► We tour Texas in the new Tesla Model X
► High-performance electric SUV tested
► Info on range, performance and comfort
Texas is big. The discovery there of vast oil reserves was bigger still, the moment the petrol genie escaped the bottle. If Tesla’s Model X can succeed in this most oil-obsessed of states, it can succeed anywhere…
As a metaphor for Elon Musk’s crusade to rid the world of combustion vehicles, the abandoned petrol station burning orange in the low evening sun is too good to resist. Its subterranean tanks have been parched for years, broken glass shimmers on the forecourt like frost and a good-sized forest has taken hold behind one of the pumps. A thick, tiring heat hangs in the air like an invisible fog. The Tesla Model X glides to a halt almost noiselessly; the only sound the murmur of hot, fat tyres on concrete.
As I select Park a rear view of the car appears on the vast central touchscreen, marked with icons for the tailgate and doors. I make devil horns with my hand and simultaneously prod both rear doors, which rise like the wings of some android albatross. Sorry, falcon.
With the seal breached the acrid, bath-hot Texan atmosphere rushes in, heavy with the noise and fug of the nearby freeway. With its semi-autonomous capability, searing performance and zero-emission battery-electric powertrain, the Model X is a bluff-nosed future shock on 22-inch rims and a harbinger of the end of all this: of the noise, the fumes, the filthy particulates and the supporting oil-bearing infrastructure. That, at least, is the plan.
Top of the list of places to put up a fight is Texas. On licence plates it’s the Lone Star State but Texas bleeds crude. At the turn of the 20th century America’s second-largest state found itself atop a black goldmine. The Gusher Age transformed the state and the nation, and Texas is on the frontline still: more than a third of US crude production – 9.4 million barrels per day on average in 2015 – comes out of Texas. America’s refining industry, much of it based here, is the largest in the world, and one of the biggest components of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (a mere 691 million barrels) is located here: insurance against the kind of supply shortfall that could derail the country’s economy and mobility.
Texas has also stubbornly fought against Tesla’s plans to sell directly to its customers, but the biggest blocker with electric cars here is the sheer size of the place. In Texas everywhere is a long way away. Tesla’s Supercharger network covers the arterial freeways but when you consider that falling short and plugging into the mains buys you range at a rate of perhaps five miles per hour, successfully completing a 700-mile tour in two days, on the beaten track and off it, looks as likely as weaning the place off gasoline.
Our start line is Tesla’s Dallas Service centre, where the handover takes all of two minutes: like an iPhone, the Model X wears its tech lightly. The car’s clever so you needn’t be. Push the corresponding corner of the car-shaped fob and the door opens to greet you. Climb aboard and a ghosted hand closes it after you. Foot on the brake, column-shift to Drive and without ceremony you’re off and running, the car creeping away from rest with no noise but the motors’ whine.
Like the bare and brutal geometric inner space of some modernist gallery, the Model X’s paucity of interior clutter is at once shocking and thrilling. The dash is devoid of controls; that monolithic touchscreen controls almost everything. High above your head the panoramic windscreen arcs overhead and out of sight. Seats are mounted on a single elegant stanchion, or ‘monopost’, with no exposed frames or runners. And where in most cars the seats are, in the nicest possible way, wedged in and around the transmission tunnels and wheel-arch intrusions, Tesla’s ultra-low skateboard package (battery slung low beneath the wheels; compact motor, inverter and gearbox units on each axle) gifts the cabin a flat floor and acres of space.
Then there are those rear doors. Festooned with sensors, they alter the way in which they unfurl depending on the proximity of obstructions around them. They’re not fast to open but the mechanism is quiet, smooth and endlessly enthralling to watch, whether it’s your fist time or your fiftieth. The practicality of the yawning aperture they create is undeniable, and if you press the button for third-row access the corresponding first- and second-row seats glide noiselessly out of your way. Configure your X with seven seats or, for the full Learjet experience, just six, which leaves second-row passengers adrift in luxurious nothingness. Cargo capacity is beyond generous, with front and rear boots thanks to lack of a bulky conventional engine at either end.
From Dallas we head east for Kilgore, a town transformed when oil was struck in nearby Henderson and an appropriate destination for a car that moves without the stuff (directly at least). I tap the entry into the Tesla’s nav, a system so spectacular that all others feel instantly archaic. Prod the box and, like an iPhone, a vast touchscreen keyboard appears on the bottom half of the screen, for fast and error-free destination entry. Pinch, zoom and rotate the Google map on the main screen or follow the nav prompts on the driver’s display.
Hit go and the system shows your planned route, predicted remaining battery life at your destination and, if required, not only the Supercharger stops you’ll need to make but precisely how long you need to linger at each one. You could see it as Tesla minimising its energy costs – it maintains and powers the Supercharger network out of its own pocket – but in truth this is about fast, efficient and easy long-distance EV travel. Filling to the brim is the fossil fuel way of thinking, particularly when forcing in the last 20% of a full charge takes almost as long as the first 80% (40 minutes for an 80% charge; 75 minutes for 100%).
