Tesla Model X - Smart SUV
It only takes two tugs of your finger to become irrelevant. One tug of the Mercedes sourced stalk turns on cruise control. A second tug turns on “AutoPilot”, Tesla’s autonomous driving program. A simple chime tells me I’ve gone from driver to passenger.
We’re in the Model X, Tesla Motors second all-original model and their long awaited seven seat SUV. This model has been teased for years and remains un-driven by most of our car-journalist peers. To get some time in this fully-loaded P90D signature series Model X we traveled to Phoenix, Arizona and met up with Randy who owns this new model and three versions of the Model S sedan. He’s an unofficial ambassador of all things Tesla.
The “AutoPilot” autonomous mode is available on the sedan as well as this new SUV, but this is our first chance to experience the very latest in software updates from Tesla. The X and S share a huge number of parts and technology, working off the same chassis, drivetrain, interface, and software. In fact, even the Dual-motor “Ludicrous” mode is part of the sedan’s options sheet, leaving the X as something you only get because you want an SUV.
Except for the doors. This “Falcon” design has been a topic of much discussion since it was first announced, and seeing them in person is impressive. The elaborate system of sensors, joints, and motors senses obstacles and folds back to leave only a thin spine of the roof. When I climb into the rear seat and touch the close button it beeps at me and does nothing. I tap the button again, and though it is supposed to be one touch and close, I get the same beep and inaction. Apparently, at 6’ 3” I’m tall enough to seem like an obstruction and the door will only close if I hold the button and sit very still.
Like most issues with a Tesla, I expect a solve will be sent in some future software update. There’s an element of beta testing in these cars, a direct result of the Silicon Valley thinking behind this brand. While other car makers may be thinking about a revision for next model year or the mid-cycle refresh, Tesla is pushing a software patch to your car’s Wi-fi overnight.
Driving the Model X, or being driven by the Autopilot, actually feels a lot like traveling in an SUV smartphone. Apple’s old slogan of “think different” keeps coming to mind as I try out various Tesla-designed features. The front doors don’t have the pop out handles of the S sedan, opting instead for an auto open feature that guesses when you want to get in and closes automatically when you touch the brake. The windshield is enormous, curving up over the driver’s head to almost behind the driver’s seat. The sun visors pull around to a magnetic clasp on the floating rearview mirror and seem to hang in space in front of you.
Strangely, all these new ideas make me realize the “normal” way of doing things is sometimes better. In sun-baked Arizona, this Model X owner has covered the extra windshield with an extra dark tint. The falcon wing doors take far longer to move than any other door configuration, and the front doors open and close so much it seems like a game of whack-a-mole. It’s all very interesting to see, and provides great theatrical things to show your friends, but I wonder if the novelty will wear off and leave an owner wishing for simpler things.
The press kit for the Model X has a sense of grandeur about it, exactly in tune with some of the extra glowing coverage Tesla models have received. During the explanation of the front doors it asks “Why should the driver ever need to touch the door?” as if Tesla has discovered the answer to a long-suffering question for drivers everywhere.
In truth, the Model X is incredibly impressive, but isn’t concerned with the things we seek out on our show. The actual driving enjoyment is overshadowed by technology and party tricks, leaving me with an interesting experience to discuss, but a review focused on entirely different things. The way the doors work, the touch screen interface, and the automated features could be part of a hotel review or a real estate writeup instead of discussions about a car. The Model X isn’t something to drive as much as it is a place to be.
So what about Ludicrous mode?
The P90D Model X can do 0-60 in 3.2 seconds. I’ve driven very few cars that can match that pace and it is impressive no matter how you do it. In the case of the X, it hunkers and fires forward, torturing all available grip and surging with the instant torque electric provides. The feeling is more similar to an electromagnetic rollercoaster than the launch of a vehicle. It’s a show-off feature tailor-made to amaze friends and family members. The side-effect of this acceleration is instant passing and merging in any situation or conditions. I suspect most owners of the S or X will find themselves spoiled by the instant thrust. On the freeway, no one can touch you. Considering the X weighs 5,500 lbs, it’s difficult to wrap your brain around such impressive capability.
And yet, like the falcon doors, the ludricrous mode feels like a party trick that doesn’t speak to the core skills of the Model X. This model is incredibly roomy, with great storage thanks to the combination of the frunk and the back hatch. It feels as natural and intuitive as your smart phone. And it really will drive itself, taking the hassle out of commuting and roadtrips. It’s a family hauler (in many senses of the word) but like many SUVs, it isn’t engaging to drive.
The Model X can’t hide its size in corners and offers video game style feedback. But, there are a lot of features and technology working to help this Model X handle. It ducks in quickly with a tight steering ratio and the dual motors shift power independently to help the X dig through corners. The batteries in the floor keep the center of gravity low and give the X a grounded feel. Other two-ton SUVs or Mini-vans feel thick and heavy-cabined by comparison. Unfortunately, even with the heigh-adjustable air suspension in sport mode and a dedication to speed, I find the Model X distant, digital, and not much fun. Hoping back and forth between the Model X and our rental minivan I realize the van feels heavier, but no less engaging on the same road.
So I’m left with a vehicle that is an event. The Model X is unique, and special. But the features I like the most have nothing to do with driving. I’m impressed by the Autopilot, the touchscreen, and the instant passing when needed. It doesn’t feel like a car. It feels like the first in a long future of transportation pods. It defies a traditional car review.
I’m impressed. I’m glad I had the chance to experience the Model X. But my interest is entirely intellectual. I’m not in love.