When Tesla launched the Model S in 2012 it was light years ahead of the company’s competition. While more established brands had created electric cars, nothing was more advanced than the Model S.
The Model S not only offered an excellent electric drivetrain, but it also featured great styling as well, something that pretty much all electric cars lacked in 2012.
Today, the Model S is still being produced, but for those who are looking to purchase a second-hand version we have created a complete used car buying guide for the Tesla Model S. In this buyer’s guide you will learn everything you need to know to find yourself the best Model S you can find.
How to Use This Tesla Model S Buying Guide?
This is quite a long guide so make sure you use the table of contents below to skip to the section you want to read (or just read it all). We have not only included information on buying a Model S, but we have also put together some information on the history of the car and its specifications.
Table of Contents
History of the Tesla Model S
Despite launching in 2012, the Tesla Model S was actually announced way back in 2008, just five years after the company was founded. The announcement of the Model S signaled a new beginning for the electric car company.
Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, was heavily based on the Lotus Elise and was in many ways a taste of what was to come in the future. It was the first all-electric production car to travel more than 320 km (200 miles) on a single charge and it showed the world that electric vehicles could not only be practical, but also stylish.
While the Roadster was an excellent first attempt at a proper all-electric production sports car, Elon Musk and other key members of the Tesla team had a different intention for the future of the company. They didn’t want to just be another sports car company, they wanted to bring electric cars to the masses and knew they needed a more practical car to do so.
The four-door Model S would be their first real step to achieving this goal. The first official announcement of the development of the car would come in a press release on the 30 June 2008, and the first prototype was displayed at a press conference on March 26 the next year.
From the outset it was clear that the young American car manufacturer meant business. The Model S’s clean smooth lines were styled by a team led by Franz von Holzhausen, who previously worked for Mazda’s North American team.
Interestingly, early in the Model S’s development it was reported that Tesla was planning to offer a range-extended version of the Model S. This version would have included a petrol/gasoline engine that was designed to increase the vehicle’s driving range. However, the idea of a range-extended Model S would be crushed in September 2008, when CEO, Elon Musk announced that Tesla would develop electric cars only.
Tesla’s board originally planned to produce the Model S at a new factory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, this idea was canned and in May 2010 it was announced that the new car would be produced at the former NUMMI assembly plant in Fremont, California, now known as the Tesla Factory.
By 2011, Tesla was ready to show off their full prototype of the production Model S and one year later the car entered proper production.
The Tesla Model S
Tesla’s new car was an instant hit. It received awards from several automotive and environmental publications, and like the Roadster before, it set a new standard for what an all-electric car should be.
One of the key differences between the Model S and other electric cars at the time was that the former was designed from the ground up to be an electric car. As a result, the Model S not only features a large rear trunk/boot space, but it also features a sizeable front trunk space for luggage. The front crumple zone was also enlarged when compared to normal combustion engined vehicles.
At the front of the car, the Model S featured a black plastic panel instead of a front grille and LED headlights that were far ahead of the bi-xenon ones fitted to most vehicles from the period.
The interior of the Model S was also vastly different to much of its combustion engined competition with a minimalist design. Tesla moved almost all the controls to a massive 17-inch touch screen placed in the centre of the dashboard, a feature that would be carried over to the company’s future vehicles.
Another massive difference between the Model S and more conventional cars was the ability for over-the-air updates via the car’s internet connectivity. Tesla’s engineers have managed to add features and fix problems with the Model S over the years by simply sending an update to their vehicles on the road.
Powering the Model S
To power the Model S, Tesla gave the car a three-phase, four-pole AC induction electric motor that was mounted at the rear. The electric motor powered the rear wheels of the Model S via an open differential.
In the latter part of 2014, Tesla announced the introduction of a “Dual Drive” all-wheel drive system for the certain versions of the Model S. Cars fitted with the Dual Drive dual motor system featured an open differential at both ends, with power distribution between them being controlled electronically rather than mechanically.
When it first launched the Model S was given a 60 kWh battery as standard with a range of 335 km (208 miles), however, a larger 85 kWh battery pack with a range of 426 km (265 miles) was also available.
The Model S’s range of energy dense battery packs and its low drag coefficient meant that the car was much more efficient than its electric competition at launch and it is still is incredibly efficient today.
