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Monday, January 23, 2017

Looking Back - My First Annual Service/Review of "New" Model S

My first annual service came just shy of a year after we took delivery of Serena, in April 2015.  I knew that Tesla would be changing the cars aggressively but I was blindsided by how extensive the upgrades were, even at that time.  The gulf between our humble S85 and a new 90D can't be overstated-- but don't misunderstand me, I'm still very satisfied with our purchase.
That said, I was looking forward to playing with a brand new Tesla and I came away with mixed feelings... which Tesla quickly rendered obsolete (What the wha...???).  Guess it's time to get this off my chest and it should have some useful info for those of you shopping used/CPO now.
For cars that need so little maintenance, the annual service is often an owner's first opportunity to get a Tesla loaner to play with-- a program that initially promised us a chance to compare our cars with the latest and greatest.  My hopes were EXCEEDINGLY high in spring of 2015 that I might have a guest P85D-- the "king of the hill" at the time-- but alas, I "merely" received a newer version of my S85.  It's like Tesla was spying on my energy-usage chart and figured they didn't want me having even more power to play with!

The loaner, named "Elon" (according to its display), was brand new and had all the new Autopilot hardware on it.  This was in the period before Autopilot was fully enabled.  The traffic aware cruise control worked but otherwise the Autopilot system was just silently sleeping and gathering data.  "Elon" was also equipped with something like $20k more in options than our car.  Among the goodies we would get to sample:  air suspension, studio sound upgraded audio, rear jumpseats, alcantara trim throughout, sport seats, yacht floor, ambient lighting and, of course, the traffic-aware cruise control portion of Autopilot.
Did you buy a grey 2015 S85 CPO?  This might be your car.
I mentioned that Tesla made my a lot of my "mixed feelings" obsolete--  I'll explain which ones specifically later-- and that's something they did in two different ways.  At the very least, I hope this offers some historical perspective on the evolution of the Model S and will perhaps prove useful to those of you who shop used Teslas.

Firstly, they've dramatically changed their entire order list/option sheet several times since I bought my car.  Everything has been rejiggered and now it's really impossible to compare old cars to new cars from a price and equipment standpoint.  The packages were all rearranged and on a fleet so small-- and with an automaker that PHASES IN changes instead of waiting for model years-- it will be a serious pain for used car buyers to try and sort through.  Little did I know at the time that the major milestone was lurking under my nose and "Elon's":  Autopilot capability.  That and the recent refreshed nose are the real landmarks for used shoppers.

On the appointed day, a valet from the Cleveland Service Center (the closest full service center to Pittsburgh at the time) arrived at my workplace with "Elon".  We chatted a few minutes, traded fobs and I was back at work while he drove my car back to Cleveland.  Normally they'd use a flatbed truck but I guess it was already shuttling a car from even farther away that particular morning.  No matter.  As long as nothing breaks 150 miles or so out of warranty!  Schedule conflicts would mean that we ended up with the loaner for a FULL WEEK, so "Elon" and I got to know each other pretty well and I had fun playing with the new features-- completely unaware of how far Tesla would push this tech.
Since full Autopilot wasn't enabled yet, the driving characteristics weren't all that different from my car. Though I'll admit to having some initial difficulties working the various stalks, as the cruise control was where my turn signals were normally located.  We had the loaner long enough that I had to then reorient myself again when our car returned.
As I wrote above, "Elon" was essentially my car in newer and fancier clothes.  Tesla had discontinued my grey color a few months after we took delivery, replacing it with this slightly darker and more purple-ish hue.  Even after its extended stay, the color never grew on me.  While it looks spectacular on the Model X, the Midnight Silver is just too close to black to catch my eye on the S.  It doesn't morph from grey-blue-slate-silvery like my original grey paint does.  Also the grey-colored wheels don't look as good on the Midnight Silver.  I will admit I could be somewhat biased-- but when you look at the rocker panels and the grey-ed out areas of the taillights, for example, they just look better with my color grey.
The interior was upgraded in several notable ways, but none of them were particularly compelling.  In fact, since Tesla has since made that alcantara dash all-but-standard I'm even more appreciative of my simpler cover.  The upper door panels and lower dash had soft touch leather coverings also.  In my Chrysler these areas have not aged well at all and tears are a real issue-- so again, I'm happy our car doesn't have a vulnerable surface in these spots.  The seats were the first generation sport seats with alcantara inserts and grey piping and while they looked good with the yacht floor, I can't imagine a reason why I'd pay more to have either of these.  Ditto the ambient lighting, which from the driver's seat is all but invisible.  I suppose rear seat passengers would appreciate the futuristic view better but I'd already paid extra to get seat warmers back there and those were a lot cheaper than some LED strips under the armrests.
While we're on the topic of backseat passengers, I continue to be supremely impressed with the rear jumpseats.  Tesla was BOLD to even consider such an option for a production car-- and doubly so for beefing up the rear crumple zones to protect little ones, even though there was no real requirement to do so.  My son was already way too big to fit back there (and now somewhat comically towers over me) but my daughter enjoyed a few errands with just a slight stoop of her head and some careful ingress/egress.  The window for using these seats may be finite but if your ownership will overlap their usable years, your children deserve to have the experience!
So, about "Elon's" seats... NOT a fan.  These were not the "Next Generation" seats but the updated versions of the original design.  You can spot them but their significantly larger headrests, particularly for the rear middle seat--  actually, these are STILL used at the rear seats because the Next Gen versions were discontinued after some whiner somewhere complained about them not folding flat (if you can find a car with the Next Gen seats front AND back... and are shopping... BUY IT).   I found the headrests on the front seats to be much softer than mine but SUPER close to my head all the time.  If I wanted to write this to reflect how I really felt about them, I'd type that as: "..much softer than mine but SUPER close to my head ALL THE DAMN TIME."  When you were a kid in school, did you ever sit in front of a jerk who kept lightly touching your head to annoy you?  Yeah, these seats.  The rear seats fare better with their larger headrests.  More support for hard acceleration without being annoying like the front ones.  They do rather noticeably block rear visibility, especially with the much beefier center headrest.
Another thing that annoyed me incessantly was Lane Departure.  What an nagging, nanny-like piece of crap software that was!  I turned it off almost immediately.  Just horrifically infuriating.  Any lane change you do without signally, it buzzes (and at the time of day I commute there's often no one to signal to).  Want to cut the apex on a deserted two-lane road?  It buzzes.  Prefer to center up on a deserted overnight highway in case a deer might just out?  It buzzes.  Just. Stop. It.
My wife had some fun playing with Elon, while I had my first backseat ride!
Mostly I listen to podcasts in the car and while I'm not an audiophile per se, the nature of my work should have me more attuned to good speakers than the average driver.  That said, I've been so abused by the lack of durability in my Chrysler's ballyhooed 16-speaker system that I'm a little biased against factory upgrades.  I'd already spent significant time in cars with the upgraded sound but in a nod to pragmatism, I couldn't bring myself to spend $2500 (at the time) to get the better sound system when-- really-- it isn't THAT much better.  So my plan to go stock and invest in more boom for my buck later was a decision that "Elon" vindicated.  Music does sound better, but it's not $2500 better and it's not like the standard sound system wasn't already better than what I was used to.  Most noticeably, the podcasts in my car sound like I'm in the room with the people, but in the studio sound setup it sounds like they're sitting on the dashboard in front of me.  A bit of a close-talker, as Seinfeld would say.  It's a more directional sound and definitely fuller in the bass, but I can't say that it really moved me one way or the other.
If my stance on the sound system isn't controversial enough, wait until you read what I think of the air suspension.  Ready?  Okay, here's my verdict:  Meh.  Granted, my commute is mostly on the highway, but since the air suspension is supposed to make long trips so much better it was surprising to me that I FORGOT for the first couple days that "Elon" even had the air suspension.  Running errands and on a few twisty sections of roads I encountered didn't yield any conclusive reason either.  Given the increased inner tire wear of the lowered setting while cruising and the very likely prospect of increased long-term maintenance costs, the air suspension's higher price doesn't end with the configuration cost.  I will admit the air suspension gives the car a much more satisfying stance (especially when parked in low) and it might have meant that I could garage my car without first removing my bike rack, because of our steep driveway transition-- But other arguments about clearing curbs fall flat with me.  I doubt I'd always remember to raise it and would actually be more likely to clip the Tesla's chin.  With the coil suspension, the height just is what it IS so you adapt regardless.  I also think the coils provide better handling with a more predictable feel.
