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2015 Tesla Model S P85D review: With this Tesla, one plus one equals more, more, more

With two drive motors, the new Tesla Model S P85D boasts insane acceleration and all-wheel-drive, while new sensor technology enables adaptive cruise control.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
9 min read

The 2015 Tesla Model S P85D proves that two motors are better than one in an electric car, the additive output rated at 691 horsepower and enabling what Tesla calls Insane acceleration mode. Putting it to the test, I braced myself for wild torque steer, wondering which direction the car might slew as this awesome amount of power ripped rubber from road.

2015 Tesla Model S P85D

2015 Tesla Model S P85D

The Good

With its two-motor electric drive system, the 2015 Tesla Model S P85D gets more range than the electric competition, all-wheel drive and better acceleration than most cars on the road. New sensor hardware adds adaptive cruise control, with more driver-assistance features to come through over-the-air software updates.

The Bad

Built-in third-party apps are limited to Slacker and TuneIn Internet radio. Tesla does not offer LED headlights for the Model S. Limited range and long battery recharge times require more planning for long trips compared to a fossil-fuel car.

The Bottom Line

With ridiculous acceleration, the 2015 Tesla Model S P85D serves as an excellent example of the potential for electric cars and boasts updates that make it compare well feature-for-feature with competitive luxury cars, but most buyers should consider the Model S 85D, trading acceleration for longer range.

One, two, three....power, power, power; there was no struggle with the wheel, no danger of sliding into a field off the side of the road. The 3.2 seconds to 60 mph came on calm and inexorable as a freight train. With a curb weight of 4,647 pounds, about a ton more than the typical super car, the Model S P85D evinced no drama as it let slip its dual dogs of performance.

2015 Tesla Model S P85D
Tesla fits its latest Model S with two drive motors and new sensor hardware, enabling insane acceleration and driver assistnace features. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Tesla launched this new version of the Model S electric car last year, adding a motor to drive the front wheels as well as the rears, giving buyers the option of an all-wheel-drive car. The standard Model S 85D, dual motors with an 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack, goes for $86,070 before tax incentives, and boasts 376 horsepower total with 270 miles of range.

The Model S P85D, the performance variant, comes with the aforementioned 691 horsepower and can make 253 miles from a full charge, according to EPA figures. It goes for a base price of $105,670 in the US, £79,080 in the UK and AU$140,900 in Australia, feeling like a bit of an electric muscle car bargain on any continent.

Everything is better in the Tesla Model S P85D (pictures)

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The Model S P85D retains the same body style as the standard Model S, with one compromise: the front storage compartment under the hood offers about a third less space due to the front motor. Cabin and rear storage space, under the hatchback, remain unchanged.

Other than the dual motors, the Model S P85D showed off a few new tricks gained by the entire Model S line, some due to Tesla's continuing over-the-air software updates and some achieved through new hardware installed on every Model S produced from October of 2014.

Unrealized potential

Up front on the dashboard, the LCD instrument panel showed a gauge graphic with speed, range and power usage. Left of that virtual gauge, a map appeared when I activated route guidance in the navigation system. The right side of the instrument panel could show audio information from the stereo or other items from a driver-selectable menu.

2015 Tesla Model S P85D
Online navigation, powered by Google over a 3G connection, shows route guidance and avoids traffic. Josh Miller/CNET

I saw unrealized potential on this panel, especially when both sides were blank. Tesla could make the left side driver-programmable, maybe offering a screen detailing power usage or current calendar appointments. And this may be a racer's suggestion, but how about a little red tinge of fury on the center gauge when I'm letting the dogs out.

The massive 17-inch touchscreen in the center of the dashboard shows dual or single windows, at the driver's whim, operating with satisfying response due to the underlying Nvidia processor. A static menu line across the top gives immediate access to stereo, navigation, phone, Web browser, energy usage screen and a calendar synced from the driver's phone. A persistent button on the lower left brings up drive settings, such as ride height with the air suspension, steering wheel program including Sport and Comfort, and Insane mode for acceleration.

