Consumer Reports' Tesla Model S has more than its share of problems

Chronicling glitches in this luxury electric car

Last updated: August 12, 2014 04:00 PM

A revolutionary car from an innovative automaker, the Tesla Model S has garnered much attention for its accomplishments as a ground-breaking, 21st-century car. For its impressive performance in our tests, strong safety marks, and decent reliability so far, the Model S earned Consumer Reports’ recommendation. But over the last 15,743 miles, our test car has developed many minor problems that merit some reflection.

Our car has now been driven at some length by many staff members, many of whom aren’t involved in car testing. Car nut or not, EV fan or not, everyone has raved about this car, impressed with its smoothness, effortless glide, and clever, elegant simplicity. In that time, it’s also displayed a few quirks—some unique to Tesla. For instance, we had a problem with the automatic-retracting door handles, which were occasionally reluctant to emerge from the coachwork so we could open the driver’s door. Tesla fixed that with an over-the-air programming update beamed to the car.

One of the cool things about this car is that when it does need to be serviced by a mechanic, a company rep comes with a trailer and picks it up, delivering it back when the work is done—all free. Ordinary customers get a loaner, but with a fleet of test cars at our disposal, we forgo that privilege.

Just before the car went in for its annual service, at a little over 12,000 miles, the center screen went blank, eliminating access to just about every function of the car, including popping open the charge port. The shop, a newly opened service center in Milford, Conn., 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.

While it was at it, the shop took care of some additional odds and ends, all covered by warranty. One of the buckles for the third row had broken. The shop simply replaced the whole third row with a new, upgraded version. It also replaced the front bumper carrier hardware. On its own initiative, the shop replaced our 12-volt battery, the HVAC filter housing, and the powertrain battery’s coolant pump.

The maintenance service, done at the same time, includes topping off fluids, cabin filter replacement, key fob batteries, and a tire rotation. All told, we paid $636.90 with tax.

Then at about 15,700 miles, we found that the front trunk lid wasn’t responding to the release, which is a virtual button on the central screen. We also had the Tesla-supplied adapter for non-Tesla EV chargers come apart. This had no safety implications, because the exposed high-voltage prongs aren’t energized without a successful “handshake” between the charger and the car. Again, the car went in to the service center for two days and got its front trunk latch replaced, a new charging adapter was thrown in, and the latest firmware 5.12 was downloaded. Unlike other ones, this update actually was not sent over the air. Since everything here fell under warranty, we weren’t charged at all for this visit.

Based on last year’s big auto-reliability survey, we gave the Tesla Model S a score of average, based on input 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.

Given the number of bits and pieces Tesla has replaced on our car, it might be tempting to guess that its reliability score will go down. The reality is, it might—depending on the frequency and severity of problems reported by our subscribers and whether they show that reliability is below average.

Bear in mind that the experiences with our test cars are purely anecdotal and never factor into our reliability ratings. After all, it's a sample size of one.

Along with the rest of the motoring world, we anxiously await the conclusions of our latest reliability analysis due this fall.

Gabe Shenhar 

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