Real Or Imagined: Is The Tesla Model S Drivetrain Defective?


Tesla Model S-Driven Like No Other Car?

Recently, Edmunds sold their long-term Model S; but before they did so the car had four (yes, four) drivetrains replaced by Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) .  Motor Trend's long term car is working on its 2nd.

These high profile incidents do not make us ask the question "is drivetrain failure a common occurance in the Model S?"

Because it  is.

Tesla Model S Drivetrain

If you check out the latest numbers on a Tesla Motors Club poll, you will find that 75 (supposed) Model S owners have reported at least 1 drive unit replaced - 12 of which have had it replaced more than once.  (Fair disclaimer: There is always a couple jokers messing with the results of an uncontrolled poll like this. As a point of reference, TMC likely has somewhere around 5% of Model S owners as members)

To their credit, Tesla service has been doing a yeoman's job taking car of its clients.  Despite the many failure occurrences we have yet to hear of Tesla giving a Model S owner a difficult time in solving the problem (ie-replacing the drive unit entirely).

The problem for customers will arise however when Tesla's 4 year/50,000 mile warranty on the unit expires; that is when repairs reportedly greater than $10,000 a pop really start to hurt.

To ease the burden of that oncoming deadline, many owners have opted for the extended warranty – a great luxury to have; that is if you own your car in a location where the car is on sale and the warranty is available.

But is the Drivetrain defective?

We often get emails asking us to "look into the situation", or to try and get a firm price from Tesla on what a particular service operation will cost outside of the warranty period.

Even more common, "Is Tesla working on a fix?"

To date the main inference has been that the unit is defective.   And why not?  The failure rate is already well above the norm for a normal car.  Therein lies the problem...it may not be defective, it may just be well used.


Are Many Days A "Track Day" For Tesla Model S Sedans?

Now before anyone gets too excited and tells a story of an owner somewhere that had a failure through no fault of his/her own after a 1,000 miles ... yes that drive unit could be defective, we are not advocating that all failures are the owner's fault.  Sometimes things just break.  Heck, they could all be defective; but we seriously doubt it.

Electric cars are known for their instantaneous torque and silent performance.  They are known for making anyone with a driver's license into "Johnny Professional" when it comes peeling away off the line, or passing other cars on the road.  And as EV drivers, we like to feel that silent performance  underfoot ... a lot.  You find me a Tesla Model S that he/she doesn't, and I will find you a liar.  It could be that desire of the common man that is ultimately causing the bulk of drive unit failures.

Drawing from a personal example, I have tested many a car in my day; but the closest thing I ever got to owning a true petrol sports car of my own was a BMW Z4 M back around 2008.  I can recall truly pinning that car on just two occasions-to see "what she could do". 

It was great fun!

Naturally, I first found myself a nice quiet, out of the way piece of open road where few people lived, and then let it rip!  There was spinning tires, a growling engine – the whole nine yards of unbridled driving..  And then I was done; as this was my car I didn't fancy blowing her up and doing serious damage.

The Tesla Model S Has Performance Specs Roughly Akin To An Audi R8

Now, when I bought my first electric car a few years ago, you know what I did the moment I was out of eye-shot from the dealership?  The exact same thing.  I put my foot to the floor and experienced the quiet awesomeness of all-electric acceleration.

Only this time, there wasn't the spectacle of an internal combustion engine making all persons within a half-mile wonder "what adolescent borrowed daddy's car and is now making a scene?"   I knew I didn't need any special occasion or location to do so.

And what of that little voice inside me that once told me to "not blow-up" my BMW z4?  She was no where to be found - because the markers I had long associated with a car being pushed to its limits weren't registering in my mind.

I probably pushed my new EV to the limit a half dozen times before it hit the family driveway for the first time.

And the first thing I did when I got home?  Took the wife for a spin to show here what it could do.  Then my friends.  Then later, complete strangers; something I never would have done in my Z4.  In total, my foot has hit the floor hundreds of times, maybe thousands of times in my plug-in vehicles.  I love it...it's a cool sensation.  It is part of what owning an EV is all about.  That and hypermiling as far as one can past the stated range – it's a dichotomy to be sure!

The Tesla Model S has roughly the same performance of a new Audi R8 V10 Coupe – a classic "supercar" -  400lb-ft+ of torque, and a 0-60mph time slip of about 4 seconds...except of course that the Model S can seat up to 7 and weighs a 1,000 lbs+ more.

Now if I were to say, "I just don't know why my Audi blew up, I only drove the hell out of it a couple hundred times," I think people would be less inclined to call any shop time for that car a result of a defect, or to say that Audi had a situation on their hands; they would call it an expected outcome.

Many times you hear statements from those owners affected by a Tesla drive unit failure like "I really didn't push it that hard at all and it happened to me too!"

Although in most cases their statement is quite likely misguided, I do believe they are being honest...because they aren't hearing the screaming of a 10 cylinder engine, or getting the condescending looks that would normally be associated with what they are asking of their Tesla Model S sedan.

For some others, especially those more familiar with the rigors of maintaining a ultra-high performance automobile, I think they can appreciate the true sturdiness of the car as compared to its peers, and also accept the costly consequences over time for the thrill of the drive.

Or then again, maybe it's just defective.  Maybe there is a way to have a supercar have the longevity and reliability of a Honda Civic. 

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Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 26, 2014, at 5:25 PM, DWW12 wrote:

    I have a 96 M3 and a Volt. By the numbers the M3 is much faster, but if I was timing my stop light to speed limit times I think the Volt would average higher. You have to work it in an ICE and if you have a passenger the shifts can be rough if you are accelerating fast. An electric just goes.

  • Report this Comment On July 26, 2014, at 6:58 PM, JIMMYLIMO wrote:

    When the gear heads at Edmunds finally let there Tesla S go, someone should have asked them all... "How many times did you go for the 4 second 0-60 run ?". You just KNOW that each and every one of them wound the motor out EVERY time they got behind the wheel ! Hell, it wasn't THEIR car ! There's no car made that can withstand constant drag race acceleration on a daily basis and not need repairs... I'm sure if the Tesla S is driven REASONABLY with occasional leadfoot, it will have a better than normal lifespan. Hell, there's only 7 moving parts ! Long live Tesla !

  • Report this Comment On July 26, 2014, at 7:40 PM, RHO1953 wrote:

    It is defective by definition. If your gas powered car was breaking the drivetrain on hard acceleration there would be no equivocation on that. They are making excuses for shoddy cars.

  • Report this Comment On July 26, 2014, at 7:50 PM, AjitC wrote:

    I own a P85 for a year and do not have drive train problems. I am aware that I should not hit the drive train, especially gear box with sudden hi torque. The shearing stress even on the best designed gears is tremendous and can lead to failure, Bearing have limits too. Do that to any ICE auto and will strip the gears and tear the clutch or automatic transmission, after a few times.

    More than likely, Tesla may have engineered stronger gears, bearings, shafts, etc. Not easy to do, but they have worked with Borg Warner. Had the same problems with the Roadster initially, but go fixed. Tesla along with SpaceX got excellent engineers who can fix these kinds of mechanical problems,

  • Report this Comment On July 27, 2014, at 3:11 AM, btc909 wrote:

    I suspect AWD will be standard on future model year Model S & the X will be AWD. The S went on sale in June 2012, unless you bought one of the first ones & rack up 50K miles in 4 years I would suspect any problems would be resolved under warranty by June 2016.

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