Is Consumer Reports falling out of love with Tesla?
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post said Edmunds reported that on three occasions the drivers testing the Tesla experienced a "car died roadside" situation. In fact, an Edmunds driver reported three separate problems during a single "car died roadside" situation.
A year ago Consumer Reports gave the Tesla Model S the highest rating of any vehicle the influential magazine has reviewed.
"It's what Marty McFly might have brought back in place of his DeLorean in 'Back to the Future,'" Consumer Reports gushed.
The honeymoon is over.
"Over the last 15,743 miles, our test car has developed many minor problems that merit some reflection," Gabe Shenhar, a Consumer Reports automotive test engineer, wrote on the magazine's blog.
While continuing to praise the Tesla's driving qualities and sophisticated technology, Shenhar mentions that the problems could presage a lower reliability rating in the magazine's annual survey of car owners.
But as someone who works with a lot of data, Shenhar observes that "a sample size of one" does not create a trend.
However, other car reviewers also have noticed problems with the high-tech electric car, which sells for $71,000 to more than $100,000 depending on battery size and equipment.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has acknowledged some quality issues with early production cars but said recently that the issues have been resolved in the cars coming out of the automaker's Fremont factory now.
The automaker responded to the Consumer Reports blog, noting that it took care of the problems promptly.
"Like any owner, Consumer Reports benefits from the peace of mind afforded by the comprehensive Tesla warranty," Tesla said in a statement. "In addition we are constantly upgrading the functionality, features and quality of every Model S through the free over the air updates we provide to every owner."
Edmunds.com recently sold off the Tesla it bought for a long-term test after 28 service incidents, all of which were fixed at no charge by Tesla.
At one point, an Edmunds driver experienced a “car died roadside” situation. The touch screen, through which everything from air conditioning to radio are controlled, froze twice. The driver's door and the windows opened automatically, and unexpectedly. The sunroof wouldn't work.
The drive unit was replaced three times. The main battery and the 12-volt battery were replaced, as were the tires. Heat shields had to be installed after Tesla found a possible risk of fire. New motor mounts and lug nuts were installed.
Consumer Reports' problems appeared to be irritating but easily fixed. For example, Shenhar reported the automatic retracting door handles occasionally failed to emerge from the body panel, making it impossible to open the driver's door. To its credit, Tesla fixed the problem with an over-the-air programming update beamed to the car.
The door glitch turned into an interesting demonstration of the Palo Alto car company's technology.
At a little over 12,000 miles, the center screen of the Consumer Reports car went blank, "eliminating access to just about every function of the car, including popping open the charge port." The local Tesla service center performed a "hard reset" that restored the car's functions. It also fixed a creak emanating from the passenger side roof-pillar area, disassembling and refitting some trim panels.
The shop fixed other problems, such as replacing the optional third row seats because a buckle broke.
At almost 16,000 miles, the front trunk lid broke and a Tesla-supplied battery charging adapter fell apart. Both problems were easily fixed. All of the problems were covered by the warranty.
It's not unusual for new car models and advanced designs to have problems. And car reviewers might overlook some of these issues if the Tesla was not so highly rated by Consumer Reports and others. The innovative technology on the car and the Tesla story – taking on the big century-old makers of gasoline vehicles with a completely re-imagined car -- also focuses extra attention on Tesla.
For example, Tesla will sell about 20,000 cars in the U.S. this year. But its stock closed Monday at a record high of $259.32, giving the automaker a market capitalization of more than $32 billion, about half the value of
The Tesla Model S also attracts attention because of the derisive comments Musk has made about competitive technologies – internal combustion engine automobiles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Based on last year's Consumer Reports auto-reliability survey, Tesla Model S received a score of average, derived from the responses from 637 owners of 2012 and 2013 models. By September, Consumer Reports will be analyzing this year's reliability survey, which will also include the 2014 models.
"It will be interesting to see how the Model S will score after we tabulate the new data," Shenhar said.
It will depend on the responses of Tesla's especially passionate cadre of owners. Some automakers and analysts believe that the ratings are influenced by the willingness of owners to criticize their own vehicles. Certain demographics or people who have some emotional or political attachment to their cars might be more willing than, say, Jeep Liberty owners to overlook problems.
"That said, we've seen passionate owners reporting problems experienced with their cars under the 'reliability' section of the survey and giving the same car high marks under the 'owner satisfaction' section of the survey," Shenhar said.
The upcoming survey will have a larger sample size – Consumer Reports had just 637 for 2012 and 2013 model years – because of brisk Tesla sales this year. That's likely to make the sample big enough to understand the vehicle's reliability, he said.
"We've learned over the years that not many problems remain under the radar screen for too long," Shenhar said. "Let the chips fall where they may."