by Gerhard Horn
Nearly all discussions about the Tesla Model S Plaid before its launch were dominated by the controversial yoke steering wheel. But we're here to tell you there's so much more to this car than an admittedly silly steering device. What about the fact that it's Tesla's first triple-motor car, producing 1,020 horsepower and 1,050 lb-ft of torque, or that it can cut under two seconds flat to 60 mph and still attain a claimed 390-mile range? As it currently stands, this is a four-door EV that has no direct rivals. If the claimed specs are to be believed - with real-world tests rapidly proving that they are - the Plaid is the fastest accelerating production car ever. Even the marvelous Porsche Taycan doesn't have an answer to the Plaid, with the closest possible competition coming from the Rimac Nevera. Fresh off a new facelift to keep the Model S going, the Plaid isn't a one-trick pony, and new infotainment, more cabin space, and better build quality than ever are quickly cementing its place in the pantheon of vehicles that redefined automotive history.
Along with the most significant facelift for the Model S range in years, the Plaid arrives as a new trim and range-topper, effectively replacing the Model S Performance. Compared with the pre-facelift model, the hood tapers down a bit more and the wheel arches are more pronounced, while there are also wider wheels/tires and flared fenders on the Plaid.
On the inside, Tesla takes its well-known minimalistic design to a new level. It even removed the upper part of the steering wheel. The vertical touchscreen has been removed and replaced with a new high-resolution landscape screen with all-new computing power behind it. The sizable digital instrument cluster has been dumped in favor of a newer, smaller unit. Rear passengers now have their own infotainment screen housed within the front row's armrest, and finally, the storage space underneath the old touchscreen interface and the dual front cupholders have been replaced with a wireless charging space for two phones and a center armrest/storage space that separates the driver and passenger.
Even these cosmetic and technology updates pale compared to the Plaid's performance, though. Under ideal conditions, Tesla promises a 0-60 time of under two seconds.
It's worth noting that Tesla updates its models throughout the year, so the Plaid on sale earlier in 2021 could differ from one sold at the end of the same year. There was originally scheduled to be an even higher-performance version called the Tesla Model S Plaid Plus, but a few weeks before market launch, Elon Musk said the standard model performed better than anticipated and that there was no need for a Plus variant.
See trim levels and configurations:
Single Speed Automatic
You'd never say the Model S was going on ten years old, as the latest facelift makes minimal changes that keep the design up-to-date. The hood is a bit sleeker, and the haunches are more pronounced. Tesla carried over most of the design elements we know and love. Since there is no engine, it doesn't need a grille. Instead, you get a minimalist sliver with the now-famous Tesla badge. The door handles are still flush, and the rear lights remain connected by a single trim piece. Plaid models have a subtle rear spoiler and diffuser. The standard 19-inch Tempest wheels can be upgraded to 21-inch Arachnid wheels, although these bigger wheels do have a negative impact on the car's range.
The Model S Plaid carries an S-Class-like price, but it's more comparable with the E-Class in terms of dimensions. It's 197.7 inches long, 78.2 inches wide excluding the mirrors, and 56.3 inches tall in its normal suspension setting, although its Cheetah stance drops this to 55.1 inches. The body rides on a skateboard platform with a 116.5-inch wheelbase.
Electric cars all have a weight problem, and the Plaid is no exception. It has a claimed curb weight of 4,766 pounds. To put that into perspective, the BMW M5, which is already a fatty, weighs 4,345 lbs. On the plus side, you'd never be able to tell thanks to that instant power delivery.
Tesla's color palette is disappointingly small. It's like those small crayon boxes you used to get as a kid. Only the five colors are available, completely inhibiting your creativity. Pearl White Multi-Coat is standard, while Solid Black, Midnight Silver Metallic, and Deep Blue Metallic retail for $1,500 each. Red Multi-Coat costs $2,500.
Some model-specific colors would have been nice. The Plaid is the kind of car you want to boast about, so why not include more exuberant oranges, yellows, or greens? Perhaps even the option of a Plaid exterior. That would be Meta.
