Tesla owners love their cars, despite problems. Will that continue as the Model 3 goes mainstream?
Since Tesla introduced its Model S, the company has struggled with quality issues. Despite that fact, the owners of Tesla cars are still thrilled with the Model S and also the Model X. This is apparent if one reads the member posts at any Tesla forum or club. One member posted to one such club in December 2016, “My first service issue started at 5K miles, and has accumulated to over 15 visits over the next 50K miles. I’m on my third drive unit, three door handle replacements, four sunroof repairs, body panel misalignment, blown charger unit, broken wipers…So far Tesla has been unresponsive to my frustration. Can anyone provide any insight?” Below the post, a second owner reported that he too was on his third drive unit. The odd thing is the relatively upbeat tone in the discussions.
During my first test drive of a $105,000 Tesla Model S in 2013, I had a first-hand hint of this phenomenon. At that time there were less than 200 Model S cars in all of New England. It was new to market, and making big news. The production Model S I drove simply blew me away.
Yet, I had to honestly report two “problems” the vehicle I drove had. First, the car’s backup camera was obscured by rain and rendered unusable. Manufacturers like VW had that issue solved a decade before Tesla arrived. Second, the navigation voice commands didn’t work. Even the Tesla employee in the passenger seat could not make the fancy system accept an address. There were more signs that the pricey Tesla wasn’t up to par, including no forward collision system being available and no ventilated seats, something pretty much every $100K car for sale at that time offered.
The anecdotal evidence that something was amiss at Tesla mounted. The Tesla Model S Motor Trend tested had the electric drive unit fail. Twice.
Then Edmunds tested the Tesla Model S and went through four drive units. Then there was the time Consumer Reports couldn’t get the door open on their Model S. And Consumer Reports editors weren’t alone in their issues. The publication does its own exhaustive testing, and also reports on what owners say in extensive surveys. The Consumer Reports owner-report reliability results for the Model S from 2012 to 2016 are peppered with red icons signaling trouble. Drive Units, Audio, Body Integrity, even the climate system all scored “worst” in various years. In the end, Consumer Reports has arrived at an “Average” rating for the Model S’ reliability based on owner-reported problems. However, look closely at the Consumer Reports data and there is an interesting dichotomy; Owner-reported satisfaction scores are maxed out with five green bars indicating “Excellent.”
This could be chocked up to a flaky ratings system at Consumer Reports, except J.D. Power noticed the same odd trend in their consumer surveys. Tesla owners consistently report major and frequent issues with this six-figure luxury car, but owners still give it the highest possible satisfaction scores. J.D. Power decided to dig deeper and created a custom report called “Tesla Beyond the Hype.” The report is not free, but the group did issue a brief press release with the findings summarized for the general media (with no images). BestRide asked for and received more from J.D Power, which provided us with a five-page, detailed look at what the group uncovered.
Time and price have marched on and J.D Power evaluated Model S and Model X vehicles costing over $140,000 each. J.D. Power’s testers were taken aback by the quality of the Teslas, saying, “…the level of body panel gaps, poor fitments, damaged trim pieces, and general misalignment was quite surprising. Not to mention the low-quality feel and sound of the doors, especially when considering the much-maligned falcon wing doors.”
The J.D. Power report we saw summarized the Teslas by saying, “The quality of materials used is sub-par, and with minimal miles, both the Model S and Model X showed significant wear, soiling, and in some areas, certain buttons, covers, etc. were literally falling off.”
The report went on to say, “In direct comparison to the exterior and interior quality of the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi, there is just no contest. The precision and attention to detail is just not there.”
J.D. Power, like Consumer Reports, Motor Trend, myself, and many others still come to the conclusion that many customers have come to. The report sums up: “Regardless, Tesla is a force to be reckoned with now. Despite some early hiccups, OEMs are wise to take note, as the level of innovation seen in such a short period is not likely to subside, and the more the brand’s portfolio diversifies, the better it will become at adapting.”
Kathleen Rizk, director, global automotive consulting at J.D. Power, commented on the loyalty of Tesla owners, pointing out, “Tesla owners see themselves as pioneers who enjoy being early adopters of new technology.” She added, “Spending $100,000 or more on a vehicle that has so many problems usually would have a dramatically negative effect on sales and brand perception. Right now, though, Tesla seems immune from such disenchanted customers.”
Tesla’s tiny service center footprint has thus far kept pace with owner’s Model S and Model X product defect and service needs. Through the first two months of this year, Tesla could only produce enough Model S and Model X vehicles to sell about 5,000 total vehicles in the U.S. Later this year, Tesla promises to be selling tens of thousands of its new Model 3 per month.
If that happens, Tesla may exhaust any goodwill its new owners have towards the company.