Taking the Tesla Model S For A 2,000km Test Drive

It's the quiet that gets you. You put your foot down and there's no roar, no kick forward. It's like being inside a shark that has flicked its tail underwater and is suddenly, soundlessly, moving very much faster. The reason is there's no internal combustion engine. The Tesla Model S (with 362hp) runs off a big battery under the seats.

Everyone knows that electric cars more or less work – the big question is how far they can practically go. To test that, I drove one from London to Lesparre, a small town in the marshy, wine-producing flatlands of the Médoc, and back, a distance of some 2,000km. The stated range is about 400km, so you have to stop at an incipient network of Supercharge points strung across affluent parts of Europe. You put your destination into the vast own-brand iPad that controls the thing and it plots your route via these points, calculating how long you need to stop at each (a full charge takes about an hour).

What's surprising is how practical it already is – or seems. So I got across the Channel and rather recklessly starting driving the way the car's styling makes you want to: barrelling silent and powerful past the lesser fish, accelerating out of the bends, down the slopes, up the hills. And that's why it all went wrong.

One of those low-battery symbols from your smartphone flashed up, with the deadpan message that if I didn't slow down, I wouldn't reach my destination. Lest you think I'm some horrible petrolhead, I was doing at most 140kph. And I was worried. The prospect of running out of juice in the no-man's lands of Normandy was pretty bleak. I could imagine the mechanics' smirks about the hubris and general foolishness of this vehicle. So I slowed to a limp and, as every horse box and family wagon in northern France overtook me, carefully kept my charge consumption rate below would what drive me to disaster.

This set the tone for the rest of the trip. I soon learned that, if you drive above a certain speed (120ishkph), any gains you make on the road are more than cancelled out by longer stops at the charge stations. What is fun though is that these stations are in hotel car parks, and the hotels become ever grander the further south you go. The first was a nasty Ibis in the Calais wastelands.

The next was an Art Deco villa outside Tours, where the car cooled under low-hanging bruisedpink wisteria. My furthest south was a medieval fantasia with ponds, peacocks and a Michelin-starred restaurant, where I was softened up with a coffee – free for Tesla pilots – and spent a river of gold on some mysteriously decorated asparagus. At least the charging itself is free, though the car is about 110,000 euro ($121,401).

At these points, you keep running into the same people, and that makes you feel like the member of glamorous club from the pioneering days of motoring. You give them a tip of the cap and expect to see them at Senlis or Saintes or Brive-laGalliarde. Every one I spoke to was in love with his car.

I did make it to Lesparre, and spent a week cruising the town to the amazement of the locals, all of whom – along with every customs officer and toll-booth attendant and ferryman – wanted to marvel at this marvellous machine.

Having digested the lessons of the trip down – mainly that you'd be mad not to start with a full charge – I decided to make the trip back up in one day. I drove sensibly, maximising overall speed by restricting immediate speed. When it rained, the car turned on the wipers. When I went through a tunnel, the car turned on the lights. When I came up behind someone, on cruise control, the car slowed down; when I pulled out, it sped up. When I drifted off my lane, it rumbled at me. In fact, it became clear that the only thing stopping the car doing the driving itself was the law's dubious belief that I could do it better.

After many weary miles, I reached the Channel ferry. The few hours' charging had cost me a boat or two, and not rushing about as thoughtlessly as you can with petrol probably cost me another. But in five years, or 10 years, when the range has doubled and the network is more densely stitched, it will be faster than petrol. And more: it made the combustion engine seem a clanking relic of the industrial era. This sleek silent hi-tech wonder, like a four-wheeled iPhone, seems to belong to the information age, to the now time, and to the future.