Along with the 60 and 85 kWh options, Tesla also announced that the Model S would be available with a much smaller 40 kWh battery pack. However, this option would never make it to market as only 4% of customers pre-ordered the option. For those buyers who did pre-order the 40 kWh Model S, Tesla sent them 60 kWh cars with the charge software limited to 40 kWh. These limited Model S variants could then be upgraded to unlock the full potential of the 60 kWh battery pack.
The Naming Schedule
To indicate the model, Tesla based the naming schedule on the size of the battery pack. Cars with the 60 kWh battery pack were labelled the Model S 60, while versions with the larger 85 kWh pack were designated Model S 85. Variants with the “Dual Drive” system had a D added to the number designation (Model S 85D for example).
The futuristic electric powertrain wasn’t the only impressive piece of technology in the Model S. In 2014, Tesla introduced the ‘Autopilot’ driver assist feature as an optional add-on. By the end of the year, the company decided to fit all new Model S cars with the camera, radar, and ultrasonic sensor necessary to make the Autopilot system work. The Autopilot system could be activated at a later date for those who did not opt for the feature at the initial purchase of the car.
2015 – More Capacity
In April 2015, Tesla decided to discontinue the Model S 60 and replaced it with the Model S 70 with a 70 kWh battery. Buyers of the S 70 had the option of either a rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive layout. Tesla reintroduced the S 60 the next year as a software-limited 75 model that could be upgraded much like the earlier 40 kWh variants.
Along with the Model S 70 and 70D, Tesla introduced larger battery variants known as the 90, 90D and P90D. The upgrade to a 90 kWh battery rating was largely down to “improved cell chemistry” that offered a 6% increase in energy over the older 85 kWh battery pack.
The P90D was essentially the highest end model with the greatest performance. Tesla also introduced a new feature known as “ludicrous mode” with the P90D, which essentially unlocked the full performance of the vehicle.
2016 – Updates & Changes
More changes to the Model S line-up came in 2016. At the start of the year the 85 kWh battery option was discontinued in a range of countries including the United States, Canada and Australia.
The biggest piece of Model S news during the year was the introduction of a 100 kWh battery option with a range of 507 km (315 miles). This new P100D model would take the top spot in the Model S range and Tesla gave it their “ludicrous mode” feature first seen on the P90D.
Along with the introduction of a 100 kWh battery pack, Tesla also gave the entire Model S lineup a facelift. Gone was the faux-front grille that made the Model S look more like a more conventional combustion engined car.
More interior options were added, including an entirely vegan interior, and a glass roof became another option as well. Compared to the $2,000 panoramic roof, the entirely glass one cost around $500 less. With this addition, the three roof options became a standard painted one, the new solid glass roof, and finally the panoramic roof.
Another update for 2016 was the introduction of the second version of Autopilot. This new version of Autopilot was made standard on all models from October 2016.
2017 – Performance Boost & Interior Options
The biggest change for 2017 was the increase in performance across the Model S range. The Model S 75’s 0 – 100 km/h (62 mph) time reduced from 5.5 seconds to 4.3 seconds, while the dual-motor 75D went from 5.2 seconds to 4.2 seconds, and finally the Model S 100D’s time dropped 0.1 seconds to 4.1 seconds.
Mileage was also increased with the 90D now being able to travel 294 miles on a full charge up from 270 miles, while the P90D increased to 270 miles up from 253 miles. Tesla claimed that the increase in range was due to several hardware and software improvements.
In April 2017, Tesla ceased offering the 60 kWh software-limited option, making the 75 kWh model the lowest-capacity model. At the same time, Tesla significantly reduced software upgrade options for facelifted 60 and 70 versions of the Model S that let them be upgraded over the internet to 75 models.
2018 – Panoramic Roof Dropped & More Streamlined Options
In 2018 Tesla decided to streamline the optional extras for the Model S. The panoramic roof was removed, along with the black textile interior, 21-inch Black Arachnid wheels, and the rear-facing child seats. They also decided to end the referral program that included lifetime supercharging for the original owner.
2019 – 75 Dropped & Range Increased
With the lower end, smaller capacity segment covered by cars in the Model 3 lineup, Tesla decided to remove the 75 kWh option, leaving only two 100 kWh versions of the Model S left. These two models included the Long Range (100D) and the Performance (P100D).
