David Heinemeier Hansson

October 31, 2023

That Model S Plaid

I've owned a lot of great cars in my time. It's been one of the few places where hitting it big has allowed for something that wouldn't otherwise be possible. From Lamborghini to Pagani, Porsche to Ferrari, Aston Martin to Bentley, I have owned and loved them all. A+ use of lottery money, would do it again!

It's against all these delightful automotive experiences that I've been shocked at how utterly compelling the Tesla Model S Plaid has revealed itself to be. And in just a month's worth of ownership.

This is a car that now retails for $86,090 in the US. About the same as an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio or a BMW M3 with a couple of options. Expensive, premium cars, but far from the realm of the brands mentioned above. And yet, somehow, it's proven itself to be as special and as exotic as those luxury and aspirational brands, in its own way. Even as it looks nearly the same as every other Model S that's been multiplying on the roads in the past 13 years.

It's mostly about the drivetrain. Which in an EV like the Tesla basically just means the electric motors. The Plaid has three. Two in the rear (one for each wheel), and one on the front. It has a single-speed transmission. So far, so normal. But what's not normal is that the combined output is over 1,000 horsepower. That sounds like an absolutely ridiculous, possily even unsafe, amount of power, and yet the Tesla makes these mega horses seem perfectly reasonable, approachable, and controllable.

But never boring.

And as much as I enjoy the wailing engine note of a V10 or the perfect resonance of a V12, the immediacy and the power of an EV motor with over a ton of horses and instant torque is in many ways equally if differently compelling.

This is where many non-car people make their usual mistake: But where can you even use 1,000 horsepower!? How often would you take this to a track? And the answer is: All the time, and you don't have to.

Every day driving offers you plenty of opportunities to revel in the rollercoaster fun of going 10-60, 30-70, 0-50 mph at supersonic speeds in a perfectly safe and controlled manner. Every stoplight, every onramp. Every stretch of empty road. The pleasure of power isn't about top speed, it's about acceleration, and I have never, ever owned a car that accelerates like the Model S Plaid in these intervals. It's intoxicating and addictive, in the best, most wholesome possible way.

See the other magic trick of EVs is their ability to control all that power on each individual wheel with millisecond response time. Something you simply can't do with an internal combustion engine that's propelling you forward by a series of miniture explosions inside a single engine block. An old school gasoline-powered car can feel scary with as little as 300-400 horsepower. Traction breaks, you need quick hands to catch it. That's the frame of reference anyone who've driven a fast, regular car would have. But it doesn't apply at all in the EV world.

I haven't once gotten the Plaid bent out of shape in a way that either surprised or scared me. Something that has happened countless times on spirited drives in old school cars. The traction control in an EV car doles out exactly the right amount of power for the grip available. In such a subtle way that you basically can't tell.

The result is exotic. Even if it's a different kind of exotic from a set of Italian cylinders producing a symphony out a set of quad exhaust pipes. And, unlike that old school kind of exotica, it's far more accessible. Very few people will ever end up owning a great Ferrari V12 or a Porsche V10. Lots and lots of people will either own or get a ride in Tesla Plaid. That's progress!

It's the kind of democratizing progress that Warhol talks about when he quips that the billionaire and the bum both have access to the best soft drink in the world: A Coca Cola. Okay, so a $86,000 car isn't exactly a can of coke, but in a couple of years, that car will be worth $40,000, and suddenly you'll be within striking range of upper-end-of-average car prices. Remarkable.

Now I've gushed about the power here, but the other half of the story is that the handling is far, far better than I expected. I've owned and driven a Tesla Model X for many years, and I somehow mistakenly thought that car would feel about the same as the Model S in the bends. It does not. The Model S handles with 90% the aplomb of a Porsche Taycan, which to me is the benchmark of EV driving, and a fantastic handling car in any company.

And that's before we even get to the livability of the Model S. It's insane practicable, has perhaps the best software in the business, and manages to make its austere cabin seem luxurious in a Scandinavian stark sense. When I drive this car, I don't miss the Porsche. I barely even miss the plushness of a Bentley.

This is not the conclusion I expected to draw! I ordered the Model S on a whim after Musk dropped the price and Tobi posted an acceleration video from the Autobahn. I expected a one-trick pony. But this is so much more.

Even if you're an incarnate petrol head, you owe yourself a ride in a Plaid, and I will almost guarantee that you'll feel better about the future. I'm not saying that the internal combustion engine doesn't have plenty of emotional appeal or that a track day car is fun at 4,000 pounds, but I am saying that I love cars, and I love the Model S. Do with that testimony as you please, just don't discount the possibility it might hold true for you as well.

What a ride.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.