Michael Karpf flew earlier this month to the Tesla Motors factory in Fremont, Calif., to pick up his new Model X electric sport-utility vehicle—known for a 200-plus mile battery range and Tesla CEO Elon Musk's claim that it's "the fastest SUV in history."
The 75-year-old retiree planned to drive it across the country with his wife and son to their home in New Rochelle, N.Y. But the new-car gleam of Karpf’s $138,000 titanium-on-beige P90D Model X faded with a string of problems as soon as he left the factory—delaying his journey.
One of the wildly designed, upswinging “falcon wing” rear doors failed to close. The other falcon wing door failed to open, except from the inside. One falcon door didn't sense an overhang and bashed into it, leaving a ding in the door. The driver’s door window wouldn’t motor down properly, until it dislodged a piece of chrome stripping that was restricting its progress.
All these problems required separate visits to the factory in Fremont and service center in Santa Monica, both of which Karpf noted handled the problems quickly and completely.
In addition, there are manufacturing design issues. For example, the Model X’s uniquely curved windshield has resulted in “double vision” distortion of headlights, taillights, and streetlamps at night. The effect is distracting and tiring, and it makes following distances difficult to gauge.
Then there was an AutoPilot self-driving issue that occurred when the road’s shoulder fell away; Karpf's car became confused, requiring Karpf to take command. Lastly, the Model X's heating system was insufficient to keep the SUV warm on a brisk Lake Tahoe evening.
“When you don’t have climate control on, with three people in the car, things can get a bit testy in there,” Karpf says.
Karpf is not alone. Tesla message boards are already swelling with complaints from Model X owners regarding balky doors, interior trim-piece tolerances, paint-spray quality, malfunctioning second-row seats, sheet-metal panel gaps, and climate control issues. The Model X is still very early in production, with only a few thousand vehicles produced to date.
Tesla also has conducted a recall of 2,700 Model X units for a third-row seat latch that did not fasten properly—a potential safety issue.
In response to Consumer Reports' questions about these quality issues, a Tesla spokeswoman wrote in an email: “We are committed to making the world's most reliable cars. While we have seen some issues with early Model X builds, the issues are not widespread, and we are working closely with each owner to respond quickly and proactively to address any problems. We will continue to do so until each customer is fully satisfied. This commitment is one of the reasons why 98 percent of our customers say they will buy another Tesla as their next car.”
Such issues are expected from a brand-new model. Consumer Reports recommends against buying a vehicle in its first year of production—especially a ground-up vehicle with the incredible complexity of a Tesla. Even the Toyota Prius, noted for bulletproof reliability, slipped slightly during its 2010 redesign.
In this case, the Model X shares underpinnings with the Model S sedan, but it also features numerous features not seen in the sedan.
In Consumer Reports’ most recent annual reliability survey, the Model S sedan had a worse than average overall problem rate, and it quite nearly indexed as much-worse than average. The main problem areas involved the drivetrain, power equipment, charging equipment, giant iPad-like center console, and body and sunroof squeaks, rattles, and leaks. Consumer Reports releases reliability data in the fall.
The problems have involved not only new-from-factory 2015 Model S units, which grew in complexity with the addition of all-wheel drive and new infotainment features, but also with older models that are beginning to see years of wear and tear take their toll. (See more details on our Tesla Model S model page.)
The saving grace for owners has been Tesla’s attention to customer service. Almost every survey respondent made note of Tesla’s rapid response and repair time, despite the lack of a traditional dealer service network. For its early adopters, Tesla has made a practice of overdelivering on service problems under the factory warranty.
One reason: For warranty issues, Tesla now covers tow costs for up to 500 miles to the nearest Tesla Service Center in North America.
Tesla also claims that, because the factory, service centers, and engineering and design teams all work from the same platforms, it can address issues and implement scalable fixes at a rate that's unprecedented across the industry.
Tesla said in its earnings report for last year that "the cost of first-year repair claims on cars produced in 2015 was at about half the level of cars produced in 2014, and about one quarter the level of cars produced in 2012."
However, as the units in operation continue to multiply, the question arises of whether Tesla can keep up with the service issues—especially when the Model 3 compact sedan starts production en masse in late 2017.
Tesla owners like Karpf typically identify themselves as early adopters willing to put up with being beta testers for new technology. When asked if he would endure such issues if the car carried a Lexus or Mercedes-Benz badge, he chuckles. But Karpf does not regret his purchase.
“This thing is beautiful,” he says. “The car’s power is incredible. It handles fantastic. It’s hard to believe it’s almost three tons. I’m rather impressed with the car overall.”
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