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Tesla Model S P100D review: the ultimate status symbol of California cool

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From the driver’s seat of a flaming-red Tesla Model S, a young teenage boy sends a text message: “Gotta charge my car see you in the AM.” It’s a scene from the family-friendly movie Disconnected, in which the Tesla Model S plays a starring role.

The lead character Shawn, played by Bridger Zadina, makes an eight-hour journey from Los Angeles up to Santa Cruz. Shawn, who is too young to have a driver’s license, steals the car from parents’ garage in an act of rebellion and desperate teenage desire: he needed an escape route to reach his crush. There’s a scene that depicts his journey, window-down, wind whipping, as the gigantic 17-inch Tesla screen guides him on his journey up the Pacific Coastal Highway 1, a symbolic break away from the control of his helicopter scientist parents. The only snafu: because he’s driving a Tesla, mom and dad can track his whereabouts using the Tesla app from a phone.

I was in Tesla country

Two weeks ago, I drove a Tesla Model S P100D along the California coast in a similar racy red hue. I was commuting from San Francisco to Pebble Beach and back for Monterey Car Week, and I also took the long way, toward Highway 1, one of the world’s most fantastic roads. To get there, I made my way from the clogged Silicon Valley suburbs onto a two-lane, twisty road surrounded by pine trees, through a bit of mountainous terrain, and at last, onto wide stretches of road on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Monterey is north of Big Sur, the section of Pacific Coast Highway that’s still closed for repairs after a massive landslide wiped a chunk of it away.

It’s one of the best weeks to drive to Monterey Peninsula, because of the classic car eye candy that can be seen along the way. But still, I was reminded by the glint of the T-logos all around me on the freeway that I was in Tesla country. I came across at least a dozen Model S drivers, and at one point, several of us were lined up in a queue, as if in formation. There’s even a Supercharger station in Monterey, which, with 315 miles of range, I was able to reach, without stopping, to charge along the way.

It may seem as if the Model 3 hype has stolen away the sheen from its more substantial sports sedan, the original symbol of Tesla grandeur. While the Model 3 earns the title of Car the Summer, it’s splashy debut helped nudge the Model S past a tipping point. After five years on the road, in many markets, the S is no longer an eccentric outlier, but instead it’s the luxury standard-bearer, and the obvious car that you see flying by you near wealthy California enclaves. As of the most recent quarter, Tesla has sold 22,026 Model S vehicles this year.

Sure, the Tesla P100D customer who can spend $162,000 (the sticker price on the model I tested) can likely also afford another luxury car or two, but it’s hard to match the cache and head nods one earns while driving this thing. When it comes to the S exterior design, only slight sculptural changes have been made to the front fascia since it debuted in the 2012 model year. Its understated form is ubiquitous.

The S is no longer an eccentric outlier

As Elon Musk pointed out at the Model 3 reveal, the S is still the more desirable car, and the P100D is the top performance dog in its S range. After driving both the 3 and Model S P100D, even for a short time, there’s really no direct performance comparison. We’ve already broken down the differences between the Model S and the Model 3; while Model 3 has early adopter cache, the Model P100D is in another class. It is the ultimate statement car of the moment, more than car makes that come with a higher price tag like Ferrari, Porsche, or McLaren: I’m wealthy. I am forward thinking. And now, get outta my way.

Part of its appeal is that Tesla is playing the numbers game. Though P100D debuted a year ago, we’re still talking about its jaw-dropping statistics. A few weeks before I drove this model, as a sideshow during the Tesla Model 3 handover, a Tesla employee demoed Ludicrous Plus mode for me, illuminating Easter egg moments and all. This push of a button earns Tesla the industry best 0–60 mile per hour time of 2.4 seconds, and the stomach-dropping delight / panic it creates (depending on the passenger) to brunt intensity. The closest comparison I can conjure is the memory of a delirious Formula One three-seater at track in France. But unlike most cars capable of dizzying speeds, it has more practical qualities.

Sure the Tesla is fun to stunt in, but sometimes a mid to full-size sedan can feel cumbersome to handle on more meandering roads. But the Model S really never feels like too much car. It has a 116.5-inch wheelbase, and is 196 inches long (equivalent to the BMW 5 Series), but it handles its girth with grace on winding stretches of pastoral roads. Its design language doesn’t blare supercar, so it doesn’t feel weird or ostentatious to pull into a diner parking lot.

The biggest problem of driving this Model S: keeping speed in a sensible range. It’s easy to fly. This is one reason to engage AutoPilot’s Traffic Aware Cruise Control as a way to hold back on temptation, capping off highway speeds at 90 miles per hour.

