(or, the interior monologue of a tech geek thinking about buying an overpriced electric car)
In 2007, we spent a year living in the San Francisco Bay Area while I was on sabbatical at Stanford and SRI (it’s good to be a professor.) My five-mile daily bike commute from Redwood City took me through Atherton, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods around. Of course I had to worry about all the expensive German car drivers running me off the road while distracted by their brand new iPhones, but I also saw a seemingly disproportionate number of gleaming Maserati Quattroportes. I started thinking of them as the Honda Accord for the rich stylish nerd set.
For this summer’s family vacation, we headed back to our old stomping grounds, staying in Redwood City again, seeing old friends, and watching lots of expensive cars drive by. After a solid week there, I didn’t see a single Quattroporte, but I saw a whole lot of the Tesla Model S. It seems the rich stylish nerds have found their new love.
Much like I did three years ago with the Tesla Roadster, I went back to the Tesla dealership in Menlo Park and asked about test driving a Model S. Apparently I lucked out and one was immediately available. (Normally you need to schedule these test drives beforehand.) I’d been emailing Tesla’s press people months in advance, since I really wanted to spend my whole vacation week in a Model S with the hopes of writing a piece for TTAC about the full week’s experience. Tesla’s press people totally flaked on me, so a regular test drive was the best I could manage.
How much of a verdict can I reach in a half-hour behind the wheel, driving a mix of city, highway, and mountain twisties? A couple things are clear. The Model S is a really fun car to drive. Much like the Tesla Roadster, the Model S really takes off. There’s just zero latency between stomping your right foot and feeling the power of the force flowing through you. It’s a liberating experience. My skeptical wife, who also took a turn behind the wheel, was similarly impressed, far more than she was expecting to be. Similarly, the road feel is fantastic. The Tesla handles like a high-end German car, and entirely unlike the floaty, nebulous Nissan Maxima that Hertz gave us. Make no mistake, the Tesla is a proper luxury performance grand touring car, well worthy of comparison to the best the Germans have to offer. If I was the founder of multiple dot-com IPOs, living beyond the economic concerns of mere mortals, I’d be driving a loaded Model S.
Sadly, I have limited funds. Could I still justify a Model S? Can it be a rational purchase? The closest comparison to the Tesla is probably the Audi A7, something that’s already twice the price of our current family hauler, but hey, I’m worth it, right? Both The Tesla S and the Audi A7 have a hatchback, giving you lots of usable storage. 0-60 times are pretty much the same. (The regular Tesla Model S with the 85kWh battery lines up nicely with the A7 and the Tesla Model S Performance blows away the Audi S7, at least on paper. For this review, I’ll consider the A7 vs. the “non-performance” 85kWh Tesla that I’d be most likely to buy. That’s also the Tesla that I test-drove.) The operative question: if you’re willing to pony up for an Audi A7, is it rational to instead buy yourself a Tesla Model S?
Were I to buy a Model S, there are a bunch of options that I’d need (yeah, “need”). Grand total for me: $84,220, after the U.S. federal government’s $7500 tax credit and before paying an electrician to install the plug in my garage. How about an Audi A7? Configured in a vaguely similar fashion, I get $65,000. (You can load up an A7 to cost just over $80,000 without trying too hard.)
If you line up the two cars, feature-by-feature, you have to work pretty hard to justify the nearly $20,000 premium for the Tesla. Tesla’s biggest improvement over the competition is its massive touch-screen telematics package. It’s something you can immediately operate without reading the manual. The Audi MMI system, with buttons, dials, and touchpad handwriting recognition (!), seems like you’ll never figure it all out. Both systems will inevitably demand enough of your visual attention to be a serious driving hazard, but at least an untrained passenger will have a fighting chance in a Tesla. I’m a bit more concerned with how well each car will fare through a hot Texas summer. The Tesla lets you turn on the A/C from your smartphone before you’re anywhere near the car. That’s a serious win if you can remember to do it. Conversely, the Audi (top of the line “prestige” model only) has ventilated front seats, which are the greatest thing ever on a hot day (and not available on the Tesla). The Audi pulls ahead with standard AWD (not very important for us, but critical if you deal with snow and ice) and has optional gadgety features that Tesla surprisingly lacks, like adaptive cruise control, heads up display, etc. The Tesla wins on being stunningly silent and being electric. (No really, electric is cool. Fun, even.) If you live in California, the Tesla lets you have a magic sticker for using the carpool lanes even when you’re driving solo. That alone might be decisive for some buyers.
