When I bought the Tesla Model 3 in 2019, as I wrote about here, I had no plans to fall in love with it. I’ve had the good fortune of owning several of the most iconic cars in the world, and still have a couple left. My expectations for the Model 3, a popular, mass-produced electric car were modest, and so I was surprised at its total awesomeness. The new Model S Plaid makes a very different impression.
In the summer of 2021, Tesla announced plans to redesign their flagship car, the Model S. They indicated one configuration would be the fastest production car in the world. One might think I’d have learned my lesson after falling for that line twice. The first time I ordered a new BMW M5 in 2001 and the second time I bought the McLaren MP4-12C in 2014. But for some reason, that claim grips me and will not let go. I feel like a fish who keeps stupidly going for the same bait. Before anyone could ask any reasonable, thoughtful or prudent questions and, before any details for the new Model S (such as price, features or performance) were known – only rumors, I put down a deposit. I rationalized: “A deposit gives me the opportunity to say yes or no. Given how popular they may be, waiting and attempting to buy one once all the facts are in will result in my not actually getting a chance to buy the car at all. Plus, if I don’t care for what I see, I’ll be able to get my deposit back.” Pricing and options for the car continued to change up to its actual availability, but one thing remained unchanged – it is the fastest production car in the world. And it now sits in my garage.
In many ways the Tesla Model 3 is far more practical and a better car than the Model S Plaid. I will review that rationale in a bit. But first, a bit of context surrounding the incredible performance level of the Model S Plaid and all of the attention it is getting.
Ever since men began using cars as a stand-in for “mine’s bigger than yours,” it’s been the speed of the car (top speed, zero to 60 time, elapsed quarter-mile, etc.) that has been the ultimate arbiter. Your car may look good, have great wheels and an aftermarket exhaust making it sound menacing and fast, but at the end of the day, performance at the track or drag strip is the bottom line. “Money talks – Bullshit walks,” is the slogan, with money being speed. The fact that the Tesla Plaid blows past every other previously “fastest car in the world” contender, and by such a margin, is part of the reason early attention on the Model S Plaid is about performance. It should be no surprise. Automobile aficionados are accustomed to speed records being surpassed by a few hundredths or thousandths of a second each year. Then the Tesla Plaid comes along and obliterates records by full seconds for a fraction of the price of other sub 3.0 zero to sixty cars.
One of the fastest Corvettes ever, the 2015 Z06, goes from zero to 60 in just 3.0 seconds, putting it on par with the $400K McLaren 675LT and 1 million dollar Ford GT. My McLaren MP4-12C had bragging rights when it was introduced in 2012 with a 2.9 seconds zero to sixty, one of the first production cars in history to move under the 3-second mark. Four years later, in 2018, the Ferrari 812 Superfast ($400K base price) finally bested it at 2.8 seconds. McLaren took over again at 2.7 seconds with the 650S, a relative bargain with a base price of just $280,225 (meaning just over $350K out the door). Then the Bugatti Veyron and Chiron models and dual-motor Porsche 918 Spyder all in the million or two-million-dollar range, began hitting 2.5 seconds. Then the tri-motor Ferrari SF90 Stradale in 2021 set the record at 2.0 seconds with a base price of $625K and an out-the-door price frequently close to $1M.
Along comes the Tesla Plaid easily and repeatedly hitting 60 mph in just 1.9 seconds from a dead stop, and for $130K. The experience of unleashing power output registering at the wheels of over 1100 horsepower and a peak torque of 905 ft. lbs. (over 1227 Nm) is unlike anything I’ve experienced in a car. Comments from passengers with whom I’ve shared this little experiment have equated it to an amusement park joy ride or what they state must be the feeling of being in a rocket blasting off from a launch pad. Technically, it’s been measured, and at launch, the Tesla is pulling 1.2G’s which is faster acceleration than a skydiver experiences jumping from an airplane in freefall.
I am not unfamiliar with fast cars. My all-aluminum, 300 HP, 2002 Acura NSX is no slouch, but was quickly relegated to second best in my garage when in 2014 I bought the McLaren MP4-12C. With is 2.9 zero to sixty and top speed over 210 mph, it was the fastest production car in the world, at that time, and trust me, it is still crazy fast. But here is the difference. While the Plaid streaks away from a stop in eerie silence, planting my right foot in the McLaren signals the 640 HP twin turbo V-8 to launch the light, carbon fiber-bodied McLaren down the road in a way that alerts everyone within a half mile to what is going on.
What makes the Plaid’s performance extra insane is the fact that it is a big, 4-door luxury sedan. It has normal-looking wheels and tires, no massive racing slicks. Getting in and out is easy, versus the gymnastic contortions required in many of the cars at this super-fast end of the scale. So, putting aside its blinding performance numbers (which has to be experienced to fully appreciate), how is it otherwise?
