Hold on for dear life: driving the incredible, terrifying Tesla Model S P85D

I think I've wet myself

218

Fear; confusion; moments of spontaneous euphoria.

Side effects of a prescription painkiller? No. Well… yes, maybe. But it’s also the rapid-fire spectrum of emotion you experience when you ride in the Tesla Model S P85D for the first time.

I cabbed out to Flushing, Queens last week to drive the P85D, a modified Model S equipped with two motors — one in front, one in the rear. If you’re keeping count, that’s exactly twice as many motors as the standard Model S that’s been available for the past couple years. Officially, the dual-motor configuration is billed primarily as a way to get all-wheel drive into the car, which makes it friendlier to snow-prone regions of the world; blistering performance is just a happy side effect. And my goodness, what a side effect it is.

Tesla slotted me in for the ride on its makeshift test track outside the Mets’ Citi Field, a takeover of an entire stadium-sized parking lot that included two straightaways, a chicane, and a snowy section to test the car’s traction on slippery surfaces. (The day of my test drive was perhaps the coldest so far in this New York City winter, so Mother Nature was happy to help set the stage.)

P85D

Spotting the car out on the track wasn’t easy. Generally speaking, high-performance models are differentiated from their tamer stablemates with an outlandish color scheme or aerodynamic enhancements — bigger rims, a splitter here, a scoop there — but not the P85D. I’m told the reason is that adding any parts to the slippery exterior of the Model S would simply slow it down and reduce its range. The only real differentiator (besides the badge) is the understated carbon spoiler brought over from the P85, which makes this car one of the most potent sleepers on the road.

On the interior, though, the car makes no effort to hide its own absurdity: in the settings menu, there’s an acceleration option that allows you to toggle quite literally between "Sport" and "Insane" modes. (For the sake of the demonstration, it was left on "Insane," of course.) The track began at the start of the longest straightaway, where Tesla advised me to take my foot off the brake and slam the accelerator to the floor as quickly as possible, without hesitation, without finesse, without caution or regard for my own life or the lives of those around me.

I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist: there’s no trick to turning the P85D into a guided missile. You just punch it.

P85D
The last thing you see before reaching Warp 1.

And so I did. You know that feeling of sheer terror you get as you go over the first crest of a roller coaster? That nauseating mix of inevitability, velocity, and unnatural force being exerted on your body? I got that right here, in those few fleeting moments of unchecked acceleration before the course’s "BRAKE" flags whizzed by. I’ve never felt that exact sensation in a car before, and certainly not in a family sedan in a baseball stadium parking lot.

As I mentioned in my 2013 review of the single-motor P85, that maxed-out (and now discontinued) model was already something of a monster, delivering linear, face-melting performance at every speed. Well, take the P85 and multiply it a few times over. Empirically, that’s an exaggeration — the D has about 65 percent more horsepower than a P85, 55 percent more torque, and does 0-60 in 3.2 seconds, a second quicker — but somewhere in those numbers lies the terrifying gap between "very fast car" and "I think I’ve wet myself."

P85D

While the P85D’s ridiculous performance envelope consumed my senses, I found myself wondering, "Do we really need to terrify ourselves and our passengers with bursts of acceleration that defy the natural order of the universe?" No, we don’t. To satisfy the needs of the all-wheel-drive clientele, Tesla could’ve chosen to offer only its lower-performance option, the 376-horsepower 85D — which runs from 0 to 60 in a respectable 5.2 seconds — and call it a day. But let’s be real: I’m awfully glad this car exists. If you love performance cars or spectacular demonstrations of electric powertrains as viable replacements for internal combustion, you should be happy about it, too.

There are other cars on the market that are faster from 0 to 60, but because they have to shift gears, they offer you a few milliseconds of respite during hard acceleration. (They also generally cost a lot more.) An all-electric car like the Model S doesn’t have a geared transmission, so those brief opportunities to catch a break from having your body pinned to your seat are mercilessly stolen from you. The P85D is a precision instrument of relentless performance unlike any other car on the road, regardless of price.

And again, this car is really just supposed to be about all-wheel drive, not performance. (Imagine if Tesla put its mind to building a true sports car.) To that end, it handled just fine on the course’s snowy section, seamlessly keeping my stupidity in check when I got too friendly with the accelerator. I can’t say it did better than any other car on the market with all-wheel drive and modern accoutrements like traction and stability control, but it performed admirably. Notably, Tesla’s dual-motor system can’t vector torque between the left and right sides the way something like Acura’s SH-AWD can, but that won’t have a noticeable effect on dealing with inclement weather.

There’s the Model S’ recently added autonomous driving hardware, too. A parking lot is no place to put something like that to the test, but the company had set up a 25 mph speed limit sign just to show that the car can read it and warn you that you’re going too fast. As CEO Elon Musk said at the P85D’s introduction last year, the hardware’s all there, but the software has to catch up — dynamic cruise control was recently rolled out as an over-the-air update, for instance. The eventual goal is what Tesla calls "on-ramp to off-ramp" autonomous driving, meaning you basically never need to touch the steering wheel while you’re on a highway.

P85D

It’s a hell of a car, but at a base price of over $100,000 and something in the range of $140,000 fully loaded, the P85D is very much the one-percenter’s Tesla. (The spread between a base Model S and a top-of-the-line one is around $70,000.) Most of us will never own one.

If, like me, you’re in the 99 percent, take some minor comfort in knowing that the P85D may be too perfect: it’s perfectly balanced, perfectly fast, perfectly planted on the road. Perfection begets sterility, and a sterile car lacks character. Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson famously waged a similar complaint against the devastatingly good Nissan GT-R several years ago.

Who am I kidding? I want one.