Why I Didn't Buy A Tesla Model S
October 22, 2015 – by Per Christensson
This summer, I was going to buy a Tesla. After driving my trusty Acura CL Type-S for nine years, it was finally time to get a new car. I had researched the Tesla Model S for months and decided it was going to be my next car. Then I test drove it.
My expectations sank even before I got in the car. The Tesla dealership closest to my house was located in the middle of a pothole-ridden parking lot shared by a row of industrial buildings. It was surprisingly ill-suited for a car buying experience. I was a bit taken aback, but I was so excited to drive the car, the environment did not dissuade me.
The Tesla rep first gave me a tour of the inside of the Model S and showed me the basic controls on the gigantic 17-inch screen in the middle of the console. The screen quality was great, but as a web developer, I felt the interface looked surprisingly dated (especially compared to Tesla's sleek website). I was sad to find out you can't completely turn off the screen; you can only turn down the brightness really low.
As I looked around the inside of the car, I noticed it was shockingly simplistic. I appreciate simplicity, but it definitely didn't feel like a luxury car. The seats in particular were not very comfortable and I would have preferred the side bolsters to be much larger. While nearly everything in the Model S is controlled using the screen, I was pleased to learn it still had a few standard buttons and levers around the steering wheel.
The model I was testing had the "Ultra High Fidelity Sound" upgrade, so when I turned on the radio, I expected incredible sound. To my dismay, the sound was worse than my 2003 Acura. The speakers were not horrible, but they were much too boxy for my taste and lacked a clear low end. As an audiophile, I consider the sound system to be of the most important aspects of a car. The sub-average sound produced by the Tesla was a major strike against it.
I asked to drive the Model S P85D, but the salesperson said the new, less powerful 70D would be more appropriate. I reluctantly acquiesced after they told me I would have to come back another day to drive the P85D. They said the 70D still had a lot of power and a 0-60 time close to 5 seconds (which is still two seconds slower than the P85D).
The Tesla salesperson gave me the OK and I hit the gas (or more accurately the pedal that controls the electric-powered motors). I knew the Model S would be quiet, but it was even quieter than I expected. It was also silky smooth. Besides the fact that there we were passing nearby objects, it was hard to tell we were even moving. As I merged onto the road, I found the 70D to be surprisingly fast. The gearless transmission and smooth suspension made it feel like we were almost flying. That sense, combined with the futuristic interior, gave the Tesla a spaceship-like experience that was unlike any other car I have driven.
Another thing that gives the Tesla a unique driving experience is the way it automatically brakes when you take your foot off the accelerator. It takes some getting use to, but it provides three notable benefits. 1) It recharges the battery when you aren't pushing the accelerator down. 2) It gives you immediate torque whenever you press the accelerator (similar to keeping a manual transmission one gear lower than needed). 3) It reduces the need to brake. I'm pretty sure I drove the Tesla on city streets for over five minutes without pressing the brake.
When I got on the highway, I was pleased with the acceleration of the 70D, though it wasn't breathtaking. I felt like the car handled pretty well, but it definitely didn't feel too sporty. I think the weight and sheer size of the car keep it from feeling like a sports car. I really wanted to try the autopilot feature, but it wasn't available at the time.
I drove back to the dealership and got out of the car. I took a closer look at the outside of the Model S and was shocked at what I saw. The chrome trim along the windows looked like plastic and didn't line up from window to window. In one place on the left side of the car, the trim was shifted about half an inch out of place. I tried to push it back into place only to realize that it was like that from the factory. The lack of quality control was astonishing for an automobile branded as a luxury car. This, combined with the cheap feeling of the door handles and other materials used in the car, started to make the Tesla seem vastly overpriced.
Another shock came when I asked how much it would be to upgrade the boring stock rims to the grey turbine wheels. The answer was $4,500. While the upgrade includes high-performance summer tires, that's still over $1,000 more per wheel than the stock configuration. At this point, I felt like Tesla was overcharging for the car and decided it might not be the car for me after all.
Test Drive #2
A few days after my experience at the Tesla dealership, I shared some feedback with Tesla in an online survey. They invited me back to test drive the P85D, which I did. I got to try the "insane mode" and accelerated onto the highway from 0 to 60 MPH in just over 3 seconds. It was amazing. I actually felt a bit woozy after my driving experience since the car accelerated so fast.
I appreciated the chance to drive the high-end model, but unfortunately the experience didn't change my mind. The car was fast, but still didn't feel sporty. The trim on this car wasn't as uneven as the first one I tested, but it wasn't perfect. The gaps around the hood and doors were noticeably uneven as well. I wasn't able to justify the P85D's $100,000+ price tag for a car that felt cheap on the inside and outside. Even the entry-level 70D was $93,500 with the options I chose. Too much.
Over the past two decades, American cars have not been known for quality. I was hoping Tesla would reverse this trend, but the cheap seats, plastic handles, and uneven trim made the car feel in some ways like a $20,000 Chevy. The other three cars I test drove were an Audi S5, a Lexus RC 350, and a Maserati Ghibli, which each felt more luxurious and refined than the Tesla.
Despite my disappointments, I still think the Tesla Model S is an amazing car. It is more technologically advanced than any other car I have driven and the acceleration on the high-end model is incredible. I'm impressed with how much power Tesla has been able to squeeze out of an electric battery — far more than any other company has done in the past. Once Tesla refines their manufacturing process, I think they'll have a successful mass-market car on their hands.
For now, I decided to buy a different car. Stay tuned to learn which one I chose.