The Long Range model also received some updates to boost total range on a single charge to 595 km (370 miles), significantly more than what the first Model Ss could achieve. This increase in range was largely achieved by the inclusion of a new generation drive unit (fitted to all Model S versions) and the addition of low-rolling-resistance tyres.
The new generation of drive unit combines an optimised permanent magnet synchronous reluctance motor, with silicon carbide power electronics, improved cooling, lubrication, gears and bearings to achieve an impressive efficiency of 93%.
With a permanent magnet motor in the front, an induction motor in the rear, and the updates made above, the Model S not only received an increase of more than 10% in range, but power and torque levels were up significantly as well.
Along with the introduction of a more efficient drivetrain, the charging capabilities of Tesla’s Supercharger network was also increased. Charging capability went from 145 kW on V2 Superchargers to 200 kW on V3 ones, allowing customers to recharge their cars 50% faster.
The last major change in 2019 was the addition of a fully-adaptive damping suspension system. This new adaptive suspension delivers a more comfortable setting for highway driving and a more responsive, stiffer setting for dynamic driving situations.
Tesla completely developed the new suspension system in-house and it uses a predictive model that anticipates how much damping will be needed based on the road condition, speed, other vehicles around the car and driver inputs.
2020 – Model S Plaid
With growing competition from the likes of Porsche and their all-electric Taycan, Tesla needed something to put the Model S back on top of its segment. In 2020, Elon Musk announced Tesla’s newest performance version of the Model S, the tri-motor, all-wheel drive Plaid.
According to Musk and Tesla, this new top of the range Model S Plaid will produce as much as 1,100 horsepower and will be capable of hitting 100 km/h (62 mph) in under two seconds and a top speed of 322 km/h (200 mph). Range between charges will also see a significant boost, increasing to around 837 km (520 miles), putting the Model S significantly ahead of its competition once again.
In October 2020, Musk confirmed that the Model S Plaid will be fitted with the company’s new structural battery and more efficient 4680 cells that were announced during its Battery Day Event the previous month. This new battery system will not only help the Plaid achieve its incredible range, but it will also lower the weight of the vehicle while increasing structural rigidity.
The Model S Plaid will be available in 2021 for a price of $139,990.
Tesla Model S Specifications & Versions
Below you can find the specifications of the Model S and all the different versions sold to date. Note: models with a D (90D for example) indicate that the car features Tesla’s “Dual Drive” all-wheel drive system, while models with a P (P100D for example) indicate that the model is a performance one and it will be capable of entering “ludicrous” mode.
Battery & Power
|60||60 kWh||302 hp (225 kW)||430 Nm (317 lb-ft)|
|60D||60 kWh||329 hp (245 kW)||525 Nm (387 lb-ft)|
|70||70 kWh||315 hp (235 kW)||441 Nm (325 lb-ft)|
|70D||70 kWh||329 hp (245 kW)||525 Nm (387 lb-ft)|
|75||75 kWh||315 hp (235 kW)||441 Nm (325 lb-ft)|
|75D||75 kWh||329 hp (245 kW)||658 Nm (485 lb-ft)|
|85||85 kWh||373 hp (278 kW)||441 Nm (325 lb-ft)|
|P85||85 kWh||380 hp (283 kW)||441 Nm (325 lb-ft)|
|P85+||85 kWh||470 hp (350 kW)||601 Nm (443 lb-ft)|
|85D||85 kWh||417 hp (311 kW)||658 Nm (485 lb-ft)|
|P85D||85 kWh||463 hp (345 kW)||931 Nm (687 lb-ft)|
|90D||90 kWh||417 hp (311 kW)||658 Nm (485 lb-ft)|
|P90D||90 kWh||532 hp (397 kW)||931 Nm (687 lb-ft)|
|100D||100 kWh||517 hp (386 kW)||660 Nm (487 lb-ft)|
|P100D||100 kWh||605 hp (451 kW)||967 Nm (713 lb-ft)|
|Standard Range||80 kWh||329 hp (245 kW)||658 Nm (485 lb-ft)|
