Is the Third Drive Unit the Charm? - 2013 Tesla Model S Long-Term Road Test

2013 Tesla Model S Long-Term Road Test

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2013 Tesla Model S: Is the Third Drive Unit the Charm?

February 20, 2014

2013 Tesla Model S

When we last left our 2013 Tesla Model S, it was on the back of a flat-bed tow truck, having died on my colleague, Matt Jones. It spent the night in a tow yard and was delivered to the Tesla service department in West Los Angeles the following morning.

Vince, our service advisor, was great about giving me updates throughout the course of the day. "We're getting a bunch of faults from the drive unit and main battery pack," said Vince. "Our technicians are taking a look at it now. I'll call you when I have more information."

It sounded serious.

He called back about an hour later and said they would be replacing the drive unit and the high-voltage battery assembly. I asked Vince what caused the problems, but he said they don't open up the batteries at the service center. Like most warranty issues on new cars, the parts are replaced at the dealer and the old ones are sent to corporate headquarters for the engineers to study and see what went wrong. The service invoice didn't give me much more to go on, "During vehicle logs review, found fault related to internal drive unit failure. Replaced complete drive unit assembly per TDS case #9571."

If you're keeping score, our Model S is now on its third drive unit: the one that came with the car, the one that was replaced in November, and this latest one. And that wasn't the only thing that was replaced on this service visit.

After the power unit was replaced, the Model S needed a four-wheel alignment. That's because the rear subframe must be removed to extract the power unit.

The service center also replaced the 12-volt battery, along with providing new battery terminals and a battery clamp strap.

The Tesla dealer also took care of four service bulletins under warranty:

Concern: Front lower control arm washer installation
Correction: Inspect knuckle/ball joint surfaces, install four front lower control arm washers.

Concern: Firmware update for automatic charge current reduction
Correction: Update firmware to version 5.8.4

Concern: Front bumper carrier bolt replacement
Correction: Replace front bumper carrier bolts and washers

Concern: New bolt for rear camber correction
Correction: Installed rear upper camber adjustment bolts per proactive repair.

Tesla also performed a "courtesy vehicle inspection," where it noted that the right rear tire has 3/32" of tread remaining. For reference, the other tires are at 8/32" (LF), 7/32" (RF) and 8/32" (LR). The worn tire is closer to its treadwear indicator on the inside of the tire, and given our past with prematurely worn tires, it's worth keeping a close eye on. Also, I wonder if the service bulletin regarding the new bolt for rear camber correction has something to do with this wear. Dan Edmunds will take a closer look at the tire soon.

Finally, the dealer found that the lug nuts were beginning to swell and were hard to remove, so they replaced all 20 of them.

All repairs were performed under warranty and Tesla delivered the car to us the following morning. Tesla didn't note the cost of the parts in its paperwork, but I have to think this repair cost Tesla at least the $5,000. Big 85KwH batteries and electric drive units don't come cheap.

When I first sat down to write this post, I was all fired up, as I tried to picture myself in an owner's shoes. If I had to replace the engine on my car twice — hell, even once — I would swear off the brand forever. But after talking it over with some colleagues, I was reminded that the people who buy Teslas aren't just buying basic transportation. They are early adopters and willing beta testers of a shiny new piece of tech.

In that context, I remembered my experience with my Xbox 360. Early models had high failure rates, which led to the infamous "Red Ring of Death." At the end the console generation, I had gone through three system failures. Not once did I think about ditching the Xbox and gaming exclusively on a Sony PlayStation 3. The Xbox was my preferred piece of tech, and when it broke, I just got it fixed, warranty or not.

Obviously the costs are different and no one relies on an Xbox 360 to get them to work, but the mindset is the same. For those Tesla owners who still love their cars, even in the face of major repairs, I get it.

Ronald Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor @ 18,822 miles


  • kirkhilles_ kirkhilles_ Posts:

    Yeah, I'm not sure I'd make analogies to a $250 gaming system versus a $80k+ car as well as having it die on your way to work versus not being able to play a game. That being said, it doesn't concern me that much IF Tesla is active in addressing problems and improving Quality Control. Hopefully the Tesla's of 2020 will be near bulletproof. If not, we're going to have issues when the more affordable versions come out and people start driving these well past warranty periods. Its not going to be acceptable if an Average Joe purchases a 60k used Tesla for $25k with large monthly payments and then has to pay $5k+ for unexpected repairs.

  • so, just how expensive would this be if you were outside the warranty? The battery warranty is quite long at 8 years 125,000 miles but the drive unit would likely only be under the 4 year 50,000 mile warranty But good points on the early adopters and tech point of view. I'd be livid if my current car was on its 3rd engine but you are right things like that are more acceptable when they are tech. "Just don't hold your phone like that and it will work fine" type of things.

  • duck87 duck87 Posts:

    Brutal. On its third motor in less than 20k miles, replacement of possibly the single largest component in the car (the entire under-chassis battery) and more tire wear! I was joking the first time the drivetrain needed to be replaced when I said that they should add "10,000 miles- replace motor" as a maintenance schedule item, but it's turning out to be the case? Seriously, why don't they just give you a new car and be done with it? The LCA washers and the rear camber adjust bolts at least make it clear that Tesla is well aware of the tire wear issues (and hopefully, it will no longer be an issue). Ron, I don't understand how you can an apologist for this company, especially as a consumer advice editor. I especially don't get how you can compare this to the Xbox fiasco when you're talking about a $100K car. Startup "beta" testers or not, nobody should have to go through the experience of 3 engine replacements in such a low number of miles, in a region of the US which is typically very gentle on vehicles. If I were an owner I'd be looking at using lemon laws at this point.

  • ams124 ams124 Posts:

    I get giving them a break on the battery that's new in automotive but electric machines are not. There have been electric machines in EVs and Hybrids for well over a decade. The size may change between a hybrid and what is in the Tesla has but the technology is very mature.

  • gslippy gslippy Posts:

    Holy mackerel! That repair didn't cost Tesla $5000; it was probably more like $30-40k. The battery pack is very expensive. We've accused Edmunds of being hard on cars, but there is clearly a car problem here (drivetrain and suspension) that leaves me very worried about the fleet of Model Ss in the field.

  • If I was an owner I would be looking at having Tesla buy the car back from me at this point.

  • cjasis cjasis Posts:

    Sorry, but that's just crazy. And early adopter or not, I'd be fuming if I was an owner at this point.

  • reminder reminder Posts:

    Based on their experiences, I wouldn't pay $0.10 for that thing. Expensive & unreliable is a nonstarter for me.

  • mercedesfan mercedesfan Posts:

    As a Tesla owner, I actually do not agree with your assessment of early beta testers. If my Model S was having the issues that yours is I would be enraged and would dump that thing as quickly as I could. As it stands, based on your experience and owner forums I already plan on selling the car before the warranty expires. I really do love the car in a lot of ways, but I am terrified about post-warranty reliability. On an ironic side note, my Model S has only left me stranded once. It ended up being a really minor battery connection fault, but I had to laugh at myself when I was forced to drive my 1971 Benz into work that day because it ran no problem and my brand new luxury car did not.

  • fordson1 fordson1 Posts:

    "Obviously the costs are different" That's just a stupid comparison - no way around it. And I absolutely agree with duck87's point about a consumer advice editor becoming an apologist for the manufacturer. Elon Musk was asked last year specifically if the Model S owner body was not a beta test site, and he specifically said no, it was not. And now we have Edmunds excusing these repeated failures on that very basis, so now Edmunds is more of an apologist that the manufacturer. And yes, that $5k repair guess was a total joke of a lowball estimate. If I could be allowed a similar off-the-cuff remark, I would say that the total of parts and labor done to this car since they took delivery is probably approaching half of its MSRP. There are constant arguments here and elsewhere, one camp saying that as a piece of engineering, the S is brilliant, and the other camp saying that as a $100k luxury car, the S is a POS. Relax - no reason it can't be both...and it IS both. And finally, cue the "Jeopardy" music while we wait to see if there will be any explanation from Tesla of this latest failure.

  • nbrennan777 nbrennan777 Posts:

    Loyalty is when people are willing to suffer some inconvenience or pay a premium to do business with you. The Model S is so much more than a transportation appliance. It's a symbol of a belief in the electrified future, which makes it something that people who believe in a same future gravitate towards, are willing to pay for and willing to evolve with.

  • What did Tesla say, if anything, about the dangers of not being able to move the car off the road after it died? That was an extemely dangerous situation, especially since the flashers died as well. If my wife and child were in this when that happened, I'd looking for heads to roll. This car reminds me of Second City as it appears to be a not-ready-for-prime-time player.

  • se_riously se_riously Posts:

    If this were a true long-term test, the owner would have filed a lemon law claim (easily justified by 3 drivetrain units). This would bode poorly for the brand in its infancy, so Tesla would probably purchase the vehicle back. But of course, this isn't a true long-term test is it? What are the chances that this vehicle, with 3 drivetrains, will be sold to a private party instead of Carmax or Tesla? I say unlikely.

  • noburgers noburgers Posts:

    The value in Edmunds' long term test is to show the ownership experience. So far, we have learned that the 'S' is experiencing many serious failures, that the dealership experience has been responsive to repairing the vehicle quickly under warranty (and unable to provide much explanation of the cause of the failures), and that with some planning you can travel great distances, recharging for free. I would stay away until reliability improves.

  • handbrake handbrake Posts:

    As a Model S owner, I hope that Tesla will revise its warranty policy to reflect the motor problems. The 4 year warranty on the motor is not sufficient given what we're seeing here and at the very least the motor warranty should match the battery warranty. I like our Tesla but these problems are beyond "beta tester" expectations. If we are actually doing the durability testing as well then we should either get an appropriate warranty for the motor (i.e., either match the battery warranty or make it for the entire duration of ownership). I don't want to have to replace a motor every year for 4 years and find out in the fifth year that it's at my expense...

  • duck87 duck87 Posts:

    @nbrennan777: Cool. So can you point out one instance in which a Nissan Leaf did this to its owner?

  • stovt001_ stovt001_ Posts:

    Funny how a certain one-track-mind commentator doesn't touch this post, even though this car experienced two massive drivetrain failures, just because it didn't come from a certain city. When the evidence doesn't fit your very, very, very, very narrow view, just ignore it...

  • se_riously, this would not qualify for the lemon law. Under California lemon law, there are a few qualifications: • The car must still be under warranty • The owner must have taken the car in for repair of the same problem four or more times through an authorized dealer • The car must have been inoperable for a total of 30 days (not necessarily consecutive)

  • se_riously, this car can't be considered a lemon yet. Under California lemon law, there are a few qualifications: • The car must still be under warranty • The owner must have taken the car in for repair of the same problem four or more times through an authorized dealer • The car must have been inoperable for a total of 30 days (not necessarily consecutive)

  • Sorry for the duplicate comment. I was getting a 400 Bad request error and didn't know the first one was successful.

  • donnaderosa donnaderosa Posts:

    Correction made to text in paragraph 6. -- Donna

  • "...but I have to think this repair cost Tesla at least the $5,000. Big 85KwH batteries and electric drive units don't come cheap." You are the consumer advice advocate and yet you do not do the research to find out how much it would cost? Aren't you just a little bit curious, as a journalist, to find out the facts?

  • Tesla has made a remarkable car, truly revolutionary but this shows that they are still amateurs. The failure rate of such a major component would not happen at a traditional automaker. Replacing an engine or transmission under warranty happens but not twice in 20,000 miles. Chevy Volts are all new with a revolutionary drive system but they are very reliable. Tesla doesn't have the resources and experience to test components and vehicles like the traditional automakers. Tesla is on top of this not only for customer concerns but I see a safety recall in their future. Not only does it lose power suddenly while driving but it also causes the car to aggressively decelerate. Also losing electrical power causes all exterior lights to fail. All of this can cause an accident.

  • se_riously se_riously Posts:

    @ subytrojan. Thanks for the info, but you're wrong. Here's a link to the CA Attorney General's website. What you quoted is merely a guide, but a judge or arbitrator can rule that the vehicle is a lemon even

  • marmotking marmotking Posts:

    I was unaware of the potential for swollen lug nuts. On a car, anyway.

  • cx7lover cx7lover Posts:

    Heat makes metal expand. Something from the drivetrain perhaps causing too much heat to pass through to the lugs? I have to agree with everyone here. This many severe problems so early on is unacceptable. I don't care what "first" of a car it is and most of the people who pay this much for a car are already feel entitled to trouble free ownership.

  • cx7lover cx7lover Posts:

    God I hate the commenting system here and have for years. This is the one site that has only gotten progressively worse and removed more features.

  • c5thunder c5thunder Posts:

    Its difficult to make a direct comparison between electric and ICE cars but I'll try anyway. I'd argue this car has had 1 'engine' swap + 3 transmission and/or differential failures. The battery is the engine. It stores the energy needed to propel the car + provides the HP rating (larger batteries = more HP per Tesla's specs). The drive unit is the trans + diff. Clearly that's still an issue but it sounds slightly better when you look at it this way. As of now this car has had a near-complete drivetrain swap. I suspect we wont hear about additional drive unit failures unless this is a recurring issue with other Model S owners.

  • martini7 martini7 Posts:

    I think the strong reactions to the repairs seen in the comments reflects thinking from the internal combustion world that is not completely relevant to an electric car. This car has a modular design and the parts involved were replaced in a single day with no impact on the quality of the car after the fact. The fact that they are major drive components is important only inasmuch as their failure immobilized the car. Replacing the headliner is probably a more difficult and time consuming task for the service center. So is this a less serious repair than a headliner? In some ways, yes. The owner shouldn't really care what it costs the manufacturer to provide warranty service, just whether that service is satisfactory to them or not. That said, the parts removed from this car will likely be refurbished and reused, so the total cost to Tesla is hard to determine.

  • duck87 duck87 Posts:

    @martini7: No. They dropped the rear subframe (i.e. a major chunk of the car was disassembled), which also necessitated a rear alignment. They also had to take out the battery, which essentially spans the entire underside of the car. These are probably th

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