The automotive research company Edmunds.com took a long drive in a Tesla Model S, and has given the electric sedan a decidedly mixed review.
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. Also, an earlier version of this post said the New York Times "eventually conceded its test had not produced typical results." Although the Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote that the Tesla test had "problems with precision and judgment," the publication stood by its report. The public editor's opinions are not those of the newspaper's.
In February 2013, the company paid $105,000 (almost double the cost of a base model) to take possession of a 2013 Model S, with the "Performance" trim and other options that included a battery giving the car extra range and a host of adornments like leather trim, custom paint, a sunroof, extra chargers and a high-power wall connector.
Then the testers started driving. And they loved it.
The testers used words like "supercar fast" and "luxurious."
"It’s a really impressive driving experience," said Edmunds.com Executive Editor Ed Hellwig, who was one of the car's many Edmunds drivers. "It is very fast, and quite comfortable, with driving dynamics that are almost as good as the high end luxury cars in that price range, like the S-Class Mercedes."
But the testers, who in July sold the S to a private party for $83,000, had a number of service issues during their eighteen months of drive time -- service issues that they recount in detail in their report on the experience.
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.
In all, the Edmunds Model S had 28 service incidents. All were resolved at no cost to the owner. All were resolved in short order. Some were quite minor -- condensation in a tail light -- and some required nothing but an update to the car's software. The service response time and turnaround time, Hellwig said, were impressive.
Still, that's a lot of issues.
Tesla's official position on the Edmunds report, per a statement from the company: "Tesla considers service a top priority, and we err on the side of being proactive to ensure the best driving experience possible. That means we are particularly attentive in addressing potential issues, even if those issues appear to be very minor or have a low likelihood of causing any future problems."
Tesla Chairman and CEO Elon Musk, answering service questions from analysts after the company shareholder report on Friday, said the company did experience difficulties with early Model S cars.
"We had some quality issues in the beginning," Musk said. "We were just figuring out how to make the Model S. We've addressed almost all of those issues for current production cars, and we're getting better at diagnosing what's wrong."
Musk said the company had gone so far as to hire a Formula One pit expert to advise his service teams on how to assess and repair problems more quickly.
Indeed, Edmunds editor Hellwig said his company's S was serviced with impressive speed, seldom requiring an overnight stay even when the drive unit had to be removed and replaced -- a repair that, Musk insisted, was done on some Model S cars just because it was faster and more convenient for the customer than leaving the car in the shop until the specific problem with the unit could be identified and repaired.
Some entire drive units were replaced, Musk said, before the company found out a drive unit problem was actually being caused by an electrical short. That problem was repaired with a simple plastic tie-down.
Edmunds is the first publication to do a long-term report on driving the Tesla. But the electric car company has already gone to war with one publication, after a New York Times auto writer said his test Tesla had run out of juice far faster than the manufacturer had promised.
Hellwig said reader response to the Edmunds report has been mixed. Some Tesla fans claimed the company was being too hard on the new automaker. Others complained that they gave Tesla a break, and would have been much tougher on any mainstream manufacturer that put a car on the road with that many problems. Some even said Edmunds should have filed a "lemon law" complaint against Tesla.
Edmunds summed up the experience by citing the car's "thrilling performance," "no maintenance costs" and "strong resale value," but also noting the "extensive list of repairs."
Its bottom line: "The Model S is a fast, comfortable and technologically brilliant luxury sedan, but numerous problems with its touch screen, tires and drivetrain make it hard to recommend."