The ultimate non-driving machine
Running for Kilgore dictates a charging stop in Lindale, on Interstate 20. Leaving Dallas is as easy as following the nav and watching its glittering skyscrapers give way to unbroken sky in that incredible, endless screen. In town the Tesla’s a mixed bag. At stop lights it’s king; sitting without heat, vibration or noise before streaking away at a rate nothing this side of a (part-electric) McLaren P1 can touch. But on tight city streets the Model X feels its size (big), and the air suspension can’t take the crash and fidget out of the big wheels’ tussle with lumpen tarmac.
Once out on the freeway the drive is unremarkable but for the simple fact that for great swathes of the journey I don’t: drive that is. Instead I spend 15 minutes at a time just sitting there, arms crossed, staring out into the middle distance, the Model X on Autopilot. Up ahead a truck, straight out of Duel, is taking advantage of a load-free trailer to run hard and fast over the endless scar of hot concrete, its twin chromed exhausts signalling every climb and overtake with filthy geysers of smog. American trucks aren’t tethered to a 55mph limit and this one’s merrily bowling along at 80mph. The Model X holds station 20ft off his tail-lights, doing just fine without me. A double-pull of a stalk to the left of the wheel activates the system, which displays your chosen speed and a blue steering wheel icon to denote that it’s happy.
Like jumping into a car with a driver you don’t know, I spend the first ten minutes sizing up the brain in charge, working out how much I can afford to relax. After two dull minutes I conclude that, in this environment at least, Autopilot is almost certainly better at driving than I am. Feeling inessential, I grab a particularly messy pulled pork sub from my bag and have at it. The Model X keeps lane as if laser-aligned. The gap to the car ahead is maintained with unerring accuracy, and when the system brakes it does so with a smooth initial input and exactly the right amount of conviction thereafter.
To change lanes you simply indicate. The move over is smooth and faultlessly observed. If there’s a car gaining on you in the outside lane Autopilot will judge the closing speed and make a call with cool logic, as you would. If it decides to go, the Tesla steers out and up to speed smartly. As you would. Rival systems I’ve tried are wobbly gimmicks by comparison. Tesla’s begs your use whenever possible, the double-pull soon becoming instinctive.
As Lindale looms we leave the Interstate and roll into the Collin Street Bakery. Around the back I find no fewer than ten deserted Supercharger bays. We hook up, steal into the air-conditioned refuge and spend half an hour trying not to eat cake. Failure, when it inevitably comes, never tasted so sweet.
In the ’60s Honda motorcycles ran the slogan ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’, a reference to the way its reliable bikes democratised motorcycling and meant you were more likely to see a high-school cheerleader on a Honda than an oil-soaked enthusiast. And right now we’re in a golden age for meeting nice people in a Tesla, with the Supercharger stations acting as hubs for like-minded, pioneering individuals. No one chats at petrol stations: there isn’t time. But you linger at a Supercharger station, typically for around 20 minutes at a time – long enough for polite discourse and the comparing of notes. That might change when there are thousands of Model 3s queuing around the block.
Next to us, Russ Burger’s 2013 Model S is taking on juice. A former car guy, Burger reckons he’s now stepped through the looking glass; that for him there’s no way back. ‘The car’s great of course – the refinement, the performance – but it’s all the other stuff. The over-the-air updates; the fact that you wake up and your car’s a little better than it was yesterday. When I first got mine there was a bug with the wipers – if they were running when you turned the car off, they’d come on when you returned to it, flinging water onto your shirt and into the car through the open door… Owners got in touch with Tesla, they issued a software update, problem solved. Can you imagine how long it’d take most OEMs to get around to that? One time I needed new tyres – I could have got them cheaper elsewhere but I went to Tesla. When I picked the car up they’d refurbished my wheels free of charge.’ How chuffed is Russ? He has two Model 3s on order.
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It’s less than half an hour on to Kilgore. Where once great forests of derricks blotted the sun, now a single row of them is preserved in the middle of town, where the railroad tracks cross main street. There’s still oil here, just as there’s still wealth here, but Kilgore doesn’t flash it. Robert Arreola sits in front of his tyre business, Roberts Quality Tire, watching the world go by (and hoping it gets a puncture). Built like an earthmover and inexplicably dressed head to toe in black, Arreola’s sweating hard. A Mustang’s in with a flat but he doesn’t see many passenger cars.
‘Oil – that’s life in Kilgore, and this is a truck town,’ he says. ‘There’s money here but the big houses aren’t in town. Last year, when crude was at $100 a barrel, those guys were making $10-15k a day. Not the guys doing the work – the guys sitting at home doing nothing. Now it’s like $40 a barrel what’s the point?’
