Aspen Times Weekly: Tesla takes a turn on Independence Pass

by Kelly J. Hayes
PHOTOS by austin colbert


As amazing as it may seem, Tesla wants people to take these incredibly expensive cars out of the showroom and out onto the roads for themselves. If you want to go for a ride you’ll need an appointment and a driver’s license and you’ll be good to go. In some cases, you’ll even be able to keep your car overnight. Cars and schedules will fill up fast so be sure to call soon.

But be forewarned, you’re gonna want one of your own.

Tesla Showroom

422 E. Cooper Ave., Aspen

Phone: 970-315-0021

Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

At high noon today, May 25, Independence Pass will open to automobiles kicking off the summer season in Aspen. Our wine columnist Kelly Hayes couldn’t wait, so he concocted a plan to take a drive on Colorado’s most iconic road a bit early. In a Tesla. Here’s his story:

Smitten. That is the only way to describe the feeling.

After a day of skiing this past winter, I turned a corner and saw the falcon wings of a Tesla Model X spread wide open as it sat parked in front of a stylish Aspen eatery. The vehicle’s clean, spacious, luxurious interior seduced and beckoned me to come closer. “Want to take a ride?” the car seemed to ask.

This week I accepted that invite, taking a Tesla Model X P100D on a heart-pounding, jaw-dropping trip over a then-closed Independence Pass. It was a test drive that forever altered the way I will think about driving.

Sound hyperbolic? Not as hyper as the sensations I felt on the drive. The experience melded Aspen history, incomparable springtime beauty and an automotive fantasy into what was, literally, a video game brought to life.

The Tesla Model X P100D is an all-electric, luxury crossover SUV that is among the fastest and most technologically advanced cars ever produced. With a price tag of $158,400 for the car I drove (it featured the aptly named Ludicrous mode), the Model X has been knocking out automotive journalists ever since it was introduced in August. Like me, most of the journalists run out of superlatives.


I arrived at the sleek art gallery-like Cooper Street Tesla showroom at 7:30 on a cool and cloudy Monday morning. After a 40-minute introduction from a capable, qualified and enthusiastic Tesla rep that felt as much like an Apple store tutorial as it did an auto demo, I claimed the car as my own.

Setting my seat to a comfortable position and the radio to the Slacker satellite classic rock station, I dropped it into drive and rolled off silently (the car makes less noise than the proverbial church mouse) to pick up Aspen Times sports editor/photographer Austin Colbert. There had been snow flying the night before so the road was wet, but the morning dew was just burning off, leaving ethereal clouds of moisture rising from the pavement. We headed toward Highway 82 with a touch of trepidation, but ample anticipation.

The first thing to strike me as we turned toward the Pass was how vast the windscreen was. A massive piece of glass revealed the beauty of the world. Never before had I experienced the North Star Nature Preserve like this from a car. As I fiddled with the GPS and the cameras and the audio system on the car’s computer touch screen monitor, I felt for the first time how the car’s intuitive braking system slowed it each time I took my foot off of the accelerator. It provided a sense of security that was unexpected and it made me want to see just how fast this thing really was.

So, as we rounded the next turn and found a short straightaway, I hit it.

Instantly the speed was overwhelming. The force literally made me dizzy and my body was forced firmly back into my comfy leather seat. There was no roar, no jolt, just a smooth, wicked fast acceleration from 0 to 70 in less than four seconds. I took my foot off the accelerator and, even before I could transition to the brake pedal, I felt the braking system working on its own to slow the car. I was gobsmacked. Never had I felt anything remotely like that.

It was not just that it was fast. It was the way it was fast. The smoothness, the unrippled, aerodynamic … untethering … of the movement was just so, I don’t know … sensual. We have all been in planes and felt the feeling of acceleration and we have all been in fast cars and heard the tires squeal and the engine scream as we were pushed back by the G-force. But this was different. It was elegant.

