Model 3 owners report quality problems. Do they care?

Russ Mitchell
Los Angeles Times

Mark Schey of Morristown, N.J., stepped into his garage a few mornings ago eager to hop inside his shiny new car — the much desired and currently rare Tesla Model 3 electric sedan. The one with the 15-inch touchscreen on the bare-bones dash.

He flashed his electronic key card to unlatch the door, but nothing happened. He tried the iPhone app, but that didn’t work either.

There was no way to open the doors. There’s not even a backup metal key.

Schey figured he’d need to jump the 12-volt battery needed to power the doors open from the outside. But the hood was locked shut, too.

It turns out there’s a wafer-thin plastic cap flush with the front bumper covering a hole the size of a silver dollar. The Tesla technician sent to Schey’s home reached in and pulled out two thin cables. He clamped the cables to a portable battery and switched on the juice. The hood popped open.

That’s how you jump-start the most high-tech, cutting-edge automobile on the market today.

Schey couldn’t be happier.

“The Tesla service people were great,” he said. “I see this as growing pains.”

Whether there are tens of thousands of patient and forgiving customers like Schey, or only a few early adopters who look at the Model 3 as a fussy but desirable new tech toy may determine how much leeway Tesla has as it struggles with snail’s-pace production on its Fremont assembly line and faces early criticism over a variety of quality problems.

Tesla started making the Model 3 last July. Chief Executive Elon Musk at one time forecast the company would achieve a rate of 5,000 per week by the end of 2017, or 260,000 a year. From the car’s introduction in July through December, however, only 2,685 Model 3s were manufactured.

The assembly line and the company’s battery factory in Nevada remain mired in what Musk has called “production hell.” Tesla says it is turning out about 1,000 Model 3s a week.

The manufacturing woes appear to be causing a wide variety of quality issues in early versions. Online Tesla forums are rife with comments dead batteries, leaking tail lamps, protruding headlights, door rattles and body panels that don’t line up — and in many cases, they’ve got photos to back it up.

In a statement to the Times, the company said: “Tesla’s customer satisfaction scores for Model 3 vehicle quality and condition are at an all-time high of 94 percent — the best scores we’ve received from customers for quality and condition ever, across all of our vehicles, during early ownership. In the rare case a customer does have an issue, we take it very seriously, working closely with each owner to proactively address it.”

It’s not possible to determine yet the frequency of the quality problems. J.D. Power, the pre-eminent automobile quality research group, would like to include Tesla in its rankings, but “Tesla has not granted J.D. Power access to owners’ information so that a large enough sample of Tesla models can be included in the Vehicle Dependability Study,” said David Amodeo, a J.D. Power executive.

Consumer Reports ranks reliability through surveys of subscribers. In October, it predicted “average” quality for the Model 3, due to improvements Tesla had made in the Model S, but didn’t have data from Model 3 owners.

Parvis Ghajar of Calabasas told the Times he was a bit disappointed in his Model 3.

“The car is extremely noisy at speeds about 50-60 miles per hour,” he said. Ghajar also owns a Model S, which he likes, but said “this one is not as aerodynamic; it’s definitely more noisy inside because of the wind.”

But noise isn’t the only complaint from owners on the Tesla Motors Club site; others pick apart the appearance, mainly the poor fit of body panels.

Quality complaints are expected with any new car. But longtime automotive engineer Sandy Munro, whose firm tore down a Model 3 for a detailed inspection, said the quality problems are like “something we’ve never seen before, not since like the ’70s or something.” That’s when a poor record of quality among Detroit automakers helped create a receptive U.S. market for Toyota, Honda and other Japanese car companies.

Stephen Page, 68, a retiree living in Glendale, can’t wait to get his Model 3, no matter what.

Quality problems don’t dissuade him, he said. “Because they’ll fix it. My friend tells me they’re better at fixing things than putting them out.”