The Plaid name does not refer to the fabric on the seats. It's a reference to the movie Spaceballs. To pursue Lone Starr, Dark Helmet gives the order to go to ludicrous speed. That's one step above lightspeed in the Spaceballsverse. They eventually reach a speed so fast, they overtake Lone Starr, at which point his loyal sidekick remarks that they've gone to plaid. It's one of the funniest lines in comedy history, making fun of the iconic streaking stars used in Star Wars.
Elon's message is clear. The Plaid is beyond Ludicrous Mode. It's beyond the realm of fast, rapid, brisk, speedy, or any other synonym you can think of. Tesla claims a 0 to 60 mph time of 1.99 seconds (with rollout subtracted) and a top speed of 200 mph. It can do the quarter-mile in less than ten seconds without breaking a sweat; specifically, Tesla claims 9.23 seconds at a 155-mph trap speed. That's what happens when you have almost the full 1,050 lb-ft of torque from 1 rpm although the full 1,020 hp only arrives at 80 mph.
The Plaid has one electric motor up front and two in the rear, which means it's all-wheel drive. But before Tesla fanboys start jumping up and down, celebrating their victory over ICE models and the Porsche Taycan Turbo, there are two things you need to know. First, the Tesla feels like the first car to be limited by tire technology. There simply isn't a standard production tire that can cope with this kind of repeated abuse.
Second, to get a sub-two-second 0 to 60 time, you'll need a prepared surface, and then you'll need to put the Plaid into Drag Strip mode. At this point, the car needs a few minutes to prepare the drivetrain. We'd like to call it an EV existential crisis, but it's just the car heating or cooling the batteries for optimal performance. Batteries have a very narrow window in which they operate at full power, which is why a thermal management system is so important. Porsche's thermal management system is more advanced, however. It's always working in the background and doesn't need to prep for a hard launch, although the Taycan has no answer for Plaid's devastating launch. Basically, while the Tesla Plaid is prepping itself, the Porsche has already completed the quarter-mile in 10.7 seconds and has found its way to the nearest non-corporate owned agreeable coffee shop. The owner is already sipping on an overpriced Chai Latte, which means the Plaid is no longer capable of randomly killing supercars from the lights on a whim.
Making 1,020 hp and 1,050 lb-ft usable is not an easy task. Bugatti struggled for more than a decade to make it work in a car with hypercar aerodynamics and underpinnings, making the Plaid even more impressive.
To produce that much power, Tesla uses its first-ever tri-motor setup: one electric motor up front and two in the rear. These are not the same electric motors used in the old Model S but rather reworked versions of the next-generation units from the Model 3. The battery pack is 4 kWh down compared to the outgoing model, but prospective owners shouldn't let that stand in their way. Tesla's main focus was thermal management. Porsche took a long, hard look at the Model S while developing the Taycan, and Tesla returned the favor by doing the same while working on the Plaid. Thanks to its new thermal management system, its power delivery is no longer dependent on how much charge is left. You get the full 1,020 hp all the way down to zero percent.
Oddly, Tesla did not copy Porsche's two-speed gearbox. The German gearbox allows it to cruise at Autobahn speeds without the motors spinning at a dizzying 20,000 rpm. Tesla's solution is still a single-speed gearbox. The rotors on the electric motor boast carbon fiber sleeves instead of the usual steel ones to better cope with high RPMs. It works a charm, as the Plaid provides breathtaking instantaneous shove, though it has yet to officially go 200 mph as this requires upgraded wheels and tires that will only arrive later on in 2021. Until then, the top speed is capped at 163 mph.
Owning one of these things is going to take massive amounts of restraint. You need to realize that everything else on the road is slower and that a five-second prod of the throttle will take you to the kind of speed where the survival rate in a crash is virtually zero. Unlike an ICE car, the acceleration doesn't taper off at high speed. It pulls just as strongly at 100 mph as it does from zero.
