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Fitting tribute to a mad scientist

Stunningly powerful Tesla is an electrifying drive

Nikola Tesla was a turn-of-the-century Serbian-American inventor who spent his life faffing about with electricity. While he died a penniless pauper and risked being swept under the patched and stained rug of history, his madcap experiments and stunning intellect have made him something of a popular culture icon of late.

In the eyes of the inter-webs, Tesla is the epitome of the friendly mad scientist, accidentally opening rifts in the space-time continuum and then duct-taping them back together again and hoping no one was looking.

The stuff he could get electricity to do is nothing short of staggering: to this day, no other scientist has been able to replicate the weird natural storm phenomenon of ball lightning.

So, a man who could make electricity dance, and here I am, driving a car that bears his name. It's the Tesla Model S, and if you've immediately noticed the parallel nomenclature with "Model T", that's not an accident either.

This machine is meant to be a transportation revolution, an entirely new kind of thinking about the electric car. While Nissan - and to a lesser extent, Mitsubishi - have done great work in making the EV accessible to the masses, there's little to fire the imagination about either car.

Most electric vehicles are interesting little plug-in eco-pods: like a Prius with the gas engine thrown out. The Model S, by contrast, is as sleekly curvaceous as anything sketched by Pininfarina, and has the kind of commanding curb presence that'd make the boys in Stuttgart go green with envy.

Speaking of which, the last time I was on this particular stretch of road, I was ensconced behind the wheel of Porsche's super-sedan - a Panamera GTS. The motoring press has already drooled all over this uber-fast eyesore (I rather like it as well), what with its "shrinks-around-you" handling, ridiculous levels of physical grip and glorious V8 bellow.

Just one problem: next to what I'm currently driving, I might as well have been propelling myself by shuffling my feet whilst shouting, "Yabba dabba doo!" The future is here, and it's time to ride the lightning.

Leaving aside the best application of touch screen technology as a command interface I've ever seen, the cabin of the Model S is fairly ordinary. The one weird thing? Huge amounts of space everywhere.

Electric-drive technology is both extremely compact and extremely flat, allowing the five-seater sedan plenty of room front and back, as well as a cavernous trunk and a roomy cargo area up front as well. The low floor between the driver and passenger is practically truck-like, and looks big enough to accommodate an old-fashioned bench seat. But I'm happy we're seated in sports-buckets instead.

Grasping a shift lever stolen right out of a Mercedes C-Class, I put the car in D and off we go. No need to insert a key or press a starter button: the Tesla simply notes your weight in the driver seat and prepares to engage.

Oh yeah, "engage." Trekkies will remember good ol' Jean Luc Picard issuing this order with baritone authority every time the Enterprise leaped to warp speed. Well, this machine's got warp drive too.

The key is torque. While diesel engines have prodigious grunt and the new range of direct-injection, turbo-charged gasoline engines employed by luxury marques also unleash a bountiful amount of shove, they are nothing compared to the instant output of an electric motor.

Think of the immediate power you get out of your cordless drill when putting a woodscrew into timber. There's no hesitation with an electric-drive - pull the trigger and it gives you full power from a nominal zero rpm.

In the case of this performance version of the Model S, that means all 443lb/ft of twist flings you forward into hyperspace with a simple flex of your right foot. Weirder yet, it does so in near-silence with a squeaky creak of an old bellows as electrons fire through the motor and catapult you down the road.

On a full charge, the Model S has enough juice to get you through about 400 kilometres of cruising - back and forth to Whistler should be a dawdle for the light-footed.

On the other hand, this is no eco-pod. The intoxicating surge of the power is (pardon the pun) simply electrifying, and the low centre of gravity means the Model S carves through the corner with an aplomb that belies its weight. It's not just cleaner running than a gasoline-powered supercar, it's more enjoyable as well.

There are some drawbacks. Keep getting zippy with the go-switch and the Tesla will deplete its batteries faster than a remote-control car on Christmas morning. Also, this preproduction model has a few issues (a rear door handle decided to stop working).

With a Vancouver service centre to open in the fall and a Canadian retail outlet due in Toronto by November, cars are just starting to trickle in.

Tesla also plans to have a number of their quick-charging stations up and down the West Coast before too long, for those who wish to drive down to sunny California.

In the meantime, it's a glimpse of the future of motoring - and one that doesn't make the car-loving part of me want to fling myself off a cliff at the thought of fleets of self-driving beige-mobiles.

It's stunningly powerful, beautifully designed, thrilling to drive and way out in front of the pack. Nikola would be proud.

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