New Tesla Model S & X Plaid Update for 2021

December 2021

The long-awaited Model S and Model X “refresh” finally arrived in January 2021… at least on the interior. On January 27, 2021, Tesla announced a major interior upgrade to both the Model S and Model X vehicles. These flagship models hadn’t been significantly updated since their original introductions and now they finally improve upon the Model 3 and Model Y interiors to continue holding their flagship status and premium pricing.

In this article, we break down everything that’s new and also touch on things that could come in the future as well.

Tesla Model S and X Update History

Since 2019, Tesla has been slowly improving the Model S and X. Here’s a quick summary of past updates if you’re considering buying a used model, for example.

  • April 2019 – Model S and X now have FSD Computer, and get the “Raven” update that includes a new active suspension, longer range and faster charging
  • February 2020 – Tesla releases Tesla Model S/X “Long Range Plus” variants with 390/351 range with a software update released in March to reflect that increase.
  • October 2020 – Model X gets 371 mile range, Model S price drop. The Plaid Model S will use the new 4680 cells and structural battery pack at the end of 2021.
  • January 2021 – Major new interior designs released for Model S and Model X!
  • May 2021 – Refreshed Model S and X delivery dates showing 2022 on Tesla’s site, while Plaid Model S begins deliveries starting in June.
  • June 2021 – Model S Plaid deliveries begin. Model S Plaid+ canceled (Plaid still available)
  • October 2021 – New Model X deliveries begin (slowly).

New Tesla Exterior Updates

While most of the updates with the 2021 Model S and Model X refresh focus on the interior, there are also subtle exterior changes.

Both the Model S and X have a new front face, chrome delete, and slight changes to the rear.

There are also new wheel options, but overall no major exterior design changes.

New Tesla Model S and X Interior Refresh

The biggest change for the 2021 Model S and Model X refresh is the interior. It finally updates the rather outdated design on the older models with a much fresher, more modern look, including a controversial “yoke”-style steering wheel first shown on the upcoming Roadster prototype, and then later the Cybertruck.

This is quite different from the previous Model S and X interiors:

Model S and X Interior Refresh Example 2018
Mid-May 2018 Model S and X Interior Refresh Example (Cream/Oak)

And even more modern than the current Model 3 and Model Y interiors:

Model 3 Interior

Three Screens

The Model S and X have three, yes, THREE new screens. Luckily they’ve kept the driver display, called the “binnacle” above the steering wheel. Let’s dig into what’s new.

First, the new center screen will be high-resolution and can tilt from left-to-right:

From Tesla: “With 2200×1300 resolution, ultra-bright colors with exceptional responsiveness and left-right tilt, the new center display is an ideal touchscreen for entertainment and gaming anywhere”

Thankfully, Tesla has kept the dashboard driver screen above the steering wheel, technically called the “binnacle” in the automotive industry, that allows for additional information to be displayed right in the driver’s line-of-sight.

Totally new is the rear entertainment screen that allows for gaming with wireless controllers.

Gaming Machine on Wheels

With all these wonderful new screens, Tesla has ensured these vehicles can play the latest games by including powerful gaming hardware:

From Tesla: “Up to 10 teraflops of processing power enables in-car gaming on-par with today’s newest consoles via Tesla Arcade. Wireless controller compatibility allows gaming from any seat.”

Tesla Yoke Steering “Wheel”

Perhaps the most controversial new design change is the Yoke steering wheel inherited from the Roadster (and Cybertruck) concepts. A Yoke-style steering wheel has long been shown in futuristic concept vehicles (K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider anyone?), but never made it production cars since it’s too difficult to use for sharp turns. We’ll see how this one does.

Gone are the stalks on the steering column for the blinker, drive controls and things like the windshield wipers. These are now part of the steering wheel itself.

Now, having no stalks isn’t totally unheard of. High-end sports cars like the Ferrari Portofino also lack stalks and use controls on the steering wheel.

That said, having a Yoke instead of a round steering wheel will be fairly new and might take some getting used to for sharp turns or U-turns.

No Drive Stalk for Forward or Reverse

Probably the most radical change will how to put the car in Park, Reverse, Neutral or Drive (PRND). This will supposedly be done automatically by sensing the environment but allow the user to override the recommendation on the touchscreen. This will take some getting-used-to, but it’s also believed Tesla may offer dedicated force-touch buttons below the phone charging area in the center console at some point.

Here’s a glimpse of how it works on the new models:

It remains to be seen if this is intuitive enough for people or not.

Will Tesla Offer a Round Steering Wheel?

