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.
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)
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.
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
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.
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
“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).
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.)
Tesla Model S P85D, 2015 Detroit Auto Show
The rich-guy syndrome almost certainly plays a role in the higher labor rates for Teslas, as they do with other premium brands like Mercedes and BMW.
If a guy can afford a $100,000 car, he should expect to pay a higher labor rate--just because he can. Higher labor rates suggest a higher level of quality and care, although that is not necessarily always the case.
Double the cost
The combination of labor rates nearly double the norm and the difficulties of working with aluminum—along with the need to disconnect and reconnect various electrical cables—virtually guarantee that labor costs to fix a Tesla dent may be double those for a standard car, or more.
Peotter confirmed this. “Damage that might cost $3,000 to fix on a Honda Accord," he said, "would be $6,000 on a Jaguar and $7,000 on a Tesla."
2012 Audi A6 aluminum and steel construction
Part of the shock by Tesla owners at body repair costs may be due to the fact that, for more than a few of us, the Tesla is our first foray into the world of high-end luxury cars.
For the first 48 years of my car-buying life, I had never spent more than $23,000 (or its years-ago equivalent) on a car. Writing a check for $88,000 for a car was surreal.
And, I suppose, my first body-repair bill may be equally surreal.
Some of the most outlandish estimates reported are far more than double the cost of standard cars.
In case after case, Tesla owners report getting shockingly high estimates from Tesla-authorized shops--then getting the repair done at a non-Tesla shop for as little as a third of the cost.
Stolen Tesla Model S splits in half, catches fire after massive crash in LA area
The owner who got the $11,000 estimate for a minor scrape took his car to a non-Tesla operation that was savvy about aluminum, and came recommended by local Mercedes and Audi owners. That shop's estimate: $1,850.
It appears possible that a few Tesla-authorized body shops may be taking advantage of their hard-won exclusive status.
Unfortunately, Tesla owners don’t always have the choice of going to non-Tesla-authorized shops.
In cases where there is structural damage, beyond mere scrapes and dents, Tesla will not sell parts to non-authorized shops.
The insurance angle
Of course, it’s rarely the owner who pays for the repairs.
2012 Tesla Model S body-in-white
The insurance company foots the bill, so some might ask why the owner should care. Others might worry that Model S insurance rates will also be twice the cost of those for a regular car.
Thankfully, so far, that doesn’t seem to be happening with Tesla insurance.
Right now, collision and comprehensive insurance rates for the Tesla Model S seem pretty reasonable. I pay $622 a year, which isn't much more than the collision/comp rate on my wife's Mini Cooper.
Other owners report similar rates.
Fingers crossed it stays that way.