Along with two USB ports for audio input and Bluetooth audio streaming, I also had built-in Slacker and TuneIn apps using the car's 3G data connection. A Tesla spokesperson could not give me a timeline when the company would offer 4G data, and I would like to see more third-party apps built in, audio and otherwise. Tesla hasn't advanced this app strategy since the car's introduction.

Voice command with the Model S P85D proved frustrating, until realization dawned that I had to hold down the voice button while issuing commands. When requesting music by artist name with voice command, the system switched from my plugged-in USB drive to the Slacker app, effective but not exactly what I wanted.

Voice command works nicely for requesting destinations, an open search similar to how a smartphone's map app responds. Tesla implements Google maps and search in the Model S P85D, so the screen shows multiple destination options based on a search and calculates routes to avoid traffic jams, a feature added last September. I could choose to show satellite imagery from Google Earth on the map, similar to Audi navigation systems. Unlike Audi, there are no stored maps or addresses in navigation, so when out of a cellular data area, navigation is kaput.

2015 Tesla Model S P85D
The Tesla "key" is an RFID transmitter shaped like the car itself. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

No ignition

These useful information panels and systems lit up not when I put a key in an ignition lock (a quaint 20th century convention) but before that, when I got into the car while toting the car-shaped RFID fob. Similarly, if I had the Tesla app on my smartphone, synced with the car, I could unlock it and start it up with that. Merely putting my foot on the brake pedal made the car step from standby to let's-go mode.

Despite the massive horsepower from this Model S P85D's dual motors, keeping it under control while maneuvering through a parking garage, even with Insane model enabled, is no challenge. As with prior Model S cars I've driven, the accelerator was easy to modulate, letting me creep along at 5 mph, hold at 45 mph, or accelerate past 60 mph. With its direct electric power to the motors, the Model S P85D is dead easy to drive. I preferred to leave Creep mode off, keeping the car at a stop if I didn't push the accelerator, but putting it in Creep would make it behave more like a typical automatic transmission car.

2015 Tesla Model S P85D
The Model S P85D gets more range than other electric cars and its acceleration time puts it in the supercar set. Josh Miller/CNET

Then there's the wonder of regenerative braking, which can be set between standard and low. In standard mode it comes on strong, meaning the car slowed rapidly when I lifted off the accelerator, in turn converting more kinetic energy to electricity and storing it in the battery pack for later use. Set to Standard mode, I could almost drive the Model S P85D with one foot, letting it coast down to a stop at traffic lights.

Unlike in a hybrid gasoline-electric car, where the addition of an electric motor into the driveline does not mean an equal addition of horsepower, the extra motor in the Model S P85D contributes 100 percent of its power output to the car's total power. In this version of the Model S, the rear motor puts down 470 horsepower and the front adds 221 horsepower.

And unlike a typical gasoline engine all-wheel-drive car, where torque gets split between front and rear wheels, the Model S P85D's front motor puts all its torque to the front wheels, and the rear motor does a similar job at the rear wheels, while somewhere in the power control electronics software tells the battery how much electricity to send to each motor.

The control software enables a snow mode in the Model S P85D, reducing torque from accelerator input to make it less likely the wheels will lose traction.

During the few dry days I had with the car, there were no slippery roads to test out the dual-motor traction, but I could put the P, as in performance, to the test. Slinging the heavy Model S P85D down a twisty mountain road, it impressed me with more nimble handling than I remembered from previous versions. With the electric power steering set to Sport, the wheel turned with satisfying heft and quick, direct input to the steering rack. I felt as if the nose had retracted, giving the Model S P85D the quick turn-in of a sports car.

Pushing the tires to a tortured squeal, I began to feel the understeer of the standard Model S, but pressure on the accelerator put power to the front wheels, making them dig in for a handling assist. The sport-tuned suspension of the Model S P85D may have been a little harsh on rough asphalt, but it kept the hefty battery weight in check when inertial forces took over.

2015 Tesla Model S P85D
Cornering feels improved with Tesla's dual-motor system. Josh Miller/CNET

Cruising down the highway, I got to try out another new feature of the Model S P85D, adaptive cruise control. New sensor hardware, installed in the Model S line since last October, gives the car a forward-facing camera and 360-degree radar. Turning on cruise control, the car held my set speed until it sensed slower traffic in the lane ahead, at which point it matched and held the slower speeds. This system worked as well as what I've seen in other cars, even bringing the Model S P85D to a complete stop when the car ahead stopped.

When I let the car drift over a lane line, I heard and felt a rumble strip-style warning, the new lane departure warning. However, missing was the lane keeping ability I saw in last year's introduction of the Model S P85D. This feature not only handled the steering on a curving lane, but also enacted a lane change when the driver activated the turn signal, bringing Tesla close to autonomous driving. Tesla promises to roll out new driver assistance features through over-the-air software updates for cars equipped with the new sensor hardware, but there is no definitive timeline for lane keeping assist. Advanced features, such as full steering control, will likely need refinement by Tesla and regulatory approval at federal and state levels.

One thing that does not change with the dual motor Tesla Model is are its recharge times, as the Model S P85D uses the same 85 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack as the single motor versions. The performance-oriented P85D takes a 17-mile range hit compared to its more sedate 85D sibling, but charging times remain the same. That means about 9 hours from zero to full from a standard 240-volt outlet, or about 5 hours using one of Tesla's home charging stations, which pulls greater amperage. Owners can schedule charging to take advantage of cheaper rates from a screen in the car or with the Tesla smartphone app.

The Model S P85D's navigation system also shows the location of Tesla's Supercharger stations, which can charge the car's battery up to 80 percent, 170 miles, in about 30 minutes. Tesla added a new adapter for its charging cable which lets owners plug into CHAdeMO stations, an alternative fast-charging standard used by the Nissan Leaf.

The 253 mile rated range of the Model S P85D is by no means an absolute figure. For a session of driving that involved a couple of Insane starts along with uphill and downhill mountain roads, I covered 36 miles on the odometer but burned 64 miles of the estimated range. When CNET editor Antuan Goodwin got behind the wheel, the rated range of 70 miles quickly disappeared due to freeway driving, but the car delivered useful warnings and suggestions about how to reach the destination programmed into navigation.

2015 Tesla Model S P85D
The Model S P85D is not only an excellent electric car, it shines among the general automotive competition in its price range. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Head of the class

When the Model S came out in 2012, it was a remarkable car, but adding up all the features available from the competition, especially driver assist features, tarnished Tesla's star. The 2015 Tesla Model S P85D picks up on those missing features, catapulting it to the head of the class. Not only does adaptive cruise control help it face the competitive set, the promise of new features based on software updates holds a lot of potential, and Tesla has shown it can keep its promises.

Infotainment features gain quite a bit from software updates issued since I last reviewed a Model S, most notably in traffic routing and voice command. However, the reliance on a data connection for navigation could prove a problem for owners in some areas of the country. Drivers who favor other online music services then Slacker will be stuck using their phones, as Tesla has not advanced its app integration since the initial models.

The Insane mode acceleration in the Model S P85D is a fine party trick, but I'm more impressed with the apparent handling gains from the dual motor system. Those in climates with wintery weather will likely appreciate enhanced traction.

The unique character of the electric drivetrain, with its direct and efficient application of power to the wheels, remains a strong point in the Model S P85D's favor. Compare the over 90 percent power-transmission efficiency of the electrics with the under 40 percent efficiency of a gasoline engine, and Tesla has just about made its case. The Model S P85D's range is better than that of any other production electric vehicle right now, but still far short of gasoline-fueled cars. And lengthy charging times mean more specific planning than a weekly gasoline fill up.

Tech specs

Model 2015 Tesla Model S
Trim P85D
Powertrain 85-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack, 350 kilowatt rear electric motor, 165 kilowatt front electric motor
EPA fuel economy 93 mpg equivalent, 36 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles
Observed fuel economy 41.2 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles
Navigation Standard with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet-based streaming, Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio
Audio system 12-speaker system
Driver aids Adaptive cruise controi, lane departure warning, rear-view camera
Base price $105,670
Price as tested $119,670
2015 Tesla Model S P85D

2015 Tesla Model S P85D

Score Breakdown

Performance 9Features 9Design 9Media 8