Payne: The Ludicrous Tesla Model S P90D

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

For two decades Cadillac and Lincoln have struggled to catch up with the Teutonic Threesome of BMW, Mercedes, and BMW. With its first sedan, Tesla has not only caught the Germans, it has forced them to respond with their own e-vehicles. The top-of-the-line, Model S P90D I drove this fall has BMW good looks, Mercedes room, Audi-like AWD — with the performance of a Porsche 911 Turbo thrown in for good measure.

Tesla Model S, P90D

Oh, yeah. And it’s Made in America in Fremont, California.

Tesla’s secret is that it went back to the automotive drawing board. Built a new car from the ground up. Where Detroit manufacturers tweaked existing gas-engine platforms to create electric vehicles, Tesla re-imagined the automobile as an electronic product. An iAuto for the iPhone age. As Teslaphiles like to say: “Elon Musk didn’t set out to make the best luxury electric car, he set out to make the best car.”

The Cadillac ELR is a luxe plug-in built on GM’s compact Delta II platform. A Chevy Volt in a tux. The Model S is an all-new chassis built for floor-mounted lithium-ion batteries, passenger seating for up to seven, and the acceleration of a Lamborghini Murciélago.

Before we go any further, dear readers, let’s address the elephant in the room: Tesla is a wedge issue.

The Model S’ 17-inch touchscreen controls most of the car’s functions.

Whenever I write about Musk’s company, the comments section erupts in hand-to-hand combat about Tesla’s, um, cozy ties to Washington. Fashionably green, Tesla scored $465 million in taxpayer loans and $7,500 in subsidies for each of its wealthy customers. You didn’t volunteer to fund Musk’s startup with a Kickstarter contribution and a promise of some Model S swag. It came out of your tax bill. Tesla even compromised Consumer Reports, which got so drunk on green Kool-Aid it gave the Model S a super-perfect grade of 103 even as Tesla flunked Reliability 101. Huh?

Politics, politics, politics. Musk would be wise to separate car and state. If it had earned its stripes the hard way like Ford’s Model T, the Model S would get more respect.

Because let’s face it, Musk-haters, the S is one of the best cars ever made.

Take my $139,700 P90D, a performance upgrade of the Model S in the spirit of BMW’s M or Audi’s S badges. After piloting one for a day, you don’t want to drive anything else. It’s like returning to your old flip phone after the first time you used an iPhone. Ho hum.

But of course, you say, any car that costs north of $100K is gold. The gorgeous Audi S7, roomy, Merc S-class, techy BMW i8, ferocious Porsche 911 Turbo. But the thing about the Model S — like the smartphone — is it does everything well. It’s gorgeous, palatial, high-tech, and blindingly quick. It’s a S7-S-Class-i811 Turbo. What other car on the planet can pick up a family of five and luggage at Detroit Metro — then snap off a three second 0-60 time at the first stoplight? Gas-free?

You’ll want to warn the family first, though.

Unlike gas engine 0-60 sprints, the Tesla strikes quietly, violently. Prep a BMW M3 sedan in launch mode requires a checklist before releasing the brake and storming off. It’s exhilarating, loud, and a one-way ticket to the local sheriff’s office.

Not the stealthy P90D. Just stomp the gas — er, pedal. Like the base, rear-motor-driven P70, the e-acceleration is instant. Twice as instant. With another motor driving the front wheels and 20 more kWh in the battery pack, the P90D develops a shocking, 1.1 forward G-loads on its way to 60 mph in just 2.8 seconds. I feel a brief sensation of light-headedness.

They call it, appropriately, “Ludicrous” mode.

I sought out a surgeon friend to explain my dizziness. My race car will build up a neck-taxing 2.2 side-Gs in a long sweeper, but what is an instant 1.1 forward-Gs doin’ to my noggin,’ doc? He explained my inner ear momentarily loses balance due to the sudden thrust. Good to know.

I invited Sean Maloney of Grosse Pointe — owner of a 2013 Model S P60 — to the P90D drag races. With theme park ride-like efficiency, we repeatedly stomped dizzying acceleration times. It was Cedar Point in Detroit. Sean also demonstrated the S’s physics-defying athleticism.

On top of the already porky Model S, the P90D’s extra motor and battery brings the scales to 4,950 pounds. That’s the same weight as a Ford F-50 pickup. Yet unlike the F150 – or anything else for that matter — Tesla’s design puts all its weight in the floor giving it the same center-of-gravity as a 2,465-pound, Scion FR-S.

Sean and I drove the Model S around I-94 cloverleafs like a sports car. That’s not the way he commutes to Dearborn each morning, of course.

If driven with discipline, the S overcomes an electric car’s inherent range anxiety. Tesla boasts 240 miles for the base Model S (270 for the P90D), but Maloney conservatively stays within a 160-mile radius — enough to get him to Lansing and back.

But push the envelope and the e-generation will bite. A Chicago friend pointed his Model S towards St. Louis at 80 mph on the freeway and soon feared he wouldn’t make the first, Tesla-provided supercharging station along the way. Achieving 240-mile range means driving 65.

For all its performance bravado, the P90D doesn’t have to be flogged to be enjoyed. Inside the hushed cabin, the 17-inch — 17-inch! — iPad console is a technical wonder featuring the latest Nvidia graphics chip that renders your route in glorious, Google Earth detail. Just as importantly, Tesla’s digital instrument cluster displays the nav route in addition to mph, range, and music station, so you never have to take your eyes off the road.

The Model S has its flaws. Like losing $4,000 per car. And it’s expensive, has limited range, and is reliability-challenged. Owners don’t seem to sweat the reliability given the absurdly low operating costs. Consider a Savannah, Georgia pal who has put 15,276 miles on his S over two years while recharging during Georgia Power’s off-peak rate of 1.3 cents/kWh. That’s a total re-fueling cost of just $65.85. Or the price of gassing up a Porsche Panamera. Once.

My iAuto had not yet downloaded the latest 7.0 software upgrade to enable autonomous driving. So I won’t regale you with efforts to drive hands-free. I prefer hands-on, thank you very much. Cloverleaf rim-shots. Zero-60 bursts.

Like owner Mahoney says: “It never gets old.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com, Twitter @HenryEPayne or HenryPayne.com.

2015 Tesla Model S P90D

Vehicle type: Electric, all-wheel-drive, five- or seven-passenger sports sedan

Price: $105,670 base ($139,700 as tested)

Power plant: 90 kWh lithium-ion battery

Power: 762 horsepower; front motor: AC induction, 221 hp, 243 pound-feet; rear: AC induction, 470 hp, 443 pound-feet

Transmission: One-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.8 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 4,950 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 84 mpg city/88 mpg highway MPe (Car & Driver est.)

Report card

Highs: Game-changing performance; iPad console

Lows: Range anxiety; plastic grille thingy


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★