Tesla Model S | PH Used Buying Guide

Tesla Model S | PH Used Buying Guide

07/12/2021

The success of the Tesla Model S was a rude awakening for legacy carmakers. Here's how to buy a used one…

By Tony Middlehurst / Sunday, July 11, 2021 / Loading comments

Key considerations

  • Available for £29,000
  • Pure electric, two- or all-wheel drive
  • Ridiculously fast and actually nice to drive
  • Reliability and quality control problems on early cars
  • Tesla approach to ownership might grate
  • Choose your car carefully

Search for a Tesla Model S here

OVERVIEW

The future, so we are told, is electric. According to Tesla boss, rocket czar and let’s not forget Paypal creator Elon Musk, it’s going to be a right rosy electric future too. He has said that his cars are designed to last a lifetime. He may even have used the phrase ‘100 years’ in that context, which would be amazing if it turns out to be true.

Most of us won’t be around to check whether it will or not but it’s certainly true that the electric car has a better potential for longevity than your average internal combustion engined one. There are a lot fewer moving parts, and it’s the grinding together of fast-moving metal parts that causes life-limiting wear in IC engines.

But as an informed PHer you know all that. The thing about electric cars that interests anyone who enjoys the feeling of their eyeballs being pressed back into their head is the performance, and there’s no shortage of that in the Model S, the subject of this week’s buying guide.

Designed by an ex-employee of North American Mazda (who took some of his inspiration from the Mercedes CLS) and put together in California, the S was purpose-built as a pure EV. It was launched in 2012 but the first cars didn’t arrive on the UK market until 2014. Its novel combination of features – the comfort and refinement of a five-seat executive saloon with cutting-edge driving technology and infotainment and utterly bonkers acceleration – made it a sales hit in many countries. Indeed, propelled by Tesla’s equally high-voltage PR machine, the Model S became the world’s top-selling plug-in 2015 and 2016. Since 2018 that title has been held by the smaller Tesla Model 3.

Tesla model naming is a bit confusing at first sight but to start with at least the number in the name referred to the nominal battery capacity in kilowatt-hours, a D in the name meant it had two motors (one on each axle) for all-wheel drive, and P meant performance. In reality even the lowliest Model S was a performance vehicle as none of them had less than 362hp and 325lb ft, which was enough for a 0-62mph time in the mid or even low fives. It was just that P cars had Performance with a capital P. Model S buyers could choose from four battery options, 60kWh, 75kWh, 85kWh (later supplanted by a 90kWh pack with 415hp/443lb ft/346-mile range), or a 100kWh. For comparison, the Renault Zoe used 22kWh packs.

Tesla was dealing in serious power. The dual-motor all-wheel drive P85D version offered no major difference in performance relative to the 2WD P85, because that was a quick car already, but the top speed did increase by 10 percent or so to a new figure of 155mph and in Insane/Ludicrous mode the 0 to 60 time dropped to 3.2 seconds or even less if the conditions were right. The P100D gave 381 miles on a charge but more excitingly with 603hp and 713lb ft it dispensed with the 0-60 in just 2.5 seconds.

The current Model S Plaid is rated at over 1000hp and will hit 155mph at the end of a quarter-mile drag strip, which is cranking on a bit. On the way to its ultimate top speed of 200mph it will have covered the 0-60mph in a PR-optimal 1.99sec, while offering a potential battery range of 390 miles.

The 1100hp S Plaid+ that was due to come out next was claimed to be bringing the world’s best production car 0-60 acceleration time but it has just been dropped from the range on the grounds of it being unnecessarily good. Price-wise, that car would have been well into the six-figure bracket but the good news in that you can get used versions of the Model S for as little as £29,000. We’ll base our musings here on the P85D, but as mentioned there are plenty of variations on the Model S theme.

SPECIFICATION | TESLA MODEL S (P85D, 2012-21)

Engine: AC induction electric motor(s)
Transmission: Single-speed, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 463
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],750-4,500rpm
0-62mph (secs): 3.2
Top speed (mph): 155
Weight (kg): 2,239
Range (miles): 300
CO2 (g/km): 0
Wheels (in): 19
Tyres: 245/45 (f), 275/40 (r)
On sale: 2014 – 2021
Price new: £89,000
Price now: from £29,000

Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.


ENGINE & GEARBOX

Even a 2-tonne-plus electric car like the Model S is going to be quick because, unlike even the most generously boosted internal combustion engine, all of the torque from an electric drivetrain is available all of the time, with no time-wasting shift delays in the stepless single-ratio transmission.

The P85D Model S’s acceleration was appropriately electrifying, especially when the throttle was floored at the ‘perfect storm’ speed of 40mph where both power and torque were at their highest, but you couldn’t wazz around at warp speed for more than a few miles before the drivetrain would go into safety mode to protect itself from overheating. Up to 250 miles was a realistic P85 range on the motorway, or 300 on a gentler, slightly slower A-roads drive.

The lithium-ion battery pack consisting of thousands of individual cells was covered by Tesla’s warranty for eight years, or 150,000 miles on the S, compared to 100,000 on the ‘standard’ Model 3. That 8yr/100k cover was broadly in line with other manufacturers’ guarantees for their EV batteries. The pack was easily replaceable in under two minutes by a special jig. Paying for it outside of warranty wasn’t quite as painless, however, as they were cobalt based cells and cobalt is not cheap. Complete replacement packs were about £10,000 a go. At the end of 2020 Tesla said that they were switching to a new, cheaper and higher range nickel/manganese battery design.

Tesla has also said that its pack should retain 70 percent of its capacity at the end of the 8-year warranty period. Obviously that’s not going to be an exact figure. It very much depends on how you charge it. You could use a 7kWh home charger or, if you have to and you have the time, a normal plug socket. Regularly availing yourself of the Supercharger public network’s faster 125kW charging rates to achieve a boost from 10 percent to 80 percent in half an hour or so is both convenient and efficient but it wasn’t a good recipe for long-term battery health.

Superchargers are usually in good functional order, which is not always the case with other public chargers, and they’re generally available too because owners could be hit with an ‘idling’ charge if they left their Teslas hooked up beyond the point at which charging is complete, preventing other owners from hooking up. In terms of how common Superchargers are in the UK, Tesla passed the ‘500 installed’ mark in summer 2020 and the number continues to grow.

Data collection exercises indicated that the S lost about 5 per cent of its range after 50,000 and between 7 and 8 per cent after 150,000 miles. Keeping the battery below 80 per cent of its total capacity was a good tip for maximising battery life. Later models benefited from battery tech advances, so a newer 75 would have nearly the same capacity as an older 85. Some reports suggested that a few early S 90 cars suffered from a more rapid initial degradation and slowing Supercharging speeds. Other reports suggested that 85s from before mid-2016 were more susceptible to failure or even fire. In 2019 Tesla reduced the maximum charge level on 85s, reducing the potential range by between 15 and 30 percent, so it’s very important to check the range of any 85 you may be interested in.

The drive unit of most pre-2015 Model Ss had to be replaced by Tesla because of insufficiently lubricated bearings, so on test drives of any early cars you may be looking at make sure you turn everything off (apart from the motor of course) so that you can hear any grinding noises. Tesla redesigned the unit which should have sorted that issue out.

Any ‘low coolant fluid’ warning needs to be addressed asap. Although it could be as innocuous as a little air in the system it could also be flagging up a failed coolant pump. Have a look underneath for any puddles. The non-battery part of the S’s warranty covered it for 4 years/50,000 miles. That could be extended by the same period again.

CHASSIS

Batteries weigh a lot, but in the Model S a good deal of that weight was below the floor, the best place for it from a driving point of view. The Tesla duly confirmed the laws of physics by delivering handling at a level above what you might expect from such a hefty thing. For ideal accelerative traction on AWD models the weight was distributed 32/68 front to rear.

Without the optional Performance Plus Pack chassis enhancements which stiffened up the anti-roll bars and dampers and widened the rear tyres the Model S rode softly on its suspension, air being a £2,100 option prior to 2017 when it became standard. It became adaptive in 2019. That softness on non-air non-PPP cars limited driving engagement, but the jury was out on whether the PPP mods really improved matters. The adaptive setup was the best. You could find out whether a car had it by looking in the menu for Comfort, Auto and Sport settings. Look out for suspiciously low-looking cars as the air systems were known to leak and/or fail, an expensive problem to fix.

