Tesla Model S Aluminum Body: Why Repair Costs Are Higher

As more and more Tesla Model S electric sport sedans hit the road—50,000-plus at last count—some of their drivers are naturally starting to have accidents.

They are bumping into other cars, colliding with deer, scraping telephone poles, and backing up into poles and trees.

Their cars are suffering all the other dents, scratches, and dings that are an almost inevitable part of a car's life.

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Fortunately, I have done none of those things in my 85-kilowatt-hour 2013 Tesla Model S.


But I have to admit I’m starting to dread the day it happens.

NHTSA Tesla Model S crash test (Image: crashnet1 Youtube screen grab)

NHTSA Tesla Model S crash test (Image: crashnet1 Youtube screen grab)

The reason: a growing stream of owner reports of downright shocking Tesla repair bills and estimates for scratches, dents, and minor collisions.

“Cost of repair crazy high” is how one Model S owner puts it in a thread on the Tesla Motor Club online owners forum.

He describes a minor front-end collision, from which he was able to drive away, that cost him $20,327 to repair.

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Visible damage was limited to the front left fender, lights, and the corner of the hood. But the bill listed 92 hours of labor and almost $8,000 in parts, including a single self-piercing rivet billed at $35.

Other owners report a litany of outlandish repair costs or estimates. Among them:

  • A $10,000 estimate to repair a “minor but long” scratch
  • A $45,000 estimate for “minor front-end damage"
  • A $7,000 estimate for repair of a small dent and scratch that required no replacement of parts
  • A $30,000 estimate for “minor fender and door damage"
  • An $11,000 estimate for a minor scrape on the rear panel, including a $155 charge to “ensure battery remains charged” during the repair.

Based on these reports, and many other similar ones, it appears that a small child with a baseball bat could total a $100,000 Model S in about 30 seconds with a few well-placed whacks.

2012 Tesla Model S body-in-white

2012 Tesla Model S body-in-white

Aluminum is tricky

There are a number of legitimate reasons that a Tesla Model S is more expensive to repair than a standard car.

First of all, the structure and body panels are made almost entirely of aluminum.

MORE: Life With Tesla Model S: Tires Cost Me More Than My 'Fuel' Does

Although it has many advantages over steel—lighter weight, better absorption of crash energy, better corrosion resistance—aluminum is more difficult to work with than steel.

“Aluminum has no memory,” explains Larry Peotter of Peotter’s Auto Body, a Tesla-authorized shop in Summit, New Jersey.

2012 Tesla Model S body-in-white

2012 Tesla Model S body-in-white

“Unlike steel, you can’t pull the frame or structural parts back into place. And it’s much harder to repair a dent."

"You try and work it, like a steel car, and it ends up losing strength," he explained. "It pops in and out like a soda can.”

Aluminum structure and body panels make far greater use of  rivets and bonding agents, which are time-consuming and expensive ($100 per tube for the sealant recommended by Tesla).

Factory training

Like other high-end aluminum car manufacturers—Audi, Jaguar, and Range Rover among them—Tesla requires substantial factory training and specialized equipment for its authorized body shops.

Peotter says he was required to buy about $100,000 in additional equipment and tools to become a Tesla-authorized shop—in addition to equipment he already had in the shop to work on aluminum Jaguars.

He had to buy a special cradle to drop out the half-ton Tesla battery, for instance, in case structural repairs required its removal.

The Tesla factory training class lasts fully three weeks; according to Peotter, it is more in-depth and more intensive than Jaguar’s. It’s also more expensive for the shop.

As a result of these higher training and equipment costs, Peotter’s shop rate for Teslas is higher than its Jaguar aluminum rates--and nearly double the rate of a standard car. (Peotter won’t say exactly what the rates are.)

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