Part of our recent family trip to Europe included a road trip of about 200 miles each way. Rather than renting an ICE car, we splurged a little and booked a Tesla Model X from Whitecar.
They dropped the car off at our house at 10am on Wednesday morning, and after a quick intro to the car, and a walk around “video” to capture any damage, we were soon packed up and ready to leave. With about 140 miles of range left in the battery, we could easily make it to the superchargers near Winchester, but not all the way to our destination, just outside of Exeter, Devon.
The Car, Inside & Out
I find the styling of the exterior somewhat bland, but the panoramic glass roof is fantastic. The gull-wing doors we found more annoying than useful, especially when they did not open fully – several of our group bumped their heads on them.
On the subject of the doors, all of them are power operated. Approaching the vehicle with the key in your pocket automatically opens the driver’s door (and depressing the brake peddle once seated closes it again). From the giant screen it is possible to open and close any door (except the frunk), and there is a handy ‘close all’ button for when you’re ready to depart and want to make sure everybody is locked in tight.
Inside, the driver’s space is dominated by the giant touch screen. Unlike the new Model 3 though, the X has a “conventional” dash screen in front of the steering wheel. The content of the screen is somewhat configurable using the rollers on the steering wheel. The giant screen provides access to navigation, audio controls, climate control, car settings and more. While parked, this screen is great, but when driving we found it to be quite hard to use while keeping attention on the road. Even for simple things like adjusting the climate controls.
The steering wheel, control stalks behind it and window controls are essentially Mercedes-Benz parts, although they have dropped the paddles from the steering wheel and changed the in-wheel switches for small rollers instead. The rollers feel noticeably lower quality than I’m used to from our Mercedes cars, but they were still functional once you got used to how they work (our Audi has similar clickable rollers, so the learning curve was not that steep).
The seating was OK, but noticeably less cushioned that our Mercedes. We had the six seat configuration, so two in each row. The seats in the last row, as is common in three row SUVs, are very small. The middle row seats were OK and had good legroom. But all the rear seat passengers complained that the seats were not that soft, and with the relatively hard default mode suspension, they were feeling all the bumps.
The front seats were also not that soft, but the biggest complaint about them was the, apparently, fixed position headrests. These were diamond shaped inserts in the seat backs, and for me (at 6’2″ tall), the bottom corner of the diamond was digging into my back between my shoulder blades the entire time.
One other minor niggle, when the button on the side of the middle row is pressed to allow the rear seat passenger to exit, the middle row and front row seats slide forward to make space. Very clever, unless you happen to be sitting in the driver’s seat when it happens. Given it has sensors in all seats (it was able to tell me who didn’t have their seat belt on), it seems like a bug that it would allow the driver to be compressed into the steering wheel like that, even when parked.
This is where the Model X shone. All the complaints about controls and seats fade away when you experience the acceleration available. It is even more amazing when you consider the size (and weight) of the vehicle. At the request of one passenger, we did most of the trip in “chill” mode, but I did have a chance to try out the standard mode and it does not disappoint. Our Mercedes B Class accelerates amazingly well (it is also Tesla powered, though with a smaller battery and only one motor), but the 90D was much quicker off the line, and in the 30-60 acceleration.
Handling was fantastic. The steering felt good, and the car cornered far better than something its size would normally (this is common for EVs though as the heavy battery packs are typically located under the floor pushing the centre of gravity very low). It is a large car, so some of the narrow roads around the west country in the UK were a little tight. The lane awareness graphic on the dash helped a bit. The warnings (especially the one with ‘STOP’ in red on the dash) less so – they seemed to be badly panicked by the bushes and other plants along side the car even when there was plenty of space.
Visibility was great in front – the extended glass of windshield makes for a completely unobstructed forward view. The rear visibility was not as good. The slope of the rear window, combined with the spoiler splitting it, make the rear visibility a bit limited. A backup camera makes that a non-issue for reversing, and in normal driving it was sufficient to see whether there was something behind me.
Auto-Pilot & Cruise Control
Much of our trip was on motorways (UK equivalent of freeways), so we had a chance to test both the adaptive cruise control and the auto-pilot features of the car.
The adaptive cruise control is very effective, especially during the segments of the trip where there was traffic. Setting the max speed was totally intuitive and the car just kept that speed until the cars in front slowed, then it slowed smoothly to maintain a safe distance.
The auto-pilot was not as impressive. In normal circumstances, it was able to steer around the gentle bends on the motorway, although I needed to keep holding the wheel lightly at least. Its steering was not as smooth however, and I received complaints from those in the back who suffer from motion sickness that it was ‘jerking’ the wheel. In reality, it seemed to be iterating the steering – making lots of small adjustments. An experienced human driver would most likely be able to steer more smoothly into a curve.
The auto-pilot was also not able to see when the lane next to us was free and move around a slower moving vehicle that we had caught up with. I was unable to convince it to change lanes automatically using the turn signals either (and I see online that others have also experienced this). Without that feature, every time we caught up to a slower car, I was forced to take over and move around the slower car before re-engaging the auto-pilot.
