A peek from behind the ‘wheel’ of Tesla’s new Model S Plaid
Expect luxury, and a handful of quirks.
This story was originally featured on The Drive.
There were no “revs building.” There was no struggle for traction. There was foot meets pedal meets floor, and the instinctive realization that what I was driving had placed more mechanical power at my fingertips than any other vehicle in my life. This was the 2022 Tesla Model S Plaid, and its performance made for an awe-inspiring experience.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not a fan of electric cars. Heck, it doesn’t even matter if you’re not a fan of Elon Musk, or a yoke-style steering wheel, or a shifter that’s strictly digital. The Model S Plaid is spacious, serenely comfortable, and requires very little effort to drive. In this sense, it achieves the three main pillars of what defines traditional American luxury.
It’s not perfect, obviously. Unnecessary quirks mean the Model S Plaid could be easier to drive and considering it has 1,020 horsepower on tap, it could definitely look more aggressive. But its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and unless answered by another stateside automaker, it is the ultimate American luxury car for sale right now.
Thanks to the kindness of a new Model S Plaid owner named Jason, I got a chance behind the yoke. Here’s what I learned over the course of a few hours.
What is Plaid?
The Model S has, amazingly, been for sale since 2012 now, although it’s received multiple significant updates and one design facelift since its introduction. Though the more mainstream-focused Model 3 gets much of the attention these days—besides the occasional wild Tesla experiment like the Cybertruck or new Roadster—the Model S remains the sedan flagship. And it’s even more on the top of the heap with the introduction of a new trim level: Plaid.
The Model S Plaid is the quickest production sedan currently for sale. It has a big 100-kWh battery pack, three motors to power all four wheels, and 1,020 horsepower. Sixty miles per hour is met in a Tesla-claimed 1.99 seconds, and a quarter-mile is dispatched in an incredible (also Tesla-claimed) 9.23 seconds from a standing start.
You might think it would look a bit wilder, then, but the Plaid doesn’t have any crazy accouterments—there’s no aggressive, BMW M-style body kit to be had here. It looks like a regular Model S with a bulged-out body and a new bumper. I wish it went a bit further, honestly. If Porsche can stick a “turbo” badge on an EV, Tesla can take more cues from conventionally powered performance cars to give the most powerful Model S more flair. Add a hood bulge! Put some more aerodynamic frills on the car, even if they’re subtle! For god’s sake, this car does a quarter-mile in damn-near nine seconds flat. It should make a more serious attempt to look like that.
The interior is also a little plain; however, Tesla is known for its minimalist cabins, and at least the 17-inch touchscreen is better integrated into the dash here than cars like the Model 3. I prefer the competitors from Europe, though, with the Porsche Taycan being the obvious example. While the Tesla has a few flat, square displays, the Porsche has a floating, curved instrument cluster, a separate display just for the passenger, and they all work together nicely within finely upholstered borders.
Sure, the Tesla has endless gimmicks and chunks of real wood mounted nicely around the interior, but I believe it’s minimalism at the expense of functionality. You can argue many of Tesla’s interior quirks are cost-cutting methods masquerading as innovation. It’s cheaper not to have visible HVAC vents and install a screen instead of manufacturing and installing physical buttons, for instance.
One thing that does stand out in the interior is the steering yoke, but it’s probably the most thoughtless—in the truest sense of the word—part of this car. It will be mandatory on all Model S Plaids, so if you don’t want it, tough. How is it in practice? Read on.
Driving new American luxury
Stalwart icons of American luxury—the Cadillac Eldorado, the Lincoln Continental, the upper-end Chryslers and so on—all had certain traits in common. They all boasted ease of driving, spacious interiors, and overwhelming comfort. They were large and very in charge, plush and powerful. Based on these criteria, I’d now count the Tesla Model S Plaid among them.
With a wheelbase slightly longer than a Mercedes E-Class, the Tesla is a large car, but only noticeably so on the inside. The lack of a conventional drivetrain means plenty of space for passengers—especially in the back seats. The fact that it’s electric also means a serenely quiet cabin and a care-free driving experience superior to that of any vehicle equipped with a normal combustion-powered drivetrain. There were, of course, no gear changes to punctuate acceleration, and thanks to adjustable levels of regenerative braking, I drove without nearly ever touching the brake pedal. Forget automatic transmissions and two-pedal driving. One pedal is even easier, and ease is luxury.
This Model S cornered and rode exceptionally well, the power was abundant whenever you asked for it. Even the steering was nicely done—a little heavy but it sprang back agreeably—and communicated the road surface and the tires’ grip well. With most of the Model S’s weight concentrated in its floor, its center of gravity is low and that made it relatively agile on corner exit and able to hold a tight line through a fast sweeping bend. Changes in direction were handled well also, with the car’s size never becoming too apparent thanks in part to good visibility. It handles as a larger sports sedan should: flat in corners and confident throughout every phase of a spirited drive, especially under acceleration.
The go pedal is also the one I liked to use the most—to a point. The Model S Plaid has four-digit horsepower and, thanks to four-wheel drive and very grippy Michelin Pilot Sport+ tires, it was like a rocket car at your every whim. After experiencing this both as a passenger and a driver several times, I left the experience physically fatigued. That may sound like a knock on the car, but it’s not. The Model S Plaid didn’t beg to be driven like it had as much power as it did. Rather, the power was elective: there if you wanted it, always on the table, but not constantly in your face.
Tesla’s assisted-driving suite, Autopilot, worked on the highway when Jason drove, but strangely not when I did. Repeated taps on the ball-shaped selector on the steering wheel yielded nothing but objections, despite us stopping and attempting to reset it. When he was driving, it prompted him to keep his hands on the wheel and made it clear when it perceived it was being abused with a warning on the dash and a loud chime. That being said, how effective Autopilot truly is at keeping its drivers acting responsibly is still very up for debate.
