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A rendering of the Tesla Model S Plaid.Courtesy of manufacturer

Before other car companies could really catch up, Tesla is pulling ahead again. Earlier this week, Elon Musk’s electric car company revealed new versions of the Model S sedan and Model X SUV featuring new interiors and more driving range.

The Model S, in particular, was getting stale, having been on the market since 2012. The fact it could still hold its own against the new electric Porsche Taycan is a testament to how far ahead of the competition Tesla was. Nevertheless, sales were trending down the last few years, and the Taycan showed there was room for improvement.

By normal auto-industry standards, the Model S was past due for retirement; vehicles usually have a seven-year lifecycle before being replaced with all-new models. But Tesla is not a normal auto industry player; it’s valued differently by the market and buoyed by the absurd claims (which sometimes come true) of its eccentric CEO. Tesla can seemingly get away with anything.

Well, almost anything. Not even Tesla’s immense brand power could compensate for stale products facing increasing competition. The new Model S and X came just in time.

To all but the geekiest of Tesla fans, the new S and X look the same as the old ones. The big changes are under the surface. Both vehicles have a new interior, featuring a U-shaped steering wheel reminiscent of the sci-fi cars from the popular Cyberpunk 2077 videogame – which Musk is a fan of – and a new landscape-oriented central touch screen. Rear-seat passengers get new seats and a new touch screen of their own.

The new sedan and SUV can be ordered with the long-awaited Plaid tri-motor powertrain, which has one motor for the front axle and two for the rear. It’s something other automakers, including BMW, had talked about, but Tesla beat them to the punch.

Having three motors endows the top-of-the-line Model S Plaid+ with supercar-level horsepower (more than 1,100 hp) and a driving range comparable to a frugal diesel hatchback (up to an estimated 837 km). Even if the real-world driving range turns out to be, say, 150 km less, it’s still impressive.

The new models don’t use new battery cells. Instead, they have more advanced versions of Tesla’s current 18650 cells, which, combined with better thermal management of the battery pack, give the new Model S more consistent performance, according to the company. Consistent, repeatable performance is one area where the old Model S was trounced by the Porsche Taycan.

“This Model S Plaid will be the first production car ever that is able to go 0 to 60 miles an hour in under two seconds,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during the company’s recent fourth-quarter earnings call.

Courtesy of manufacturer

The new Model S and X get a revamped interior, including a U-shaped steering wheel and a backseat touch screen.Courtesy of manufacturer

With all these new upgrades, Musk said prices for the Model S are going up by US$10,000. Canadian customers of the new Model S can expect delivery beginning in March, according to the company’s website.

The refresh puts the Model S and X in a better position to face strong new competitors, including the upcoming Audi e-tron GT and the new flagship EQS electric sedan from Mercedes-Benz.

The EQS will go into production in the first half of this year. Few details have been announced, other than the fact it will have a wall-to-wall curved touch-screen dashboard. Remember that this car is coming from the maker of the S-Class, the benchmark full-size luxury land yacht. You can bet Mercedes is going to throw all of its newest, most impressive technology into the EQS, and it’s just one of six new vehicles from Mercedes’ electric EQ sub-brand slated to arrive by 2022.

The new Model X SUV is fresh and ready to go head-to-head with Rivian’s impressive R1S electric SUV, which should be on the road later this year. The R1S will be less expensive, with the first editions starting at $104,000, but is rated at 480 kilometres of driving range compared to the Tesla’s 580 km.

In addition to fending off upcoming rivals, the new Teslas will fare better against old ones. The Model S Plaid+ effectively extends the brand’s range upmarket into the profitable high-performance territory currently dominated by the Porsche Taycan Turbo S, which costs $215,000 in Canada. If Tesla’s performance claims prove true, the top-of-the-line Model S will be quicker, with hundreds of kilometres more driving range, and cost significantly less, starting at $189,990.

These upgrades are exactly what Tesla needed to get new and existing customers to give the Model S and X another look, but not everything about the new cars is so impressive.

The U-shaped steering wheel, while cool, is impractical for a road-going car, since drivers frequently need to reposition their hands. Even worse is the in-car video-game feature, which, if implemented poorly like Tesla’s in-car karaoke feature, could usher in a whole new level of distracted driving that the world really doesn’t need.

Worst of all, on the earnings call, Musk said he is confident Tesla will have Level 5 autonomous-vehicle technology this year, which is, frankly, nuts. Level 5 means a vehicle that can drive itself safely without human supervision in cities and through snowstorms, and the company has shown no evidence of that capability yet. But, this is Tesla; you’ve got to take the good with the crazy.

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