You can try to play the “electricity is cheaper than gas” game, for which Tesla has a handy-dandy online calculator. My wife and I put 10,000 miles a year on our primary car. A Model S might then save us $2000 per year relative to the fuel costs for an A7. Ten years for a electric car purchase to start becoming relatively cheaper than the gas car? That’s not good enough. What about one of my colleagues who has a 60 mile daily round-trip from one of the distant Houston suburbs? He might put 20,000 miles a year on a Model S, leading to a financial break-even in five years; that almost works. (FYI, he just recently bought a brand-new BMW 328i after carefully considering then rejecting the Tesla.) Tesla makes the argument that they will be more reliable than a traditional car by virtue of not having fluids to change, timing belts to wear out, and so forth. Certainly, regular maintenance on that Audi can get quite pricey once the warranty period is expired; notably, another colleague of mine had an early 2000’s Audi Allroad Quattro, and its turbocharged engine suffered some very expensive failures; but then who really knows about the Tesla? How well will the battery pack hold up in the heat and humidity of Houston? Will the unnecessarily complex pop-out door handles have early failures? Will the Tesla’s leather-wrapped dashboard shrivel up and need to be replaced every three years, like the BMW Z3 Coupe I once owned?
In the back of my head, I’ve got a list of things that might flip me into the Tesla column. Can I drive it from Houston to visit my parents in Dallas? Tesla announced a charging station somewhere half-way up I-45 to open “this summer,” making that drive entirely feasible. How about a “valet” mode to keep hot-rod parking attendants from abusing our expensive car? Tesla had it in the Roadster, but not yet the Model S. What about parking in tight spaces? Tesla has a basic backup camera, but no parking distance radar, fancy 360-degree cameras, or even an electronic overlay on the backup camera to put its fisheye view into a more usable perspective. How about a ground sensor or even a “GPS fence” trigger so the air suspension will automatically lift the car up when it gets near our steep driveway? Today you’ve got to push buttons on the screen, while I would prefer it to happen automatically, since if you forget once, you trash the car’s pretty schnoz. Of course, Tesla has been adding features as software upgrades, so at least some of this could well happen later, but Tesla naturally won’t guarantee anything.
Regardless, Tesla has built a truly great car. For the price-insensitive buyer, particularly somebody who wants the extra zoom-zoom of the Model S Performance ($109,220 loaded, after tax credit) without the V8 mileage penalty that comes with a car like the Audi S7 ($94,925 loaded), and with the Model S Performance blowing the Audi S7 out of the water, at least on paper, the Tesla is going to win the sale. For somebody trying to make a rational purchase of a luxury car (which is, if you really try to think about it, a pretty irrational thing to do), the real action will happen in a few years, both when Tesla releases their allegedly $40,000 “Blue Star” model, and as well as when current Model S cars start showing up on the used market.
Speaking of the used market, what about those beautiful Maserati Quattroportes? If you poke around on eBay and look at completed auctions, the handful that actually find buyers, you can see a car that once cost well north of $100,000 is now selling used with low mileage for a third or less of its original selling price. A new Quattroporte likewise commands a significant price premium over “comparable” German luxury performance cars, just like the Tesla Model S. I don’t know how many people there are out there willing to pay a premium for a fashionable luxury performance touring car, but it would appear that the Tesla is conquering this market quite effectively, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area. This also suggests, however, that when the new hotness comes along, Tesla could be out of fashion just as quickly as it came in.