This isn't Tesla's fault, however. As we rapidly move over to an EV world, this problem will need to be addressed. The idea of drivers with mediocre skills piloting a car that can hit 60 in less than two seconds is scary.
First, we'll address the elephant in the room. The yoke steering wheel is a ridiculous idea. For proof, look no further than the Plaid that Randy Pobst used at the 2021 Pikes Peak Hill Climb. If the yoke was so brilliant, why not use it for this race? At slow speeds within the confines of a city, it's idiotic. You find yourself reaching for a piece of the steering wheel that isn't there. It's less of a problem at higher speeds where only small inputs are required. Honestly, just go for a regular steering wheel, and stop trying to defend this idiotic idea that the yoke is somehow superior. It's a gimmick and a ridiculous one at that.
Another oddity overshadowed by the yoke controversy is the lack of a gear selector. The Plaid uses is many sensors and artificial intelligence to predict whether you want to go forwards or backward. It can also track your habits. In other words, it will know that you want reverse when pulling out of the driveway in the morning, and it will know to move forward in bumper-to-bumper traffic. We can get behind this sort of technology, as simplicity is perhaps the ultimate luxury. Still, it's something to get used to. It feels like years ago when adaptive cruise control first arrived on the scene. Handing over braking duties to the car looks good on paper, but it takes time to develop the kind of trust needed to not keep your foot hovering over the brake pedal.
The Tesla is capable of delivering stupidly quick acceleration times, but it's not a hypercar. Thankfully, Tesla kept the adaptive air suspension system that errs on the side of comfort. That's perhaps the Plaid's most impressive attribute. It can embarrass a Bugatti Chiron off the line, but it can also take the kids to school in style and luxury. In many ways, the Tesla has out-classed the S-Class. The latter is no longer the technological tour de force it once was, an indication of the future, and one can reasonably argue that it has passed the baton to this particular Tesla considering the direction the automotive world is heading. We're not saying that the Tesla is better than an S-Class, merely that if you want to see the future of the automobile, you're looking at it right here.
When it comes to dynamic driving, the Porsche Taycan still comes out on top. Given Porsche's illustrious history, it was perhaps a given. But we'll let you in on a little secret. Hitting 60 mph in two to three seconds isn't fun. It's a neat party trick but highly disconcerting. In short, it's just not as much fun as you'd imagine. We first experienced this kind of scary acceleration in the McLaren 675LT many moons ago. Trust us when we say four seconds is all you need. That's why we appreciate the softer ride quality of the Plaid. In Sport mode, it can hustle along, but it's no performance saloon. The near 5,000-pound curb weight is too much to overcome, but we prefer it that way. If the Plaid were a RWD stripped-out performance saloon with a hardcore suspension setup, the streets would be lined with burning bodies within six months. Once again, not a criticism aimed at Tesla, but perhaps something that's not being appropriately addressed. Pretty soon, the roads will be flooded with cars with supercar-like performance and drivers ill-equipped to handle it.
According to the EPA, the Model S Plaid is capable of 102/99/101 MPGe city/highway/combined on its larger 21-inch wheels. The claimed range is 348 miles, which is epic considering the performance. The range can be improved, however. Plaid models are currently only available with 21-inch wheels, but a new 19-inch rim will be available in August. The smaller wheel takes the range up to 390 miles, although the EPA is yet to certify the figure. The Taycan may have a more advanced thermal management system and better handling, but Tesla dominates when it comes to range. The Taycan Turbo S (the Plaid's closest competitor in terms of performance) has EPA-estimated figures of 69/71/70 MPGe and a range of just 201 miles.
Being a Tesla, it has access to the Supercharger network and can charge at up to 250 kW. According to Tesla, the Plaid can get 200 miles of range in 15 minutes. A conventional 110-volt outlet can be used but, depending on the Tesla you own, this only adds a measly two to four miles of range every hour.