I had an image in my mind of pulling up to a stoplight next to Vin Diesel on Sunset Boulevard. He in his “Fast and Furious” machine and me in my Tesla Model X P100D. In my vision, Vin sees what I got and just throws a friendly wave as the light turns green, not bothering to test me and my SUV.

I wanted more of this.


A couple of miles up we arrived at the gate that marks the closure of Highway 82 on the way to Independence Pass on the Aspen side. Here we met the burly Tim Holbrook, who, with his team of 11, is responsible for getting the Pass open each year on the Thursday before Memorial Day. The Colorado Department of Transportation had given Austin and me a pass to the Pass so that we could do a story on the annual opening and assess the road. Tim was to be our guide.

Tim has a love for all things fast, including roller coasters, and he was fascinated by the vehicle that pulled up to the gate. Not just the car, but the technology inside of it. I explained that the five-door, seven-passenger car weighs in at around 5,400 pounds but that Tesla claims it can go from 0 to 60 mph in a lightening quick 2.9 seconds. He just chuckled, climbed into his big white CDOT truck and said, “Follow me.”

The sun had come out, the river was running high and skies were cobalt blue as we moved on up the road. I thought of the cyclists who had ridden Ride for the Pass just a few days before and lamented that they had not had the picture-perfect weather we were enjoying. We wound our way behind Tim, our escort, up past the Grottos and the Narrows, and Lincoln Creek, playing a little cat and mouse. We would occasionally drop back a bit, and then bite down hard on the accelerator for a few small shots of adrenaline.

The snow on the peaks was fresh and blindingly white. In the 150-year history of this trail to paradise there may have been days as pretty. But assuredly none prettier.

The Tesla took the most vertical of grades on Independence Pass like they were as flat as bowling alleys. The low center of gravity, a result of the weight of the battery that runs the length of the vehicle under the floorboard, gave the car sticky stability, and I was hard pressed to get any side-to-side yaw. This, on a road renowned for making people queasy because it’s so turny.

As we reached the ghost town of Independence, I was struck by the contrast between the resilience and resolve of the people who forged the Pass and ourselves. They struggled up and over 12,000-foot peaks in wagons drawn by horses and mules to establish this collection of wooden buildings. All we did was set the proper temperature on our heated seats, turn on some tunes and gently touch an accelerator. There was one comparable feature though. Both the electric car we were riding in and the horse-drawn wagons shared the same zero carbon footprint. A remarkable irony.

After a stop to see the town and read the history of the Pass, we got back in the car for the final ascent to the top of the 12,095-foot-high road. At the top it was time to do what thousands of tourists do every year: take pictures.

We are pretty sure that this was the first time that a Tesla Model X P100D had ever crested this, the second-highest paved pass in Colorado (Trail Ridge Road clocks in at 88 feet higher, but who’s counting?), so we had to capture an image of those sexy Falcon wing doors. Of all the impressive state-of-the-art technology in this space-age automobile, the doors seem to get the most attention.

For some, the image of the side passenger doors opening skyward may remind them of the Mercedes Benz 300 SL that James Bond once drove. But for most, the memory is from the DeLorean that became the time-traveler from “Back to the Future.” Again, how ironic. The Falcon wings on the Tesla Model X P100D open with a touch of a button and sensors assure that they never open too far and hit an object above.

Tesla’s co-founder, CEO and lead imagineer Elon Musk, actually stood under an open Falcon wing when the Model X concept was first introduced to the automotive press. It is a shrewd example of how his taste in automotive design and attention to customer detail is changing the way people drive, and desire, cars.

After the photo ops and a quick run around the hairpin Eureka turn just past the summit, it was time to get back down to reality. On the way, I again marveled at the speed, stability and luxury of the vehicle.

But the lasting impression was that the Tesla Model X P100D was a work of imagination, daring and design. That Tesla has changed not just the efficiency and carbon footprint of cars, but of driving itself.

This is the future. And I, for one, am smitten.

Aspen Times Weekly

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