Tesla makes fast, attractive, technology-packed electric vehicles. Buying one used is a bit different than your average vehicle, due to offering zero gas or hybrid vehicles, and the lack of dealer network. Here’s a complete picture of Tesla, the good and bad of owning a car from the most popular EV company in history.
Tesla is a brand often seen as expensive, similar to competitive luxury brands such as BMW and Lexus. The heroic acceleration and complete lack of need for fossil fuels makes for a unique position in the automotive market, adding the odd mix of drag racing enthusiasts and the eco-warrior green crowd. With most vehicles priced above the 2019 average U.S. transaction price of $37,185, there’s also an air of exclusivity.
$35,000 to $62,000 – Model 3
The Model 3 is the entry level Tesla, but the often quoted affordable model is a bit difficult to find due to being sold exclusively through Tesla stores. This no-options model is not configurable online. At Tesla’s website, you can select a base rear-wheel drive Model 3 for $39,000. That includes a “partial premium interior” with 12-way power heated front seats, and four USB ports and two smartphone docks. This one uses a smaller battery pack limited to 240 miles.
Like Porsche, serious upgrades to a base Tesla will dramatically increase the price. Selecting Long Range adds an additional electric motor up front, making your Model 3 all-wheel drive. This one starts at $48,000, but increases the luxury options, with front and rear power/heated seats, 14 speaker sound system upgrade, and premium connectivity for cool features like traffic maps with real-time satellite updates of traffic flow. Like you’d expect from that name, the range increases to 310 miles.
For an additional $7,000 you can opt for a Performance badge. Performance adds sporty parts such as 20-inch forged wheels, performance brakes, lightweight carbon fiber body parts, a lowered ride height, and a raised top speed to 162 MPH.
$75,000 to $113,000 – Model S
If you consider size to be the differentiator of luxury vehicles, consider the full-size Model S. Tesla’s first sport sedan, the Model S made headlines and YouTube videos for its surprising acceleration. It’s attractive too, with good proportions and a wide and low athletic look. The inside set the standard for modern luxury cars, with a giant 17-inch infotainment screen dominating the dashboard.
Unlike the Model 3, even the most affordable Model S is a dual-motor, all-wheel drive model with adaptive suspension and premium interior. The Long Range starts at $80,000 and offers a 370-mile range. It’s not slow either, at 3.7 seconds to 60, which is impressive for a 4,800 lb car.
Performance trim pushes the power up, at the cost of some range. Zero to 60 falls to just 2.4 seconds, top speed increases to 163 MPH, and range is still a solid 345 miles. You also get a revised interior treatment, different wheels, and a carbon fiber spoiler. Model S Performance starts right at six figures, but it’s easily the quickest car in that price range.
$85,000 to $125,000 – Model X
SUVs and crossovers made up 48% of the vehicle market in 2018, so targeting this segment with an EV is common sense. The Model X is more on the luxury crossover side than a true SUV, but this high-end sub-segment still finds plenty of buyers. Starting with the $85,000 Long Range, you get the Model S bells-and-whistles like all-wheel drive and air suspension. You’ll also have a respectable 325-mile range, and can sprint to 60 in 4.4 seconds.
If you see a Performance badge, know that the vehicle originally cost 20% more than the Long Range. With a purchase price of $105,000, the Performance trim loses 20 miles of range in favor of a 0 to 60 time of 2.7 seconds. Selecting different interior colors or materials doesn’t affect the price, but red paint adds $2,000, as does two-tone wheels. Selecting larger 22-inch black wheels looks sinister, and adds $5,500. Five seat configuration is standard, but seating for seven is a $3,000 option. Full self-driving capability rounds out the option list. At $6,000, it’s not cheap, but offering the first Level 3 self-driving experience is probably something many buyers would go for.