As you can see from the above section, nobody can touch Tesla when it comes to range. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of car building and churning out models with consistently good build quality, Tesla could still learn a thing or two from heritage manufacturers. This used to be most evident on the inside, where Tesla struggled with material quality and even something as basic as panel alignment. We could forgive Tesla initially, but nearly ten years down the line, most kinks should be ironed out. The new interior is a giant leap forward. It takes minimalism to the extreme while incorporating a few old-school luxury touches and better materials. It's too early to tell whether the build quality has improved, and given Tesla's history, we're disinclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. We hope we're proved wrong, however.
One of the significant benefits of a skateboard design is more room to work with. Designers don't have to work around a transmission tunnel or exhaust system. Having a flat floor to work with is a designer's dream, as they can replicate the interior space of a much larger car in a shorter wheelbase. That's the theory, at least.
The legroom up front is 42.4 inches, while the rear only offers 35.5 inches of legroom. The headroom is 39.7 inches in the front and 38.1 inches in the rear. The smaller Model 3 offers more room in the front but the Model S has significantly better rear legroom. The Model S does also score some points for providing a proper middle rear seat. Since there is no transmission tunnel, there is space for the middle passenger's feet.
The Model 3 proves that Tesla's designers are getting better at packaging, but this is still not applicable to the Model S. It's an inherent problem that can only be solved with an entirely new model. The Plaid provides ample space for a family of five, though, and if recent spy shots are to be believed, will soon offer space for seven with a set of rear jumpseats. Don't expect these to actually be usable, though.
One would imagine that being called the Plaid, there would be only one tartan interior choice, right? Wrong. There are only three interior options and not one of them has even a hint of plaid anywhere to be found. The options are no-cost Black, or two $2,000 options in Black and White or Black and Cream. From there, you can select between wood or carbon fiber inlays. The black interior comes with Ebony, while the black/white and cream/black options are paired with Walnut. The black and white interior has too much of a porn producer feel, but the standard black with carbon fiber trim works nicely.
The Model S gives the establishment a thorough spanking in this department. High-end sedan designers struggle to find more than 20 cubic feet of cargo capacity, but Tesla doesn't have that problem. The trunk has 25 cubes of cargo capacity, which can be increased by folding the rear seats forward. And because there's no noisy ICE engine under the hood, you get a neat 3.1-cube frunk. You can pack a soft bag or two in the frunk, but we find it most beneficial for the weekly trip to the shops. When only the driver and a front passenger are on board, total cargo volume works out to a crossover-like 64.6 cubes.
In terms of small-item storage, there is a sliding center console in front with space for wallets and the like, along with cupholders. Wireless charging is offered for every occupant and in front, two smartphones can be accommodated alongside each other on the charging pad. The rear fold-down center armrest houses more storage space as well as cupholders. There are also handy door pockets in all four doors.
The highlight of the interior is undoubtedly the 17-inch cinematic display, but we'll get to that shortly. As a high-end car with a sticker price to match the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it's only reasonable to expect a long list of features. Tesla provides them, but they do an equally excellent job of hiding them. As standard, it comes with tri-zone climate control with hidden vents, a heated steering wheel, heated front/rear seats, ventilated front seats, 12-way power adjustment for the front seats, a rearview camera, and the controversial yoke steering wheel ahead of the digital instrument cluster. Power-folding side mirrors with heating elements are also standard. The comprehensive Autopilot suite includes features like blind-spot monitoring and automatic emergency braking, and, provided you spec the so-called Full Self Driving Capability at the time of purchase, you're able to remotely summon your car, and it'll soon be fully capable of semi-autonomous driving within city streets thanks to traffic light recognition and stop sign control.
The revised Model S caters to the infotainment needs of the front and rear passengers. Front passengers get a 17-inch cinematic touchscreen "cinematic display" that controls nearly everything, climate control included. Its operating system is not compatible with Apple or Android devices, but you can connect to it via Bluetooth. You can also stream movies or play games, but only when the car is stationary. It's a brilliant concept and a great way to keep busy while the car charges on a trip. Unfortunately, some die-hard Autopilot fans found some sneaky ways around this. We won't mention them here. Tesla offers one-year premium connectivity including satellite-view maps, video streaming for services like Netflix and Hulu, and internet browsing.