Additionally, on our return journey the car unexpectedly hit the brakes in the middle lane of the M3 motorway. I managed to disable it before it stopped the car completely, and my best guess was that it was confused by the dark shadow cast over the width of the motorway by an overhead gantry/bridge. Needless to say, that did not get complimentary comments from the rear of the car, and was the last time we used the auto-pilot. I am a big believer in the future of self driving tech, but I am also a little skeptical that Tesla’s solution is advanced enough to be trusted, especially after the experience we had with it, in what should have been ideal conditions for it.
While this is another configurable item, the standard mode for the regenerative braking is likely to surprise people who have not driven an EV before, and even some who have if they’ve not played with the settings for the regenerative braking in their car. By default, the Tesla is quite aggressive with regen. Lifting your foot from the accelerator, even slightly, causes a dramatic deceleration. It isn’t quite the single pedal driving that cars like the new Nissan Leaf have, but it is close – you’ll only need the brake pedal to come to a full stop in most scenarios.
Our B Class has this mode too, but selectable via the paddles on the steering wheel (the ones that the Tesla doesn’t have – instead, to change modes in the Tesla you need to navigate through the settings on the touch screen, probably while parked safely somewhere).
By default, the Mercedes uses its forward looking radar to apply regen automatically when needed as traffic slows in front of it, but otherwise has very light regen when you lift your foot from the pedal. In that mode it feels very much like an ICE car to drive, making the transition easy for new EV owners. One click of the left paddle makes it more like the Tesla and close to single pedal driving. Click the right paddle instead and regen all but disappears allowing the car to coast freely instead when you lift off the accelerator.
Personally, I like the more aggressive regen, and will often drive in that mode in our B Class, but I suspect some, especially those driving a Tesla as their first EV, will be a little surprised by it.
Entering our destination into the giant Google Maps based navigation system got us a route along with a planned stops at a supercharger near Winchester. That stop was initially predicted to be at the perfect time for us to grab a bite to eat, and the supercharger was located at a hotel that had a restaurant, perfect for getting lunch.
The first setback to the plan, while not inducing any range anxiety at all, was that the traffic we encountered on the way delayed us, pushing lunch out by almost an hour. Fine for the adults, but not as good for the two children in our group.
The second setback came when we arrived at the charger. Despite the Winchester location being almost the ideal mid-point in the journey from the south east to the south west of the UK, there were just two superchargers at the hotel. For comparison, the one we used in Devon (Dart’s Farm) had eight and the one we used on the way home, at Fleet services, had eight active and four more wrapped in plastic waiting to be activated. When we arrived, both chargers were in use, and it was a good 45 minutes before one became available (and there was a line of Teslas waiting at that point). Rather than a relaxed lunch in the restaurant, I ended up eating in the car waiting for a charger.
As I mentioned, the other two locations we used we pulled into and had no problem getting a space. The charging time was also fantastic. At Dart’s Farm we went from almost empty to 100% while the kids played and we grabbed a quick lunch. At Fleet, we also reached 100% in the time it took us to grab a quick dinner in the services.
The superchargers were also incredibly simple to use: just plug in and go. Compared to apps and RFID cards required by the other networks, the Tesla chargers are infinitely easier to use. One of the things that struck me as a major flaw in the design of the commonly used charging protocols (J1772, CCS) is the lack of a proper, secure digital channel that could identify the car to the charger. Improving this experience will take an industry wide experience.
To be honest, the build quality of the car we had was for the most part fine. The interior had no obvious rattles or loose parts. The controls, unsurprisingly given their provenance, all felt solid too. Some of the materials, and especially the seating, felt maybe a little below par for a car in the price bracket that the Model X occupies, but perhaps I have been been spoiled by Mercedes materials – even our lowly B Class has more comfortable seating than the Model X.
The one place I did notice as being out of alignment was the rear hatch door where it met the bodywork. The trunk lid was noticeably raised compared to the bodywork adjacent to it.
To be fair, this car had been involved in a minor bump with the previous renter, though the damage from that was in the bodywork & bumper on the opposite side to this (and the trunk lid alignment on the damaged side was actually good).
I was seriously hoping to fall in love with the Model X, but sadly I think it has confirmed for me that, while I totally support all that they’re doing (full disclosure: I own a very small amount of Tesla stock), and I remain impressed by everything they’re achieving, in my opinion, they are still falling short in one key area: being a car.
The interior of the Model 3, for me, is moving even further away from where I think a car should be. Perhaps, when cars reach the point where we can tell them where we want to go and they just drive themselves there completely unaided, a single large screen will make sense. In the mean time, I’d rather have controls I can use without needing to look down at a screen. Even the Model X, which is no where near as minimal as the Model 3, had too many controls on the touch screen for my liking. Something as simple as changing the temperature setting for the climate control should not require me to take my eyes off the road.
I will end, however, by saying that the acceleration is addictive. It is in our Mercedes EV, but it is even more so in the Tesla.