2016 Tesla Model X electric SUV first drive by Model S owner


Its maker is doing a great job these days of quarantining the new 2016 Tesla Model X electric crossover SUV from unwanted prying eyes.

The only folks lucky enough to get up close and personal with the slick, powerful electric SUV are those who’ve plunked down deposits of up to $40,000 to order the car. 

 A fortunate thousand or so have already taken delivery, and probably a few hundred more have gotten behind the wheel at Tesla’s Meet-The-Model-X road show, open by invitation only to paying customers farther down the waiting list.

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As of this writing, I’m not aware that Tesla has made a Model X available to more than one or two members of the press.

And the rest of us civilians? Fuggedaboudit. 

No Model Xes seem to have appeared in any Tesla store showroom for inspection by the general public. Cars that arrive for delivery to customers are typically sequestered away, mostly out of sight.

2016 Tesla Model X

2016 Tesla Model X

A month or so ago, at a Tesla service center, I noticed a Model X being prepped for delivery off in a far corner.

It was the first one I’d seen, so I innocently asked the sales rep if I could wander over and take a closer look, and perhaps sit in it. 

“Oh, no,” she told me, eyes wide with horror. “I’d lose my job if you even touched it.”

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So pretty much the only way for us mere mortals to get a close look at a Model X—let alone a chance to drive one—is to somehow connect with a Lucky Owner and beg for a ride.

What are the odds?

Well, that’s exactly what happened to me last week.

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

Hanging around Tesla’s Santa Barbara service center waiting for my Model S to get a new door handle and a set of tires, I ran into a fellow named Ron Merkord, of Filmore, California.

He was there to pick up his brand new Signature Model X. Having waited more than two years, he and his family were giddy with excitement.

We struck up a conversation. As a three-year/60,000-mile veteran of the Model S, I was eager to see the differences in the two cars, which are built on the same platform and use the same batteries and motors.

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Taking a wild shot, I asked if he might consider letting me take a test drive in his Model X at some point.

Like a true Tesla brother, he quickly agreed, and we set up my drive for the following day.

Merry Christmas, Ron

Merkord’s car is a loaded P90D—as are all of the first 1,000 “Signature” cars. The paint was a gorgeous dark red available only on Sig cars.

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

He’d decided not to order Ludicrous mode, the $10,000 option that takes the car’s acceleration from mind-boggling to, well, ludicrous.

But upon taking delivery, Merkord noticed that his car’s P90D emblem had the underline that signifies Ludicrous mode.

When he started exploring the dashboard touchscreen, there it was: the Ludicrous option.

He’d apparently received a $10,000 gift—intentional or not—from Tesla.

Big and bulky

First impression as I walked up to it: compared to the S, the X is a big, bulky car.

Not bad looking for an SUV, but it lacks the taut, athletic, feline grace of the Model S. 

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

This is not the kind of car you’ll look back at every time you walk away from it in a parking lot, as I do with my S.

Nevertheless, Tesla has done a good job of invoking the lines of the Model S and maintaining the Tesla “look.” 

The functional differences between the Model X and S manifest immediately, even before you enter the car. 

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As you approach the driver’s door, it automatically swings open (assuming you have the key). In my Model S, while the door handles extend automatically, you still have to open the door by hand. So 2015.

The auto-opening front doors have sensors that supposedly keep them from hitting cars parked in the next slot. But I talked to one Model X owner whose car had inadvertently dinged an adjacent Prius. (Hey, lady, thanks for the help with our Beta testing.)

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

The auto-open function can be disabled, and in that case the door handle operates pretty much like any car door handle: press it firmly, and it clicks and opens.

(Incidentally, Model X forums are already humming with multiple reports of problems with the front doors.)

Getting into the driver’s seat of the X is much, much easier than the S.  The low-slung Model S, with its center pillar 3-4 inches too far forward, is hard to get in and out of for tall, creaky guys like me. 

The X is several inches higher off the ground, and that middle pillar is sensibly placed in line with the seat back in its full rearward position. As a result, the X envelops me effortlessly, with nary a creak or groan. Already I’m envious of Ron.

