Tesla kicked off the modern electric car race in large parts of the world, and more than a decade later it’s still king of the business — in terms of both sales and general desirability. Not only is Tesla the in vogue car brand, but some of its cars are the longest range electric cars on the market. It's not hard to see why some people would say Tesla makes the best electric cars.
I’ve driven a little over 1,000 miles in Teslas for work and pleasure, and my feelings about the cars are best described as ambivalence. I can see the appeal of a Tesla, certainly where range and charging are concerned, but there’s no way I’d actually buy one for myself. Here's why.
My beef is with Tesla, not electric cars as a whole
There are plenty of reasons why I have a personal dislike for Tesla’s cars, but I should make it clear that I don’t particularly like the cars themselves. Whatever Elon Musk gets up to in his spare time, or whatever criticism is levelled at Tesla’s build quality, they are little more than footnotes on the list of reasons why I never want a Tesla to call my own.
My disapproval of the cars goes a little deeper than what you can read in a headline, or a comment on a Reddit forum. It all stems from the fact Tesla offers a very different kind of experience to other electric cars and, frankly, it doesn’t feel like a particularly good one. Not to me, at any rate, because I know there are thousands of people out there who feel differently.
It’s also not a criticism about electric cars. While the cost of recharging has risen quite a bit over the past several weeks, and gasoline prices have taken a dip since the summer, I much prefer being able to plug in than fill up. Not to mention the fact that my car is pretty spacious for its size, offers instant torque for speedy getaways and a one-pedal driving mode.
There’s also the fact that I’m not burning fuel and leaving a trail of pollution in my wake, and that the car drives incredibly quietly. Frankly the quieter the cars, the better. I live near some very busy roads, and the noise some cars come out with really get on my nerves — especially in summer when my windows are open
My Nissan Leaf is not without its problems, and I’ve spoken about them at length in the past. I have very few regrets after buying the car, but I wouldn't go out of my way to buy another should that situation ever arise. Should this ever be the case, a Tesla would likewise be right near the bottom of my wish list.
Extreme minimalism is a deal breaker
My biggest problem with the Tesla design is the extreme minimalism that’s employed throughout the cabin. In the Model 3 and Model Y, this means virtually everything is condensed into a single central touchscreen. In fact, there are only a handful of features that don’t employ the touchscreen in some way, and those are relegated to a few levers and dials around the steering column.
The thing that always baffles me most is that Tesla’s two cheapest cars don’t have a dedicated driver display or gauge cluster behind the steering wheel. Instead if you want something as simple, and important, as your current speed, you need to glance over at the central display. The Model S and Model X do have a driver display, but the trade-off is that they come with a steering yoke instead of a traditional steering wheel.
However, having never driven with a Tesla yoke, I can’t say how much better or worse an experience this might be. I certainly don’t like the idea, though, especially since the levers have now been replaced with touch controls on the front of the yoke.
The overreliance on the touchscreen is my biggest issue. Not only because of the lack of tactile feedback, ensuring you can’t use the smooth and glossy device without looking, but also because any fault in the screen will render your car completely useless. My Leaf’s infotainment display died recently, taking a bunch of useful car functions with it. But a functional driver display meant I could still drive around safely, and know how fast I was going.
Had this happened in a Tesla, and the car would have essentially been completely out of commission. There had been some speculation that this design was implemented starting with the Model 3, in anticipation that Autopilot would do most of the driving work. However, like all the times Elon Musk has broken various promises, things didn’t exactly play out the way people suspected.
A speedometer behind the steering wheel (or projected onto the windshield) only requires a quick split second check. Keeping that speedometer in a central display, meanwhile, takes slightly longer and could prove to be a hazard while driving.
The Model S and Model X may not have this issue, but with prices ranging from $104,990 to $138,990 it means they are well out of ordinary peoples’ price ranges. Such simple features should not be restricted to the people that can afford to overpay for them.
It’s also the little things and unnecessary changes
The touchscreen-heavy controls aren’t the only change that puts me off driving a Tesla full time. Tesla has made a lot of smaller changes to its cars that have always come across as both totally unnecessary and kind of irritating.
The locking system is the main one. The car itself comes with a key card which needs to physically touch the car to lock or unlock, which I find incredibly inconvenient. The Tesla app offers an automatic proximity lock, which operates via Bluetooth and is a pretty cool concept — albeit not one that I actually trust too much. You can get a fob with clickable buttons, but that costs an additional $175
I much prefer the option to control my car’s locks myself, either unlocking from a distance or ensuring the doors are locked as soon as it leaves my line of sight — without having to pay an additional $175 for the privilege of using a function most cars offer by default.
