It's been a long time coming, but it's finally here. It's the Tesla Model X, the slightly taller, somewhat more practical follow-up to the Model S. It could have been little more than that -- Tesla could have simply given the S a bit of a vertical stretch and called it a day, but the company instead decided to do something a little bit... different, to give the X a signature design element that would set it apart from its fraternal twin.
I am of course referring to the pair of "falcon-wing" doors that provide access to the rear seats, craning skyward at the touch of a button. Iconic statement that will earn this car a place in the history of great designs? Or, misguided case of form trumping function? And, just what's the Model X like to drive compared to the generally excellent Model S? Let's find out.
More than an evolution
The idea was a natural one: slightly expand upon the Model S and turn it into the sort of rig perfect for Monday-morning dashes to school or Friday-afternoon cruises to Aspen. As such, the Model X is bigger, offering more than twice the cargo space of the S if you forgo the third row of seats. But you probably shouldn't, because unlike the novelty way-back area on the Model S, third row seats face forward on the Model X.
As such they become genuinely useful, with enough headroom and legroom (just) for a grown adult such as myself to squeeze back there. Second-row seats, meanwhile, have acres of room, while the heated and air-conditioned thrones up front for driver and passenger not only offer the perfect temperature regardless of weather, but deliver a decent amount of support and good comfort, too.
In fact, spring for the $1,000 "Subzero" package and all of the seats in the Model X can be heated at the touch of the button, even the middle one in the second row. This is a nice way to pamper your passengers -- or surprise them with a warm bottom if you're the practical joking type.
What hasn't changed is the massive, 17-inch LCD in the center of the car's dashboard, something carried over from the Model S. It's still powered by the same Tegra 3 processor, which delivers reasonably clean visuals but struggles at times to keep up with your finger presses. Bring on Tegra X1, please.
That display will split opinions, just like it did years ago when we first saw it on the S. I personally love the size, but not the glare, and I dearly wish it had support for Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay. Regardless, integrated LTE connectivity certainly is nice, making it easy to monitor your car's charging status from anywhere via Tesla's smartphone app, an app that offers some other pretty compelling features, too.
When it launched, the Model X served as a platform for Tesla's most advanced tech yet: Autopilot. With this, the Model X can do a pretty comprehensive job of taking care of itself. Take the Summon feature, for example. Using that same Tesla mobile app that you use to monitor charging, you can actually command the car to unpark itself and come to you.
Now, put away those Knight Industries Two-Thousand fantasies, because the car won't go flying through a parking garage to find you. In fact, it will really only creep in a straight line until it encounters an obstacle or you tell it to stop. However, if you integrate the system with a Homelink-compatible garage opener, it will kindly open the door before pulling out of your garage, then close it again after it's free.
In practice this feature is far more useful for impressing friends and family than in actually getting the car to park itself, but I suppose if you have a tiny garage just barely big enough to house such a rig, it could be useful.
No surprise that Autopilot is far more useful on the road. Get on a stretch of asphalt with reasonably clear lines, and with a double-tap of the cruise control stalk, the car takes over. It'll steer around corners, change lanes at your command and adjust speed to avoid any slower traffic in your path.
On the highway, you pick the speed, while on secondary roads Autopilot is automatically capped at a maximum of five miles-per-hour over the posted limit. This does a reasonably good job of keeping you clean in the eyes of the law, as the X will slow down automatically when entering towns, but there were a few occasions when the car was a bit late on the decel. You'd be wise to pay attention to those speed limit signs -- and stop signs, and traffic lights, and all the other posted indications that Autopilot is currently unable to process.
In fact, you should always pay attention, regardless. Autopilot is a stunning example of what some savvy coding can do in a modern car, but it's far from perfect. It occasionally got confused by shiny lines of asphalt repair on the road and tended to make some uncomfortable (and unnerving) steering adjustments whenever painted lines disappeared mid-corner.
Still, those hiccups were rare. Autopilot works remarkably well and, even though you're still in control of the car, being able to relax a bit and let the car handle the menial tasks of keeping you in the lane and maintaining a safe distance makes getting from A to B becomes an awful lot less stressful.
But, when it comes time to have a little fun, the Model X is happy to oblige.
The Model X, in P90D trim as I tested for this review, clocks in somewhere around 5,300 pounds. We're talking Cadillac Escalade territory, here. Despite that, with Ludicrous mode enabled, the Model X will sprint from a dead stop to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds. That's...well, frankly, that's amazing.