|Long Range||100 kWh||517 hp (386 kW)||660 Nm (487 lb-ft)|
|Plaid (not released)||N/A||1100 hp (820 kW)||N/A|
|Performance||100 kWh||785 hp (585 kW)||967 Nm (713 lb-ft)|
|Model||0 – 100 km/h (62 mph)||Top Speed||Range (EPA)|
|60||5.8 s||210 km/h (130 mph)||338 km (210 miles)|
|60D||5.4 s||210 km/h (130 mph)||351 km (218 miles)|
|70||5.8 s||230 km/h (143 mph)||370 km (230 miles)|
|70D||5.4 s||230 km/h (143 mph)||386 km (240 miles)|
|75||4.5 s||230 km/h (143 mph)||401 km (249 miles)|
|75D||4.4 s||230 km/h (143 mph)||417 km (259 miles)|
|85||5.6 s||230 km/h (143 mph)||426 km (265 miles)|
|P85||4.4 s||210 km/h (130 mph)||426 km (265 miles)|
|P85+||4.4 s||210 km/h (130 mph)||426 km (265 miles)|
|85D||5.2 s||250 km/h (155 mph)||435 km (270 miles)|
|P85D||3.3 s||250 km/h (155 mph)||407 km (253 miles)|
|90D||4.0 s||250 km/h (155 mph)||473 km (294 miles)|
|90D||3.0 s||250 km/h (155 mph)||435 km (270 miles)|
|100D||4.3 s||250 km/h (155 mph)||539 km (335 miles)|
|P100D||2.6 s||250 km/h (155 mph)||507 km (315 miles)|
|Standard Range||4.2 s||250 km/h (155 mph)||459 km (285 miles)|
|Long Range||3.8 s||250 km/h (155 mph)||628 km (390 miles)|
|Plaid||2.0 s||320 km/h (200 mph)||837 km (520 miles)|
|Performance||2.6 s||262 km/h (163 mph)||560 km (348 miles)|
Body & Chassis
|Model||Number of Seats||Dimensions (mm)||Curb Weight|
|60||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||1961 kg (4323 lbs)|
|60D||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||2090 kg (4607 lbs)|
|70||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||2000 kg (4409 lbs)|
|70D||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||2090 kg (4607 lbs)|
|75||5/7||4978 x 1963 x 1445||2000 kg (4409 lbs)|
|75D||5/7||4978 x 1963 x 1445||2090 kg (4607 lbs)|
|85||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||2108 kg (4647 lbs)|
|P85||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||2112 kg (4656 lbs)|
|P85+||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||2146 kg (4731 lbs)|
|85D||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||2188 kg (4823 lbs)|
|P85D||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||2239 kg (4936 lbs)|
|90D||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||2200 kg (4850 lbs)|
|P90D||5/7||4971 x 1963 x 1445||2250 kg (4960 lbs)|
|100D||5/7||4978 x 1963 x 1445||2215 kg (4883 lbs)|
|P100D||5/7||4978 x 1963 x 1445||2241 kg (4940 lbs)|
|Standard Range||5/7||4978 x 1963 x 1445||2090 kg (4607 lbs)|
|Long Range||5/7||4978 x 1963 x 1445||2215 kg (4883 lbs)|
|Plaid||5/7||4978 x 1963 x 1445||2241 kg (4940 lbs)|
|Performance||5/7||4978 x 1963 x 1445||2241 kg (4940 lbs)|
Used Tesla Model S Buyer’s Guide
Now that you know the history and specifications of the Tesla Model S, let’s take a look at what you need to know about buying one. While the Model S is overall a very reliable car, if things do go wrong or parts need to be replaced it can get expensive fast.
Another issue that often adds to the cost of repairing a Model S is the lack of service centres. Depending on where you live this may be a major or minor problem (talk to the owner to see where they go to get the car serviced/fixed).
With the above being the case, it is incredibly important that thoroughly inspect and test any Model S you are interested in. Buy the best used Model S you can find, and you should have many miles of problem free motoring.
Arranging an Inspection of a Tesla Model S
When arranging an inspection of a used Model S it is a good idea to try and set it up at the seller’s house (or wherever they store the car). The reason for this is so that you can get a good idea of where they live and where the car is stored.
Another thing to consider is the weather. If it is raining and the car is wet, try to rearrange the inspection for another day when it is dry. Water can hide a number of problems with the bodywork/paint on a car, which could lead to a nasty surprise after you purchase the Model S.
