Tesla Model X: Getting behind the wheel of an all-electric, high-performance SUV

Tesla's made us wait for its SUV for three and a half years, but now it's finally here. We've had our turn behind the wheel -- join us for our impressions.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
5 min read

It was early in 2012 that Tesla first unveiled the Model X, which at first looked like little more than a taller version of its all-electric Model S sedan . It was easy enough to assume that, with so much similarity between the two, the company would have its SUV on the road by the next year.

That of course would not be the case, but now it's finally here, and we've finally gotten behind the wheel of the thing. We opened those falcon-wing doors, too, and while we'll get to the impressions shortly, first let's dispense with the details. The Tesla Model X is, at least initially, available only in Signature and Founders editions, which are basically fully loaded models with all the options boxes ticked. As such, they're quite expensive.

The Model X P90D Signature, which has a 90kWh battery and 250 miles of range, costs $132,000 (around £87,000 or AU$188,000). Opt for the P90D Founders edition with the "Ludicrous Speed Upgrade" and you'll spend another $10,000 -- though it's a free upgrade to any Model S owner who refers 10 people. Yes, that's a lot of money considering you can get a base Model S for $75,000, but if you option up a Model S with similar options, you'll see it's only about a $5,000 premium over a similar AWD Model S P90D.

Pricing of the base 90D edition isn't available at present, but expect it to start at around $80,000 -- whenever they finally become available. Also, Tesla has added a 70D version of the Model X, which will offer a reduced (220 mile) range on a charge, a 140 mph top speed and a relatively meagre 0 - 60 time of 6.0 seconds.

Tesla Model X rolls off the production line (pictures)

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Regardless of which model you choose, you're getting a roomy, seven-seater SUV that doesn't offer much in the way of off-road pretensions. Instead, this is a sports machine, much more in the mold of a Porsche Cayenne or BMW X5. Its performance backs that up. Even the slowest model, at 4.8 seconds from 0 to 60, compares very favorably to the Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid, which takes 5.4 seconds to match the same speed. Opt for the P90D and you're looking at a 3.8-second 0 to 60 time, while the Ludicrous model gets you there in 3.2. That comes thanks to a 503-horsepower motor in the rear, and a 259-horsepower motor up front. Yes, that's over 750 horsepower combined.

And you feel them. This car weighs a whopping 5,441 pounds, but you'd never know it off the line. It takes off like a slingshot and, if your head isn't already back against the headrest, the car's 713 pound-feet of torque will gladly put it there for you. Regardless of the size of the car, a launch like this is pretty breathtaking.

Its competitive performance extends well beyond acceleration, too. That low-slung battery pack in the floor makes for some of the best handling in its class, handling that isn't too far off from the Model S itself. The car turns in quickly and drives sweetly. In fact, Tesla's so confident of the handling of its SUV versus the competition that it had both a Porsche Cayenne and BMW X5 here, ready for comparison. That battery pack also leads to an SUV that has the lowest rollover risk in its class. Tesla expects five-star safety ratings all-round.

At this evening's unveiling, the Model X was demonstrated to be a fairly capable workhorse. Loaded up with seven passengers and both its front and rear stowage spaces full of cargo and luggage, the electric SUV towed a 5,000-pound trailer onto the stage. Obviously, this level of hauling will affect the EV's range, but by just how much has yet to be determined.

And what about those controversial doors? They open upward, much like on a DeLorean, but with an extra hinge in the middle. On the plus side, this gives very easy access to the rear seats, much like on a van with a sliding door -- but without making the thing look like a van. This is a particular boon if you're strapping little ones into little safety seats. Even if you're a fully grown adult the absence of a door in your path does make getting in and out much easier. The falcon wings open cleanly, but slowly, even in impossibly tight parking spaces. They require only 30cm (12 inches) of space to slide out of the way.

The Model X's main trick: falcon wing doors. Tim Stevens/CNET

Negatives? Parking in low garages does limit the height that the doors can open, but they're equipped with ultrasonic sensors to ensure that they don't smack into the ceiling, and they'll always open at least partially to let you duck out. (Even if the SUV somehow winds up on its roof.) The front doors get a few tricks as well. Both are powered, which means they can be closed by a button on the dash. And the driver's door will even open by itself as you approach. How's that for a warm welcome?

In many ways the interior is very familiar compared to what we've seen in the Model S, and by and large that's a good thing. That massive, central, 17-inch touchscreen infotainment system is here with few changes. You'll control much of the car's heating and cooling, as well as the 17-speaker audio system, through here. The car also has exactly the same driver-assistance and automation features as the Model S, meaning it won't be getting the coveted Autopilot feature earlier.

The structure and layout of the interior, however, is significantly different to the Model S. The biggest change is the windshield. The glass sweeps up and extends behind your head. Tesla calls it a Panoramic windshield, and says it's the biggest curved piece of glass in a production car. It really opens up the cockpit and changes the driving, and the riding, experiences in a big way.

The middle-row seats have a so-called "monopost" configuration that, as you may have guessed, attaches them to the floor via a single post. It's a little like an office chair. This frees up plenty of space beneath the seats on the floor, but it does mean they won't fold down into it.

Tesla Model X preview (photos)

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Should you need room to haul something bigger, Tesla showed that the car will work with a roof rack, though the company suggests that you instead take advantage of the no-cost hitch option on the back. Hanging your bike on a rear-mounted rack actually improves the aerodynamics of the car, whereas throwing your bike on the roof unsurprisingly kills it.

At first, at least, the Model X is not cheap, and with some 25,000 preorders to get through, it'll be about a year before mere mortals can acquire one. However, like the Model S before, the Model X has all the makings of a great car. And with features like semi-autonomous driving on the software roadmap, it should only get better from here. The only question now is: How quickly can Tesla build them?