Mine has just over 2,000 miles as of this writing and apart from the performance, here is what I think so far: The range (nearing 400 miles on a full charge) is superb, but not nearly as mind-blowing as the speed at which it charges. On a recent trip to San Diego, we pulled into the charging station in Quartzite showing 23% remaining. We plugged in, walked half a block to a Burger King, ordered food, took it to the table and unwrapped it. We had just begun eating when my phone beeped to say the Tesla was finished charging. This is approaching the time it takes to fill a normal gas-powered car with fuel. It’s made possible because Tesla plotted our route, directing us to this particular super-charging station and in the miles before we pulled in, super-chilled the battery so it could accept a high-current dump of juice. And it worked.
The character of this car is that of a big, heavy, touring sedan. Think of a Chrysler New Yorker, but with superb handling and vicious acceleration, when you want it. The Plaid is almost a foot longer than the Model 3 and nearly 7 inches wider. With no center drive train, it easily fits four adults giving each person lots of room and large, luxurious seats which are heated and air-conditioned. We’ve had five adults in it and all were comfortable. When heading to the airport for a pickup, we kiddingly say, “let’s take the BIG CAR” – a reference to one of our favorite old Gary Larson cartoons (pictured – note the leg of the “big horse” along the far-left side of the cartoon). In fact, I drove to the airport and brought my older daughter, her husband, and my two grandkids, each with a large suitcase stuffed for a two-week stay and each with a good-sized backpack. Everything fit with no need to get creative or play Luggage Tetris. It is big!
The Plaid is full of things pushing it to the top of electronic car whizzery. It has autopilot, and while not fully self-driving, it is probably closer to it than anyone else. It will happily drive itself on the highway for miles on end, keeping far better attention than most human drivers, automatically braking or changing lanes as appropriate. Like the McLaren, it has full pneumatic suspension. It automatically lowers the suspension at high speeds for better aerodynamics and raises it in areas with rough roads or speed bumps. With its array of sensors, it theoretically can park and unpark itself, although I’ve not tried it yet. One feature you can’t opt out of trying are the over-the-air constant updates. Just like your electronic devices, several times a month I get a notice saying my Tesla has a new download ready and I should install it. This is all done from the Tesla app on my phone, which also allows me to adjust the temperature of the car remotely, open the trunk (or frunk) and, theoretically, summon the car to wherever I am – another feature I’ve yet to put to the test.
Not everything is perfect. Tesla has replaced the steering wheel with a yoke. The yoke is just fine on highways or city streets, but it does not work as easily as a steering wheel at low speeds and when backing up. It takes getting used to. What redeems the yoke is a completely unobstructed view of the road and the ability to see, at a quick glance, all the key bits of information a driver most wants – your speed, mini-map of where you are and upcoming turns, signal indicators and where you are in your lane and the posted speed limit. It literally is the best view for a driver of any car I’ve ever been in, which is high praise as the NSX and McLaren are legendary for this.
Tesla designers decided to eliminate the traditional stalks for turn signals, gear selection and wipers that are on most cars and move those controls to the yoke. It works, but adjusting to the non-intuitive placement takes a bit of time to learn. If the Tesla was the only car you drove, it would not likely be a problem. Given my assortment of cars, it always takes a bit of thought to figure out what to do to make the car do what I want.
The range of customization and number of elements that can be changed or adjusted makes me feel like I’m driving an iPhone with wheels more than a car. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun and different to have this literal toy box of things to play with on the car, which also contains an iPad size screen for the back seat, where you can watch Netflix movies, Hulu or YouTube. Oh, and of course, choose from a complete pallette of internal colored lighting while being able to make farts emanate from under any of the four seats, and even customize the type of fart.
Tesla paint issues (dust nibs, rotary marks, thin paint in spots) have been well-documented and smart owners know to install paint protection film. I did this at Cactus Tint for the Model 3 and of course, had it done on the Plaid as well. Having a clear bra protects the paint from rock chips or other items hitting the paint. For me they installed XPEL Ultimate Plus which has the added feature of self-healing. I then had the paint treated with a ceramic coating to further protect it. Fingers crossed.
While I like the Plaid, the Model 3 is in many ways a better car. It’s smaller, easier to toss around, and for daily in-town commuting, it is all it needs to be. It fits in my garage better and into tight parking spaces, leaving plenty of room to get in and out. The Model 3 is also a far better value. You could buy two Model 3’s for what the Plaid costs. And the things that make the Plaid “way cool,” aren’t things you use every day. Yes, the Plaid has a better suspension, a killer 1,000 watt stereo, softer seats, ridiculous performance and, longer range, but it’s not worth $65K more. With what I know now, I would order a Model 3 with the Performance Package and be just as happy, maybe more so.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun having a Tesla Plaid and any Tesla, actually. Tesla is so far ahead of traditional car companies it is just astounding. Not only in the cars they build, but in their approach to ordering a car, servicing it and their charging infrastructure. And as a patriotic sort of guy, I also enjoy knowing I’m driving a car that is the most “American made” of any car I could possibly own by a considerable margin. My Tesla is made 100% in the USA, all the components and all assembly by good old American workers – something that can’t be said for Fords, Chevys or Jeeps.