I feel similarly about opening the doors. I’m quite partial to the Tesla’s flush door handles, and how they don’t have to pop-out mechanically — which means fewer points of failure. But instead of a traditional door handle, Tesla opted for an electronic button-centric door mechanism, alongside a physical handle that has to be there in case of an emergency.
It’s a system that has always felt, to me at least, like a case of overengineering a mechanism for the sake of it rather than for any productive purpose. Tesla fans have tried to explain it’s all down to the frameless design, which requires the windows to lower slightly when the door opens. But maybe, just maybe, if your design can’t accommodate a standard mechanism for something as simple as a door, then your design needs to be reworked.
I understand that stubbornly sticking to a system because of how it’s always been done is a perfect recipe for stagnation. Advancement requires challenging the status quo, after all. But at the same time we don’t need change for change's sake. Don’t just make something different, make it better. And a door-opening system that needs to be explained to everyone that uses the car is the opposite of better.
The same goes for the turn signals, which are softer and lack the mechanical clickiness of rival cars. Making things quieter is no bad thing, but that soft mechanism isn’t nearly as precise. Considering the turn signals don’t always disengage automatically, it means you have to make a conscious effort to ensure other drivers know what you’re doing — which means less attention paid to the road ahead.
The recent Tesla Holiday Update promises to help rectify this, but the fact is that it shouldn't have needed fixing in the first place.
Other issues I have relate to lack of support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which all but forces you to pay for Tesla's Premium Connectivity package to access features other cars can pull from your phone. Similarly, the Tesla system is filled with stuff that you don’t need. That ranges from gimmicks like karaoke mode and gaming, to totally useless features like fart mode and turning your map into the surface of Mars.
Oh and, in my experience, the soundproofing is just awful. This came to a head during my recent vacation, when I spent a solid 10 days inside a Tesla Model Y. Not only could I easily pick up music and sounds from the cars around me (primarily in traffic) some weird acoustic effects meant I was picking up music from vehicles a few cars back. It’s an issue I’ve never had in any other car, even older ones that have as much soundproofing as a paper bag.
On their own these things are minor annoyances, but combine them altogether and it creates an experience I’d prefer to avoid if I can help it.
Autopilot is nice, but it’s far from unique
One of Tesla’s major selling points is Autopilot, an autonomous driver assistance system (ADAS) designed to let the car take on a bunch of the hard work driving can involve. One of the main things that sets it apart is that Basic Autopilot is standard on all Teslas, while additional features can be purchased as part of the Enhanced or Full Self Driving packages.
Other automakers don’t offer the same level of autonomy on their entry-level cars. Or at least they keep any auto-steering features locked behind a paywall, even if cheaper models have adaptive cruise control. This either means ADAS is exclusive to more expensive model trims, or has to be purchased as an optional extra or as some kind of technology pack.
Autopilot may be more prevalent than its rivals, and updates are highly publicized as a result — especially for the Full Self Driving beta. But Autopilot as a whole isn’t particularly unique. Tesla may be a little bit ahead of other ADAS systems, but a lot of the basic Autopilot features are quite widely available.
Unfortunately Tesla Autopilot is not a true level 5 autonomous car, despite what the term, “Full Self Driving” may suggest. Tesla has had to admit that multiple times, after accusations that the FSD marketing is deliberately mislead (something Tesla has always strongly denied (opens in new tab)).
If your car still can’t drive you from point to point by itself, and needs a human driver, I’d argue that you don’t necessarily need the most cutting edge ADAS technology and features. I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase a Tesla on Autopilot’s merits alone, certainly not combined with all the other issues I have with the cars.
Different cars and different automakers will offer a variety of features and systems, with differing levels of quality and ability. But as long as it can handle the basics, and stay in the center of the lane without driving into the car in front, I’ll be pretty happy. And it just so happens there are a bunch of electric cars on the market with that kind of prowess.
Tesla has some positive traits — just not enough
It’d be foolish to say that Teslas are all bad, because that’s objectively not true. Despite the problems people, myself included, may have, the company has managed to do a great deal. Tesla offers a range of electric cars that offer some of the longest range and fastest speeds on the electric car market.
Similarly, its Supercharger network has coverage that other charging companies can only dream of right now — with consistently fast charging speeds to boot. The infinite customization options of the HVAC control screen is also a stroke of brilliance I wish other cars would adopt.
And yet, for me, the good stuff is seriously outweighed by the bad. Sure, a Tesla Model 3 may be able to drive up to 358 miles, and regain up to 175 miles in 15 minutes. But it doesn’t change the fact that I genuinely dislike the driving experience. I’d much rather stick to a car with slightly less range and charging convenience if it means I don’t actively dislike being behind the wheel. Until then my driveway will remain a Tesla-free zone.