Tesla Model S Buyers Guide

Tesla are well known for continual change and innovation. Over time as more cars become available on the used car market there can be a bewildering choice of cars 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.

Why the Model S?

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You're probably here because you're interested in the Model S, but it's worth quickly checking that it is the best model in the range for you. We have a guide to the Tesla model differences but can summarise the range as

If one of the other models appeals, check out our buyers guide for that model.

Model S naming convention

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). All Model S under this naming convention are all wheel drive.

Facelift Model and significant changes

Tesla make many changes each year with the the changes to the Model S each year documented here.

Up to 2014 the cars came with no autopilot hardware. From then until late 2016 the Mobileye Autopilot hardware was used, after which it was the Tesla system. More details on Autopilot are below.

The Model S was face-lifted in 2016 with the most obvious change being the front. There were a number of other detail changes such as a move to LED headlights, the option of a Hepa Filter, a smaller frunk irrespective of whether the car was RWD etc. These improvements were a welcome update.

The next major change was the Raven model with new suspension and different motors. This happened in 2019. Tesla have also made tweaks to battery and motors and the Long Range became the Long Range+ but essentially it was the same car with just some performance tweaks.

In 2021 Tesla performed a significant interior update with other changes such as tri-motors with the introduction of the Plaid model and new batteries in the Plaid+ although this isn't due until 2022. More details will follow when known.

There have been other changes such as the version of Tesla AP hardware and the change to the MCU, but these can be upgraded if cars with the older versions are purchased.

New or used?

This question gets asked in two ways:

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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 is largely down to being more nimble 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 he same money.

The 2021 updated Model S is a different proposition. When these are available we will be able to comment further. The last of the new Model S built prior to the update are now available for sizeable discounts and should not be dismissed, however if you are looking at new prices it seems prudent to us to wait for more news on the updated model.

Battery size and range

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). 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.

Over time, the range for a given battery has varied depending on a host 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.

The actual range is subject to a lot of factors including temperature and they 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. Taking these factors into consideration, and adjusting for real world experiences, we have worked out the approximate summer range (temperatures above 15 deg C) and winter range (temperatures below 3 deg C but about -5 deg C) for the most common models to be:

Model
Summer
Summer 80%
Winter
Winter 80%
Standard range/75D on 19"
250 miles
200 miles
200 miles
160 miles
85D on 19"
245 miles
195 miles
190 miles
155 miles
Long Range/100D on 19"
315 miles
255 miles
260 miles
210 miles
Performance/P100D on 21"
280 miles
230 miles
235 miles
190 miles

Autopilot

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.

Historically much has been discussed about the features the different versions of hardware offer, but we believe it comes down to 2 separate questions.

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..

Options

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:

What features does the car have?

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.

Free Supercharging

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 Teslas hands, ie 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.

Key issues

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.

Battery

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.

MCU Memory failures

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 whould 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.

Yellow banding on the edge of the MCU

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.

Heating element failures

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 are 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

Door handles

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.

Suspension issues

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 adviseable. /p>

Tesla failed suspension

Water in the lights

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 its clearly not draining and is an issue.

Daytime running light (DRL) strip failure

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.

Cinch motor/trunk neither open nor closed

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.

Sticking steering rack

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.

Warranty

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 the their used car warranty top one extra year after the current warranty expires.

What would we buy used?

The preface lift cars are starting to look a little old 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.

The MCU can be updated for around $1500/£1400 to the most recent spec (except the 2021 facelift) and these cars only really fall behind the last of the production with the lack of 1 foot braking and the latest air suspension.

Newer cars are likely to depreciate quickly with the introduction of the new 2021 model, it may well be worth looking at later cars if the price is right, but we wouldn't pay a significant premium for a later car.

We would also recommend the 100D battery, in either 100D/Long Range or P100D/Performance versions depending on whether you want the high performance. The smaller battery cars should be judged by how much less they are to these models, but we would recommend a 100D over a P90D if priced similarly as an example.

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