What to Know Before Buying a Tesla: 5 Considerations
There are many pros for buyers considering an EV from the pioneering automaker—and a few cons.
The electric-car maker Tesla is a rare and remarkable success story, one of the very few auto startups created from scratch that has not only survived but thrived. The last time that happened was when Walter P. Chrysler started his company in 1924.
Roughly half the battery-electric vehicles on U.S. roads today are Teslas. Its owners are often passionate about the cars and the company, and many use their electric vehicles as their primary or only transport and drive them all over the country.
So Tesla has to be the leading contender for anyone considering the the purchase of an electric car. But Tesla has some specific aspects that battery-electric vehicles from established makers don’t. They’re worth keeping in mind if you visit a Tesla Store—or ask that friend, relative, or coworker what they think of their Tesla. Here’s what to know before buying a Tesla.
1. Test Drives and Service May Be a Challenge
Tesla stores aren’t conventional dealerships on huge suburban properties; they’re more like showrooms and often found in high-end malls. Additionally, Tesla doesn’t have the geographical coverage of huge brands like Toyota or Chevrolet, so your nearest store could be several hundred miles away.
This lack of accessibility also applies to the company’s Service Centers. They’re rarely in the same place as the showrooms, so you’ll take your Tesla somewhere entirely different for maintenance and repairs. One other thing to know on that front: You won’t talk to an actual human to make an appointment to visit the Service Center—it’s all done through the Tesla app on your phone.
2. Delivery in some states is complicated
Auto-dealer lobbyists have been successful in getting state franchise laws altered over the years, so an independent, third-party dealership is the sole legal way to buy a new car. This has led to legal battles in many states because Tesla owns its stores and service centers outright, which conflicts with franchise laws in many states.
You don’t buy the car at a Tesla store, but online via the company’s website. In most states, Tesla then delivers the car to you or a nearby Service Center. But not always. In Texas, for instance, where Tesla is about to start assembling its Model Y in a new billion-dollar plant, it
3. Most of a Tesla’s Controls Are in a Touchscreen
The newer your current car, the more familiar you’re likely to be with controlling some of your car’s functions via the central touchscreen. In most cars, these are usually things like the audio system or mapping—not mission-critical controls.
It may seem obvious, but one of the critical things to know before buying a Tesla is that Teslas are different. Their two most popular vehicles, the Model 3 sedan and Model Y crossover, have neither a traditional instrument cluster behind the steering wheel nor buttons and switches for the usual controls like door mirrors, lights, and wipers. This isn’t that big a deal; you can save personalized settings for different drivers, so the car will know how you like your mirrors set. And in this writer’s experience, Tesla’s automatic headlights work fairly well.
Some Tesla owners love that pretty much everything the car does is controlled through the center touchscreen or a combination of the touchscreen plus the two sets of scroll wheels built into the steering wheel.
Unfortunately, owners report the “rain-sensing” wipers don’t always sense rain. Or light mist, or even a large splash of slushy mess thrown up by a truck. And using the wipers requires multiple actions on the touchscreen: Tap to get a specific control screen, tap the wiper icon, then tell it what to do—even including the “flick wipe” that in most cars is a single pull on the wiper stalk.
As with any new vehicle, it’s wise for any prospective Tesla buyer to experience these quirks first-hand to decide how comfortable they are with it.
4. Software Updates Are Great—But Not Always
One of Tesla’s main innovations has been over-the-air updates to the car’s operating software. This allows everything from minor bug fixes to navigation updates and even adds new capabilities the vehicle didn’t come with when it was delivered brand-new. Owners mostly love this and quickly grow accustomed to accepting the car’s requests to download and install new software—just like a computer or mobile phone.
However, the occasional downside is that those updates may change the user interface. Owners may find controls on the central touchscreen have been relocated or grouped differently, so they have to learn new tap-and-swipe patterns to accomplish the same things they’ve been doing for months. One recent update to the wipers—a sore point for a number of Tesla owners—actually added an extra step to access certain functions.
Over-the-air updates are being adopted by all carmakers, slowly and carefully. Tesla’s updates are generally beneficial and let the company make safety updates much faster than makers who require owners to bring cars into dealers. Again, though, like personal electronics, the interface can change without warning.
5. The Tesla Supercharger Network Is a Huge Plus
One of Tesla’s most prescient acts was building its own nationwide Supercharger fast-charging network way back in late 2012. A decade later, it’s possible to drive a Tesla virtually anywhere in the Lower 48 without worrying about being stuck at a slow charging site.
Better yet, owners quickly come to relish entering a destination into the car’s navigation and having the car route itself via Supercharger sites and specify precisely how long to stay plugged in to get to the following charging site. It’s a model for the rest of the industry, but one that no other carmaker has yet matched. Any non-Tesla EV driver faces a mix of competing fast-charging networks with different charging speeds, user interfaces, payment and membership requirements, and other hassles.
As of early 2022, the Tesla Supercharger network remains by far the best way to travel long distances in an EV. And it’s been the deciding factor in buying a Tesla for more than one owner, simply because it makes long-distance EV travel simple, fast, and frictionless.