Still on the suspension, some of the front links weren’t up to spec on 2015-17 cars, but suspension complaints haven’t been restricted to these specific years. Dampers on any Ss could spring a leak, resulting in under-damping over bumps, and that could give rise to a variety of handling issues.

Of the three steering settings, Comfort was the best. Vibration through the wheel suggested poor alignment or busted ball joints. Knocking through the wheels could be a rack or bush issue. Pre-2016 cars were recalled for faulty aluminium securing bolts on the power steering motor. If the steering is heavy or there’s a warning on the dash it’s likely that the car has missed the recall.

The absence of mechanical noise predictably put more focus on road noise, Standard wheels were 19-inchers but 21-inch Turbine alloys were commonly fitted – a £3,800 option. These big rims are more susceptible to fracturing on hitting potholes, but that’s not a Tesla-exclusive trait. Model S wheels generally went out of alignment quite easily, causing uneven tyre wear.

Much of the braking on EVs like the Model S is done through regeneration so the conventional braking components don’t get much use. That’s not necessarily a good thing as corrosion through underuse can become a problem instead. Discs get warped or pitted, calipers seize up, parking brake motors die (there was a recall on that for 2016 cars) and air can get in the brake lines, so be aware of the pedal feel over time and of any juddering under high-speed braking. The brake booster pump made a small noise on startup. That was normal. If it was a big noise it could mean that the pump was on the way out.

BODYWORK

The company’s claimed (and independently verified) drag coefficient of 0.24 for the S was the lowest of any production car at the time, and may still be for all we know. In 2016, when the Model 3 was unveiled, the S was revised with a new front end to align it more closely with the styling of the Model X SUV. It also received a new ‘Bioweapon Defence Mode’ (hmm) air filtration system.

As noted earlier the Model S was no lightweight at over 2.2 tonnes, and that was with a body that was mainly made of aluminium, with some steel used to strengthen the monocoque. Aluminium, as we all know, isn’t supposed to corrode, but galvanic corrosion can happen when you put it next to another type of metal.

You can’t always tell from paint overspray if there has been an accident requiring bodywork repairs on a Model S because some of them came out of the factory with paint overspray. Look for even panel gaps instead, and for the correct operation of door, boot and bonnet panels. The bonnet is especially sensitive to even light taps, making it look unlocked when it isn’t. Water invading the boot was a problem for a number of owners too. You need to get under the car to look not just for breaks in any of the suspension components but also for any damage to the battery case. Significant scrapes or dents can compromise the whole unit.

Bumpers on early cars could bulge and paint could peel. The glide-out doorhandles were cool but the mech driving that action wasn’t guaranteed to work, and/or the handle might not open the door in the usual manner. Panoramic roofs leaked, especially on early cars. The roof opening and closing mechanism could fail too. The auto wipers might come on when it wasn’t raining, and not come on when it was.

Condensation in the rear lights was quite common and the auto light dipping feature could play up. Check that all the LEDs front and rear are working. New lights were expensive from the factory but used spares from broken Teslas eventually became more available on tinternet.

INTERIOR

Better materials were on show in premium European fare but the Tesla’s cabin was decent enough if you didn’t scrutinise it too closely. The seats were a bit flat – there was actually a 7-seat version of the Model S but they’re few and far between – and the leather on them was inclined to rouche up over time. Faulty seatbelt pre-tensioners on cars built between early 2014 and late 2015 generated a recall. There were two recalls for faulty airbags.

You didn’t get a vast amount of head room in a Model S (blame the batteries under the floor) but in other dimensions there was a good feeling of space and overall you had an almost other-worldly sensation of modernity, led of course by that huge 17-inch tablet which controlled and monitored just about everything in the car. Some might have thought it added unnecessary electronic complication to some functions that didn’t need it, for example the charging port door release, but it was wonderful to look at and nice to have effectively two sat nav systems, the main one on the instrument panel and another one on the big screen if there was good 4G available.