This tip also applies to cars that have just been washed. If the owner/seller washes the car just before you arrive and it hasn’t dried, be cautious of any hidden bodywork issues.
One last tip is to bring a friend or helper with you. They may be able to spot something you missed during the inspection and they can also give an opinion on what they think of the Model S you are interested in.
Is It Okay to Purchase a Model S Without Physically Inspecting It?
We always recommend that you or a reliable third party physically inspects any vehicle before purchase. Buying a Model S based on the seller’s photos and descriptions opens you up to massive risk and the possibility of some extremely expensive bills when you get the car.
The only exception to this rule is if you are buying the used Model S from a trusted Tesla dealer who has rated the car highly.
What Should You Pay for a Model S?
This is a very difficult question to answer as it depends on a whole host of factors from the condition of the Model S, to where it is located, what specification it is and more. For example, a low mileage P100D in good condition is going to command a much higher price on the second-hand market than an early Model S 60 with high mileage.
To get a good idea of what you need to spend we suggest that you jump on your local auction/classifieds website or check out local dealers. You can then use the Model S prices from these websites/dealers and form a general idea of what you need to spend to get the model you want.
Which Tesla Model S Should You Buy?
In simple terms you should get a Model S with the highest capacity battery you can afford and find. The bigger the battery, the greater the performance in terms of both acceleration and range. Additionally, a Model S with a bigger battery will be easier to sell in the future and will provide more usable range as the battery pack deteriorates overtime.
Which Year Tesla Model S Should You Buy?
This once again comes down to budget. It is usually recommended that you go for models produced from 2016 onwards and those that have Auto Pilot 2 hardware. Early models were a bit of a hit or miss with quality control and reliability, so try to avoid those if possible (warranties are also starting to expire on many of these early cars).
Buying from Tesla vs a Third Party?
You are almost certainly going to get better protection if you buy a used Model S directly from Tesla vs some other third-party dealer or seller. Tesla can add extra warranty support to your purchase (at the time of writing it is 1 year or up to 16,000 km/10,000 miles). Most cars are still covered by a warranty, but over the coming years they will expire, which makes the extra year of warranty quite a nice bonus.
If the Model S you are looking at has travelled over 80,000 km (50,000 miles) or is over 4 years old it will not have a full warranty unless it was bought used and the warranty was extended.
Independent dealers will often include or offer a limited warranty with a purchase of a vehicle. While this is good, we recommend that you thoroughly read the conditions of the warranty and what it covers.
The selection from independent sellers is going to be much greater as part exchange prices are poor, so most sellers go private. Many of the used cars at a Tesla dealership will be ex-lease, so bare that in mind as well.
If you are on a really strict budget we recommend that you try go private/third party. For those who don’t mind paying a bit more for better piece of mind it may be a good idea to source a used Model S from Tesla.
One other important thing to keep in mind is that many third-party dealers or sellers simply do not understand the Model S and the options that it comes/came with. Many sellers will falsely advertise a car’s features (such as saying it has ludicrous mode when it doesn’t), so be extra cautious when purchasing from a third-party or private seller.
Many dealers and private sellers will also quote that the car they are selling has a much higher range than it actually does. We have included the range of the different models in the specifications earlier in this article, so check the figure that the seller gives you against those. Note: range can also depend on a number of factors from the temperature of the environment the car is in, to what the battery condition is and more.
Tesla Model S Inspection Guide
In the next section we will cover everything you need to know about inspecting a Tesla Model S.
Checking the VIN on a Model S
The VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) is a series of numbers and characters that car manufacturers like Tesla assign to an individual vehicle. The VIN can tell you quite a lot of information about a Model S from its specs to its service history and more.
Tesla has a handy VIN decoder on their website, which we recommend you use. Below you can see what the different VIN digits mean:
- Characters 1-3 – World manufacturer identifier (5YJ is United States).
- Digit 4 – Model (S = Model S).
- Digit 5 – Body type (A = 5 Door Hatchback).
- Digit 6 – Restraint system.
- Digit 7 – Battery type, but not usually battery size (E = Lithium-Ion Battery).
- Digit 8 – Motor/Drive unit (4 = Performance Dual Motor – