The first time I drove a Tesla Model S, I was blown away. It was 2015, and it was right when the ultra-quick P85D model came out and Autopilot made its debut promising a future of self-driving cars. My, how things have changed.
Admittedly I was very green when I drove that Model S. Since then, I've driven hundreds of cars, many electric, so my perspective has changed. But that doesn't change the fact that all those years ago, the Model S was one of the best cars in the world. Today, the Model S Plaid is perhaps one of the worst, and even if you're the sort that enjoys schadenfreude at Elon Musk's expense—and how can you not—it's a sad state of affairs for the most important car of the century.
Were it not for the Model S, we likely wouldn't be doing a Performance EV of the Year test. Not only was this sedan proof that electric motors were actually a viable alternative to internal-combustion, it showed the world that an electric car could be genuinely compelling. Quick, luxurious, futuristic. The Model S had it all.
I don't want to say that Elon Musk went off the rails between the Model S's 2012 launch and now because that implies that he was ever on the rails. However, since 2015, he's taken on a far more brash, blustering public persona, seemingly motivated as much by trying to appear edgy online as he is increasing his considerable personal fortune. At the same time, Tesla's cars, always a little quirky, started to take on a similar character.
Why not give it a yoke for a steering wheel, but not change the steering ratio! Why not give it over 1000 horsepower, but not upgrade the brakes! Why not put in a giant touch screen that integrates all the controls including, bafflingly, the gear selector! How funny!
The result is terrifying. Both terrifying to drive, and terrifying to realize that these things are out on the road, in the hands of a public I don't trust enough to handle this sort of power. Up on Angeles Crest, the Plaid is incredibly quick, but it doesn't have the chassis, steering, or brakes to deal with the horsepower. Especially irritating is the damping, which is never settled in the Plaid's multiple drive modes. And that yoke steering wheel is just so incredibly stupid.
I drove the Plaid up the Crest just after having come down in our above-$200,000 winner, the Taycan Turbo S and the contrast couldn't be more sharp. The Porsche is as close to dynamically perfect as you can get in a heavy luxury sedan. Mid-corner bumps that upset the Tesla weren't felt in the Porsche. The steering talks to you, and the driver can feel grip level at the road through the seat. Braking is basically flawless, with the left pedal seamlessly blending regen and the massive carbon-ceramic rotors.
I thought back to a story I wrote in 2019 on the Taycan Turbo S's brakes. Porsche fit the sedan with massive rotors and calipers so it would pass a crazy brake torture test. The automaker has a requirement that every one of its cars stop from 80 percent of its top speed 25 times in a row, with every fifth stop using full ABS, without issue. Because the Taycan Turbo S has a relatively low top speed of 161 mph and accelerates very quickly, this braking test doesn't allow much time for cooling between runs, so Porsche fit the biggest brakes it could find.
Tesla doesn't do this. Per Tesla's parts catalog, the Model S Plaid uses the same rotors as the rest of the lineup (though unique pads and calipers), and if you want a meaningful brake upgrade, you'll need to drop $15,000 for the carbon-ceramic braking package. We haven't tested that kit yet as it's fairly new to the market, but that's beside the point: The Model S Plaid is severely underbraked, and that's indicative of the shoddy engineering happening at the company. Perhaps there's not enough resources to make something truly great out of the Plaid as Tesla focuses so much on other projects, like the Cybertruck, a Muskian flight of fancy if there ever was one.
The phrase "you either die a hero, or live long enough to become the villain" comes from 2008's The Dark Knight. It echoes a Fredrich Nietzche aphorism from Beyond Good and Evil: "He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee."
Both phrases apply more directly to Elon Musk than the Model S, but cars are reflections of their creators, and at a company like Tesla, its cars are very much products of Musk. Had Musk retired in 2015 and had the Model S bowed around then, we'd see it as a landmark car. The Model S is still a landmark car, but one with an asterisk. It's turned into a joke, and not a particularly funny one.
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