What's even more impressive is the throttle response at any speed. A little twitch of your right foot has the Model X leaping ahead instantly. It's addictive. It recalibrates your expectation for any other car on the road. There's simply nothing like driving a high-horsepower EV, even one that weighs as much as a fully loaded school bus.
And to be clear, "high-horsepower" in this case means 762 electronic ponies sourced from two motors, one at the rear and a second, slightly less powerful one at the front. All Model X SUVs have the dual-motor configuration, giving them all-wheel-drive, but the non-P models (75D and 90D) have a mere 518 horsepower. Ho hum.
Handling, too, is better than it should be for a car of this heft. That's in large part thanks to the slab of a battery pack sitting down in the floor. Model X stays reasonably flat through the corners, and the 20-inch wheels and tires provide prodigious grip, though this SUV it isn't quite as nimble as the Model S -- which itself is more of a cruiser than a corner-carver.
So the Model X has a lot going for it -- a lot going for it -- including the most advanced autonomous tech on the road, preposterous performance for a car this size, and enough showcase features to make the clerks at your local fro-yo shop swoon with delight.
Spend a few days with the thing, though, and the annoyances start to surface. Chief among them are those doors. One of the first things I tested was how well they'd handle opening in a garage with a low ceiling. They did indeed detect and stop in time to prevent any unfortunate crunches, but just try and shimmy yourself gracefully from beneath a half-opened falcon wing and suddenly you'll appreciate the beauty of boring old doors that open in boring old ways.
Even when clear, those trademark wings take an awfully long time to reach for the sky. This is a great way to make yourself unpopular in the elementary school drop-off lane.
And then there are the reliability concerns. We actually tested two examples of a Model X, an early one that had led a rough life, and a much more recent, more refined build. The quality of the latter was markedly improved, and I had no reliability issues with the doors over the multiple days, hundreds of miles and dozens and dozens of openings I put them through. Still, I can't help having doubts about their long-term reliability.
You know how in the '90s you'd see sports cars with pop-up headlights driving around with one light stuck, perpetually engaged in a sad wink? I fear the Model X is destined for the same fate. And, I have to imagine the out-of-warranty cost of repairing a falcon-wing door will be just as painful as a falcon punch.
Choose your range
As with most luxury cars in this price range, you have a lot of options when custom-ordering a Model X. Base price for a 230-mile range, 70D is $83,000, but that's before the $7,500 federal EV rebate, plus any state or local rebates you may be eligible for, which could get you out the door for closer to $75,000. That is, if you're OK with skipping all the options.
Stepping up to a 90D brings you 257 miles of range while pulling the 0 - 60 time down from 6.0 seconds to 4.8. The additional $12,500 also includes air suspension. P90D reduces the 0 - 60 time to 3.8, but you'll spend a whopping $20,000 for that second. Ludicrous mode is another $10,000 on top of that.
Our car had nearly all the fun stuff: a fully loaded P90D with a sticker price of $135,200 (including $1,200 destination) and a maximum advertised range of 250 miles on a charge. I never got the chance to fully drain the car, but easily scored more than 200 miles per charge on two occasions. That's despite keeping the climate control set at a comfy temperature and dialing up the seat heaters while also taking full advantage of the (quite excellent, and $2,500 optional) sound system.
Put simply, range anxiety shouldn't be much of a problem here, and that you can get a 50-percent charge in about 20 minutes from one of Tesla's increasingly commonplace Supercharger stations just makes this all the easier to live with.
Amazing in the now
Stepping into the Model X is like stepping into the future. The first time it opens the driver's door for you as you approach, closing again after you're comfortably seated, you begin to realize that this car is something special.
Before writing this review, I took the time to show the Model X to quite a few friends, far more than I usually do. I gave a lot of test rides and impromptu demonstrations, and everyone was left impressed. Many were blown away. Model X is quite a showcase.
However, I have serious concerns about those falcon-wing doors. Right now, they're an annoyance. Down the road, I fear they'll be a liability. Quite frankly, they need to go. A more practical means of entry and exit would make this a better car in very nearly every regard.
If you have the means, if you're looking for a plaything that feels teleported to today from some forthcoming, semiautonomous age, the Model X will not disappoint. However, if you're looking for a daily driver, a practical and reliable EV that will get you there comfortably and with a smile, I have to say that the Model S is still the better bet.