Once ensconced in the driver’s seat, I feel right at home.  The steering wheel, instrument panel, touchscreen, center console, and general interior trim are virtually identical to the Model S. I could almost be in my own car—until I look up.

Sky and clouds

There I discover what I now think is the single coolest thing about the Model X (yes, cooler even than the Falcon doors): 

The panoramic windshield stretches so far back over my head that it becomes a moon roof. I crane my neck, look up vertically, and see, instead of Alcantra headliner, indigo sky and puffy white clouds. It's like being under the canopy of a jet fighter plane.

The windshield is heavily tinted in its top half, which dulls the panoramic effect somewhat. Sunphobes may welcome the heavy tint, but I think it’s too dark. Can’t please everyone, I guess.

Yes, you can. Make the top half of the windshield electrochromic, like the passenger windows in the Boeing 787, which change from clear to black with the turn of a rheostat dial. 

Imagine it: if the sun goes behind a cloud, swipe a finger on the touchscreen and the windshield tint melts away. When the sun returns, swipe again, and the clear glass ceiling fades to black, or anywhere you prefer in between.

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

Serious wow factor. How about it, Elon?

Rear vision via the rear-view mirror is terrible.  The back window is small and very far away. Worse, the headrests of the second-row seat impinge on the view, especially the middle seat. (The view is not quite so bad in the six-seat version, which lacks the middle seat.)

Merkord, after owning the car for all of 30 hours, had already set the rear-view camera as a default setting on the touchscreen. I wouldn’t be surprised if most seven-seat Model X owners follow suit. The rear vision is really that bad.

The Model X interior seems wider than the Model S; when I reflexively try to rest my left elbow on the window sill, the elbow flops down. The sill is a couple of inches farther away than I was expecting.

Both front doors have map pockets. Hallelujah!

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

Falcon doors

Ah, the celebrated and notorious Falcon doors. Yes, they rise with dramatic whines and clunks, artfully double-hinging when necessary to avoid nearby obstacles.

Unfortunately, the person waiting to enter must stand well away from the door as it’s opening, or the door will sense her proximity and stop halfway. In a tight parking situation, this can be awkward.

Once the door is up, the opening to the rear seats is humongous. By comparison, the Model S rear door opening is a mail slot.

There is essentially infinite headroom as you climb into the second-row seats. Conditioned by a lifetime of ducking my head, I was stunned to find that, not only can I stand up straight as I get in, but once inside, I can literally stand up to my full 6-feet-2 height with my feet on the floor of the car.

I fantasize how much fun it would be to ride like this down the Hollywood Freeway at 65 mph, but Ron tells me the car is limited to 5 mph with the Falcon doors open. Damn.

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

Second-row seat room is substantial. With the driver’s seat set for my 6-2 height, I had sufficient knee room behind it (barely)—much like my Model S. 

The Model X has far more second-row headroom than the Model S, though—at least in the left and right seats, where each Falcon door has a mini-moonroof glass ceiling.

Sitting up straight, I still had several inches of headroom above. (In the Model S, I have to hunch a bit in the left and right back seats.)

But the center-seat rider is out of luck; no glass, and the Falcon door machinery above impinges 4 or 5 inches into headroom. I’d guess about 5-feet-11 would be the upper limit for that seat, just as it is in the Model S.

Seatbacks are covered with a hard, shiny, black plastic that will certainly elicit mixed aesthetic reviews, and looks to be susceptible to scratches.

“I hate it,” says Merkord. “I don’t see it holding up in day-to-day use.” (Ron lives on a ranch, so his “day-to-day use” may be a bit more rigorous than mine, especially if you count the cow manure.)

Third-row seats are accessible only by sliding the second-row seats well forward, a leisurely electrified process that takes about 8 seconds.

With the second-row seats occupied by adults, the third-row seats are for kids only. There is essentially zero adult-size foot and knee room in the third row.

Six-seat versions of the Model X, with no middle second-row seat, at least provide "wayback" riders with an opening in which to insert their legs.

