Cruising the Continent in a Tesla: How we drove 1,000 miles on electricity

We took a Tesla on a mighty road trip across Europe to see how easy it is to drive a long distance powered by electricity alone.

Last time I attempted a road trip in an all-electric car, it ended up on the back of a tow truck. Twice. That's why I decided to try it again, but with double the distance to travel and a huge time constraint hanging over my head.

The plan this time was to drive 1,000 miles from London, down the whole length of France and into Spain, ending in Barcelona. I'd allowed two days to do it so I'd arrive just in time for Mobile World Congress -- a huge mobile phone trade show that CNET attends every year. I was told in no uncertain terms by my bosses that missing the show was simply not an option.

No pressure then.

The car I'd chosen for the journey was a Tesla Model S 90D. With its theoretical range of around 300 miles, I was confident it was the car I'd need to cover the distance ahead. Together with my kind and amazingly patient colleague Luke Westaway -- who captured our trip in the videos embedded below -- I'd carefully planned the route and calculated the distances we had to cover between charging points down to the mile.

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A very early start

At 3 in the morning on a drizzly Thursday, I picked Luke up and we left London, heading 95 miles south to Folkestone. There, we drove the Tesla onto a train carriage, and sped under the sea in the Channel Tunnel before reemerging in northern France, only half an hour later. Just outside Calais was our first stop at one of Tesla's superchargers in the car park of a hotel.

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We drove the Tesla onto a train, which then sped under the sea to get us to France.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

We'd be relying on Tesla's superchargers the whole way. They deliver huge amounts of power to the car, giving us half our range back from only 20 minutes of charging, with a full charge from flat taking a little over an hour. We gave the car a full charge in Calais -- more than enough to get us to our next stop in Chalons en Champagne, 200 miles away.

At least, that's what we thought. While the car indicated that we had plenty of range to reach the next charger, the GPS navigation system built into the 17-inch touchscreen insisted that we make a detour to a different charging point in Lille. It seemed that if the GPS found a different charger on the way to our destination, it would always insist we stopped there. We were confused by the mixed signals the car was giving us but, not wanting to get stranded, we erred on the side of caution and headed for Lille.

When we arrived at the supercharger, the car still suggested that we had enough range to get us to our next scheduled stopping point. That again made us wonder why it had insisted we make a detour, adding not only driving time but charging time as well. Still, we gave the car a quick 30-minute top-up and then got on the road again.

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The supercharger outside of Chalons en Champagne, 151 miles from Lille, was the first one we found not in the car park of a chain of business hotels -- instead it was next to an independent and quite charming hotel that was also home to two very friendly dogs. That said, as it was still some way from a town centre, we weren't able to spend the charging time buying snacks and water. Also, since the hotel's restaurant was closed (it was off-season), we had to settle for an espresso from the bar while we waited another hour for the car to fully charge.

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Some lovely dogs kept us company while we waited for the car to charge.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The remote location of the Tesla's superchargers became a constant of the trip, but I was impressed that of all those we visited, there was room to charge eight cars at once. On our last road trip through the heart of the UK, we ran into a big problem when the single charging point we reached in Wales -- at the end of the car's range -- was out of order.

Our planned route should have taken us to the supercharger at Beaune, 188 miles away from Chalons en Champagne. Here again, though, the car's GPS had different ideas. It insisted that we stop at an additional supercharger in Auxerre, a 104-mile drive. We heeded its advice and took the detour, but this one was more annoying than our side trip to Lille. Not only did it add over 20 miles of extra driving, it took us along country roads in a rural part of France. The speed limit was lower, so we couldn't travel as fast and the additional braking and accelerating around the corners and out of junctions meant that we weren't driving economically. Not only was it taking us longer to reach the charger, we'd have needlessly burned more range by the time we got there.

Finding our groove

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Playing it safe had serious consequences. All of those additional detours and unscheduled charges made our driving time balloon out of control. While we planned to arrive at our overnight stop in the city of Orange by 6 p.m., by 10 p.m. we were still over 100 miles away. And as we'd been awake since 2 that morning, we decided it was too dangerous to push on so we grabbed two rooms in an Ibis hotel, just south of Lyon. We plugged the car into the hotel's supercharger and bedded down for the night.

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One of the many charging stations we used on our trip, almost all of which were hidden away at the back of business hotels.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At 6:45 the following morning we unplugged the car from the charger and planned our next stint. We'd learned a lot from the day before; crucially that the car's GPS was overly conservative in its range estimates. So today we would ignore the suggested detours, and instead simply consider how far we had to drive between charges and how much range was available.

This tactic made for a much more relaxing drive and the chance to really get to know the car. And it's one hell of a car. It has a luscious leather interior, it'll out-accelerate most things on the road and it's packed with tech that makes it an utter dream to drive.

Dynamic cruise control kept us at a set speed while slowing down when it detects anything in the road ahead. Sensors on the outside can "see" the lines on the road and allow the car to steer itself, always keeping within the lines. A quick tap on the indicator and the car will even change lanes for you. That worked 90 percent of the time and on long stints on motorways (which made up the vast majority of our journey), these features made driving a breeze.

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With the sun out and the sunroof open, we started to really enjoy our drive.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

We even found time to take our own detour, off the motorway and along a coastal road, enjoying the sun and blue sky of the south of France, a glorious change from the grey skies and snow we endured up north. A few hundred miles and three charges in hotel car parks later we had crossed the border into Spain and made our way to Barcelona El Prat airport, where I was to leave the car in storage. We'd made it.

Lessons learned

It wasn't an easy trip, but our second attempt at an all-electric drive was a success. We drove 1,000 miles in the Tesla Model S, clean across the continent from London to Barcelona, powered only by electricity. And not a tow truck to be seen. Even better, Luke and I weren't going to get fired.

Our success shows that electric driving works, even over very long distances. The Tesla is not just great for city driving where chargers are common, it's perfectly capable of eating up the road over long distances, just like any of its petrol-powered cousins.

I did learn a lot though, and here are the main lessons I've taken away:

Planning is crucial: With electric charging points still far less common than petrol stations, you need to know exactly where your next charge is and whether you have enough range to make it.

Never stop thinking: Your car's range varies heavily based on your driving style, the terrain, traffic and even the weather. Charging times too will depend on whether you're charging a flat battery or a half-full one.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Tesla's GPS doesn't always know best: Most of our time problems stemmed from the car's GPS insisting on stopping at extra charging points, even though we had enough range to continue our journey. While we eventually learned to trust that the car had the range to carry on, it always felt a bit risky ignoring the GPS recommendations. Tesla needs to work on its GPS software to give better indications of whether you can make your destination or not.

Tesla's chargers are great, but tucked away: The chargers are extremely powerful and are the quickest way to fill up the batteries, but it's a shame that those found across continental Europe seemed to all be in the back of Ibis, Mercure or Novotel hotels. Not only that, but these chain hotels were on the outskirts of towns, far away from shops. While Luke and I were happy to pass the time drinking espressos, if you're travelling with kids, you'll need to take a lot of entertainment for them to pass the time.

Above all, enjoy the ride: Yes, we had to think about our distances and range a lot more than we would have done in a petrol car, but it made the drive seem like a real adventure. The car was a pleasure to be in and once the weather picked up it was sheer bliss cruising down the continent.

Don't think that electric cars are only limited to cities. As long as you've done the planning, you can enjoy a long-distance electric cruise with no trouble at all.