Rear passengers get a smaller eight-inch display that you can game on. Tesla says it's as powerful as today's newest consoles. It's compatible with wireless controllers and offers a gaming computer with as much as 10 teraflops of processing power. There are also two wireless chargers hidden in the middle seatback, and all passengers get access to USB-C points. The cinematic display is mated to a 22-speaker, 960-watt sound system with active noise cancelation.
Both front and rear systems operate flawlessly. The new UI is a huge step forward, and there's less lag from the infotainment than there is from a prod at the throttle. Tesla might've built a reputation for making bold claims and falling short, but the new infotainment system holds up to every claim, at least in early testing.
It's no secret that Tesla has struggled with reliability issues in the past. Throughout its lifespan, the Model S has received numerous complaints and many callbacks. Tesla finally seemed to get it right in 2019, when no recalls were issued. So far, no recalls have been issued in the USA for the 2021 Model S Plaid electric sedan.
Thankfully, the Model S comes with a decent warranty. The basic warranty is four years/50,000 miles, while the battery and drive unit are covered by an eight-year/150,000-mile warranty.
The NHTSA doesn't have a full review of the Tesla Model S Plaid yet, but it scored five stars in the rollover test. It's improbable that the revised model will achieve anything less than five stars across the board, as every other Tesla in history managed this impressive feat. The 2021 Tesla Model S has not been evaluated for crashworthiness by the IIHS, although the agency did rate the sedan's headlights as Poor and its standard front crash prevention as Superior.
As standard, the 2021 Model S Plaid electric car comes with bigger brakes, traction and stability control, LED daytime running lights, cornering lights, eight airbags, and a reverse camera. The standard suite of driver assistance suite consists of active forward collision avoidance with automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and lane-keep assist. Autopilot, which allows the car to drive itself on the highway, is also included as standard.
We reckon all Model S owners will go for the Full Self-Driving Package, with a cost of $10,000. We'll delve deeper into it in the Additional Packages section, but for now, it's worth pointing out that there's a lot of misinformation about this system. Tesla clearly states that the Model S is not fully autonomous, yet certain rabid Tesla fans refuse to believe this. There are currently 30 Tesla crashes under investigation at the NHTSA, all of them involving the controversial self-driving feature. Some owners have gone as far as getting in the back seat and watching movies. We're not 100% convinced this is Tesla's problem, but rather a case of Darwin at work. Still, why call a feature "Full-Self Driving" when it isn't?
Some of the features that come with this upgrade include Navigate on Autopilot, auto lane change, summon, and traffic light/stop sign control.
Any car that moves the entire automotive industry's goalposts forward is spectacular. The Model S Plaid does just that. It provides hypercar performance at a relatively reasonable price, has more range than its rivals, and it's an everyday sedan that does normal sedan things without breaking a sweat. Twenty years ago, a car like this would have been impossible to produce, and yet here it is. While we're not big fans of certain Tesla owners who base their entire identity on the car they own, we have to admit that the Model S Plaid might just be the best car on sale today. It's all things to all men. It steals the Mercedes S-Class's job of showcasing what the next generation of cars will offer, and we like where things are going.
It's also worth pointing out that Tesla is forcing the legacy manufacturers to up their game. It hasn't been that long since the Taycan was introduced, not to mention the Ford Mustang Mach-E. The new Model S, and by extension the Plaid, is Tesla's answer, and in one fell swoop, it's forced Ford, Porsche, and anyone else building an EV with performance aspirations to return to the drawing board. Whichever way you look at it, the consumer wins.
Porsche has a massive ace up its sleeve. The only other EV manufacturer that could reasonably compete with Tesla in terms of range and performance is Rimac, and in case you haven't heard the news, Porsche owns a significant stake in Rimac. Now that Porsche has access to the most advanced battery technology, Tesl's EV dominance could soon be in for a challenge.