Functional Autopilot or not, the car surprised me. It was extreme, sure, but easy and convenient more than anything. The phrase “1,000-hp electric living room on wheels” came to mind, and if someone asked you if such a thing existed, there would really only be one answer as to its country of origin.
But then there’s the yoke.
Let’s talk about that steering yoke
It’s good on the highway when not much steering input is necessary, but it gets awkward in a few key places. Tasks like multi-point turns or navigating through tight parking lots are simply more cumbersome than they need to be. One of the other shortcomings happened on long exit or entrance ramps when the wheel had to be cocked over 90 degrees for a long period of time. There was no way to hold the vehicle around the corner without crossing my arms over each other.
Both those situations could imply actual thought was put into the yoke’s installation. But if there was indeed any, it was likely very little. Somebody—likely Musk—wanted it because it looks cool, and so it ended up getting bolted in. Through the course of driving, my brain gradually did reprogram itself to use it effectively. But I must ask: Why I would ever want to wire up my brain to use something that’s objectively worse than a regular steering wheel?
Mounting capacitive buttons to the yoke in the place of a blinker stalk also pointlessly complicated things. It was never really clear if I was using them properly, and it was easy to activate them by accident when adjusting the volume on the nearby ball-shaped scroll wheel. Jason said he does this frequently and agreed a stalk would’ve just been better.
Another feature that debuted in the Model S Plaid was turning the column-shifter an all-digital one on the touchscreen. In practice, it isn’t as strange as it sounds.
Shifting between reverse and drive over and over again in a parking lot is awkward in pretty much any car, especially one equipped with a pesky manual transmission. The Plaid’s digital shifter doesn’t constantly remain on the screen, it only appears when the vehicle is stopped. Once stopped, you can swipe forward or backward to go in that respective direction; however, the car also relies on its extensive suite of sensors as a guide in tight places.
For example, if the sensors “saw” that I was parked nose-in in front of a wall, a “tap the brake for reverse” prompt would appear on the screen, thus removing my need to swipe anything to change the car’s direction. Similarly, if I needed to pull forward out of a spot, I’d see a “tap the brake for drive” prompt. It sounds unintuitive but I got used to it real fast. I grew to like it, even.
Against the competition
The Model S Plaid’s starting price of $131,190 is eyebrow-raising. But what you’re getting in exchange is something that has almost no direct competition.
One of the few EVs with comparable performance, the 750-hp Porsche Taycan Turbo S, starts at $186,350. That’s a difference of more than $50,000 before any of Porsche’s notoriously numerous and expensive options come into play. In contrast, the most expensive Plaid will run you $150,190, with one option—Tesla’s controversial, so-called Full Self-Driving suite—taking up the bulk of the added cost by $10,000.
But on the topic of competitors, this car has few others, if any. Gasoline-powered supercars, sure, but those are apples to oranges against this Tesla for numerous and obvious reasons.
It’s technically a sports sedan; however, its straight-line speed is not in the same realm as any of its gasoline-powered counterparts like the BMW M5, Mercedes-AMG E63 S, or Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing. The Taycan Turbo S comes close, but it’s no equal. The Model S Plaid currently sits in a class of its own, yoke and all.
Connecting the dots
At this point, it almost wouldn’t be a Tesla without some controversy. Questions quickly arose upon the Model S Plaid’s reveal, with people wondering if a 1,000-hp car that will do a quarter-mile in 9.2-seconds was really best brought to market with half a steering wheel, or if such a steering apparatus actually made sense in any situation. Only time will truly answer those questions, but in the few hours I spent with the car, the dots began to connect.
The Tesla was flawed and there were certainly improvements I’d make to it, but that’s almost beside the point. There was something about driving this thing that was just easy and simple that amounted to being luxurious as a result, minimalist interior notwithstanding. This, I realized, was closer to the ideal premium American car than any other I’d ever driven.
Before Jason owned the Model S Plaid, he had a Cadillac CTS-V. He’s a car-lover and a fan of powerful American sedans. He told me he’s critical of Tesla when it makes mistakes but he’s also ready to embrace what many are seeing as the future of performance and luxury.
The sale of new internal combustion vehicles may be in turmoil around the world, but the ones we have won’t suddenly disappear in our lifetimes. This means cars like the Model S Plaid can exist alongside what’s always been there, just as a new chapter.
The quintessential American luxury cars were big, soft, powerful, and effortless to drive. Their guiding philosophy was to make transportation as easy and comfortable as possible. Air conditioning first appeared in American luxury cars, as did V8 engines that required fewer manual gear changes, and then automatic transmissions which required none at all. Rolls-Royce was forced to license production of the original Hydramatic from GM when it debuted in 1952—a sign of how low-effort driving was and still is a well-recognized sign of luxury.
This Model S fundamentally understands that and embodies the next iteration of those aspects. Two-pedal driving is now one-pedal driving. Flat floors offer more space and more comfort, as do electric motors. The soft, distant rumble of a V8 in cars like Cadillac’s venerable Escalade is replaced by a gentle electric whirr when power is demanded. And when that power is demanded, it’s delivered in tremendous excess. And what is more American than sheer excess?
Without a doubt, there will be other EVs in the future that are more carefully designed, more finely tuned, and better in several ways. That’s just how progress and technology march on. But we won’t so easily forget how impressive, ridiculous, and hard-to-ignore the Tesla Model S Plaid is. We shouldn’t. New American luxury is here, and it’s electric.
Head over to The Drive to see more photos of Tesla’s new Model S Plaid.