I experimented with the newest update of the second-generation AutoPilot, powered by a version of Nvidia's Drive PX2, in spurts throughout the drive. Though the car now has eight cameras as part of its plan to reach full self-driving capabilities, it is only using four. The cameras add 360-degree visibility and 820 feet of sight. When the icon, which resembles a blue alien, appears signaling access to AutoPilot functions, I squeezed the lever next to the steering wheel to engage AutoSteer. As it tracked the lane, it lacked the fluidity of the natural body movements of hand to wheel in its efforts to navigate the road. But I never felt as if I was in a precarious position when it was engaged.

On the more beautiful stretches of road, I switched back to the more satisfying sensation of driving. I treated AutoPilot as the passenger who might hold the wheel when I was slightly distracted, rather than as the student driver who is being tested for proficiency. I did allow it to guide me toward my exit, but I wasn’t ready to give up control and put all the system’s capabilities to the test. Test-driving a press car on unfamiliar public roads is no time to discover my inner stunt driver. I remembered the strict warning about using AutoPilot in beta: at my own risk.

Had I lived with this vehicle for a bit longer, I would have tried out its other abilities: such as merging onto another highway and self-parking. But when I longed to use AutoPilot most — during headache-inducing Silicon Valley commuter traffic on the 280 — it wasn’t accessible. Tesla isn’t ready to let drivers zone out in rush hour just yet.

In some ways, what makes the S appealing is its versatility. Its spaciousness makes it well-suited toward weekend getaways, and what makes it feel like a larger car. My small carry-on bag was swallowed by the ample trunk space in the rear, and I still had the front trunk at my disposal. It’s ideal for the traveler who doesn’t travel light.

The car I drove on my Pebble Beach journey came off the Fremont, California, assembly line in June. It had a base price of $140,000, and was souped up with another $22,000 of features. Those upgrades included the $5,000 Enhanced Autopilot, a $3,300 white interior, and $4,500 for 21-inch gray wheels. It also had an all-glass panoramic roof for $2,000, a subzero package priced at $1,000, and was capped off by the $3,500 premium upgrades package like a battery range upgrade, red brake calipers, and my favorite nifty feature: Bio-Weapon Defense Mode, which is an air-filtration system salve for allergy-sufferers like me, who are often sneezing at the wheel. All these creature comforts, paired with the extended range of the P100D, worked to make the ideal road trip candidate.

My primary interactions with the screens were for navigating unfamiliar roads, where charging stations are clearly marked. As my colleague Lauren Goode wrote, the displays are easy to interpret, there are no complicated dials or gauges, and the speedometer is in big, bold numerals. One observation: using the map on the screen’s considerable space felt like the digital version of a road book map splayed across the dash.

Even after five years, it’s too early to say if the Model S will have the staying power of a design like the Porsche 911, a classic which has never really felt out of date. Will we see the same basic Tesla form on the road in 50 years, or are we near the peak of the Model S era? As Tesla works to provide all of its vehicles with full self-driving capabilities, it doesn’t seem to be planning for obsolescence.

A few months ago, several auto industry leaders said the industry is watching Tesla and talking to its customers. “We have great respect for what Tesla has done,” Porsche president and CEO Klaus Zellmer said in an interview. “They provided technology that people didn’t believe in a luxury segment in a high price point, but they are still not making any money. I can understand why there is this hype about Tesla.”

The staying power of the high-end Model S in its current iteration may soon be tested by a number of new electric luxury models by Lucid, Karma, and Fisker. All-electric cars like the Aston Martin Rapide are coming soon and most recently the Mercedes-Maybach electric convertible concept was unveiled ahead of the Frankfurt Motor Show.

Until Model 3 cars reach actual customers, Tesla remains a luxury car company, and a maker of a bold sports sedan and a space-aged luxury crossover. The success of the Model 3, and its ability to make good on money spent, will play a large part in this future. Tesla claimed it will produce 1,500 Model 3s in the third quarter of 2017, and 10,000 per week by the end of 2018. But it’s about more than its electric powertrain that gives Tesla an edge in the small electric car market. It’s the pivot to AutoPilot and industry firsts, like over-the-air-updates attributed to Elon Musk’s ambitious vision that set it apart. The outside might not change, but Tesla serves a new kind of gearhead: one who’s interested in software, radar, and sensors.

And that’s why, at least for today, the Model S P100D retains its status as the car of choice for California cool, where superchargers never seem to be too far. Living with the P100D every day isn’t about the psychosomatic abilities to break record speeds or to let the car drive. The whole point of a car like this is knowing that, as the car updates, your car will do more.

Tesla remains a luxury car company

A few days after I returned from Monterey Car Week, I watched Disconnected. At one point in Shawn’s drive, it looks like the jig is up when he parks at a hotel in order to charge and the hotel manager finds him sleeping there in the morning: “You unplug your spaceship and get off my lot, and I’ll consider not calling the cops” In the end, if not a feel-good film, it’s a feel-better film, and his fate is never really in question. The Tesla stays pristine, making the ride home a smooth journey, with Shawn’s scientist dad at the wheel, back in charge.  

Photography by Tamara Warren / The Verge