The Traffic Aware Cruise Control was brand new at the time and it showed.  Full Autopilot was still more than 6 months away, but the learning nature of the TACC was on full display.  While it did maintain the set speed and distance, it was fanatical about it.  Rather than be a seamless and smooth ride, I found the result to be a slightly manic and subtle lurching as the car responded to the conditions around it.  Hills would prompt sudden regen or throttle and even if I widened the following distance "Elon" was absolutely INTENT on maintaining it to the inch.  From what I've experienced in newer loaners since, this has largely been smoothed out-- but it was interesting to see it when the software was still at its infancy.
Where the TACC really shines-- even when it was new-- was in traffic.  Oh, it doesn't stop for red lights or stop signs, but if someone is in front of you the system worked perfectly.  The sensors would precisely pace stop and go traffic and never really required throttle or brake intervention as long as (with that version of the software) you didn't sit completely stopped for more than a few seconds.  If you did, a tap of the throttle would reawaken the TACC and it'd motor you right along as before.  Remember though, I still had to steer back then!  The brake hold was much appreciated once I got used to it-- but honestly, the pedal requires so little pressure it's not a big deal either way.
Speaking of the sensors, the Autopilot 1.0 suite was another step forward from my parking sensors.  This was immediately apparent by the extra "zones" of proximity that displayed while parking.  Later software updates made these even more detailed as the lines could morph around obstacles with great precision-- but to a guy who'd previously though he had some good tech with four zones on each end, the new display was quite impressive.
The loaner also had fog lights.  My car was built during a weird time when fog lights were a standalone feature.  Previously, they'd been included with the tech package and then later that were included again... but not when our car was built.  I did ask coyly about if they would be considered a "hardware upgrade" and if I could get them installed gratis, but the answer was a resounding "no."  As for their value, it's a laughable difference.  They don't light up anything of significance and the standard headlights are bright enough for the few foggy days we get.  I think their standalone option cost when we ordered was $500.  I'm glad I saved my money.
Tesla always talks about how their cars evolve, even slightly, on a continuing basis.  The loaner was build on a different assembly line than our car.  Tesla had reconfigured the factory during the summer of 2014, so the loaner was built on the new assembly line with its Autopilot parts but likely before non-performance dual motors were common.  I didn't note a LOT of differences between the two cars, but I did notice that the rearview mirror stalks-- when the mirrors were folded-- had gained a visible screw.  My car is just smooth chrome there.  Anyway, just a minor observation.  I wonder what prompted that change?
Finally, after a week in Cleveland, Serena was ready to come home.  I was so anxious to see our car again that once I received word that she was on the way, I tracked her with the app (which was still enabled) and caught her on PennDOT's traffic cameras.  The return trip was with Mike, the Ranger from Cleveland who did most of Pittsburgh's service at that time.  Serena got a free ride on the flatbed for this trip.
When Mike rolled up I met him in the parking lot of my workplace like I was picking up a long lost friend at the airport.  I giddily hopped in the loaner and was eager to have Serena back in my hands.  As he unloaded the car, we talked about some of the work that had been done and the latest rumors about Pittsburgh getting a service center or store of its own.  Mike didn't have any secrets to divulge but I certainly tried to pry something newsworthy out of him!  Oh well...  I guess if I'd been successful I wouldn't have waited so many years to write up this post.
As for Serena, she was looking good.  The service invoice stretched ten pages but it ended with zeroes, so I was pretty satisfied about that.  In addition to the standard one year service, Tesla had proactively upgraded and repaired a number of items.  Among them: trimmed the rear wheel arch liners, new sun visors, added sound insulation and new brackets to the air conditioning compressor, gave me a revised UMC (the charging cord/connector), updated brake rotors that were powder-coated on their hubs and finally, they replaced a taillight that had a bug in it.
They'd also addressed some defects I'd found after Serena was delivered.  These were mostly minor things like a frunk latch that was out of adjustment.  The original dashboard cover had a bad stitch on the passenger side so they replaced the entire piece; the new cover had a slightly different stitching pattern on it that eliminated the stitches along the lower edge.  Chrome trim along the doors were also aligned.  These and the dashboard change can be spotted if you compare older blog posts to newer ones.  As an added sign of goodwill, Serena had some swag tossed on the passenger seat!
I mentioned my changed impressions at the beginning of this post.  The positive way they were able to change my observations was through an over-the-air software update.  I always seem to be somewhere later in the list on these roll-outs.  Tesla doesn't seem to have an identifiable pattern other than "Make-Matt-Last" when these software updates are pushed-- but at least by the time I get them the bugs are absent.  This time the notification came while I was at work, so I installed it for the drive home.  I drove home in a better car than I arrived in.  Think about that.  I drove home in a car BETTER than the car I'd driven to work in... even though it was the SAME CAR.   Can any other manufacturer come CLOSE to that?!  They're YEARS behind... and almost 2 years since we took delivery, the other manufacturers are STILL years behind.  That says something.

More importantly, as we know now, new software has tinkered with many of the Autopilot features and many of my criticisms were vanquished just that easily.  They also added ever more functions using the same sensor arrays... which is just inherently cool.  The dartiness of the TACC is gone and the level of intervention necessary in stop in go traffic is greatly reduced-- plus the car steers now too!

I also felt vindicated and satisfied with my original option choices.  It was fun to play with some of the ones I didn't have, but this loaner had the effect of answering that nag about upgrading.  The seats were worse, the rest only confirmed my earlier decisions, the color isn't as distinctive as my grey and while the audio was different, it wasn't better to me.  Though the Autopilot and TACC... I liked that a lot.  Hence my mixed feelings... but I was happy when Serena came home.

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