Payne: Experts say Tesla has turned the corner on quality

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

It seems that Tesla Inc. quality is catching up to its technology.

Quality issues have dogged the Silicon Valley automaker even as it has become one of the most coveted brands in the luxury market. Under the microscope as the new kid on the block, its fit and finish issues have lagged its foreign and domestic peers.

But as its all-new, $50,000, 2020 Model Y compact crossover comes to market, the electric automaker is not only getting familiar praise for its performance — it’s getting strange new respect from some of its loudest quality control critics.

More:Payne: Tesla Model Y charges luxury SUV market with roomy SUV version of its Model 3

Credit a culture of innovation and a deep bench of some of America’s best engineers, said Sandy Munro, CEO of Auburn Hills-based Munro & Associates, who has watched Tesla grow with a critical eye. He said the automaker's investment in top talent cast off by Detroit and NASA during the Great Recession of 2008-2009 has paid dividends.

“They have had good people for a long time,” said Munro, who runs one of the world’s premier industrial benchmarking companies. Tesla CEO Elon Musk "hired the cream of the crop and brought them back (to California) and listened to what they had to say. Under the skin was done really well ... by these geniuses they picked up from NASA and the Detroit area. They don’t just have Silicon Valley guys — they cherry-picked the world.”

Sandy Munro, CEO of Munro & Associates manufacturing consultants, says the 2020 Tesla Model Y SUV has made great strides in build quality over the Model 3 sedan.

And now the skin is getting attention, too.

After dis-assembling a Model 3 in 2018, Munro declared that the electric sedan had “flaws we would see on a Kia in the ’90s” — a pointed reference to the cheap quality of early Korean entries in the U.S. market.

After taking apart a Model Y this spring, Munro has changed his tune. “It’s a well-designed car,” he said in an interview. “It’s so much better than the Model 3 — no comparison in fit and finish. They are miles apart.”

An auto manufacturing veteran and leading expert in integrated product development, Munro says Tesla still lags in some areas. But it has made a quantum leap from Kia ‘90s standard to the 21st century.

“Fit and finish right now is not the best — but is not the worst either,” he said. His engineering team will ultimately give the car a full grading. “My guess is it’ll will come out a 7-7 ½, something like that. Whereas a Bentley would be classified as a 9-9 1/2. So, you’re looking at something that’s now right in the middle.”

Quality issues have plagued Tesla over the last decade as its Fremont, California, plant sought to be innovative at the same time it rushed to bring cars to market to meet overwhelming demand. Tales of yawning panel gaps, blank screens and failed doors dogged its Model S, X, and 3 creations.

The 2020 Tesla Model Y (right) is similar to the brand's Model 3 sedan (left), but has made some significant quality improvements, say experts.

Consumer Reports — widely referenced for its reliability ratings — has given Tesla mixed reviews over the years. The Model 3, for example, has been on and off its recommended reliability list. For 2020, the customer guide rates the model 4th best in class out of 11 cars with only Lexus, Genesis and Audi superior. The Lexus IS topped the list at 84% reliability rating, Tesla came in at 59% while the BMW 3-Series and Alfa Romeo Giulia lagged last at 20% and 13% respectively.

Its critics have been fierce — and high profile.

The sentiment began to change last summer when ex-General Motors product guru Bob Lutz, a frequent critic of Tesla who has declared the company “doomed,” spied a Model 3 in an Ann Arbor parking lot.

“I was eager to see the oft-reported sloppy assembly work, the poor-fitting doors, blotchy paint, and other manifestations of ... Musk's ‘production hell,’” he wrote in Road and Track magazine. Lutz was pleasantly surprised at the 2019 model.

“Not only was the paint without any discernible flaw, but the various panels formed a body of precision that was beyond reproach. Gaps from hood to fenders, doors to frame, and all the others appeared to be perfectly even. This Model 3 measured up.”

The improvements in the Model 3 seemed a bridge to the Model Y, which — though containing the same fundamental chassis, battery and electronics as the tech-savvy Model 3 — has made significant changes to its architecture.

Munro & Assiciates rates the electric motors in the 2020 Tesla Model Y among the industry's most advanced.

In an exhaustive, 37-part series of videos on the “Munro Live” YouTube channel, Munro and his engineering team tore down the Model Y module-by-panel. While Munro marvels at the state-of-the-art electronics and electric motor (largely unchanged from the Model 3) that he says are generations ahead of the industry, he meticulously cataloged Tesla’s quality upgrades.

Among the advances was consistent riveting, modular door construction, and trunk aluminum casting — efficient manufacturing processes Munro recommends.

“When I saw the Tesla 3 I was really, really unhappy with the way they did the back end,” said Munro on YouTube. “I saw hundreds of parts that shouldn’t have been there."

The 2020 Tesla Model Y sports innovations like the "Octovalve" to control cooling in the SUV.

The Model Y has reduced that construction monstrosity — Munro estimates it required 100 parts -— to two essential aluminum castings totaling about 30 parts when assembled: “They have done a phenomenal job," he said, "and I love it.”

Tesla hasn’t solved all its issues. In late 2018, as Tesla tried to fill hundreds of thousands of orders for its popular, $40,000 Model 3, The Detroit News learned that about 20,000 models with a variety of paint blemishes piled up outside its Fremont factory. So flawed was the paint process that an outside company was brought in to buff sand the clear-coat while Tesla fixed its plant.

The plant has been reconditioned, but Munro says the paint finish still needs work. “Paint is still crap. I really don’t like it,” he said. “They really need to do something about that.”

Tesla declined to comment. Still, such details haven’t deterred consumers who have made Tesla the fourth best-selling luxury maker in the U.S. with 9.8% market share despite only offering three models. Its fourth, the Model Y, is expected to be its top seller. By comparison, BMW tops the market with 14.3% share selling 16 models.

Dick Amacher is a former GM engineer who worked in the late 1990s on then-General Motors Corp.'s first, 1990s electric car, the EV1 — a precursor to today's Chevy Bolt EV. But when it came to buying his first electric car, he chose a Model 3. Impressed, he has also purchased a Model Y SUV.

“I had absolutely no problems with Model 3,” he said in an interview, but had a coolant leak in his Model Y from a new heat pump not used in the sedan. “It’s a new design and has certain amount of innovation in it.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.