The love/hate relationship between Consumer Reports and Tesla continued this week. Shortly after reporting that Model 3 owners are happier with their cars than the owners of any other cars on the planet, including the mighty Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette, the consumer testing agency announced that is was removing the Model 3 from its list of recommended cars due to concerns over reliability.
If it sounds to you like there is some cognitive dissonance taking place with respect to the Model 3, you’re right. On the one hand, this is the car that is singlehandedly giving traditional luxury car companies fits, outselling rivals like BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Acura by wide margins. On the other hand, Consumer Reports says the Model 3 has a raft of problems that Tesla seems unable to respond to effectively. The rift may reveal something deeper. Perhaps Consumer Reports doesn’t fully understand the Model 3?
Car shoppers have studied the Consumer Reports ratings for years, looking for clues about how reliable the models they were interested in buying might be. They visit showrooms with the latest Consumer Reports reliability ratings tucked under their arm and often know things the sales staff doesn’t. But is the Model 3 just another car or is it something else entirely — a computer on wheels that needs different tools to measure its quality?
Here at CleanTechnica we prefer to stay out of these spats. But Tesla has issued a refutation of the concerns raised by Consumer Reports, so in the interest of keeping the record straight, below is what Consumer Reports said and then what Tesla said in response. Make of it what you will.
Consumer Reports Fires The First Shot
In a blog post dated February 21, Consumer Reports (CR) wrote, “Consumer Reports can no longer recommend the newest Tesla — the Model 3 electric sedan — because members say they’ve identified a number of problems with their cars, including issues with its body hardware, as well as paint and trim. CR members reported these results in our annual reliability survey, which includes data on about 470,000 vehicles.”
“While Teslas perform well in Consumer Reports’ road tests and have excellent owner satisfaction, their reliability has not been consistent, according to our members, which has resulted in changes to their recommended status,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “In most cases, reliability issues will undermine satisfaction, but when a vehicle has an enthusiastic following, like with Tesla, owners may overlook some issues. We’ve seen this with other vehicles such as the Jeep Wrangler and Chevrolet Corvette.”
What are Model 3 owners complaining about? “[B]ody hardware and in-car electronics problems, such as the screen freezing, which we have seen with other Tesla models. The latest survey data also shows complaints about paint and trim issues. In addition, some members reported that the Model 3’s sole display screen acted strangely,” CR says. In addition, cracked rear windows have been a problem, something that happened to CR’s own test Model 3 when it was parked outside on a cold night.
Tesla issued this statement in response to the latest Consumer Report action: “Not only are our cars the safest and best performing vehicles available today, but we take feedback from our customers very seriously and quickly implement improvements any time we hear about issues. That’s just one of the reasons why, in this very same survey from Consumer Reports, Model 3 was rated as the #1 most satisfying car, and why Tesla vehicles have topped Consumer Reports’ Owner Satisfaction survey every year since 2013 — the first year Tesla was included in it.
“We have already made significant improvements to correct any issues that Model 3 customers may have experienced that are referenced in this report. This new data from Consumer Reports comes from their annual Owner Satisfaction survey, which runs from July through September, so the vast majority of these issues have already been corrected through design and manufacturing improvements, and we are already seeing a significant improvement in our field data.”
What’s It All About, Tesla?
Rather than attack Consumer Reports, Tesla has done the diplomatic thing and acknowledged there have been some issues with the Model 3 — which is a groundbreaking new car built on an all-new assembly line by a company that wasn’t even making cars a decade ago — but adding it is aware of the issues raised and has already taken corrective action. It correctly points out that the CR survey data is virtually obsolete, as the company incorporates hundreds of upgrades to its production cars each and every month. The teething pains Tesla has experienced with the Model 3 are the reason why many savvy shoppers refuse to buy a brand new model from any manufacture until it has been in production for at least a year.
Writing in Forbes, Larry Magid, himself a Model 3 owner, puts things in their proper perspective. He spoke with Patrick Olsen, the primary editor for automotive news at Consumer Reports and author of the latest blog post. Olson admitted his company only asks for information about problems people have experienced with their cars but does not ask anything about how the manufacturer responded to the issues raised.
Magid says his service experience with his personal car has been more than satisfactory. “Tesla also has 24/7 phone support,” he writes. “Some of the tech support people I’ve spoken with are extremely knowledgeable while others put me on hold while they researched my questions. But at least they have that support. The company also has what are called ‘rangers,’ a fleet of mobile technicians who will repair the car at the customer’s home or work.”
Tesla also has something almost no other manufacturer has — over-the-air software updates. When he had a problem disconnecting the charging cord from his Tesla, the company solved the problem with an OTA update the next day. “It would be better if customers didn’t have complaints, even those that are resolved and Tesla does seem to have its share of people who have had problems.”
But here’s the essential difference, the one thing you need to know in order to put the whole “Consumer Reports says Teslas have poor reliability” kerfluffle in perspective: Problems reported last spring are ancient history in the world of Tesla. Magid concludes, “My 2016 Prius isn’t any better than the day I bought it while my Tesla continues to get better with every software upgrade. That’s both the pleasure and pain of owning a car designed (and built) in Silicon Valley. It’s a computer on wheels and, like many PCs, subject to bugs but also open to upgrades and over-the-air fixes.”
In the final analysis, Consumer Reports has allowed the way it collects, analyzes, and disseminates data to be overtaken by technology. What happened last April or June or September is simply not relevant today. Consumer Reports may have some legitimate concerns about the reliability of Tesla automobiles, but it is caught in a time warp where its methods are as outdated as the printing press. While lambasting Tesla, it also needs to take a close look at itself in the mirror and ask why it continues to use yesterday’s analytic tools to assess today’s products.
What the world does not quite comprehend is that every Tesla is a work in progress, one that gets better over time. As Elon Musk often says, the Teslas coming off the assembly line today are the best cars the company has ever built, which means the best time to buy a Tesla is today.