2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011
At last, my number's been called.
As the holder of reservation number P 717 for a 2012 Tesla Model S, I've waited more than three years after putting down a $5,000 deposit on the sleek, all-electric sport sedan.
Since then, Tesla has kept my interest percolating with e-mail updates and promotional swag, including a coffee mug, a T-shirt, and a remote-control Roadster model.
But last month came the news I'd been waiting for: my production slot has been scheduled, and it was time to place my order and specify the color, battery size, and options I wanted. Delivery is slated for November or December.
The ordering process I've just gone through spotlights the ways in which the Tesla car-buying experience differs from the traditional one.
Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] has no franchised dealers, but rather a network of factory-owned retail "stores," typically located in high-end shopping districts and malls. (Their resemblance to Apple stores is no coincidence; Tesla hired George Blankenship, the guy who led the design and placement of the Apple stores.)
Introductory presentation at 2012 Tesla Model SEnlarge Photo
Tesla's vehicle service centers will be separate from the stores.
The primary purpose of the stores is to introduce casual passers-by to the Tesla brand, educate them about the cars, and direct them to the company website. The sale and delivery are handled on-line from company headquarters in Palo Alto.
In my case, the stores played no role in my buying decision; I was hooked long before the first Tesla store even opened.
With the arrival of the "It's Time to Build Your Model S" e-mail, I had 30 days to finalize my order without losing my place in the queue. I went to the online configurator, selected my colors and options, filled out some basic personal info, and pressed the send button.
After a couple of phone conversations with a young, helpful Tesla product specialist to smooth out some online bumps, I signed a Pre-Delivery Motor Vehicle Purchase Agreement.
And that's where it stands today.
Based on my experience so far, the Tesla system has its pros and cons. Among the pros:
Less sales pressure. A lot of people hate dealing with car salesmen, who have an often-deserved reputation for deception and high-pressure sales tactics.
For these buyers, the online sales approach will be a welcome relief. (Although Nissan has ended its attempt to sell the Leaf this way, handing the car over to dealers to sell conventionally.)
It's possible to buy a Model S without ever setting foot in a Tesla store. Based on the two stores I've visited, if you decide to visit one, the atmosphere will be friendly and low-key--offering info displays, interactive design-your-Tesla screens, and samples of interior fabrics and colors.
There will also be an actual car or two. But the prime role of Tesla store representatives is to educate the customer, not to close the deal. No surprise; they don't get commissions on the cars they help sell.
No price haggling. The price you see on the screen is the price you pay. Again, for people who hate the traditional car-buying process, this is a welcome relief.
Six 2012 Tesla Model S cars atEnlarge Photo
Delivery to your door. A Tesla rep will deliver the car to a location of your choice. I'm specifying my own driveway, but one early customer reportedly asked that his car be delivered to Disneyland. "Wherever makes you smile," says Blankenship.
However, based on my experience so far, there are also some downsides to the Tesla system:
Not enough cars to look at. Two big decisions I had to make were the exterior body color and the interior style and color. Tesla's online and in-store configurator shows a pretty picture of a car in any available color, and with any of the various interiors. But a picture on a screen is a long way from the real car.