Without thinking, he’s clocked the Model X’s outlandish rubber. ‘We don’t have ’em but I could get them next day, maybe $130 a go. Cool doors. Nice car. The kind of thing the hot wife of a guy making a lot of money would drive.’
Into the wilderness in the MENSA minivan
Hopping back in, desperate to feel some air-conditioning on my beaded face, I bring up the charger network. Oddly there’s one way off the beaten track, a few clicks from the nowheresville town of Jasper, deep in the Angelina National Forest. Curious, I email. The smart-looking La Paz guest house emails back. Yes, they have vacant rooms. Yes, they have a charger. And yes, to the best of their knowledge it works. If we can get there. The dash display says we’re good for 164 miles. The nav says the hotel’s 108 miles away, and that we’ll be on 14% when we arrive. That charger had better be working.
We set sail, at once relieved and frustrated to be off the freeway: relieved that there’s something to do and stuff to look at; frustrated that inevitably progress is slowed. Autopilot continues to do a sterling job, clocking the falling speed limits on the way into each town and dropping ours accordingly. There’s nothing to do but try to imagine life out here, keep an eye on the charge/miles maths and worry.
Our remaining range is falling fast, with a mile of actual travel accounting for a couple in indicated remaining battery life. While plugging in to the mains is an option, so slow is the rate of charge we’d have to stop for the night. We’d miss appointments and we’d miss planes. And while checking into a cheap motel, putting the car on charge and floating in the pool with beer and a bucket of doughnuts isn’t without appeal, I worry I might like it too much.
The last 20 minutes are genuinely nervy. We activated Range mode hours ago, which shuts down one of the car’s two motors and limits power to the climate control system. For the last hour I’ve been gently leaning on the throttle pedal like it’s a landmine. With two miles to go I’m directed off the highway and up a track. The Model X rumbles over tree roots and between pools foaming with mosquitoes until at last we see first a log cabin and then a spectacular house in a clearing, complete with rocking chairs on the porch and owners Anne and Paul waving from the front steps. And there, on the wall of a shed, the sight-for-sore-eyes charger. I check the dash: 12 miles of remaining range. 108 miles ago it showed 164 miles. Where the other 44 miles have gone is anyone’s guess.
‘We had a guest from Austin stay with us, a physicist, and he suggested we put a Tesla charger in,’ explains Anne. ‘To be honest we kind of ignored him for a while, but when we went to see our daughter in Austin and saw Teslas everywhere, we thought maybe it was time.’
‘I filled out a questionnaire on Tesla’s website and two hours later they replied to say we’d been approved – I guess our five-star Tripadvisor rating helped,’ says Paul. ‘They offered to fit up to three chargers but we just don’t have the power here. It hasn’t cost us a dollar. We’ve had it two months but it’s only just gone on the map. You’re certainly the first to use it.’
With nightfall comes a surreal sight: the green light of the Model X’s charge port glowing in the gloom with just the gurgling river and the cicadas for company. The car looks for all the world like an alien craft touched down on a prehistoric Earth.
Meeting the enemy
Next morning, and perhaps recklessly, we cover the mile or so of dirt road to the highway quite a bit faster than we did last night. The track’s like a gnarly WRC stage. Luggage thumps around in the boot as the Model X gets stuck in, its instant drive, broad rubber and all-wheel-drive traction making for a surreal turn of speed given the surface.
Giddy now, I go for a Launch Control start as soon as we hit blacktop. A mile and a half of empty two-lane runs first downhill and then up to the next ridge, dead straight and splitting the forest on either side like a plumb line. On the interface I go into Controls, and, under Driving, select Max Battery mode, which conditions the cells for rapid discharge. I force the brake pedal to the floor with my left foot then press the accelerator to bring up the Launch Mode Enabled message. And step off the brake. Tesla claims 0-60mph in 3.2 for a Ludicrous-equipped P90D Model X, denoted by an underline to the boot badge. If anything it feels faster. With no gear-shifting for punctuation and no wheelspin, the launch is nauseating in its unrelenting efficiency. There’s no drama, no squeal, no artful balancing of clutch and throttle, just the effortless acquisition of speed. 713lb ft and perfect traction will do that.
Perhaps fittingly, the unbroken blue skies of the last 24 hours give way to vast storm clouds as we cut southwest for Houston, and specifically the vast tracts of oil and petrochemical industry along the Gulf coast. The weather here’s notoriously fickle and fast-changing but even so the sudden shift is dramatic, the towering mushroom clouds of slate grey raincloud rolling in like an avalanche before hosing the hot road with fat drops of rain. The view from an elevated stretch of freeway reveals the scale of the industry: a dystopian landscape of towers, pipelines and gantries running to the horizon in every direction. Countless pilot flames flicker in the gloom like bush fires.