Not much better than the S

Frankly, I don’t see much difference in the people-hauling capabilities of the X and the S.  Both can carry five adults and two kids.  The Model S kids, in the optional rear-facing seats, are maybe 5 or 6 years old, around 4-feet tall. The typical Model X kid might be a 12-year-old 5-footer.

That’s all the difference I see.

The Model X appears to be an inferior cargo-hauler to the S. With rear seats that fold flat, my S has a huge rear cargo area. I can, and often do, put my XL-size mountain bike in back through the hatchback without removing a wheel. Plus my golf clubs. Plus our golden retriever.

The Model X third-row seats fold down, but the second-row seats don't. Instead, they slide forward. That increases the cargo area somewhat, but to my eye, the area looked noticeably smaller than my S’s. No way you’re putting a full-size bike back there without removing the front wheel.

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

That accursed second-row middle seat—the one that blocks the driver’s rear vision and limits its passenger’s height to about 5-11—causes more trouble by failing to slide as far forward as the other two seats, thereby reducing cargo space. 

According to Merkord, Tesla is working on a “cargo mode” update that will allow the middle seat to slide farther forward.

How’s it drive?

With the panoramic windshield, higher seating position, and narrower, further forward windshield pillar, the view from the driver’s seat of the X is far better than the S.

Once on the road, the car feels uncannily like my Model S: silent, smooth, and instantly responsive to a touch of the accelerator or steering wheel.  I felt at home from the first moment.

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

I did not explore the edges of the handling envelope, but in normal around-town and freeway driving, I could hardly tell the difference between the X and my S.

That’s a pretty remarkable achievement for a vehicle weighing 5500 pounds or more—nearly half a ton more than my car.

Surprisingly efficient

During my test drive, I averaged about 330 Wh/mi energy consumption, about 10 percent more than I would have expected from my car.

That’s surprisingly good, considering that the X weighs almost 20 percent more and has at least 20 percent greater frontal area. 

(Drag coefficient is listed as 0.24, same as the Model S, so total drag should be proportional to the frontal area.)

The EPA efficiency rating for Merkord’s car is 89 MPGe, precisely the same as mine. Frankly, I find that extraordinary.

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

2016 Tesla Model X owned by Ron Merkord, March 2016 [photo: David Noland]

If the EPA efficiency numbers for both cars are to be believed, the inherent efficiency of the dual-motor setup completely offsets the 20-percent higher weight and drag penalties of the Model X.

Comparing the P90D versions of Model X and Model S, the sedan has a 4-percent EPA efficiency advantage (93 MPGe vs 89 MPGe), but an 8-percent range advantage (270 miles vs 250 miles). That's odd, since with the same battery energy available, efficiency and range should be proportional.

The upcoming non-Performance 90D version of the Model X suffers a 9-percent efficiency deficit and a 12-percent range deficit compared to the Model S 90D. Again, odd. Assuming the same available battery energy, the percentages should be the same.

In any case, Tesla has done an extraordinary job making the Model X—half a ton heavier and with much greater frontal area—only 4 to 12 percent less efficient (depending on which yardstick you prefer) than comparable versions of the Model S.

2016 Tesla Model X with 2011 Tesla Roadster Sport, photographed by owner Bonnie Norman

2016 Tesla Model X with 2011 Tesla Roadster Sport, photographed by owner Bonnie Norman

Bottom line

For me, the Model X is an intriguing and in some ways amazing car. But I felt not the slightest urge to trade in my S  for one—despite the vastly easier driver entry and super-cool panoramic windshield.

Too big, too bulky, not a look that I like, not enough cargo space, too many gizmos and actuators. (How many electric motors must this thing have, in addition to the two that drive the wheels?)

To me, both the self-opening front doors and the Falcon doors are mostly show-off gimmicks, with the potential to be maintenance nightmares. Then again, I don’t have kids at home (or grandkids), and can't remember ever needing to carry six other people in my car.

Nothing against the Model X, mind you. Just not my kind of car, in the same way that the Tesla Roadster is not my kind of car.

But if Tesla ever comes up with adjustable electrochromic tint for that big panoramic windshield, I might have to reconsider.

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