For a real look at value, we need to include depreciation. Most EVs take huge hits to depreciation after just a couple of years, with bargain shoppers able to pick up off-lease Leafs for 70% off retail price. The Model 3 is a bit new yet, but the Model S and Model X fight off depreciation better than their luxury competition. With 50,000 miles on the odometer, a Model S sells for about 27% off retail, while a similarly priced Lexus LS460 takes a 35% price hit.
EVs have been around as long as the automobile, but good mainstream EVs are relatively new within the last decade or two. One reliable EV is the Nissan Leaf, which Consumer Reports ranked as one of the most reliable vehicles of the decade. But this isn’t about Nissan, this is about Tesla. The Model 3 was briefly on Consumer Reports’ recommended list in 2018, but was removed the next year due to owners reporting issues with the fit and finish of vehicle body, and minor issues with the suspension and door handles. Consumer Reports and JD Power now state above- and below-average reliability for Tesla, depending on the vehicle reviewed. This overall reliability ranking places Tesla with mainstream manufactures like Ram, Volvo, and Cadillac.
The Model 3 and Model X commonly see ride share duty, racking up hundreds of thousands of miles on the original battery. While Tesla struggled initially with door weather stripping in the Model X, the battery and drive motors have an eight-year, unlimited mile warranty, and Tesla seems to have overbuilt them. Suspension issues do pop up around 150,000 miles, but replacing bushings and sway bar end links isn’t atypical for most cars with that mileage.
Owners say battery maintenance best practices include not charging the battery to 100%, not discharging to near zero, and not fast charging using the supercharger network every time. By keeping the battery in the 20-90% range, and occasionally slow charging, you too can reach at least 400,000 miles.
Over a decade ago, Tesla laid out their “Secret Master Plan” in a blog. As of 2018, the initial plan is in place and working. Build an expensive electric sports car to embarrass Ferrari while being twice as efficient as a Prius. Then use that profit to fund a less expensive sport sedan, and use that profit to fund an affordable electric car most people actually want to buy. Tesla currently offers three vehicles, and another is somewhat common on the used market.
Roadster – The first Tesla car to roll off the assembly line in 2008, the Roadster was essentially a two-seat, hand-built, high-performance EV version of the Lotus Elise. With a high MSRP of over $110,000, the Roadster sold in low numbers, enough to be considered collectible today. Carfax reports that even the models over a decade old regularly change hands at over $50,000. Look to the 2010+ models for the Roadster 2.5 Sport, for increase performance, an updated interior, and superior sound proofing.
Model S  – The Model S is a large luxury sport sedan, sized in between the BMW 5 Series and 7 Series. Unlike the Roadster, the Model S seats up to seven, and has optional all-wheel-drive. Performance ranks from very good to incredible, with the base model Long Range able to hit 60 in just 3.7 seconds (equivalent to the new Chevrolet Corvette), and a 370-mile range. What’s “range anxiety”? Performance is a $20,000 option that drops 0 – 60 down to just 2.4 seconds, and adds sporty exterior bits. Either way there’s a class-leading 30 cu-ft of cargo space front and rear, and stellar safety scores.
Model X  – The SUV that every buyer seems to want right now, with a ridiculously cool bonus feature. Sized like a BMW X5, the Model X’s awesome upward-raising falcon doors aren’t just a gimmick, but make entry/exit much easier in tight parking spots. All-wheel drive is standard, and the adaptive air suspension soaks up bumps over rough roads and light off-road adventures. Long Range starts at $85,000 and Performance at $105,000, before options. LR gets you a nice 345-mile range, while Performance limits the range a bit in order to scoot to 60 in 2.7 seconds, faster than the much more expensive Lamborghini Urus. If you need to fit seven real-sized people in a luxurious leather and walnut interior, the Model X is your EV SUV.
