Last updated 07-Jan-2023
Tesla are well known for continual change and innovation. Over time, as more cars have become available on the used car market there can be a bewildering choice of cars, all with features littered with acronyms. The promise of software updates suggests all cars are the same, which is not true, coupled with a lot of promises from Tesla which are yet to appear. We help navigate prospective buyers through the buying process with our definitive buyers guide to the Tesla Model S.
You're probably here because you're interested in the Model S, but it's worth quickly checking that it is the best model for you in the Tesla range. We have a guide to the Tesla model differences but can summarise the range as follows:
If one of the other models appeals, check out our buyers guide for that model, this will cover what you need to know about each.
It is also worth browsing hte inventory listings as you can easily compare models across the Tesla range within a given price bracket. Our Tesla Worldwide Inventory Search enables you to do just that, listing both new and used cars, and those sold by Tesla and through 3rd parties. We believe this is the only resource in the world that does this.
The Model S had the top of the EV rung to itself for many years but it has now had some notable competition from Porsche and Audi. While the Model S is larger than both of those models, from a performance and driving pleasure perspective with a luxurious cabin and a depth of engineering both the Taycan and the e-tron GT are alternatives at the $100k+ price point. The Taycan is also available in a variety of form factors including one with mild off road capability, and/or an estate or shooting brake layout. The preference really comes down to what you value in the car. The Tesla still generally wins on straight-line performance, access to the supercharging network and some quirky features like the yoke steering wheel, but as rewarding drivers cars go, especially in the corners, or the quality of the interior, the others have the edge in our assessment.
Tesla have adopted two basic naming conventions over the years for the model variants. The older system used a combination of letters and numbers:
The later convention is to simply quote range e.g. Standard Range (equivalent to the 75D), Long Range (100D) or Performance (P100D), although more typically they use "Dual Motor" for the long range and "Dual Motor" for the performance (note the underline). These changes coincided with the Raven models. All Model S under this naming convention are all wheel drive.
Tesla adopt continual changes to the model, as recently as January 2023 they allowed the option of a round steering wheel and not the yoke on the Model S. We documement these in our list of changes to the Model S each year. We feel however there are a number of significant phases of model and we have broken them down into 7 different Model S periods, each with a different range of batteries.
Pre facelift Model S
Facelift Model S
Model S from 2021
This question gets asked in two ways:
Buying an older Model S is a better proposition now than it was before the MCU recall and option to upgrade. One of the main downsides to Model S cars priced similar to the Model 3 was the reliability and ageing of some of the technology. Owners can now pay for updates to the latest (prior to the 2021 facelift) media screen, and if the car has the Tesla autopilot, to the latest version of that.
The advantages of the Model 3 are largely down to being nimbler to drive, faster supercharging rates and longer warranty. We certainly would not be put off any more with the prospect of an older Model S compared to a newer Model 3 for the same money but we would still want a Model S with full warranty.
Buying new is not an option in a few countries, but with the outgoing version not being on sale since 2020, the used stock in those countries is getting increasingly old. We don't think the changes are substantial enough to justify the new model over the previous one on any other grounds than wanting a younger car or the slightly newer technology.
After determining the model of car, the battery capacity and therefore range is the next main consideration (accepting exterior and interior colour is personal choice) when ooking at older cars. Over the years Tesla have made cars with a wide range of batteries. Early Model S came with batteries as small as 40kwh, in more recent years they have been roughly 75kwh and 100kwh. The larger the battery, the further the car can go on a full charge.
On the Model S, the specification of the car in terms of upgraded hifi or air suspension does not vary with battery size, although it has varied over time.
The range for a given battery has varies depending on a number of variables. Wheel size has always been a factor, but Tesla have also developed the electric motors to more efficient versions which have added some miles. A similar thing has happened with the performance. We would worry less about these factors other than the later the car, the greater the range is likely to be for a given battery size.
When choosing the battery, the larger the better would normally be our advice as range is king and the larger battery cars usually have better performance and better rapid charging performance. The exception to this is we would take a facelift 75 over a pre-facelift 85, in part because the 85 battery is smaller than the name plate suggests, and secondly the facelift car has a number of advantages. Since the Raven models came out, Tesla don;t even offer a choice in battery size, the choice is pirely down to Long Range or Performance (now Plaid).
