THE GRAND ETOUR
can you drive the length of the country and back using only electric power? T3 takes to the highway in a tesla to find out
a hefty charge
Admittedly, Tesla is asking £90 large for the 100D – its tour-capable model – but in return for this outlay you can go about 393 miles on a charge, so you could drive almost anywhere in the UK. And when you factor in Tesla’s own Supercharger network, which covers most of the UK and enables you to charge the car up quickly, you really can get wherever you want without worrying. Teslas aren’t just the preserve of rich folk, either, because when Elon’s latest baby – the Model 3 – arrives in 2018, it’ll have the range of a mid-level Model S, with the down-to-earth price tag of a regular family wagon.
As the official electric guinea pig on T3, I’ve very nearly been stranded in an electric car and an electric bike before, so I was all too keen to head up this month’s mission: to drive the famous 874-mile route from Land’s End to John O’Groats (twice, since I have to get there and back) and verify if it really is possible to drive the entire length of the country without getting stranded.
The Friday before the journey began, I head over to the Tesla HQ in West Drayton to pick up the Model S 100D I’ll be driving for the next few days. In the flesh, it looks virtually identical to the other, ‘lesser’ models in the range – you just get a bigger battery under the hood… erm, floorpan, even. That’s to say it’s a mighty fine-looking car, and should be suited to the big drive thanks to its long and low GT- style body shape and sumptuous cabin.
Once I get back to my Bristol crib – with loads of battery life, I might add – I start to formulate a plan of attack. Looking at the route, first of all I’ll be driving south to Land’s End, then up to John O’Groats, and finally back to London to drop the car off with Tesla. Of the available charging stations along the way, the furthest Supercharger south is Exeter, which is fine and dandy, but the northern most Supercharger is only as far as Dundee, which means the 100D won’t have enough range to get me to JOG. Oh, crap. After a quick check of Zap Map (zap-map.com) I confirm that there is a public (non-Tesla-approved) charger located at the JOG Visitor Centre, and it’s a fast one at that, too. Problem solved, or though I thought…
Setting off on the following Monday after a well-rested weekend, with photographer James riding shotgun, we head straight to the southern tip. Tapping Land’s End Visitor Centre into the sat nav on the Tesla’s humongous 17-inch touch display, I needn’t have bothered doing any planning as the computer calculates charging stops for us. It’s worked out that we can make it to Land’s End and back to the Exeter-based Supercharger on our return, with about 20 per cent battery remaining. I ignore this advice, however,
being a trepidatious type, and choose instead to charge up at the half-way point, just 80 miles in. Since the 100D still has over 80 per cent battery remaining, I assume it will take about 30 minutes to charge up. To my surprise, it takes a whopping 90, and it suddenly dawns on me that the whole trip is going to take much longer than planned. Thankfully, this is my first new-to-Tesla-charging discovery: apparently, the more juice in the tank, the slower it charges. When the battery is almost empty, the Supercharger is able to kick out over 100kW of power, but over the halfway mark, it starts to slow. Why? Tesla says it’s partly to help increase battery longevity over many charging cycles. In the real world this means you need to stop more often, but charge for a shorter amount of time, which is more efficient in the long run.
Plugging the Tesla in is a simple, fuss-free affair - just hold the button on the charger to open the car’s charging flap, then plug it in. And wait. I’d already downloaded the Tesla app a few days earlier, which means I can go inside, grab a coffee and watch the car charge in real time from the comfort of the artisan café. The app tells you when you have enough charge to make it to your destination, so there’s no thumb twiddling involved.
Two hours later and we make it to Land’s End without breaking a sweat. A couple of Cornwall’s finest pasties later, it was back to base to rest up before the next day. Snapper James is keen to get behind the wheel, so I hand the Tesla over to him for the remainder of the drive. Being slightly shorter than myself, James moves the seat and steering wheel – both electronically adjustable – into a position better suited to his proportions. Normally, adjusting back and forth between the two of us over the course of a few days would have become irritating, but thanks to Tesla’s memorising seats, you can create driver profiles for each person. When I get in the car, all I have to do is tap my name on the display to get the seat to automatically adjust to my body. Great for shorties and lankies alike.
Before we head up to Edinburgh on day two, I make the decision to abandon my carefully calculated route plan and let the car do the hard graft. With the destination loaded, the car suggests a charging point along the way that would comfortably get us there with plenty of juice remaining. Removing this confirms my suspicions – that we wouldn’t make the full 373 miles without charging where it suggests.
With the huge distance to cover between Bristol and there, it’s time to get a move on (within legal speed limits, of course). On the road, the 100D bursts into life with the kind of manic acceleration that could humble a supercar, yet it’s perfectly smooth, and the lack of engine rumble makes the cabin a quiet, zen-like place to sit – perfect for reducing fatigue on a journey. By the time we arrive in Edinburgh early evening, we’re still feeling surprisingly fresh, so we hit the city in search of food and beer, and get a good night’s kip.
Which was wise, because there’s a 600 mile/14-hour roundtrip ahead of us the following day, with a potentially tricky charging situation at the destination. Hands down, this was going to the ultimate electric test. Stopping via the Dundee charger (the furthest north) gives us enough to get there, but we’ll need to charge it again for the way back.