Model 3  – The affordable mainstream model Tesla talked about for years is finally readily available. Available new as low as $35,000 from the Tesla store (currently not available online), the Model 3 proves that mainstream EVs can be quick, efficient, and attractive. Inside, you’ll immediately notice the minimalist interior, dominated by the HD 15-inch display. The design feels like it’s 20 years in the future, but the driving experience is entirely normal, just quick and quiet. The Standard model available at the store has a Chevy Bolt equivalent 240-mile range, while the base Long Range available online can hit 310 miles.
Model Y – The compact crossover class is hot right now, with buyers wanting attractive, easy to drive, efficient and spacious crossovers. That’s a long list of demands, but it looks like the Model Y will be a serious player in this class. With an estimated 300-mile range, the Model Y seats five and stores 60 cu-ft of cargo, the same as a Jeep Compass. Info is still forthcoming as of this writing, but it will have standard doors instead of falcon doors, 0 to 60 should be around 3.5 seconds, and there will likely be optional seating for seven. Release is expected late 2020.
EVs are well documented money savers and part of that is the decrease in maintenance costs. In addition to never buying gasoline for any Tesla vehicle, you’ll never need to stop by the quick lube shop for an oil change. Then there’s the complete lack of oil filter, engine air filter, spark plugs, and you can start to see how EV savings are more than just gas.
However, like any vehicle, EVs are not maintenance-free. Every vehicle on the road needs tire rotations, brake pads, windshield wipers & fluid, a cabin air filter, and occasionally new key fob batteries. Still, MarketWatch reported a Model S has a five-year maintenance cost of $2,800, while a similarly equipped Mercedes-Benz S-Class requires $18,000.
Slightly evening things out, the Model S needs some garage upgrades in order to quick charge at home. Tesla’s Wall Connector is $500 direct from them, and expect around $1,000 for professional installation. If you have the time to deal with slower 240V charging, outlets are $15 at your local hardware store, and professional installation is around $200.
One negative factor you will have to deal with is parts availability if you are involved in an accident. Tesla has been cranking out Model 3s to meet demand, so as of summer 2019, they haven’t made enough spare parts for the vehicles than need repairs. Another issue confounding owners is the lack of dealership service centers. Instead of a 15-minute drive, you might have only one or two Tesla-approved repair centers in your state. This can mean quite a drive/tow to the shop, and then a wait of six months to repair minor damage.
EVs are sometime inappropriately lauded as the savior of the planet, a pollution-free travel alternative to internal combustion. Detractors say they hurt the environment by charging on coal and label the batteries toxic or even dangerous. The actual environmental impact is harder to measure, but here are some quick facts.
With no tailpipe, EVs have no at-vehicle emissions. Zero emissions at the vehicle is important because this means the street level isn’t receiving the usual tailpipe mix of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and soot particles.
The pollution of energy production transfers to the local power plant, which could be anything from coal, natural gas, nuclear, or renewable power. A Tesla charged on solar or other renewable power source is truly emissions-free, but the U.S. energy grid is 27% coal. However, an EV charged on 100% coal is still “cleaner” than an average gas-powered sedan due to the efficiency of the single source, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report.
Due to the need for exotic materials used in battery construction, the environmental effects of constructing an EV are higher than internal combustion cars. However, due to zero emissions on the road, EVs make up for higher construction costs over the lifetime of the vehicle, becoming cleaner than internal combustion cars after as little as six months on the road.
If you buy a Tesla, there are a few features you should know about that aren’t found in other common vehicles. One surprising unintentional feature is the street presence. Tesla vehicles look different enough that pedestrians notice. One owner said his Model 3 received more head turns and quick phone pics than his Ferrari. Be prepared for anonymity to disappear.
A Chevrolet Camaro SS and Ford Mustang GT are quick cars, accelerating 0 to 60 in right around four seconds flat. The Performance versions of Tesla’s vehicles are all quicker accelerating, even the SUV, matching seriously expensive sports cars and even million dollar super cars. If you want breathtaking performance in your everyday vehicle, an EV delivers torque to the wheels the instant you touch the go pedal. It’s a difference you can definitely feel.
