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We took the Tesla Model X SUV for a spin in Manhattan — and were blown away

Tesla Model X NYC

Benjamin Zhang/Business Insider

The Tesla Model X was the most eagerly anticipated new-car debut of 2015 — and maybe of the entire decade. This was the vehicle that would transform Elon Musk’s startup from the company making one car in one California factory into the first American car company to come along since Chrysler. Or just a company making … two cars in one factory in California.

Regardless, we’d been waiting on the Model X, whose introduction had been delayed for years, with a lot of expectations. Business Insider was on the ground in Fremont, CA when the cover was pulled off, and we were pretty impressed, even though we only got a few minutes behind the wheel after Musk presented the crossover. 

Based on that short time, we still made the Model X a finalist for our 2015 Car of the Year.

Later, we learned that three major parts of the car had presented problems: the panoramic front window, the exotic “Falcon Wing” doors, and the back seats, which Musk had described as sculptural. The doors had to be completely re-engineered at the last minutes, and Tesla had so much trouble with the seats that they brought production in-house.

Last week, Tesla held an event at its Manhattan store in West Chelsea and invited myself and my colleague Ben Zhang to join some new Model X owners and some prospective X owners in checking out the car. I’d never actually seen the SUV in the flesh, so I was quite psyched. Ben had already had a look and a drive. 

Tesla’s Alexis Georgeson rode shotgun while I drove, completing my run of Tesla vehicles (I’ve driven them all at this point, going back to the original Roadster). Ben and Sonja Koch, also of Tesla, sampled the back-seat sculpture. This wasn’t a full review — more of an extended first date with the Model X.

To borrow a line from one of my favorite bands, The Replacements (stripped of irony), “color me impressed.” Read on to find out why.

The Model X looks absolutely fantastic — even in the gloomy, rain-soaked, 19th-century landscape of Manhattan’s far West Side, formerly a realm of tax garages that has become home to art galleries and the famous High Line.

Crossover SUVs in this segment are everywhere in the US right now. But as much as we’ve gotten used to looking at them, the Model X can still stop traffic. The entire car, inside and out, isn’t just a refinement of the genre — it’s almost a complete aesthetic reinvention. Well-designed cars are often likened to sculpture, but from my perspective, they don’t often live up to that billing.

The Model X does. The lines are smooth and dramatically articulated, but nothing is over-the-top. The word “cool,” in its truest sense, is wildly overused when talking about cars, but the Model X is cool like a tall, beautiful drink or a long, sustained, piercing note from Miles Davis’ trumpet. 

It’s a been few months since we last saw the car, at its launch in California.

For me, the Model X launch was a presentation of the car’s features. I didn’t get a strong overall sense of how gorgeous the machine actually is. 

But then again, I rarely do when I’m simply studying photos of a vehicle. Ben was a bit more jaded, in that he knew what to expect. 

The Falcon Wing doors are very cool — and a way to keep the rain off passengers if they lack umbrellas. They might have been tough to build, but they worked great.

The Falcon Wing design was a big gamble. This design is rarely used for a reason. But Tesla has created a space-age interpretation of the concept. The doors are packed with sensors that enable them to avoid hitting other parked cars or the roof of a garage. 

Here they are in action.

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When they do their thing, you appreciate the agony that Musk and his team must have endured with they realized that the original design wasn’t cutting it. 

Ben and I have long agreed that Tesla shouldn’t have moved forward with the doors. The good old-fashioned kind would have kept customers plenty happy, given the high level of execution on Tesla’s vision with the rest of the Model X. 

That said, when I saw them open for the first time, I was blown away — by car doors being opened!

Mission accomplished on that front.

The rain beads artfully on the Model X’s stately gray exterior.

This is one stunning SUV. And just think about who it’s aimed at: affluent suburbanites who need to drive around kids, for the most part. 

