We boldly go where no Pill has gone before…
By Mike Duff / Saturday, February 20, 2021 / Loading comments
It is Brave Pill's second birthday and time to party like its 2099. Last year's big zero-one saw the first 51 of our faded automotive stars loaded in to an Excel spreadsheet to produce the perfect synthesis – which turned out to be a Maserati Quattroporte. This year I've been allowed to take a less strenuous celebratory approach, one that looks forwards rather than back.
Yes, it's a Tesla, a decision that has seen a substantial amount of server power put on standby for the flame wars likely to break out in the comments. This Model S is both our first electric Pill and a statistical ding to the eight-plus average cylinder count that has been maintained since the column's debut CLK 55 AMG. On those grounds alone many will see it as a betrayal of the mechanical risk and head-in-hands MPG numbers that Pill was established to celebrate. Yet it's also a gentle acknowledgement of the way the world is heading. Consider it Brave Pill of the future.
There are plenty of more courageous EVs out there than this 101,000 mile Model S. I tried to find a G-Wiz – the deathtrap that was briefly popular with the most virtuous of virtue signalers in the early 'noughties, and which still sits atop the list of the worst cars I have ever experienced. At least, it would if it was actually a car; the G-Wiz was too slow and insubstantial to be legally regarded as such. It was a barely motorized quadricycle that combined the performance of a milk float with the design and impact protection of a hamster cage. Piloting one around the North Circular in a rainstorm was one of the most terrifying drives of my life. Probably fortunately, there are none in the classifieds.
But even when bigger and more serious manufacturers started to make EVs, evolution was gradual. The Mitsubishi iMIEV was a huge leap over rubbish like the G-Wiz. But it was tiny, slow, struggled to go more than 60 miles on a charge and rode like it was being ridden. The first Nissan Leaf was bigger, rangier and more refined – but no more exciting. Electric cars were dull, worthy and designed to engender smugness rather than desire.
Which is where Tesla spotted its opportunity. When the Roadster came out in 2008 it was obviously Lotus based and cost nearly £100,000. It was short on luxury but big on thrills, unarguably fast and properly exhilarating. This was an EV that was both willing and able to go sideways. Rivals were trying to create the electric version of the Volkswagen Beetle, Tesla had gone straight to building an ion-fueled 911. The Fisker Karma was going to be a range extender rather than a pure EV, which most pundits reckoned was a far safer technology choice back then.
Fisker got to market first, and immediately proved Tesla's decision to stay fully electric right. Journos and potential buyers who were invited to drive the Karma soon discovered a dramatically split personality, with silent progress under electric power but a food blender impression when the distinctly unposh GM four-cylinder fired into noisy life. When the production Model S emerged in 2012 it proved to be both simpler and better, combining a potent and near silent powertrain with range that looked incredible compared to the modest numbers of earlier EVs – all bar the base version could go at least 200 miles.
Early sales were restricted to the U.S., where press reaction was some way short of fulsome, certainly when delivered by automotive rather than tech journalists. The Model S's performance and refinement received plenty of praise, but there was less love for the minimalist cabin and the need to use the huge central touchscreen for almost every function. Some shonky build quality didn't help warm up the reviews. The wider motor industry seemed to treat Tesla as a curious anomaly rather than a genuine competitor, one that would soon get overwhelmed when the big boys turned their attentions to this insignificant niche.
Hindsight has knocked that one over the pavilion roof, of course. The Model S was soon winning hearts, minds and a growing number of customers. It was a huge hit with affluent tech savvy buyers, Silicon Valley's parking lots were full of them, but also among those looking for something completely different. UK sales began in 2014 with two 382hp rear-drivers – with either 60kWh or 85kWh batteries – and a brawnier P85 that combined the bigger pack with a brawnier 469hp motor. Prices started at £54,900, with the government's then EV subsidy dropping that to £49,900.
While the car was impressive, Tesla's greatest early achievement was recognising the importance of the 'everything else' bit. The company started to roll out a network of dedicated high-speed Superchargers as soon as sales began, one that was well beyond the apparent requirements for the modest number of cars out there. For a couple of years some of these looked like white elephants – long lines of empty chargers were a common sight – but use grew as sales increased. As the buyers of rival EVs discovered the inadequacies of third-party charging networks – a great way to start a conversation with an I-Pace or e-tron owner – so the perceived advantage has grown.
Bringing us back to our Pill, the cheapest Tesla currently to be found in the classifieds, although its £27,990 price tag is proof of the impressive sturdy residuals that early examples enjoyed as slightly later adopters piled in. Ours has the combination of the 85kWh battery pack, black paint and a cream interior that seems to have stood up well to what has evidently been a busy life. It is an early car with the original black nose cone – facelifted Ses got a small aperture – but Tesla's decision to eschew the fashion for regular cosmetic updates means it otherwise looks very similar to a brand-new example.
Of course, Tesla's iterative updates to tech functions means that much of the driving experience will feel out of date when compared to a spiffy new example – a reality reflected in the substantial difference in price. The dealer selling our Pill hasn't given a breakdown of all the goodies present, but the pictures confirm the presence of the radar sensor in the lower grille that proves it is carrying the hardware for the original Autopilot 1.0 system – active lane keeping combined with smart cruise – although this will need to have been software enabled to work.
The internet offers no shortage of stories about egregious Tesla quality issues, with these inevitably followed by a spittle-flecked rebuttal from St. Elon's legions of online defenders. But our Pill's mileage has already proved its longevity, and is backed by an MOT history consisting solely of unblemished passes. Yet while a powertrain with a single moving part will always lack peril when compared to an elderly V8 or V12, the long-term health of the battery pack is a more pressing question. Tesla warranties Model S packs for eight years or 150,000 miles in the UK, so our November 2014 registered Pill should still be covered against catastrophic borkage.
While the battery packs of leggier Teslas do degrade over time, they usually to do this at a much slower rate than many pessimists predicted; even owners of cars with cars that have covered 200,000 miles report packs retaining more than 80 per cent of their original capacity. Other issues include suspension componentry failures and the common failure of the central display screen, solved through fitting a new memory chip. Perhaps the biggest financial risk issue for Teslas from this era will be the slipping balance of supply and demand as newer EVs start to enter the secondhand market in greater numbers. Values could well slide quickly.
So not the most courageous of Brave Pills for this milestone, but a very futuristic one. Before you know it we'll all be reminiscing about the far-off days of 85kWh battery packs and chargers with plugs like nostalgic Fast Ford fanboys discussing Escort RS Turbos and cruises to Southend. Don't fear, normal service will be resumed next week.
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