A limited-edition Pagani Huayra die-cast model signed by Horacio Pagani sits on the corner of Ben Schaffer’s desk, and just next to it is a 3D-printed Tesla prototype model signed by Elon Musk. “Those guys come from totally opposite ends, as far as left brain/right brain, but they represent the most innovative and exciting parts of automotive culture,” says Schaffer, president of Unplugged Performance, a SoCal-based tuning shop that shares a business park with Musk-founded SpaceX. The Unplugged team got its start building outlandish, SEMA-friendly performance cars such as Schaffer’s daily driver — a 2012 Nissan GT-R with a full carbon-fiber body and Lexan windows — and began working on Teslas three and a half years ago after Schaffer bought a Model S.
“When I drove it for the first time, my mind was blown, totally blown,” he says. “As a car enthusiast, the experience of driving a Tesla isn’t really relatable to anything else. But I would walk up to my car, and it didn’t feel as special as it was. When I drove it, it felt special. But when I looked at it, not so much.” Unplugged has since started to update Tesla “P” performance variants with a more aggressive, futuristically handsome aesthetic that matches the EVs’ unexpected performance. The hope is that even the most hardcore car enthusiasts are now drawn to Teslas.
Schaffer leads us through Unplugged’s front door toward his 2016 Tesla Model X, which has been wrapped in burnt-orange vinyl and fitted with a prototype body kit made of hand-laid carbon fiber. “A lot of Tesla owners happen to come out of Aston Martins and Bentleys, Ferraris and Lamborghinis,” he says. “And, yeah, this Model X is quicker than some of those cars, but it didn’t feel as special.”
The Model X weighs more than 5,200 pounds and has the proportions, roofline, and shape of a six-passenger utility vehicle, which it is, but the car corners absolutely flat and accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds. There’s disconnect between this top-of-the-line Tesla Model X’s appearance and its driving experience, and perhaps worse, nothing sets this car apart from lesser Model Xs. “Tesla has no differentiation factor between a car that costs $150,000 and an entry-level car that comes in the exact same color and has the exact same wheels, interior, and body,” Schaffer says. “You can’t tell them apart except when you press on the throttle. That was an opportunity to show the car in a new light. How would we make this thing look as exciting as it drives and amplify the feeling of what the car is?”
Unplugged Performance lowered the adjustable air suspension to get an extra 1.5 inches of drop, covered just about every exposed interior surface in carbon fiber, and fitted a body package that embraces the Model X’s big, smooth, aero-friendly vacancies on front and rear bumpers instead of tacking on fake vents or superfluous, nonfunctional trim. “No matter what,” Schaffer says, “it’s going to be a divisive design because the car itself is that way.”
Unplugged didn’t add power to this Model X mainly because Tesla owns the firmware on its cars and can update them and make them more powerful via a wireless signal. And power isn’t the only goal in the emerging EV tuning world, which also celebrates modifying a car to achieve maximum range. Unplugged focused its efforts on weight reduction, which would benefit both kinds of EV tuners. “On this Model X, the stock wheels are 37 pounds each,” Schaffer says. “Our wheels are 27 pounds, knocking out 40 pounds of unsprung weight.” The Model X didn’t need bigger brakes, but the carbon-ceramic brake package with six-piston calipers weighs less than stock. “We’re trying to pick up all the little percentage points of improvement we can,” Schaffer says. “Weight is important.” We ask him why Unplugged didn’t further reduce weight with carbon-fiber body panels, and Schaffer says the stock aluminum pieces are so thin and so light that Unplugged couldn’t do much better with composites. When we ask him why Unplugged didn’t replace glass with Lexan for the windows, the big panoramic windshield that continues well above the driver’s head, or the big panels on top of the falcon doors, he pauses, smiles, and says he’s not sure why as he hands us the Model X’s gloss-black key fob.
“Everyone is still learning what these things are and making up their minds about whether they like them or don’t like them.”
The driver’s door opens automatically as we approach it, and a tap of the key fob opens Schaffer’s door for him. A press of the brake pedal closes the driver’s door and starts the Model X. With the car in Ludicrous mode, I push the accelerator flat. We are tossed back into our cushy, curvy black leather seats as we merge onto the highway. A lift of the throttle lets braking regeneration ease us back down to the speed limit as we scoot into the left lane, activate Tesla’s Autopilot system, and zone out as we crawl through thick L.A. traffic. When we get into the San Gabriel Mountains and transition onto the challenging, windy roads writhing through them, I take back the steering wheel. Acceleration is smooth and absolutely linear. It starts off unbelievably strong but falls off a bit when you’re beyond 70 mph. The upgraded brakes slow everything down in a hurry. The car looks top-heavy, but with its slight suspension drop and its weighty battery packs mounted in the floor, it has a low center of gravity, which means this Model X can hide its heft amazingly well as it transitions between turns. The thick-rimmed steering wheel unwinds smoothly as you blast out of bends, and all you can hear is muted wind and the soft squeal of Toyo tires.
As the sun sets and tints the clouds pink, we look up through the top of the windshield and watch a half-lit waxing moon push its way into the evening sky. We pull into an overlook to snap a few photos, and even though we’re in the middle of nowhere, we immediately draw a crowd when the falcon doors open. People ask what kind of car it is, and we tell them. We tell them how quick it is, and they can’t believe it. “And it’s all electric, right?” None of these folks has driven a Tesla, most haven’t heard of a Model X, and this modified example has them stunned. “Everyone is still learning what these things are and making up their minds about whether they like them or don’t like them,” Schaffer says. As EVs and Teslas seep further into the mainstream, we’ll see how the enthusiast car culture adapts to welcome and accommodate the new-age tech, if it does at all. Schaffer and the Unplugged team, who have no official relationship with Tesla, believe that by upgrading the latter’s products they’re forming a foundation for a new generation of car enthusiasts to build on when they hopefully embrace more sustainable, forward-thinking powertrains. “Our experience is one where we admire our neighbors a lot,” Schaffer says. “You walk around our business park, and it’s hard not to admire what they do.”
Imaginative creations of people like Pagani have challenged and inspired customizers, and maybe Musk too will become an idyllic figure in the aftermarket world.
Unplugged Performance 2016 Tesla Model X 90D
|PRICE||$184,370 (as tested)|
|MOTORS||Three-phase four-pole AC induction
259 hp/244 lb-ft front, 259 hp/244 lb-ft rear; 328 hp combined
|LAYOUT||4-door, 7-passenger, front/rear motor, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||90/94 mpge (city/hwy)|
|L X W X H||198.3 x 89.4 x 65.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||2.9 sec|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|