Quiet = Luxury
For decades, we’ve seen commercials touting a luxury brand’s quietness or lack of engine vibration. Luxury takes on a new meaning when a $35,000 EV is as quiet as a $500,000 Rolls-Royce. Tesla’s electric motors are almost silent and produce no vibration when operating, so the first time behind the wheel is an experience that feels like driving with the engine off, but with the vehicle still performing well. Suddenly you notice that your commute isn’t as much of a grind without the engine noise, and you enjoy listening to more detail and depth in your music as you drive.
Tesla “Easter Eggs”
Easter eggs (the alternative definition) are fun surprises hidden within movies and video games. With the ability to upgrade vehicle software through over-the-air updates, Tesla vehicles are continually becoming safer and more useful through these sometimes hidden Easter eggs. A popular recent update is Dog Mode, which keeps your pup cool while you are away from the vehicle. The updates also allow the developers to have some fun. You can turn the infotainment screen into a large and colorful sketchpad, or play Atari games (when parked). Romance Mode turns the 17-inch display into a crackling fireplace. Then the opposite of Romance Mode, there’s an option to replace some vehicle sounds, like the turn signal indicator, with a whoopee cushion noise. Seriously.
Tesla safety made mainstream news headlines a few years ago, when the Model S broke the NHTSA’s roof strength testing machine. The Model S earned “5 plus” stars, depending on how you read the NHTSA data.
In more recent testing, IIHS found the Models S headlights varied in output by the trim level, and on the most affordable models produced some glare for oncoming drivers and only “acceptable” visibility round corners. Straight on, side impact, and moderate overlap tests showed impressive structural rigidity, with Good scores across the board. They also found that you could stack five Model S vehicles on top of another, without damaging the roof on the bottom car.
The Model X was the first SUV to achieve five stars in every category from the NHTSA. With plenty of active safety features, it’s unlikely you will ever be involved in an accident, but it’s good to know this SUV is “impossible to roll over.”
The Model 3 received a five-star rating from NHTSA, and IIHS scored it “superior” for crash prevention systems. Headlights were a point of contention, with models built after summer 2018 receiving upgraded LED headlights scoring “good” while previous headlights earned “acceptable” light output.
What’s next?/Future products
With the initial secret plan pretty much complete, Tesla is working on the new plan of invading every profitable segment of the market. Up next is the compact crossover. Look out RAV4.
Model Y – The Model Y is a Model X-looking crossover SUV, but this time it’s shrunk down and based on the Model 3 chassis for lighter weight and greater efficiency. It is slightly bigger and heavier than the Model 3, so range takes a slight hit to 230/300 miles for Standard and Long Range trims. With a front trunk adding cargo space, expect class-leading cargo hauling ability in total silence. Model Y should be Tesla’s biggest seller yet.
Semi – Your average 18-wheel semi-truck manages to hit all of six to eight MPG on the highway. That’s not great, and many transportation companies would love a cheaper option. A battery operated truck could handle local deliveries all day, and charge overnight for significantly less than the cost of diesel fuel.
Pickup – What’s the number one vehicle segment in the U.S., in both sales and profits? If you said it’s the pickup, give yourself a lift kit. Tesla aims to enter the full-size pickup market sometime within the next two years with a truck that looks like it drove off the set of Blade Runner. Details are sparse at this time, but Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated in an interview that it would be able to out-work a Ford F-150 for payload and towing, and outperform a base Porsche 911. Wow.
Roadster 2.0 – Tesla wants to get back into the sports car game, with a game-changing sports car. The stats are truly impressive, with a massive 620-mile range, more than most gas/diesel vehicles on the road. With an estimated 1,000 horsepower equivalent from three electric motors, the Roadster could whiplash you to 60 in under two seconds, reaching a subsonic top speed of over 250 MPH. Those numbers aren’t typos, and will compete with the very top high-end super cars, for less than a quarter of super car money. Maybe EV stands for Exciting Vehicle?