With its lineup of electric vehicles, Tesla is an unconventional company that thrives on throwing normality out the window. And while breaking the mold can benefit consumers, the benefit is questionable if it goes too far.
And that, pretty much, sums up the Model X SUV. Filled with enough gee-whiz gizmos to give William Gibson a thrill, the X seemingly sacrifices practicality and pragmatism for the purpose of showboating.
The Model X SUV doesn't shine brightly, unlike the Model S sedan, which impressed us and topped our road-test scoring system. Sure, the X is quick and doesn't consume a drop of gasoline. However, it isn't as quiet, doesn't ride as comfortably, and demonstrates severely compromised usability and utility in everyday use.
Novelties such as the prominent motorized "falcon wing" rear doors that articulate upward and the humongous windshield will be the talk of the neighborhood. But ultimately, any advantage they bring is outweighed by a bigger disadvantage. For example, the rear doors create an immense opening, but their time-consuming opening and closing act gets very old, very fast. Even the electrically-actuated front doors are overcomplicated, forcing constant fussing with fiddly flush door handles. And that huge windshield creates a panoramic view overhead but struggles to keep out intense sun glare.
Since we originally tested the Model X, the battry got larger and the range became longer. It is currently rated by the EPA at 258 miles in standard form and 328 miles for the Long Range version. Charging is convenient with Tesla's wall-mounted connector if installed at home.
Crucially, the Model X can take advantage of Tesla's unique supercharger public infrastructure for recharging. This minimizes the typical EV limitations and facilitates long drives, although these trips require longer and more frequent stops than a conventional car. Unfortunately, owners of later-built Teslas don't get free unlimited supercharger access, a perk enjoyed by earlier owners.
Even with a weight of 5,400 pounds, the Model X is quick, registering 4.9 seconds in the 0-60 mph dash. Moreover, the instant thrust of acceleration proves gratifying anytime, anywhere.
Cornering is stable and even-keel, contrasting with the top-heavy feel of some SUVs. Combine this nimble and secure handling with the instant acceleration, and the result is a fun to drive three-row coach.
Of course, absent a roaring engine, buyers expect an electric vehicle to be quiet. Indeed, the Model X is mostly silent, but too much wind noise ultimately mars the experience. Refinement is further hurt by the stiff ride, which amplifies bumps. Neither shortcoming is befitting a vehicle with a six-figure price tag.
Crafted from high-quality materials, the interior is minimalist yet ultramodern. The slick, industrial design is certainly unique, but its stark vibe might not be to everyone's taste. More important, some interior design decisions compromise practicality. For instance, the monopod-mounted second-row captain chairs seem to float on air. But unlike in every other SUV, they don't fold in order to haul big cargo. (The standard bench seat is more flexible.) Cargo hauling is limited to a small space behind the folding third row or a useful small front trunk that resides where the engine lives in a conventional car. Rear visibility is tight and big roof pillars block view to all corners.
Like the Model S, a giant touch screen forms a glowing centerpiece for the dash. Since there are basically no normal knobs or buttons, this iPad-like screen is the interface for controlling audio, phone, and navigation functions. But performing most tasks requires frequent eyes-off-the-road gazes which is distracting. Over-the-air software updates get beamed to the car, helping the car stay up-to-date with Tesla's latest innovations.
Tesla's Autopilot feature is a system that gives the car partial automation capability. In our tests of this system, we found that it can add convenience but could potentially lull drivers into complacency.
No question, the Tesla brand has built up a cult following that basks in the cool high-tech aura surrounding its cars. And we don't underestimate the public's insatiable thirst for SUVs of any kind and price. But looking at the Model X with eyes wide open shows that Tesla was trying too hard to be different, just to be different. The end product detracts from Tesla's impressive achievements, reducing practicality and adding complexity.