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Tesla test drive: impressive and familiar at the same time

Electric vehicle packs some surprises, but also refreshingly feels a lot like a regular car.

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The Tesla Model S sells for nearly $100,000 in Canada.

Tesla Test Drive:

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Driving a Tesla for the first time is a bit disappointing, to be honest. You go in expecting a magical experience, but it’s actually lot like… well, driving any old car.

That’s apparently the point, according to the Tesla representative who joined me for a spin in a Model S earlier this week. The biggest obstacle the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has to overcome, she said, is convincing potential buyers that its cars are more or less just like regular cars.

If so, then mission accomplished – at least from my perspective.

After meandering around on a few side streets near the company’s just-opened dealership in Oakville, Ont., we zipped out onto the highway, which is where it became apparent that the Model S feels just like any other vehicle.

The din of the highway rushing by helped to fill in the noiseless gap that’s otherwise noticeable at slower speeds. I felt very much like I was driving my regular gas-guzzling Subaru.

The noise, or overall lack thereof rather, was actually the most surprising part of the experience.

Back in the dealership parking lot, before we got going, the rep had just finished explaining the various functions and controls of the large iPad-like console sitting to my right. She told me to shift into reverse and I foolishly said I had to turn the car on first. She dryly replied, “It’s already on.”

I wasn’t aware that the car actually automatically starts up once it senses your key is near, so it’s instantly ready to go when you get in. The door handles also smoothly emerge from the body as you approach, then retract once you get moving. It’s supposedly for aerodynamics, but I suspect the feature is really there to add coolness.

As we’re getting off the highway, I tell the rep I’m a bit disappointed with the Model S feeling like a regular car. She tells me to floor it around the next turn, so I do – and I see what she means.

The car jumps forward smoothly and instantly like it’s on turbo boost, a display of Tesla’s vaunted super speed-up. The company did just beat a Motor Trend acceleration record, after all.

Okay, so the whole experience wasn’t disappointing. It was actually quite impressive. There’s a lot to like about the Model S and if Tesla is the future of cars, then drivers have much to look forward to.

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The Tesla service centre in Oakville, Ont.

For the time being, there’s no doubt Tesla cars are a futuristic luxury that’s out of reach for the average driver. The Model S sells for close to $100,000 in Canada, while the larger Model X SUV is closer to $125,000.

The upcoming Model 3, which the company plans to start shipping in 2018, will be more within reach at $35,000 (U.S.), but it’ll still be pricier than many mid-range vehicles. It’ll be a few years yet, as competition kicks in, before regular consumers get to literally drive the future.

Nevertheless, Tesla is putting effort into expanding within Canada. The Oakville dealership, opened earlier this month, is the company’s third in the Greater Toronto Area and eighth in Canada.

The company has also installed 22 “superchargers,” which deliver about 270 kilometres of range in 30 minutes, across the country. There are also hundreds of “destination charging” setups, or chargers that Tesla owners can use, scattered about at hotels and other public locations.

The charging network supports the electric vehicles, which don’t have as much range or “refuelling” options as regular gas-driven cars. Tesla says the Model S has a range of 539 kilometres and that its network should be enough to help Canadians get to wherever they need to go.

Looking at the network map, that’s probably true – except for the Prairies. With no superchargers between Ontario and Alberta and only a handful of destination chargers, a cross-Canada trip still isn’t advisable for Tesla owners.

Canadians are also going to have wait on Tesla’s Autopilot mode, which regulators haven’t cleared for usage here yet. The self-driving function lets drivers take their hands off the steering wheel when on the highway.

The company rep wasn’t able to say when the feature might get regulatory blessing in Canada, but with the country finally getting on board the autonomous driving party, it hopefully won’t be long.

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