It remains to be seen how the Yoke will work in day-to-day driving or whether Tesla will also offer a regular steering wheel. However, sharp-eyed users found that it was possible, at one point, to hack the configurator image on Tesla’s website at which point it would show a normal steering wheel, suggesting one may be available at some point in the future (however still without stalks).

We’ve now seen several sightings of the new Model S with both the traditional-style wheel and yoke:

Touch-Screen Climate Controls

Just like on the Model 3 and Model Y, the new Model S and X will use touch-screen climate controls in a tri-climate zone setup.

From Tesla: “Clean, powerful yet invisible cabin conditioning. Tri-zone temperature controls, ventilated front seats and HEPA filtration come standard.”

New Tesla Model S Glass Roof

Like the Model 3 and Model Y, the Tesla Model S now has a new glass roof:

From Tesla: “The full Glass Roof gives passengers a brighter, more spacious experience and unobstructed views of the sky. Infrared and UV light is effectively blocked before entering the cabin, reducing heat and glare even when the sun is directly overhead.”

Redesigned Second Row in Model S

The Model S now has an improved second row that includes a wireless charger!

From Tesla: “Seating for three adults, with extra legroom, headroom and a stowable armrest with integrated storage and wireless charging.”

Force-Touch Button Door Latches

A small, but important change will be that the door latches will now use force-touch buttons instead of physical levers, similar to the Model 3 and Y.

2021 Model S and X Door Latches
2021 Model S and X Force-Touch Door Latches

New Model S and X Internal Camera

The Model 3 and Model Y have internal-facing cameras. They are not currently active and but are intended to be used for the future Tesla ride-sharing network.

Elon Musk tweeted, “It’s there for when we start competing with Uber/Lyft & people allow their car to earn money for them as part of the Tesla shared autonomy fleet. In case someone messes up your car, you can check the video.” It could also, in theory, be used as a Driver Monitoring System to ensure the driver is attentive during Autopilot usage.

Now it seems that the 2021 Model S and Model X also have this camera:

Keyless Entry with Mobile App

One of the more interesting features of the Model 3 is that they ditched the key and only use Tesla app and a backup RFID keycard to unlock the car. With the app, the car will automatically unlock and lock, depending on the proximity of your phone.  Personally, we’d love to ditch the bulky key, and have fewer things to carry around.

As part of the 2021 update, Tesla now lists a “Phone Key”, so we assume this will now be available for those models. It’s believed they will still provide a traditional key fob as well.

Updated Battery Packs for Model S and X

While Tesla uses newer batteries for the Model 3 and Model Y (see below), they did update the battery pack on the Model S and X to improve the thermal profile, allowing for faster charging up to 250 kW and more consistent power output.

2021 Model S and X Updated Battery Packs
2021 Model S and X Updated Battery Packs

Future Model S and X Updates

While the 2021 Model S and X interior updates were long overdue, there are other upcoming upgrades that will continually improve the flagship vehicles.

New Battery Technology – More Range and Faster Charging

While the Model S and X have improved their capacity and charge rate over time, probably one of the biggest areas of advancement is the use of new battery technology to improve range, charging speed, and power; plus reduce costs in the future. The Model 3 and Y use the newer 2170 format Lithium-ion batteries rather than the 18650 batteries used in the Model S and X.  The new 2170s are larger, lighter and can deliver more power, allowing the Model 3 and the Model Y to have great range and fast charging.

Tesla 18650 and 2170 Batteries
Tesla 18650 and 2170 Batteries

In addition, during the 2020 Battery Day event, Tesla announced a future battery called the 4680, even larger than the 2170 in the current Model 3 and Model Y that will be a “Structural Battery”, meaning it will be built directly into the vehicle. The battery will be easier to produce (meaning cheaper) and have some additional energy density improvements.

Tesla 4680 Structural Batteries
Structural Battery format using the 4680 unveiled at Battery Day

Because the 4680 is a structural battery and is built into the chassis, any vehicle that uses them will have to have a significant update.

Switching battery form factors is a big deal. Here’s what Jeffrey B. Straubel, then CTO of Tesla said on the February 2018 call regarding the use of 2170s in the Model S and X:

“It’s something we’ve of course contemplated, but it’s quite a large change to the architecture of the module and the battery pack overall. “

So it’s likely that Model S and X will skip the 2170 format and move directly to the new 4680 format instead at some point in the future. This seemed to have been confirmed by Elon Musk when discussing the Tesla Model S Plaid+ which was to have arrived in 2022 (but is now canceled):

While the 2170 and future 4680 cell formats offer a bit more energy density initially, Tesla continues to improve the chemistry in the 18650s. In fact, the new Model S offers a 412 mile range, and the Model X continues to receive range improvements as well, with a 360 mile range (2021 Model Year Refresh).

