looks practically futuristic to laymen and technophobes. Fit and finish are quite good for a first-try sedan without a major automaker backing its production, although there are definitely some rough edges that could use smoothing over.

The five-passenger interior is wide and expansive, and its focal point, a 17-inch touchscreen display, is in the center of the dashboard. It is impressive: No other car comes close to matching the performance art of the dashboard. While some reviewers have reported issues in the reliability of their touchscreens, we had no freezes or hiccups.

Beyond the touchscreen, there are few additional controls, and there are no major buttons or knobs to control primary functions. It's counterintuitive at first, for sure, but the user experience is easy to learn. If you're looking for the richest materials, the most satisfying thud of a door being shut, and razor-thin panel gaps, seek out a German plug-in alternative.

The rest of the interior is similarly spare-the flat backseat, for example, looks like a bench at a fancy hotel lobby-but well appointed. A rear-facing third row in the hatchback area, for those with short legs and torsos only, brings the total seat count to seven. We can only imagine what it would be like for a third-row passenger to experience a full-throttle launch in the P85D.

What's its specialty?

Using its dual-motor system to bring a smile to the faces of its passengers, and imbuing a green conscience in performance cars.

Most innovative feature?

The Tesla Model S P85D's most innovative feature is existential: the fact that it exists. No other car company has come close to delivering on the promise of an electric vehicle with the usability of a gas-powered car.

How's the competition?

Non-existent, for now, although one could argue that the Model S P85D is competing for the attention of the sports car lover, the green car enthusiast, and the affluent family at once. Bearing that in mind, the entire sub-$100,000 space, as well as everything from a 707-hp Dodge Challenger Hellcat to a seven-passenger crossover, is fair game.

Overall:

The dual-motor setup changes the game by leaving any competitors far, far behind.

Highs:

Blinding performance, range of 250 miles per charge, complimentary access to Tesla Superchargers, sleek design, room for five (or seven), intuitive interior interface, an amazing effort from a startup car company that continues to impress us.

Lows:

Performance-car acceleration without the brakes and steering to match, flat seats, wind noise creeps in at highway speed, luxury price without luxurious accommodations, sporadic network of dealers and service stations.

The ideal setup:

Loaded. The Model S P85D is already the top of its line, but there are ways to make it more luxurious. Spring for Autopilot ($2500), which combines smart cruise control and a self-parking feature as part of a package to make driving less stressful. The air suspension ($2500) is also a must, in order to avoid unsightly scrapes-and to impress friends. The "Subzero weather" package ($1000) was useful for winter trips like ours, and we liked the carbon fiber spoiler ($1000) on our car, but it is far from necessary for aerodynamic improvements. And the coolest option, by far, is the rear-facing third-row ($3000) that wasn't installed on our tester. At that price, closer to 120 grand, the Model S P85D rivals the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz S-class.

By the numbers: 2015 Tesla Model S P85D

MSRP: $106,200 (includes $1200 destination charge, without local incentives)

Power / drive wheels: Dual electric motors, 691-hp / all-wheel drive

Transmission: Single-speed automatic transmission

In showrooms: Now

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