This is Tesla’s idea of a family car. Reinvention is in the company’s DNA. With the Roadster, it said that electric cars didn’t have to be slowpoke golf carts brimming over with virtue. Rather, they could be sexy, emotional machines that generate as many thrills as Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

With the Model S, Tesla took the framework of a luxury sedan and gave it the supercar treatment, with the kind of acceleration that … generates as many thrills as Ferraris and Lamborghinis!

With the Model X, Tesla has taken a people hauler and transformed it into modern art, inside and out. But you can still drive it to soccer practice or tow 5,000 lbs.

Tesla brought a small fleet of X’s to Manhattan for the event.

Model X has a vital role to play, if Tesla is going to sell 500,000 vehicles annually by 2020. The cars we checked out were the high-end Signature models, which go for well north of $100,000. The revenue that these overtly luxurious crossovers brings in will fund the development of the mass-market Model 3, due to launch in 2017 (we’re going to get an advance peek in March at the design). 

The view from the third row. The interior is a slight off-white. The overall impression is extremely modern.

Overall, we thought that the rear seats were exceptionally well-designed — sculptural indeed. They fit with the rest of the interior, which combines a very open quality (Tesla’s battery and motors don’t take up much space) with an elegant treatment of every familiar detail, from the door handles to the dashboard. 

For most of our drive, the view out the front was of either rain or other cars, but the massive piece of glass does afford some incredible sights for front-seat passengers and makes up for the lack of a sunroof — an impossibility given the design of the upswinging Falcon Wing doors.

Teslas are defined, inside, by this large central touchscreen, which controls almost all vehicle functions. Also, note the curved, brushed-metal cupholders: a new design!

The screen is nothing new for Tesla, but it’s starting to influence the rest of the industry. It’s reasonable to expect that over the next decade, touchscreens will replace buttons and knobs. I’ve driven enough Teslas now to be used to it, but for newcomers, it’s dramatic.

And the new cupholders! Just when you thought we’d reached the state of the art for cupholder design, Tesla raises the bar — on a feature that customers had complained about.

And we’re off!

The Model X is an easy car to drive. And the interior is an extremely pleasant place to spend time. We switched on “Bioweapon Defense Mode” air filtration and turned up some classic rock (The Steve Miller Band!) on the audio system and just went with the total lack of traffic flow. 

I felt like I was driving one of the best-designed living rooms on wheels. 

The conditions weren’t right for Autopilot, Tesla’s semi-self-driving technology, which we tried out last year in a Model S.

Well, sort of. Manhattan is the worst possible operational environment for a vehicle. Traffic is borderline gridlock, due to the lousy weather.

The comfort was a good thing as we were really plodding at some points. This isn’t a situation in which you want a vehicle that might be ideal for off-roading, but that isn’t so great for getting you around urban and suburban environments. 

The Model X uses Tesla’s dual-motor all-wheel-drive system. The snow that we saw this winter had passed, so we didn’t put the AWD through its paces. But it felt surefooted enough, in the short time that we had to try it out. We weren’t aiming for a proper review here. We just wanted to get a sense of how the Model X came together.

However, we did get a taste of Ludicrous Mode acceleration in the X.

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It wasn’t all one big traffic jam!

The GoPro flew off the dashboard the first time we punched it. The Model X doesn’t have the Model S P90D with Ludicrous Mode’s supercar velocity, but it is quick.

The second time around, Alexis held it in place as we zoomed between stoplights on a relatively open patch of road.

And Tesla sends us home with … a Tesla cookie!

The Model X is, frankly, a stunning piece of beautiful automotive engineering and design. You see how Tesla and designer Franz von Holzhausen thought deeply about how to make the Model X as groundbreaking as possible, given the obvious constraint that it has to retain all the functionality that customers expect from crossover SUVs. 

Ben and I have a running debate about whether cars can really be works of art. I tend to think that they can’t, constrained as they are by the need to produce them industrially and build them to be safe on the road.

But there are exceptions. And the Model X is one of them. This thing is, in a word, astonishing. That’s out extended first impression, anyway. We’re looking forward to a full review later this year, so stay tuned!