It’s about time we gave Tesla more credit for how incredible the Model S is

Model S Rear
The refreshed Model S. Tesla

On Tuesday, Tesla announced a refresh to the design of the Model S, the company’s first car that it designed and built from scratch, and launched in 2012.

The front end of the car has been altered to look more like the the Model X SUV, the “hospital grade” air filtration that’s called “Bioweapon Mode” on the Model X has been added, the onboard charger has been upgraded to deliver faster charge times, and a couple of new interior options are available.

The latest Model S upgrades are just the latest in a spate that we’ve seen over the past year and a half.

The first big one was the all-wheel-drive “D” or dual-motor Model S, which introduced us all to “Insane Mode” acceleration of 0-60 mph in 3.1 seconds, for properly equipped vehicles.

Later came “Ludicrous Mode,” which bettered “Insane Mode.” Through some complicated electrical engineering and the addition of a 90kWh battery option, the Model S P90D can, according to Tesla do 0-60 in 2.8 seconds, breaking the highly symbolic 3-second barrier and serving up straight-line performance reserved for roughly half a dozen so-called hypercars, such as the Ferrari LaFerrari and the McLaren P1 — exotic beasts that cost more than a million bucks.

Ferrari laferrari red small size
The Ferrari LaFerrari. Ferrari

All for $100,000. Now that’s ludicrous!

Hot on the heels of Ludicrous Mode, Tesla introduced Autopilot semi-autonomous driving, which literally overnight raised the Model S to the state of the art of this new technology.

So let’s summarize. Tesla just refreshed a car that can outrun Ferraris and Lamborghinis while seating five passengers comfortably. These passengers can breathe hospital-grade air. And the car can drive itself, under certain circumstances.

The Model S is starting to look like the greatest vehicle in the history of the auto industry.

The good old Model S

CEO Elon Musk is in many ways at his best when he combines his love of technology and engineering with his geeky adoration of pop culture and his passion for the future. Ludicrous Mode is pure Musk, who at one time owned an exotic McLaren supercar and who appears to have an affection for 1980s cult sci-fi spoofs (Ludicrous Mode is a reference to the 1987 “Star Wars” satire “Spaceballs”).

McLaren F1 GTR
Inspiration for the Model S. McLaren Automotive

To listen to him explain the new technology in quite pure terms, using the language of engineers, shows his dedication to a company that has actually become one of the great engineering stories of all time, and that commands the respect of the auto industry. When asked about the Model S, Ford CEO Mark Fields said:
“We have driven the Model S, torn it down, put it back together, and driven it again.”
High praise, indeed.

There was concern that that the Model S would be supplanted by Model X SUV. After all, the Model S has been around now for a while. It’s gathered numerous accolades. Motor Trend named it Car of the Year in 2013. Consumer Reports tagged the Model S its top pick for two straight years, even though the car is primarily an upgraded version of the same model. The Model S, you see, is continually improving itself through software updates. If you buy the car in 2015, you could perceive it to be almost a new vehicle in 2016, once the software self-tweaks.

Over the next few years, the Model S will also for all practical purposes be able to completely drive itself, as Tesla improves its current autonomous-driving features. Other vehicles can drive themselves. But obviously, it will be a while before the Google Car can outrun a Ferrari 458.

We’re so used to the Model S — with its sleek, conservatively futuristic styling, its smoothly magnificent performance, and its massive central infotainment screen — that we now take it for granted. I’ve driven both the single- and dual-motor versions of the car (I drove them on the same day, in fact) and I can tell you that it didn’t take me very long to settle into the Model S’s quiet brilliance.

I’ve also been driven by the Model S in Autopilot mode, which is fairly impressive, and I’ve sampled Insane and Ludicrous Modes. Heck, I’ve even tried out Bioweapon Defence Mode. It’s extremely soothing.

Tesla Model S autopilot
It drives itself! Benjamin Zhang/Business Insider

What a car

On a conference call last year when Ludicrous Mode and the P90D were announced, I asked Musk if Tesla had been forced to make any suspension or chassis adjustments to the Model S to tolerate the 2.8-second 0-to-60 performance. He said nope, they just plunked the new battery pack and electronics into the old S and set the sucker loose. Vroom!

Any other automaker would have to basically create a whole new car to take advantage of a 0-60 time that broke the 3-second mark. At the very least, they would have blinged up the design in some aggressive way. A faster machine would have to announce, visually, it faster-ness. You would also need an ocean-going shipping container full of money to buy it.

The Model S, on the other hand, didn’t even get a bigger rear spoiler. The car’s basic engineering is so good that it could take its new hypercar-grade acceleration in impeccable stride. That’s some masterful engineering. That’s impressive.

Critics will say that straight-line speed is all well and good, but the true test of a performance car is its ability to go around corners. I’m no pro, but I didn’t think the P85D had any issues whatsoever with handling. The all-wheel-drive system makes the thing feel glued to the road. It’s almost too planted in the curves. The slightly more rear-end-wiggly Model S is more fun.

Model S Front
What a car. Tesla

Model S forever

We haven’t heard anything about Tesla dropping the Model S from its lineup. The car should be with us for quite a while, assuming Tesla achieves its objectives and becomes a bigger car maker.

But it makes sense that Tesla has refreshed the car. This is simply an inevitable consequence of being in the auto industry: customers get bored with the same-old, same-old.

What we should do for now is take a moment, consider the current Model S in all its glory, and reflect on what a ludicrously marvellous piece of work it is. Tesla and Musk set out to build the Great American Car: beautiful, fast, game-changing. Really, the Greater American Car. And with the Model S, they did it.

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