“So, what do we do if we actually run out of power?” By our previous calculations, reaching Tesla’s Senlis Supercharger near Paris after ‘brimming’ the batteries on our Model S P85 press car should have been a breeze, but with the car’s energy readout predicting we’d run out five miles before the target, we were getting nervous. ‘Range anxiety’, they call it, and the trip we’d organised - designed to push the limits of the Tesla’s range - had plenty of it.
Here’s the story of how CT staff writers Matt Robinson and Darren Cassey embarked on an impossible challenge that only a pair of fools would accept…
This whole thing started not long before Christmas. With a Tesla Model S P85 booked in for the following January, we knew we had to do something interesting with it. As Tesla has ‘Supercharger’ stations - said to be able to give the batteries on a Model S 170 miles of charge in just 30 minutes - dotted all over Europe, we figured an all-electric road trip was in order. And where better to go than Paris, arguably Europe’s most glamorous capital city.
With a Supercharger station under a swanky hotel next to Tower Bridge in London, a plan was set in motion: Tower Bridge to the Eiffel Tower using nothing but Supercharger power.
In the harsh light of an underground car park one Friday evening, one storey beneath the plush Tower Hotel, our epic journey began. After driving up the exit ramp into the freezing cold night, the sight of a fully-lit Tower Bridge before us was breathtaking. We stopped for a moment to take it all in. Tower to Tower. There was a nervous excitement in the air; we knew this was going to be quite an experience.
We might not have had the maniacal ‘D’ model, but with 410bhp and 443lb ft of torque instantly available, the P85 is certainly no slouch. Excited at the prospect of such acceleration, I had decided I wouldn’t mash the throttle until we were out of London’s gridlock where I could fully appreciate the kick.
The first hour of our road trip, though, was little more than a crawl through London’s dreaded rush hour. That’s no bad thing in the Tesla, as its silent progress has a calming influence. You’re cocooned from the hectic outside world, not even the sound of your own car to break the serenity.
Looking back it was quite an audacious plan: we aimed to brave Central London before making the short dash to Maidstone, 38 miles from our starting point, after which we wouldn’t be able to charge the car until the Senlis supercharger near Paris. This is almost 200 miles away from Maidstone on the scenic non-toll road route we’d chosen. Oh, and we’d need to sleep in the car for a few hours at the Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone.
With the first Supercharger’s location plugged into the Sat Nav (every charging point is pre-programmed into the car), the massive 17-inch touchscreen display showed us our route. The interface is beautifully designed, and navigation is simple and intuitive. It’s no surprise that a company such as Tesla, run by a tech guy, is one of the few manufacturers to nail the multimedia system’s user experience (although Matt remains unconvinced about the decision to embed basic controls within the system). My only bug-bear, and it frustrated throughout the trip, is that it’s not very responsive. You tap the menu you want, then wait a few seconds for it to appear.
Having navigated the congested city streets of our fine capital, blue motorway signs finally greeted us, and it was time to unleash the torque! With no one behind me, I turned onto the slip road and let my speed fall to about 20mph. And then I punched it.
‘Such savage acceleration in the absence of noise is a real event, and it’s just so different that you’re left slightly flabbergasted by the whole experience’
The acceleration is instant. No surge, no power bands to consider, just straight up forward motion. It’s enough to punch you back into your seat, but you must keep your wits about you as the rear wheels will spin up even accelerating from these speeds. The genuinely brilliant traction control fights valiantly, but you’re kept on your toes.
Such savage acceleration in the absence of noise is a real event, and it’s just so different that you’re left slightly flabbergasted by the whole experience. You’re just kind of here, then you’re there (though your stomach might take a minute to catch up). No drama, no fuss. If you stubbornly write off electric because it’s not noisy, I urge you to keep an open mind and try this out. It’s mind-blowing. I can’t even begin to imagine the D’s force.
Just after midnight, the temperature dropped below zero and we found the Maidstone supercharger. Jayson - our photographer for the weekend - ran around the car snapping away as light snow began to fall. This was not ideal, and could have really scuppered our plans. You see, batteries are even more averse to the cold than I am, and in such Arctic conditions our range was severely impaired.
It took about an hour to get the batteries back up to 100 per cent - charging slows down as the batteries’ cells are topped off, something likened by Tesla as ‘filling a glass of water without spilling. As the glass fills up, you reduce the flow to catch every last drop’. The quickest charge we had all weekend was 145 miles from almost empty in 30 minutes - not far off the 170 mile claim.
Matt took the Model S-shaped key and jumped behind the wheel as I attempted to catch forty winks. At 2.47am, we parked outside the outbound terminal at the Channel Tunnel in Folkestone.