Autopilot Hardware Improvements

Tesla Motors has released its own AI hardware called the Full Self-Driving Computer (aka AP3 / Hardware 3) that is 10X more powerful than the current NVIDIA chips used previously. Existing vehicles with AP2 Hardware can simply swap out the AP2 computer with an AP3 one, but it will cost some money to do so (unless you already purchased the Full Self Driving Option – then it’s free).

What does having the Full Self-Driving Computer (“FSD Computer”) mean practically? It means that Tesla vehicles outfitted with FSD Computer will be able to perform better at self-driving tasks than those with AP2, with advanced software updates targeted for that hardware. See the Tesla Autonomy Day announcement for more.

All new vehicles being produced as of late April 2019 have the Full Self-Driving (see New Autopilot Options) installed.

Tesla is already working on Hardware 3.5 / 4.0, with Samsung which will likely arrive later in 2021.

2022 Performance Variant: Model S Plaid+

In September of 2020, during the Battery Day event, Tesla officially announced a high-performance version of the Model S, dubbed the Model S Plaid (in humorous reference to the movie Spaceballs).

There were two Plaid variants available for sale:

  • Plaid: zero-to-60 under 2 seconds, $113K – available now
  • Plaid+: increases range to 520 miles, $133K (2022) – since cancelled

The original announcement by Tesla was focused on the variant with more range (now called the Plaid+), but Tesla has since introduced a basic Plaid version without the extra range since Plaid+ requires the new 4680 battery cells. The Plaid+ wasn’t expected to go on sale until 2022, but has since been canceled.

Rear-Facing Seats Coming Back

In March 2021, Elon tweeted that rear-facing seats will be making a comeback in the Model S Plaid edition, allowing for up to 7 people. As of this writing, however, the rear seat option is not available on Tesla’s website, so it’s not clear how customers can purchase this option. The rear seats on the Model S were originally available on early Tesla Model S vehicles, but then disappeared after the Model X came along. Note that the rear-facing seats are quite small and would really only work for smaller children.

Video Walkthroughs

Previous Updates of Note

For those wanting additional background on prior updates, here are a couple of the more notable updates of late, particularly around the motors and active suspension.

More Efficient Motors (2019)

April 23, 2019 – Tesla introduced electric motors for the Model S and X as part of the internally called ‘Raven’ update, similar to those found in the Model 3. Previously the S and X used induction motors, which do not have permanent magnets and instead uses electromagnets to provide variable torque and ample power. The Model 3 motors have a simpler design by using permanent magnets, making them cheaper and more efficient.

The Permanent Magnet Switched Reluctance Motor (PMSRM), like that found in the Model 3, has been introduced on the S and X in the same configuration as the Performance Model 3 with one permanent magnet motor in the front and an induction motor in the back to balance efficiency, cost and performance.

New Tesla-Built Active Suspension (2019)

April 23, 2019 – Tesla updated the active suspension on the Model S and X as part of the ‘Raven’ update, building it completely in-house. This allows Tesla to better control the suspension in real-time based on conditions and to further squeeze efficiency out of the vehicles by lowering a far as possible to reduce aerodynamic drag.

Frequently Asked Questions?

Will Tesla Offer a Normal Steering Wheel?

Based on the fact that Tesla’s own site had a version with a normal steering wheel and that certain regions throughout the world may not allow the yoke, we’re guessing that Tesla will offer a normal steering wheel at some point, in some regions.

Do the new Model S and Model X for 2021 use different batteries?

The new Model S and Model X still use the 18650 format batteries, but they have new cell chemistry and battery packs that allow for faster charging and more power.

What’s the difference between the Model S Plaid and Plaid+?

The Plaid+ was to have offered more range (over 520 miles) by using the new 4680 batteries in addition to slightly faster speeds and some other performance enhancements. The Plaid+ was originally slated for 2022 once the new 4680 batteries being to be produced but has since been canceled.

Is the Model S Plaid+ Still Available?

No, the Elon canceled the Model S Plaid+ in June of 2021. No word when or if it will ever make a reappearance again.

Is the Tesla Model S worth buying?

The Tesla Model S is an amazing vehicle unlike anything in its class… if you can afford it. That said, because it’s so expensive most people will find Tesla’s lower-priced vehicles, like the Model 3, a better value.

Bottom Line

With the amazing new interiors released in early 2021 as part of the Model S and X refresh, now is the perfect time to buy one of these incredible vehicles.

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