Test-Driving Tesla’s Model S P85D: Touchscreen Fits Bill, 'Insane Mode' Thrills

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Is there anything left to be said about Tesla’s (TSLA) all-electric flagship $75,000-to-$125,000 hatchback? From the perspective of having tested perhaps over 100 other new cars since writing my initial review of the Tesla Model S in August 2012, yes, there is.

As with laptops and smartphones, competitive benchmarks and goal posts shift with time. The more you test, the more you learn. As far as Tesla’s Model S is concerned, the most important things that changed with the car itself since the car started shipping in the middle of 2012 are the addition of an electric motor for the front wheels, various sensors for assisted driving features, and of course a variety of software updates for greater usability.

With that, let’s return to benchmarking the Tesla experience, almost three years later:

Getting into the car, the seat has been slightly improved and is one of the best in the industry. Even more importantly, I found the seating position to be equally good, just about flawless. Completing the ergonomic picture, the steering wheel is very good too -- large and thick, most like those provided by BMW.

The front seat experience is substantially on par with most upper-level BMWs and Mercedeses, but perhaps beaten only slightly by the best from Volvo and Volkswagen or Audi. Around the driver’s seat, however, the Tesla oddly lacks any door pockets, and the center console is not conducive for holding a variety of small items. The cupholders are very poor.

Where Tesla excels in the interior experience is clearly with the big touchscreen. The easy of use is superior to most automakers -- but not all -- and some of the functions are simply in a class by themselves.

Specifically:

1. The size of the mapping experience is miles ahead of the competition.

2. The ability to keep the rear view camera turned on while driving is unique and useful.

When it comes to temperature controls, I don’t see the touchscreen improving over traditional knobs that you will find in superior ease-of-use format in a many regular cars -- especially less expensive ones -- from Fiat-Chrysler (FCAU), Toyota (TM), Nissan and many others. The other question is about future compatibility with Apple’s (AAPL) CarPlay and Google’s (GOOGL) Android Auto. Most automakers have announced availability of both of those two within months from now, but as far as I know, no word from Tesla on any such compatibility.

Other automakers have taken note of Tesla’s fresh approach to infotainment and the large touchscreen. You will soon start to see vastly improved systems from companies such as Volvo, Volkswagen and Jaguar, that clearly show inspiration from Tesla’s approach. In some cases, this means larger screens, more user-friendly software and over-the-air updates.

The Tesla’s back seat has been slightly re-sculpted, but remains tight for foot and knee space as well as head space. A Volkswagen Golf feels more comfortable for two people in the back. On the positive side, the car is exceptionally wide -- 77.3 inches -- so there is decent room for three people. The luggage space is industry-leading in the back, and despite the addition of front-wheel-drive, there remains a small but useful space as a “frunk.”

Where Tesla excels is in the acceleration, braking and to some extend also handling experience. All electric cars share part of the acceleration and braking character, but Tesla’s acceleration is just so much more. The novelty value is high.

I kept launching it in "insane mode," going from 0-to-60 miles-per-hour in three seconds over and over again until I literally got car sick. It’s like driving on Laguna Seca Raceway (paid for by Mazda) for the first time -- I can only take so many laps before I start to feel ill.

As with other electric cars -- most notably the BMW i3 -- regenerative braking is outstanding and makes for an exceptionally smooth stop-and-go experience. Handling is excellent thanks to the low center of gravity, wide tires and superb grip. The steering is on par with the best, and reminded me of the Porsche Panamera.

Tesla’s advantage goes away when you put the car in cruise control on the freeway. At that point, the powertrain differentiation disappears. It feels and sounds just like any other equivalent car -- obviously with an excellent seating position and the big touchscreen.

This isn’t the place to discuss the general advantages and disadvantages of gasoline-diesel versus electric, or hybrid gasoline-electric engines. (I have covered, and will continue to cover that, in other articles.) Suffice it to say that people are different both in terms of needs, preferences, economic purchasing power and ability (or lack thereof) to charge at home or at the office. Some people enjoy fiddling with the electric cord every day; others can’t stand it. Neither side of the debate has any understanding of the other.

I didn’t see the price tag of the particular car I drove, but I backed into $125,000 before tax adjustments. That almost perfectly lined up with a $117,000 Mercedes CLS 63 AMG I am also driving this week.