What followed was one of the coldest, most uncomfortable attempts at sleep I have ever experienced. We couldn’t put the heating on as that would have killed our range, but at about 4am, having not slept for a second, we gave in and turned the temperature up for a bit (knocking a few miles off our range) before making our way to the terminal to grab coffee. It was hot inside. And there were sofas we could have been sleeping on. Oops…
It was still dark when we got on the move again. We navigated onto the Eurotunnel train with its absurdly tight curbs, crawling through the carriage at a snail’s pace. After parking up, the train slowly pulled away from the terminal. Next stop, France.
After escaping our claustrophobic hell, I took the sunrise stint from Calais. This was the start of the most difficult part of the trip. The nearest Supercharger was exactly 150 miles away, and we had 163 miles of range. Irritatingly, the 3G coverage for the car stopped (we’ve since been told by Tesla that it should have worked in France) meaning we lost the glorious Google Maps display on the centre console. This, combined with the fact that the Model S nav system doesn’t have an ‘avoid tolls’ option, meant that we had to abandon the screen and use a mobile phone for navigation.
After about an hour’s driving we found ourselves in the beautiful undulating scenery of northern France, still with only 10 miles to spare on the range predictor. It was looking very tight.
With the sun just beginning to poke its head above the horizon, we parked up so Jayson could snap away. It was the most nerve-wracking shoot we’ve ever done, as Matt and I discussed the intricacies of surviving the journey ahead, in between moving the car for photos as slowly and infrequently as possible to preserve range. This was the beginning of our range anxiety, and I was more than happy to hand the keys back to Matt for a few hours of hypermiling.
It didn’t make sense. I’d used Tesla’s mileage calculator - with which I factored in the cold weather, lower speed and stop-start nature of our route - to see what sort of range we’d expect, and it came out at around 240 miles. Plenty for the 195 mile gap between Maidstone and Senlis, even with the few miles we’d lost while stationary at Folkestone. At yet, even with the speed as low as 45- 50mph - a good deal less than the limit of 90kph (56 in old money) - it looked as though we were going to run out before reaching the supercharger.
We had to think fast. I dropped the speed of the Model S even lower, sparking fury with the locals, who blasted past - no doubt wondering why the hell this posh-looking car was trundling along at a snail’s pace. The stereo went off for a while. We even shut the heater off, but with the car steaming up within a few minutes, it had to go back on. I made use of the regenerative braking on downhill sections to speed up and mitigate the inevitable costly trip up the other side, but it didn’t seem to have much effect.
Should I drive even slower? No, I’d already lost count of the number of cars that had overtaken and with the speed any lower, we’d have become a dangerous mobile chicane. And a trolling road rage generator.
We even considered stopping in one of the villages to see if we could borrow a power point, but with a regular socket only supplying 11 miles of charge in an hour, and our grasp of the French language particularly shoddy, this didn’t seem like a helpful solution. Short of taping up all the gaps at the front or ditching Jayson and all his heavy gear at the side of the road, there was little else we could do.
We wondered if we’d have been better off taking the less scenic toll-operated Autoroutes, but a costly short stint at 60mph on dual carriageways stopped those thoughts in their tracks. After all, you can’t exactly sit at 40mph when the limit is anything up to the equivalent of 80mph…
All this was a bit of a shame. My previous experiences of northern France mostly involved ploughing down the Autoroutes to get to the much more picturesque southern part of the country, dispatching vast swathes of flat and boring countryside as I did so. But this non-toll way involved miles and miles of beautiful rolling hills, forests and all sorts of brilliant photo opportunities. And as we trundled through one particularly photogenic piece of landscape - covered in fresh snow - all I could concentrate on was our dwindling range.
About 50 miles from the destination, I went into full-on hypermiling assault mode. The speed dropped even lower. I feathered the throttle as though trying to step on an eggshell without breaking it. We even plugged the phone - still providing our navigation - into a charged laptop rather than the car. And you know what? It all paid off. We had about 10 miles of range more than we needed, and we were almost there. The anticipation of plugging in and feeding our Tesla with sweet, free electricity was palpable.
The stress wasn’t over, though. If we took one wrong turn and had to take a detour or go back on ourselves, we’d be screwed. But, with just five miles of charge remaining, we pulled up behind a budget chain hotel to find two supercharger stations. I expected to feel relieved, but I didn’t; I was just exhausted from all the concentration.
With the charger secure, the perilously low range was rising, but not all that quickly. Only two stations were available, and Superchargers work in pairs. If someone’s charging next to you - which there was - you’ll get a slower charge. It turned out the other Model S driver was actually a Tesla employee, who chatted to us about the virtues of working for a company that operates in such a unique way. “If you have an idea, you can just tell your boss and he’ll pass it on. If they like it, they’ll do it,” he enthusiastically told us.
