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Tesla fanatics are paying $50,000 to hot-rod their electric cars

Hannah Elliott
Bloomberg

Under its highest settings, a Tesla Model S can hit 60 mph in 2.4 seconds. That’s an extraordinary speed — faster than most things, electric or not. It beats a Lamborghini Huracan by half a second.

For some people, that’s not fast enough.

The Tesla Model S.

Enter Unplugged Performance, the tuning shop next door to Tesla headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., that guarantees its modifications will shave seconds off your personal best lap times.

Co-founder Ben Schaffer says he wants Unplugged Performance to be to Tesla what AMG is to Mercedes-Benz — an in-house tuner that works with the brand to enhance the performance and look of its cars.

“Not only people who have BMW M3s should be able to look cool and go fast around a track,” says company co-founder Ben Schaffer. “Our Tesla can beat them around the track, too, and look cool doing it.”

Schaffer was calling from Thailand, en route to Tokyo, on his way to evangelize Asian auto enthusiasts who have tuned Toyotas, Nissans and Mazdas for decades — but who, until recently, would not have considered giving an American-made electric sedan the same treatment. (Japan, it seems, is one of the last holdouts when it comes to Tesla proliferation.)

The six-year-old company evolved out of Schaffer’s former career in modifying Japanese cars such as the Nissan GT-R. It’s not the only tuner that works exclusively with electric vehicles — Evannex does it in Deerfield, Fla.; Mountain Pass Performance soups up Model 3s in Ontario — but Unplugged Performance is the best-known. The brand organizes Tesla Corsa, an enthusiast group that operates track-driving days exclusive to Tesla owners across the country.

The market for electric driving clubs is small but growing, say insiders.

“We are seeing more and more Tesla owners who want to do stuff together,” says Kyle Conner, an electric-vehicle enthusiast and the founder of Out of Spec Motoring, which operates an EV-dedicated racetrack in North Carolina. He set a record for the fastest coast-to-coast drive in an electric vehicle last summer, when he drove a Tesla Model 3 from New York to Los Angeles in 45 hours and 16 minutes. “It’s cool to see people getting into the fun side of electric motoring,” he continued. “We need more of that.”

But “tuning” a battery-powered vehicle is very different from “tuning” something powered by an internal combustion engine. The upgrades and modifications do not include adjusting the power settings on the car’s motor.

Most of the improvements involve making the car lighter or more aerodynamic. Kevin Lee, whose 2018 Tesla Model S P100 underwent four months of tuning, says “It’s not about increasing the performance of the electric motor — it’s more about amplifying the experience.”

For Lee, Unplugged Performance added a wide-body kit of 19 separate carbon fiber panels, lightweight forged wheels, Michelin Pilot sport tires with titanium lug nuts, carbon ceramic brakes, high-performance shocks and air suspension, an interior upgrade of royal blue leather and dark gray Alcantara, satin-white exterior wrap, and a ceramic clear coat on the outside of the car for additional protection against rock chips. (The car has its own Instagram page.)

“I wanted a sexy, sporty and unique version of the Model S,” says Lee.

Such upgrades give the cars an edge over the stock options that come direct from the factory, even if they lack the significance of horsepower and torque improvements in a gas-fueled car. The company’s 20-inch UP-03 Carbon Fiber wheels, for instance, use carbon fiber barrels to achieve a fighting weight of just over 16 pounds per wheel. According to company diagnostics, they reduce the rotational mass (how easy it is to stop and start a rolling object) of each wheel by more than 50%.

The company’s 20 employees also make carbon fiber aero kits of side skirts, spoilers and front fascia from an impact-resistant, proprietary blend of polymer. The kits extend the width of each car and increase the arch of the front lip or the rear spoiler, all in the name of enhancing aerodynamics. A front lip spoiler bolted onto a Model 3 will decrease drag 6.6%, Schaffer says, and increase downforce 35.4% — improvements that admittedly will be imperceptible to all but the most discerning drivers over hours of track time.

Body conversions can be configured to showcase visible carbon fiber, or painted to match the vehicle’s body color. They consist of 19 pieces of dry carbon fiber body, which increase the overall width of the car by 40 millimeters per corner.

Pricing for the most basic aftermarket adjustments starts at $800; performance brake pads, which decrease the time it takes to stop, start at $150. The Model 3 package that Unplugged Performance debuted at the Special Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) meeting in Las Vegas in November runs about $35,000. The full treatment on a Model S can go up to $50,000.

As with anything Tesla, there is more than one field of detraction. For starters, some work on the car from Unplugged Performance is not covered under Tesla warranty. (Unplugged Performance offers its own terms and conditions to cover the guarantee.) Other critics say such bolted-on upgrades like the body kits are superficial, at best.

But the biggest argument against Tesla-tuning is that the hardware and software inside Teslas — not a front fender or spoiler kit — is where the real boost is needed.

“The true aftermarket on Tesla is going to be software, something the average person can’t do,” says Alex Roy, an outspoken automotive TV host.

He also questions the quality and style of the EV modifications currently available on the market.

Nonetheless, Schaffer contends that business is robust. “Tesla has never really devoted a lot of resources to differentiation among its cars, so there is a lot of room for us to do that,” he says.