One potential issue buyers need to be aware of in Europe and countries where the NEDC system was used to rate the car range is that the NEDC rating system was extremely optimistic. All EV's including Tesla struggle to meet their rated range except in good weather and steady driving, but the NEDC figures were virtually impossible to reproduce in any situation. When used these cars may still be listed with the rated range under the older NEDC standard, and so comparing them to cars with the more modern WLTP figures such as the Model 3 and Model Y can be very misleading. Plus, the older these cars are, the more battery degradation they may have experienced making the results worse again.
The actual range is subject to a lot of factors including temperature and the type of roads you are driving on. A steady 50mph will be more efficient than driving at 70mph, and also more efficient than a lot of stop-start journeys where the car may cool down or heat up in the sun while stationary, cold weather soak being the worse. You are also unlikely to want to start from 100% and end on 0% and therefore the working range is approximately 80% of the theoretical range.
There have been more variants of the Model S than any other Tesla model, with a variety of batteries each with different range and performance figure. Tesla use a hidden model iteration code to denote the differences.
For each variant we have listed the predominant years the cars were being sold. Occasionally Tesla have unsold models which they first register alongside newer models, we have ignored these when this is obvious. Some model codes may only be available in some parts of the world.
Except for very early Model S cars from before September 2014, all Tesla's have come with some form of Autopilot hardware. The main change between the 2 systems occurred in October 2016 when Tesla stopped using the Mobileye system and started using their own.
You can see the detailed autopilot differences here but in summary, the earlier Autopilot has reached the end of what it can do, whereas the Tesla system is still being developed and has the potential, according to Tesla, to develop into full self-driving capability.
Side repeater of Teslas with AP1 hardware and before
Side repeater of Teslas with AP2 hardware and later
Historically much has been discussed about the features the different versions of hardware offer, but we believe it comes down to 2 separate questions.
The former is usually cheaper than the latter, partly because the cars are older, but on cars built around the cut over date it can be consideration. Even though Tesla have a number of versions of their own hardware these can be upgraded. The MCU also plays a part on the features with the Tesla hardware and this can now be upgraded for approx. $1500/£1400 and if the car has the Tesla autopilot hardware, this hardware will typically be updated at the same time. This only applies to earlier MS and MX cars. As a side note, on private sales, cars with the Mobileye hardware typically have free supercharging, whereas it is a fairly small window where cars with the Tesla system have it. We have a guide on free supercharging if this is important to you.
Features, especially if using the Tesla hardware, vary depending on the version of hardware and the level of Autopilot optioned on the car. Our guide above covers what you get at each level and as they are typically only software updates, you can pay to move between basic Autopilot, Enhanced Autopilot if offered, and full self-driving. As a quick summary, early cars had AP1 and this is a pretty robust system and well worth it. For cars after this, using the Tesla hardware, EAP was the entry level option at and still worth having although it's value compared to AP1 isn't as good. FSD is however hard to justify at the moment, especially on cars with the MCU1. There is a pilot int he US which starts to show the capabilities of FSD, but we also suspect much of this will be reflected in EAP eventually.
When looking at used cars, if you want Full Self driving capability it may be better value to find a car with that level of option already purchased as used prices do not reflect the purchase price of the option. However, if you find an otherwise perfect car at the right price it may be an option to pay for the upgrade after purchase.
There is a simple visual way to tell if the car has the Tesla Autopilot system or not and that is looking at the side repeaters on the front wing. If they have a camera built in they use the Tesla system, if they just show a Tesla logo, they are the older system.
If you have access to the car, or the seller has provided suitable screenshots then you can also refer to our guide to what options and hardware a Tesla has fitted..
From when the model S was launched up until around 2018 there many options available on the Model S. Some of these options became standard fit over time, others were dropped all together. We highlight the main ones:
Simply put, where there is a choice, larger wheels tend to look better, but are more prone to accident damage and reduce range. The Arachnid wheels were referral gifts and are better than the regular 21" wheels that could be optioned.
There have been a number of different car roofs on the Model S. Early metal roof cars were in body colour with a short period where black could be specified. A glass opening sunroof was available for many years, and now the roof is all glass but not opening. The sunroof is a popular option for many although care needs to be taken on older cars as the drains can become blocked and the roof leak.
On earlier MS, a HiFi upgrade was an option before it became standard fit. The sound was a marked improvement over the standard fit version.
The same is true for the air suspension although some prefer coil suspension given its simplicity and the ride is comparable. The cold weather pack added heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel in most cases, and a heating element under the windscreen wipers. We provide a guide below to find out what is fitted to a specific car.
Until around 2017 Tesla offered a 7-seat option with 2 rear facing seats in the trunk. These were only really suitable for children, the option was eventually dropped.
Some of the earliest cars could be optioned with executive rear seats. These were essentially two proper seats with a centre console but they could not be folded meaning the boot was fixed. They are more comfortable than the bench rear seat, but from a practicality stand point they are best avoided by most.
The early P85D and P90D cars came with an Insane mode, these cars were limited by the battery output. Tesla developed a higher current fuse for the battery and this could be retrofitted to their P85D or optioned on the P90D. The P100D and later Performance have typically been sold with Ludicrous as standard, however this has not always been the case so it is worth checking. The easiest way is to look for the underline of the model variant name.
If you are looking at P90D and above, we strongly recommend ludicrous as the car offers only marginal performance benefits over the none P models without, especially once above 30 mph where the battery typically becomes the limiting factor.
A premium interior was an option on early cars. The benefits changed subtly over time but included the ability to select the headlining colour, powered trunk, front fog/cornering lights, extra chrome details, and more leather on the interior. There was also a textured dash accent. Some of these extras disappeared with the first facelift, and others became standard before the option was eventually dropped.
The pre 2021 Model S was not approved for towing. Some owners added aftermarket tow hook/bar but these should be treated cautiously as the car may have been damaged in the process. There is a rumour that Tesla will allow a Tow bar to be fitted but there is no clear evidence of this from Tesla.
Cars built before 2019 in certain counties (primarily Europe) did not have the capability to charge on the CCS rapid chargers. This can be retrofit by Tesla relatively cheaply but many cars will already have it and it is worth looking for. The retrofit requires the addition of some hardware, you can not just buy the plastic adaptor. If buying a car with the CCS adaption, ensure the car is supplied with the physical adapter as buying one after the event is almost as expensive as the retrofit.
Cars built before mid-2018 were equipped with MCU1. This can be upgraded by Tesla which will offer better performance and depending on other hardware more features. Cars with the upgrade are more desirable although check whether the radio module was added and whether that matters to you (the upgrade otherwise removed the radio.
To find out autopilot hardware, suspension, premium audio, cold weather pack etc, you need access to the car and follow this guide to find out what hardware versions a Tesla has. Many dealers are now including the required pictures in their adverts and those that do, clearly understand the cars.
All Tesla's except a very small number of MS60s from 2014 had supercharging enabled. This was unlimited for the life of the car until the mid-April 2017 where it only the first owners had free supercharging and eventually the benefit being dropped altogether.
Matters changed again in July 2019 where cars which previously had supercharging for the life of the car have had the free supercharging benefit revoked when passing through Tesla’s hands, i.e. taken in as part exchange, or returned at the end of a finance agreement, even if Tesla then sell the car into the trade. You now need to check the car regardless as the car may have been sold by Tesla as a used car in the past and had this happen to it.
Below is what appears to be a lot of potential issues with the cars. Owners of cars, especially as they get older or reach higher miles should expect the need to perform routine maintenance or have to fix some common failures. Tesla parts can be expensive, but increasingly third part solutions are cropping up to solve the problem more cost effectively.
A large number of the earlier 85 batteries have had significant issues with Tesla reducing the available capacity and maximum charge rate. While this is still an issue, Tesla have started to roll back some of the restrictions improving the performance.
The 90-battery pack, especially the early ones, were also known for early degradation which was higher than normal and almost reverted these models to the capacity of an 85. They also suffered from some supercharging throttling. Not all 90 batteries were affected by this, and by the time the facelift MS came out and the MX was launched, the issues had been resolved. Be mindful especially on pre-facelift cars although a 90 battery is still generally better than an 85.
The large central screen on is called the media control unit or MCU for short. The US NHTSA have made Tesla recall them and while some cars may still be prefix, any issues would be covered by Tesla. The fix is to replace the memory board in the MCU with a larger capacity board and with better quality memory. Owners can also purchase a MCU upgrade to a much more powerful system.