In the recent months, I have also driven other expensive performance cars, from the BMW M4 ($80,000) to the Nissan GT-R ($113,000). The long and short of it is that all of these fancy performance cars fall short of the Tesla in terms of the basic test drive experience. Some have terrible infotainment systems and failed to pair Bluetooth, and the stop-go powertrain experience can’t match Tesla or most any other electric car for that matter.

Obviously, those cars can be driven anywhere you want without having to worry about refueling, but again that’s not a debate we’re going to settle here. Different people have different tolerance for limitations, and some people simply never drive very far away from home, so it just doesn’t matter for them.

It struck me that the debate about the relative attractiveness of the Tesla Model S has as much to do with picking the right objects of comparison as anything else. In my experience, the Model S excels in comparison with some of those expensive performance cars that I mentioned above.

However, while the comparisons fail in terms of other metrics, the better alternatives to the current Tesla comes from two other categories of cars:

1. Expensive “soft limo” sedans.

Forget the Mercedes AMG and BMW M. Go with the “soft limos” instead, such as Mercedes S550 and Audi A8. Pick them in diesel or plug-in hybrid format. They have plenty of power, but can’t compete with "insane mode" -- but really do you, or should you, care about whether you can do get to 60 miles-per-hour in three seconds or six?

2. Inexpensive cars.

Yes, you read that right. There are plenty of relatively inexpensive cars that provide an outstanding driving experience, making you question any rationale for paying $75,000 or $125,000 for any kind of car -- whether Tesla, Mercedes, BMW or anything else.

If you want an inexpensive performance car that is immensely satisfying in every single dimension, look no further than the all-new four-wheel drive 2015 VW Golf R, which sells for just under $40,000, loaded. If you don’t need all of that performance, but want more luggage space, get the VW Golf Sportwagen, which has about as much room as an SUV but handles like a sports car and has the best engine in the business.

Other Purchase Considerations

The Tesla Model S drive experience is unique in that the car has a special composition of characteristics that simply are not found in any other car in the market. It is not directly comparable with any other car, for better or for worse. As such, it makes a comparison inherently extremely subjective.

Purchase considerations are also not all about the initial test drive experience. After your house, the car is probably the second-most expensive item you will buy in your life. You also have to consider the longer-term costs and risks.

For example, how will the technology hold up over the long run? Yes, the car has an unlimited warranty for eight years, but what happens after that? The 12 volt batteries have been known to fail, as have the electric motors. And what about the big battery after eight years?

In addition, Tesla is a small car company with debt and negative cash flow. As a buyer, what probability do you assign to the risks of Tesla even remaining in business until the warranty runs out?

I can’t answer those questions, but for a buyer those are factors one has to consider and assign relative probabilities compared to the alternatives.

With all that, I will conclude as follows, regarding the Tesla Model S:

1. It is an awesome driving experience, with excellent seating position, great infotainment screen, and the best acceleration, steering, braking and handling for stop-go and lower-speed traffic. It gets an A+ grade.

2. The basic short-range driving experience compares extremely well to expensive competitors such as Mercedes AMG and BMW M.

3. Once you’re on cruise control on the freeway, Tesla’s powertrain differentiation goes away, in terms of its short-range performance.

4. The car is ideally suited for people who have multiple cars or don’t stray too far from home, and they had better be able to charge at home or at the office -- not park on the street overnight and during the day.

5. None of these performance cars, electric or not, priced between $75,000 and $125,000 make any sense when I find that cars priced as little as around $30,000-to-$40,000 are just as good or even better in most aspects. Two models from Volkswagen are, in my view, some of the best examples in the market today: Golf R and Golf Sportwagen.

6. Longer-term unknowns cloud the purchase consideration. We simply don’t know yet how the car will fare after the warranty runs out, or what the risk is to the warranty even before that time.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held AAPL and was short TSLA.

If you liked this article you might like

Tesla and Con Ed to Test Powerpack Battery Systems in New York

Tesla and Con Ed to Test Powerpack Battery Systems in New York

Why I Have Major Concerns Tesla Is a Viable Company

Why I Have Major Concerns Tesla Is a Viable Company

What Stock Market Correction?

What Stock Market Correction?

3 Amazing Dividend Stocks to Buy With the Dow in Turmoil

3 Amazing Dividend Stocks to Buy With the Dow in Turmoil

Let's Just Face It, This Is a Correction

Let's Just Face It, This Is a Correction