We pass into a maze of access roads. Lines of tankers and heavy trucks in and out writhe like streams of worker ants. Over-zealous security guards want to know our business: ‘Er, how can I put this – doing a story on how these guys are going to put you out of business?’ Thankfully they’re too distracted by the oddball SUV to pay my answer any mind, its outlandish form and silent propulsion causing a stir even here. Oil workers, stuffed six at a time into battered pick-ups and covered in grime-worn hi-vis, look the Model X over as we wait for a train to pass. If they’re worried that the Tesla signals an imminent end to their livelihoods, they hide it well.
Back on the grid
Houston to Dallas is long-distance Tesla driving at its most stress-free. Heading north, Superchargers line up with easy frequency: strung out enough to get the job done, close enough to take all the anxiety out of it. We thrum along for hours, the Model X’s rubber roaring on the rough concrete surface but the car proving superbly comfortable, not least because, with no range concerns, we can whack up the air conditioning.
With time to think, my mind wanders. 1545 people died on Texan roads last year, yet the fallout from just a single fatality in Florida – of Joshua Brown in a Model S with Autopilot engaged – threatens to slow the transition to autonomous driving. These last two days the Model X has proved both extraordinary and oddly unremarkable. It’s almost as if, just as electric cars force you to change the way you think about taking on energy, so you must also adapt to the more subtle ways in which they impress.
The Model X is quicker and more dynamically capable than a high-riding minivan has any right to be but there’s a sense of detachment to its performance: a disconnect that sees it fall short of being genuinely thrilling, or of leaving a lasting rapture. It’s the laziest of cliches to suggest that a car’s engine is its heart and soul but certainly the Tesla struggles to move you emotionally with quite the same conviction with which it moves you physically.
Instead the genius of the Model X is almost architectural. It’s found in the way it scatters small moments of joy through your day with impressive user-friendliness, mood-lifting design and a cool, quiet capability that slowly but inevitably engenders huge respect. Tesla says its briefs from CEO Elon Musk are unequivocal: make the best cars in the world for their segment. For now at least success is difficult to measure – there’s nothing else quite like the Model X.
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Tesla Model X P90D Ludicrous
Engine Twin e-motors (457bhp front, 525bhp rear) and 90kWh battery, 713lb ft
Transmission Single-speed auto, four-wheel drive
Performance 3.2sec 0-60mph, 155mph, n/a mpg, 0g/km CO2 (local)
Suspension Double wishbone front, multi-link rear, air suspension
Weight/made from 2468kg/aluminium, plastic
Comment: The problem with Texas
Tesla must be busy. Not only is it battling to save the planet, build an enormous battery factory, ramp up production and grow its Supercharger network, in some US states it’s also fighting to be able to sell its cars the way it wants to.
‘In some states the dealerships have pushed back, limiting the number of stores and what we can do in those stores,’ explains global sales and service president Jon McNeill.
Laws put in place to protect dealers have made it difficult for Tesla to sell directly to customers, as Apple does in its Apple Stores, rather than use the franchise system. The car dealerships don’t want to see that happen, fearing it may start a direct-sales revolution.
‘We feel that there’s a customer choice aspect to this, which you may have heard about in Texas,’ continues McNeill. ‘People are frustrated that they can’t easily buy a Tesla. If I’m a Texan and I want to buy a consumer product – an American-made product – I want the freedom to be able to buy it. Over time that freedom of choice will prevail against the embedded interests of the dealerships. Texas is a constant conversation we’re having.’
Comment: Brown, the first autonomous fatality
In May this year Joshua Brown was killed in an accident involving a truck and his Model S Tesla. Autopilot was active at the time and the incident is the subject of an NHTSA investigation.
Tesla has been accused of leading owners to believe the system is more capable than it is, and of effectively beta testing the system in public, albeit with owners’ permission.
Brown’s Model S was on a divided highway when a truck drove across the road perpendicular to the car’s direction of travel. Both driver and Autopilot failed to see the white side of the trailer against a bright sky.
Tesla began rolling out Model S cars with radar, ultrasonic sensors, a camera and the control systems required for Autopilot in 2014, but it was with the version 7.0 update last year that the system went live, enabling hands- and feet-off driving. Tesla maintains that Autopilot-equipped cars have safely covered ‘over 100 million miles by tens of thousands of customers worldwide’, before pointing out that globally there’s a fatal accident every 60 million miles and that given the nature of the technology – a driver assist system – ‘a collision on Autopilot was a statistical inevitability’.
Musk has leapt to the system’s defence, pointing out that ‘when used correctly it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves’.
Me? I was hugely impressed, and drove hundreds of miles without incident. But people respond differently to the system. While I felt obliged to pay attention, a quick search of YouTube reveals many Tesla owners don’t feel the same way.
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