The MCU memory issue is not the only issue with the MCU. A very common problem is the appearance of a yellow band around the edge of the screen. It's caused by the glue behind the screen failing and while the screen will require replacing, it still generally functions ok. Tesla originally replaced the screens but found these developed the fault again. They now have a technique with a UV light which manages to change the colour back with reasonable which seems to be generally working well.
Quite a few owners report the heating matrix failing. They hear a loud pop in the cabin and the heating then stops working. It's such a common issue with Tesla cars, more so with the MX but still a problem with the MS. Tesla is not accepting this is a design defect and if the failure occurs out of warranty, they will charge you for the fix. Prices are over $1000/£1000
Model S door handles have been a long-term irritant for owners with some owners having had the door handles replaced multiple times. They typically fail in one of 3 ways. They either fail to present, fail to return or when pulled, fail to open the door. Tesla have recognised the issue and have revised the part multiple times. The problem is so prolific, we've created a guide to the Tesla Model S door handle detailing the different failures and listing what parts you need to repair the door handle.
Tesla refuse however to acknowledge the part is a design defect and should be either recalled or replaced even when out of warranty.
Tesla cars are heavy and the suspension can take some punishment. Failures can occur when under full lock reversing, failure after hitting hit a moderate pothole, and even under hard braking. Issues are not that common but routine inspection of the suspension is advisable.
The front drive shafts can cause vibration under hard acceleration and may need changing. You may also get vibration at speed which could be the drive shafts or a problem with the front air dam which controls airflow to the battery radiator.
This is a common issue with led lights. Moisture gets in, accumulates and then fails especially is the drainage holes become blocked. Mild condensation is to be expected due to environmental factors but if water is visible beyond a quarter of the height, then it’s clearly not draining and is an issue.
The headlights have a strip of light called daytime running lights which remains on all the time. These can fail and the whole unit will require replacement. Outside warranty this is a $1000/£1000+ fix.
The Model S trunk and can fail and be neither open or be fully closed and the car becomes difficult to lock. The part is a Mercedes part and readily available but repair takes some effort by a mechanic. To lock the car until repaired, simply lock the car from the driver's seat with the driver's door open via the big screen (click on the padlock) and then get out and shut the door.
The steering has a universal joint that can seize up making the steering feel very strange/stiff in places and reduces the self-centring nature of the steering. Out of warranty or as routine maintenance, simply get the universal joint cleaned and lubricated by a mechanic.
Model S reversing camera on the trunk can fail due to water ingress. The housing starts to corrode first which can cause water to leak, and if the housing bezel that retains the lens fails, the lens will fall away exposing the electrics. In the event of failure, the whole camera unit needs replacing and over $500.
Model S cars come with 2 manufacturer warranties.
One covers the battery and motor and was originally for 8 years and unlimited miles, changing at the beginning of 2020 to be a mileage limited warranty. The original warranty had no performance guarantee as was effectively a failure warranty, whereas the replacement warranty for cars from 2020 offered a maximum degradation threshold.
The second warranty is the general car warranty for everything else. This lasts for 4 years or 50k miles, which comes sooner.
Tesla also offered a used car warranty of 4 years, 50k miles warranty or 2 years up to 100k miles in total depending on whether the car was under or over 50k miles. Some used cars may still have the some of this warranty remaining. For more recent purchases Tesla have changed their used car warranty top one extra year after the current warranty expires.
The preface lift cars are starting to look dated and even the battery warranty is now close to ending. We would look at facelift cars and would now prefer a car with the Tesla Autopilot hardware and ideally either EAP or FSD activated.
Free supercharging has been a desireable feature but this is becoming increasingly hard to find on cars with the any of the more recent features and battery and motor warranty will only have a short time remaining. Any savings from free supercharging could easily be wiped out with a repair bill.
The MCU can be updated for around $1900/£1700 to the later spec (although not the 2021 facelift spec) and these cars only really fall behind the last of the pre 2021 updates with the lack of 1 foot braking and the latest adaptive air suspension. That said, these pre raven cars are also falling out of bumper to bumper warranty and a big bill could be around the corner.
As a result, we feel the raven cars are a good choice, or if you want the latest, then a 2021 facelift model. We don't feel going much older is worth while as you would be better spending your money on a more recent Model 3 or Model Y.
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