There are a few common preconceptions about electric cars. The first is that they are underpowered. The second is that they have poor range. Third, they are slow to charge. They aren't convenient, they aren't cool, and so they'll never catch on. Did I believe any of those old slanders before I picked up a Tesla Model S to drive from London to the continent?
Not really, or at least not entirely. To test the capabilities of Tesla's tech, I was to drive from its offices near Heathrow over to and through France and Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, then all the way across Belgium before catching the ferry back to England. That, I thought, would be a good workout – enough variations of environment, language, and terrain to see how practical the car was. Essentially, I wanted to answer just one question: with current available technology, do electric cars work?
To further complicate this test – and to make it a more thorough examination of driving under pressure – I decided to take my mother along. Forty-six years ago, while she was still a teenager, she had worked in Switzerland. She had never been back and I thought this trip would provide a good excuse for her to retrace the steps of her youth. I knew too that it would mean every ponderance and question, every wonder and query about the Tesla would be asked. Most likely more than once.
The first leg took us across the south of England, to the white cliffs of Dover. Rather than pack the Tesla on to the Eurotunnel train, I opted for the ferry across the Channel. With no internal combustion engine pumping out smoke and noise, we quietly crept on to the ship, parked, and went up to the lounge. Minutes after setting off my phone went off – it was a message from the Tesla app, informing me that the movement had set off its alarm.
The app is almost as amazing as the car itself – it can be used to monitor charging progress, to find the car, and even to remotely summon it out of tight car parks. All of which is a lot of fun, but as I was soon to realise, the raw speed of the car was no laughing matter. The Model S can go from 0-100km/h in about four seconds. There's isn't the satisfying roar of a traditional engine, but the thrill of the acceleration is undeniable.
The vehicle's range is a much more fluid thing. At best you can get around 400 kilometres, but drive aggressively or in cold weather and that may be halved. On the drives, short and long, I found that power was never far from my mind. Thankfully, it's never far from the digital synapses of the car, either.
While plotting a route, the sat-nav will plan stops at dedicated Tesla superchargers, ensuring there is enough power for the trip. Additionally, it tells the driver how long they must spend at each station.
That is not to say it was perfect. There were long spells in eastern France, where superchargers were not widespread, when I had to (under advisement from the Model S) drop my average speed to preserve energy. In some ways, it reminded me of an iPhone – a masterpiece of design, a logical jump in progress and technology, but isn't the battery just a bit annoying?
To make the trip less stressful, I ensured that the hotels we stopped at had chargers. They weren't the hyper-powered superchargers, capable of filling the car in an hour, but rather "destination chargers" designed for topping up over lunch or, preferably, overnight.
When my mother lived around Zurich in 1970, she was on a miserly wage, happy just to be exploring a new part of the world. Much has changed for her – and for the city – but though she wouldn't have known it at the time, The Dolder Grand was a constant. Built more than 100 years ago, this grand hotel appears as a sentinel on a hillside high above the city, part Disney Castle, part Bond-villain lair. Importantly for us, it also has a destination charger, but from the moment we walked through its vast, castle doors we forgot about the car.
Eventually, of course, we had to leave. The drive north completed a loop of more than 3500 kilometres in just six days – had the car not been so comfortable that might have felt arduous. Instead, by the end, we were greeting other Tesla drivers at superchargers with a contented wave.
That smugness vanished the moment we dropped off the car and got in a cab – six days had also been long enough to forget about the jiggling and noise of conventional engines. Half an hour later I got a final message from the Model S. It was charged and ready to go – but sadly I was not.
With a Michelin-starred restaurant, golf course, tennis courts, and superlative spa, The Dolder Grand cuts no corners. Confident without feeling intimidating, stylish but still comfortable, it is a must for anyone staying in Zurich. See thedoldergrand.com
Jamie Lafferty travelled as a guest of Tesla, and the Dolder Grand.