You can’t coach patience – or tolerance for a bucket seat full of inane questions. And if you’re going to be a Tesla Model S “co-pilot” – the all-electric carmaker’s clever name for the salesperson escorting interested prospects on a 20-30 minute test drive – you need a great deal of both.
That’s one of the first impressions I gleaned being introduced to what some are calling “the best car ever built” – a bold claim for a startup in a highly competitive industry.
As a long-time motorized vehicle enthusiast, I’m a little late to the EV party because until now I’ve been just as happy to travel on my BMW motorcycle, in my M3 convertible, have access to other suitable rides besides. And, living in Santa Monica, California, I can walk to nearly anywhere I might want to go, so what’s more “environmentally sustainable” than that?
But here in what is certainly a hub for EVs, I couldn’t help noticing Tesla’s sleek electric sedans, and intrigued by the technology, deciding to drive one and see what this is all about.
Car Shopping Redefined
From the moment you approach the Tesla showroom you feel inundated with the fruits of clever minds seeking to reinvent the experience of buying or leasing a car.
For example, since it takes no motor oil, and the only owner-servicable fluid that goes into a Model S is for washing the windshield, both the showrooms and the service centers emphasize the car’s inherent cleanliness by featuring light-colored floors. The showrooms also sport half a dozen or more large, high-definition video displays showing nearly everything of interest about the car, including its various trim and functional options.
I’ve bought many conventional cars from traditional dealerships on both coasts, and interacting with Tesla is very different. The “product specialists” and “owner advisors” at Tesla seemed primarily interested in helping me learn the car’s basic operations, and then turning me loose on the streets at the controls of an extremely powerful and relatively expensive luxury sedan – in this case, just around $120,000.
This heavy emphasis on new thinking is equally true from the simple – the car’s key fob echoes the Model S shape – to the profound: a “Happiness Guarantee” for those who lease instead of buy, and a “built to order” process for owners willing to wait 30-90 days for their new Model S.
You want “out of the box” thinking: How about free fuel for life?
Instead of fossil fuel, the Model S car runs solely on electricity, which enters via Tesla’s proprietary connection. There’s a 20 foot charging cord for the car that terminates in either a 120 or 240 volt plug (they’re easily swapped). And to make the car more widely compatible there’s also an adaptor that fits the car’s charging port and accepts the popular plugs available at most generic EV charging stations.
Company spokespeople say it costs about $10 or $15 to give the car a full charge when plugged into a metered outlet, like the one owners are encouraged to install at home.
But Tesla is also building a network of charging stations (called “Superchargers”), that will deliver power to the Tesla S for free: half a charge in about 20 minutes, a full charge in about 40 minutes. The Superchargers are located fewer miles apart than the car’s full-charge range, and co-located with coffee shops and restaurants, making long car trips (at least along popular routes) possible in a Tesla.
Nearly every element of the Tesla experience reflects a level of deep thinking not only by engineers, but by marketers.
On my test drive, answers to even the simplest questions were carefully crafted to reflect the new car company’s high-tech, people-oriented zeitgeist. For example, it’s wrong to say the nifty exterior door handles “mechanically extend” when the driver approaches the car and then retract to sit flush with the car’s body when it’s in motion. No. They “present themselves” – a far more top-hat terminology.
And when asked whether the car’s “smart air” suspension can be adjusted by the driver at will from soft to firm, test drive “escorts” don’t offer a straightforward “no.” Instead, they provide a spiel about how the car adjusts its own suspension to suit the road conditions and the driver’s style.
In my experience with other cars, that probably means if you put your foot into it, the car’s suspension firms up for better cornering. But Tesla’s escorts don’t have that simple language in their lexicon.
There’s also an underlying Disneyland-esque sense that Tesla is already providing the optimum experience, so any more choices would be superfluous.
The Tesla’s “Good Grips-style” steering wheel, for example, can be adjusted to require easy, medium, or firm effort from the driver. So isn’t it reasonable to expect the adjustable suspension to be under the same sort of driver control, as well? To make it so would probably require only a software tweak. But the Tesla’s operating system is not open source, which means only the company’s engineers can decide where human control ends and automatic systems begin to call the tune.
As with any product this good, sales people need only answer questions and wait for prospects to make the “buy” decision on their own schedule. They use a friendly, collaborative style focused on guiding you through the menu of options and helping you understand what you’re getting with each one. In another major departure from classic auto sales practices, no-haggle prices are clearly posted.
One reason there’s no need for high pressure sales tactics is most people who come to see the Model S are intensely curious, and most who ask for a test drive are already actively imagining themselves as owners or lessees. But Tesla’s low-key reinvention of what can be a stressful process is devoid even of low pressure tactics, or so it appears. During the more-than one hour I spent with the car, no one asked me anything about my ability to pay for a Model S, which starts at around $70,000 and can zoom to $140,000 almost as quickly as it can go from zero to sixty mph.
What visitors encounter at Tesla is a friendly and knowledgeable staff, a clean and modern facility, and an up-to-the-minute, ostensibly transparent (for the most part) approach to sharing information. This is all done with self assurance by Tesla as it has one sleek and sporty sedan with great fit and finish; it drives very comfortably and accelerates in a straight line like a Ferrari – even without Tesla’s higher-performance models, including the blisteringly fast all-wheel drive P85D.
The company is likely to move toward an even friendlier and more welcoming stance in the months and years to come, as its early formality – Tesla initially required $5,000 deposits prior to test driving – continues to soften.
How else to attract a broader group of buyers than green car ideologues and technological early-adapters who have already acquired their Tesla Model S?
That we will see a more accommodating stance seems likely. To date Tesla has already done much to remove perceptive barriers to EVs’ acceptance in its stated global mission to change transportation ASAP, starting with how you buy one of its cars.
The automaker’s approach to tearing down an auto buying and fueling system many dislike is to offer its vision of a better one, all charged up and ready to go.