After the guy drove away in near silence, we went to find lunch, something we’d well and truly earned.
When we left the Senlis Supercharger station fully brimmed with electricity (with the other charger occupied, it took about an hour and a half to get to 100 per cent) I was left with a warm glow. Elon Musk has talked about making these stations meeting points and hangouts. Places where people can chat over a coffee while their cars recharge. That’s exactly what we found when another Tesla driver showed up (plus another at the same charger on our return journey) and happily talked to us about their experiences with the car.
The owners all have one thing in common - they’re passionate about Tesla. Owning one of these cars clearly feels like you’re part of a special club, an all-inclusive membership to the start of something special. We found out that on the day we left that Tesla’s French Owner’s Club was driving to the south of France to inaugurate a new Supercharger.
It’s easy to see that friendly ‘social club’ mentality dying out if Tesla (and pure EVs in general) become as popular as Musk predicts - no one makes friends at petrol stations, after all - but for now, owning a Tesla is special. One of the owners we talked to described it as a ‘passionate relationship,’ gesticulating in a very Gallic manner.
I had taken the wheel for the final stint into Paris. First we checked into the hotel, and then found some dinner, before heading into the city centre for a photograph beneath the Eiffel Tower. Tower to Tower would be accomplished.
We passed the imposing Parc des Princes football stadium on the elevated Boulevard Périphérique, Paris’ massive ring road, before dropping under the River Seine. As we negotiated the heavy traffic, the Eiffel Tower suddenly loomed into view. The stress-fuelled drive from earlier became a distant memory, and with moods lifted it was then that I began to truly appreciate the Model S.
Before we reached our destination at the Eiffel Tower, I convinced the guys to let me tick something off my bucket list. The roundabout encircling the Arc de Triomphe is legendary, and I couldn’t leave Paris without driving it. As the red light turned green, butterflies filled my stomach - I mean it’s not like I was driving a rare, expensive car on what is essentially a demolition derby circuit. I soon discovered Matt was even more nervous than I was, though.
As we entered the arena, the lack of road markings became immediately apparent. I aimed for the centre, my eyes darting between all three mirrors and out the windscreen in an attempt to keep a permanent mental picture of my surroundings. There are no rules here. Some people slow to allow others on, others slow to find a gap as they enter. The guy in the Astra van that screamed in from my right clearly wanted the piece of road I had, so I checked my offside mirror so I could move over.
Matt swears. He’d just taken his eyes off his camera and noticed the van. However, we were good, and had survived a full lap of the incredible arch. Indicating away from this circle of madness, we took a zig-zag route between kamikaze motorists. It was Eiffel time.
The day’s driving had left me well and truly in a bad mood, dreading the fact that we’d have exactly the same tricky Supercharger gap to bridge the next day. But the beauty of Paris meant that all that was forgotten. As we approached the Eiffel tower - its powerful search lights swivelling around and reaching into the distance - the ‘official’ end point of our trip was in sight.
I navigated down the Quai Branly wary of the mad cab drivers populating the road, before finally stopping at the base of the tower. Jayson ran over to the other side of the road to take pictures, just grabbing the key snaps in time before we were chased off by some less-than-impressed police officers.
‘Not so long ago, buying an electric car meant getting a diminutive plastic box of misery like a G-Wizz with a pathetic 40 mile range. How times have changed’
After finding out that we could park up on a quieter Avenue Gustave Eiffel at the other side of the tower, we vacated the Tesla and looked up at the 300-metre tall structure, marvelling at how this 126-year-old-building was only ever supposed to be temporary. Some think that full electric vehicles like the Tesla are merely a temporary flirtation from the auto industry, but who knows; like the Eiffel Tower, perhaps they’re here to stay.
It was then that what we’d achieved struck me. We’d got here all the way from London - separated by hundreds of miles and some sea - on nothing but electric power. Free electric power, at that.
Not so long ago, buying an electric car meant getting a diminutive plastic box of misery like a G-Wizz with a pathetic 40 mile range. How times have changed. Sure, the gap between chargers made this particular journey incredibly stressful at times - and travelling back the other way the next day turned out to be just as fraught - but we’d proven that road trips are possible in an electric vehicle. And proven it well by plugging one of the largest gaps between chargers on the whole Supercharger network. With the range of the Model S only set to increase and superchargers being installed all the time (in fact, one has just been installed in Calais), these trips will get easier too.
The car itself, though, is already a brilliant thing. We’d driven hundreds of miles in ours, slept in it, and had masses of entertainment experiencing that instant torque when range wasn’t an issue, coming out the other side more enamoured with the Model S than ever before. If the people at Tesla can build an all-electric car that convinces a pair of die-hard petrolheads that ditching unleaded isn’t so bad, they must be on to something.