Would You Buy A Tesla Model S?

Part of me really wants a Tesla Model S. I'm a bit of a car freak, and over the years have owned a string of BMWs, an Audi S4, and a vintage Porsche 911. These days I'm just a regular suburban dad, driving a Subaru Outback wagon. But a few months ago I was talking to Vivek Wadhwa, who was about to take delivery on a Tesla Model S, and he told me I should consider getting one, because sure, it's a little bit expensive, but not crazy expensive, and once you drive one you'll want one. I just laughed it off. But afterward, I started thinking.

The Model S is a gorgeous car, and frankly, at $50,000 for the base model it's really not that expensive, and most of my driving is close to home. We've been looking to replace my wife's old Subaru Legacy wagon, and she's really into this whole eco-friendly green stuff, and some of the SUVs we've been looking at aren't much cheaper than a Tesla, especially if you go for the hybrid version. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited starts at $46,370 and if you throw in some extras you can nudge it close to $50,000.

So, okay. I want a Model S. I drove Tesla's first model, the Roadster, and wasn't impressed. But the Model S is a different beast. I could put my kids in it. I could use it as a daily driver. It's practical (sort of) and beautiful and green. What's not to love?

Can You Deal With A Few Glitches?

Well, I fear that the Model S is still not ready for prime time. Those fears grew a bit when I read "Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway," the controversial story in the New York Times that has aroused so much anger among Tesla fans. The follow-up stories haven't made me feel any better.

The Times reporter tried to drive from Washington, D.C., to New York in a Model S, and claimed the car ran out of juice on the way and had to be towed in. Tesla CEO Elon Musk attacked Broder and called the article a "fake." Then Musk published a blog post in which he announced that - aha! - Tesla had been secretly gathering data about every aspect of the test drive, and that Tesla's data logs proved that the Times reporter had fudged his facts.

The Times reporter, John M. Broder, fired back with his own post saying that Musk's data didn't really prove anything at all. The public editor of the Times said she would ask Tesla to provide all of the data, not just a few cherry-picked points, but Tesla declined. The public editor concluded that Broder hadn't faked his results, but that he also hadn't exercised good judgment and had "left himself open to valid criticism."

Victory for Tesla, right? Well, not quite. For one thing, the public editor also points out that Musk used his data "in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible." The Atlantic Wire said much the same, arguing that "Musk is, for now, overyhyping his claim for a breach of journalism ethics." 

I'm kind of put off by the fact that Tesla can spy on drivers. I was also put off by the combativeness of Musk's blog post. Most important, as Mashable points out, the whole kerfuffle just draws more attention to some very real issues about the Model S.

The thing is, Broder's car really did run out of juice. Tesla fans argue that Broder should have been more careful, and if he'd only done this and that and then this and that plus this and that, well of course he could have made it all the way from Washington to New York. Even if you agree with those fans, you start to realize that owning a Model S is going to require some extra planning.

Only One In Nine Breaks Down - Awesome!

Then, over the weekend, in a show of solidarity, nine Tesla owners set out to take the same trip as the Times reporter. A reporter for AllThingsD ran into them on the way and spent time talking to them.

Here's the thing. Of the nine who started out, only four actually made the whole trip. Not because of technical problems, but because they just didn't want to make the whole trip.

But down low in the article comes the bothersome side note: "One driver's Tesla S stopped working at the Delaware charging station, due to what they believe was faulty circuitry. The owner called Tesla support, the group said, and a software update was pushed to his car remotely, allowing him to drive it to Milford."

If you're a Tesla fan, you'll say that it was no big deal, and that Tesla provided great customer service and got that software sent out right away.

If you're me, you think, Wait, there's a chance my car will stop working and I'll have to call and get a software update to get it running again?

Maybe you wonder what it says about Tesla when you send nine cars out to make a simple drive from Washington to New York and one of them breaks down on the way. One in nine does not seem like great odds. One in four (if you count only the cars that attempted the whole trip) seems even worse.

Tesla's Electric Halo

Can you imagine if nine owners of the BMW ActiveHybrid 5 sedan made the same trip, and one broke down and couldn't get going again until BMW beamed out a software update? Can you imagine this happening to any car, no matter how modest? I can't. Here's a list of the cheapest cars in the United States. Nine units of any of them could make this journey without incident or drama, I'd wager.

 For Tesla owners these glitches apparently are fairly normal. A writer for Autoweek had a problem with his Tesla when it refused to disconnect from its charger. Jalopnik says Model S owners are complaining about touch screens failing, doors and rear hatches opening on their own, door handles getting stuck shut, cars "powering down randomly" -- and that's with only a few hundred of them in the wild. Jalopnik calls the Model S "the world's most expensive beta test." 

That's a bit harsh. But the fact is, electric cars are not going to go mainstream unless and until they become as worry-free as gas-powered cars. For now Tesla enjoys a halo effect from a rabid fan base and a tech press inclined to give Tesla a pass because of the audacity of its ambitions. That's enough to sell a few hundred cars, but it will only take Tesla so far.

Thing is, I still want a Model S. But I will wait until I see thousands of them out in the wild before I leap. As with most things tech-related, I figure it's safer to wait for version 2.0.

How about you? Would you buy a Tesla Model S? And for the sake of argument, what if money were not an issue? Let's say you could get a Model S for the same price as a Camry. Would you go for it?