The journey to the John O’Groats is spectacular, the unfettered mountainous terrain of the Cairngorms proving the perfect backdrop. As it’s such a nice day and the scenery so photogenic, we decide to pause and grab an ice cream, and get a few shots at the stunning Loch Insh stop off. I’m amazed that you can get this far, and to such a beautiful location, without touching a drop of fuel. Funnily enough, though we’re in the middle of nowhere, the lakeside restaurant has just installed a couple of charging points three days earlier. How’s that for luck? Thinking it fate giving me a sign of encouragement, I take advantage and plug the Tesla in. Clearly, what fate was actually doing was mocking my foolish endeavours as, try as I might, I can’t figure out how to get the bloody
I’m amazed you can get to such a beautiful location without a drop of fuel
thing to work. Oddly enough, the machine doesn’t respond well to my loud cursing and repeated raps to its metallic shroud.
Still, the stop-off does give me a chance to experience the 100D’s factory-fit Smart air suspension, which allows us to get the car down a steep ramp and onto the waterfront for a cheeky snap, without it scraping the bottom. You too can have your very own high-rise supercar by going into the suspension menu and tapping the screen to select the highest setting. I feel pretty smug when the mouths of onlooking holidaymakers drop as the Tesla raises up on stilts. I’m told that the car also has GPS memory built in, so if you drive somewhere with lots of speed humps, the Tesla will remember where they are, automatically raising or lowering the suspension, for maximum smoothness. Seriously clever.
Seven hours later, and several
questionable varieties of pitstop sarnie devoured, we turn up in JOG at 7pm, narrowly missing out on a well-earned hot meal at the tasty-looking on-site bistro. But filling my belly is, for a change, not on the agenda. Instead I head straight for the public charger round the back and hook up the Tesla, crossing my fingers. Looking at the display on the charger there’s an immediate red flag: despite the claimed fast-charge (43kW AC/50kW DC), we’re getting a pitiful 9kW charging rate; that’s more like a phone charger! Switching to DC (using the Tesla’s handy adapter stored in the boot) helps a bit, but we still have an excruciating five hours left until we have enough to get us home. Then it’s a seven-hour journey to Edinburgh, meaning heads won’t be hitting the hotel hay until 5.30 in the morning. And we have to leave again by 8am.
After several semi-lethal caffeine doses and one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever witnessed over the cliffs of Duncansby Head looking out at the Isle of Stroma, I check the Tesla dash one final time. 270 miles isn’t quite maxed out, but it will get us to the Supercharger in Dundee, I think. Time to unplug and get out of dodge.
But just as we’re about to leave, the sky suddenly turns an admittedly impressive, shade of Mordor black – surely a precursor of things to come? Undeterred, we set out to drive through the night, bodies aching beyond belief, but looking forward to getting a good, er, hour’s sleep at the end of it. Just a few minutes out of JOG, the weather switches like a light from a few droplets of rain on the windscreen to a monsoon-like downpour, with a spot of impermeable fog just for good measure. This makes the tight and twisty roads of the A99 almost impassable at times. It’s at this moment I consider switching on the Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot mode (a £5,700 option at purchase), and let the car take care of the controls, KITT-style, while I grab a needed shot of joe. Only I can’t, because, just my luck, our car hasn’t been specced with it. Instead, I go low-tech, direct all vents to my face and blast out the aircon to keep me focused until the next stop, at which point my partially rested colleague, who is sat fully reclined next to me, snoring for England and blissfully unaware of the hell fire I’m attempting to navigate us through, will take over.
Before I’ve even had a chance to digest the thought of switching seats and getting my share of Zs, another issue raises its ugly head: the Tesla is now telling me we cannot make it to our destination on the charge we have. This is bad news. We’re in the middle of nowhere and I don’t relish the thought of
I’m going full eco warrior, turning off anything that sucks up precious battery
stopping at another non-Tesla station for another five hours to top the car up. So what do I do? Ignore it, obviously. I’m not that sure about my decision when the touchscreen starts flashing the same message too. But I’ve got a plan – instead of giving into range anxiety, I’m going full-on eco warrior mode, turning off the dash, aircon - anything that might suck up precious battery juice. It’s a bit like when you put your phone into Airplane mode to eke out those last few minutes of Breaking
Bad on the commute. The Tesla adds some helpful advice, suggesting I keep the speed below 60mph, but the lure of the Tesla’s mile-munching power is hard to resist. Minutes after I’ve tamed my right foot into submission, the battery percentage at the finish point starts to creep up, and before I know it I’m seeing a comfortable 10 per cent. Time to head home.
Annoyingly, none of this would have happened later in the year. It turns out, after chatting to a Models S owner on the previous day, that Tesla will be building charging stations at Inverness at the end of 2017, so we would have got to JOG and back with zero drama. Typical.
On the fourth and final day, after a token head rest, we hit the road for the return to Tesla’s HQ to drop off the car. The drive is fast, smooth and just, well, easy. Once you’ve got the hang of the Supercharger etiquette, it no longer becomes a challenge to charge. Just stop when it wants you to, freshen up and head on. It really is that simple. Unlike other electric cars, which rely on the mixed bag that is the public charging network, Tesla has nailed the game with its Supercharger infrastructure. You don’t even have to worry about turning up to a Supercharger station to find a Tesla party that you’re not invited to, because the in-car display tells you how many stalls are free before you get there, so you won’t have to hang about unnecessarily.
Are electric cars ready for the long haul then? The proof is in the pudding: at no point in my last six hours with the Tesla did I feel anxious about whether we’d make it home or not, and I only checked the battery gauge a handful of times. Once you stop worrying about how the car is getting you there and just enjoy the drive ahead, that’s a gamechanger.