The screen relied on an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 8GB flash memory. Owners experienced many of the familiar symptoms of gradual performance degradation that affected everyday laptops – more screen resets required, longer powering-up times, lagginess, inconsistent connectivity and the like – caused by the constant overwriting of the embedded Multi-Media-Card memory in the first Media Control Unit (MCU1).

You could pay Tesla to upgrade the MCU1 to an MCU2 and thereby hopefully avert any problems that might affect audio, nav, climate and other comfort features, though not (according to America’s NHTSA) on the Auto Pilot (or the later Full Self-Driving) vehicle control systems which gave some Model S cars autonomy to steer inside a lane, swap lanes entirely, keep pace with traffic, be remotely controlled at low speeds by a smartphone (the ‘summon’ feature), and sniff out parking spots into which the car would then parallel park itself.

Auto Pilot didn’t work on pre-late 2014 Model S cars because the brake actuator wasn’t electonically operated until that point. For FSD you needed Auto Pilot 2.0 (or Enhanced Auto Pilot/EAP) which was available on late-2016 and on cars. These were identified by new wing indicators housing cameras. Sound quality through the digital audio system was decent and better still with the available upgrade, signified by the presence of a subwoofer on the right hand side of the boot.

In 2020 Tesla halved the warranty on its MCUs from 4yrs/50k miles to 2yrs/25k miles. In the same year they offered infotainment upgrades to S owners to bring their systems up to Model 3 levels. In the US, the cost of that upgrade was $2,500 plus whatever taxes were applicable in your state. If you simply broke the screen by whatever means, you’d be looking at around $1,500 for replacement hardware. Tesla didn’t offer separate glass for the screens. Tested and functional display units have however been seen on online auction sites for under £200.

Not having an engine meant that luggage could go at both ends of the car. The Model S’s 1,750 litres of cargo space would be a good score for a big SUV let alone for a saloon.

PH VERDICT

Teslas generally make the headlines for their silly performance. The internet is bursting with videos of unsuspecting old ladies being frightened half to death by the Disney-esque acceleration.

Behind all the Insanity and Ludicrosity however the Model S is a classy and refined saloon that will carry you, your family and about three families’ worth of luggage 250 miles at a time from one motorway meal to another. You’ll enjoy a refreshing half hour rest while the ‘tank’ refills itself for a tenner or so, or nothing if the used Tesla you buy has unlimited supercharging built in. That was offered for the life of the car until April 2017, when Tesla set limits on the amount of free charging thrown in. In mid 2019 Tesla said that it would be discontinuing the free charging benefit on used cars resold within the network, but it should still be available on cars that haven’t been gathered in by the company at some point.

It’s a pity that the early cars in particular suffered from so many problems. To some extent it’s understandable as Tesla didn’t have the advantage of decades’ worth of development and consolidation enjoyed by the big conventional auto firms. 2016-on cars are worth paying extra for not only because they came with improved Auto Pilot software but also because build quality and reliability went up from then. Some owners might say that the car they’re selling has Ludicrous mode. You’ll want to check that via a demonstration because not everybody tells the truth about that, and also because it’s a proper hoot if it turns out to be true.

The cheapest Model Ss are the ones with the highest mileages as buyers will be wondering about how much life is left in the battery pack. Cars with bigger battery packs attract higher prices for their additional performance and range.

Paper was obviously far too old school to be associated with such a progressive company so no service history books were provided with Teslas. Trying to get Tesla to give you the electronic data that they hold on every car might not be easy either so you will have to hope that the previous owner of a car you are interested in buying kept receipts of some kind for you to look at.

Apart from some creasing to the rear seat this £28,950 P85 wears its 125,000 miles well. The MOT history shows nothing untoward beyond consumable wear and so far at least it comes with free Supercharging for life. For more power and less than half the miles you could get into this smart black 518hp dual-motor 85D for £35k. While just under £42k buys this full-fat 691hp dual-motor P85D with 55,000 miles. P100Ds with Ludicrous mode start at around £65k, again depending on mileage.


Search for a Tesla Model S here

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