The Tesla Model S Plaid has an MSRP of $129,990, excluding the destination charge of $1,200. California residents get a $1,500 clean fuel reward off the price. This standard price is a bit shady, however. It's the price of the car with 19-inch wheels, which aren't available yet. Initially, only 21-inch wheels are on offer and that adds $4,500 to the price. Add one of the more colorful exterior hues and the $10,000 Full Self-Driving option, and the price increases to $146,990.
Still, we're talking about a car that can outsprint a Chiron, and it costs just ten percent of Bugatti's hypercar. Notably, Tesla is known for changing pricing on a whim, so the price you see here may be different in the near future. It's also worth noting that the Model S no longer qualifies for the federal tax rebates it once did.
There is only one Plaid model since Tesla decided to drop the Plaid+ designation a few weeks before its official market launch. The Plaid is Tesla's first tri-motor model, powered by a 100 kWh battery pack. Outputs are 1,020 hp and 1,050 lb-ft of torque, sent to an electronic AWD system via a single-speed automatic transmission. It can get to 60 mph in 1.99 seconds under ideal conditions and reach a top speed of 200 mph. Tesla claims you can add 200 miles of range in 15 minutes at one of its Supercharger units.
As a halo model, the Plaid is well equipped. Standard safety items include active forward collision avoidance with automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and lane-keep assist.
On the inside, all seats are heated, and every passenger gets their own USB-C port. Most of the significant features are controlled via the 17-inch cinematic screen. Rear passengers get their own eight-inch screen to set the climate control, but it can also be used for gaming. A 22-speaker active noise canceling sound system is standard.
The only available package for the Model S is the Full Self-Driving Capability package for $10,000. This includes navigating on Autopilot, auto lane change, auto park, summon, traffic light and stop sign control, and a full self-driving computer. Autosteer on city streets will become available later in the year.
These features should not create the illusion that the Plaid is a self-driving car, even though Tesla calls it that. Tesla's disclaimer clearly states that "the currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous."
There's only one 2021 Tesla Model S Plaid model, and you might as well go the whole nine yards and order it with metallic paint, 21-inch alloy wheels, and the Full Self-Driving Package. You can expect to pay $145,990 for the Model S in this configuration. This Tesla Model S Plaid price is accurate at the time of writing, but as is always the case with Tesla, pricing could change on a whim.
Like so many other cars, the Plaid will be purchased simply for bragging rights. The cheaper Model S Long Range retails for $84,990, comes with an estimated driving range of 405 miles, and can sprint to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds. That's fast enough for us, thank you very much.
It comes with the same features, minus the third electric motor. The interior is the same, the standard features are the same, and you can add the Full Self-Driving Package at the same price. The Plaid is an astonishing accomplishment, but you have to wonder whether getting to 60 mph a second earlier is worth $50,000. If you can afford it, sure, get the model with all the bragging rights. If you want to be sensible, get the standard Long Range instead.
The Taycan doesn't have as much range as the Tesla, but Porsche hits back with this new sport wagon model based on the Taycan. Is the allure of owning a sporty Porsche wagon enough to get people away from that sub-two-second sprint time?
The standard Taycan Turbo comes with 670 hp, while the Turbo S gets 750 hp on overboost. The latter can sprint to 60 mph in 2.7 seconds, and, in the real world, you won't be able to tell the difference between it and the Tesla. Range is still the main issue. The standard Turbo has a claimed range of around 275 miles, which is literally miles away from the Plaid's claimed range of 390 miles on 19-inch wheels. Even with the wagon body, the Porsche can't match the Tesla's practicality. Still, we wouldn't dismiss the Porsche so easily. It has a higher quality interior, more standard features, rides better, and has the backing of one of the oldest manufacturers in automotive history. To our eyes, it also looks better. If we had to spend our own money, we'd need at least a week to decide. There are obvious upsides to both cars, and we'd constantly be hovering between the two.
The most popular competitors of 2021 Tesla Model S Plaid: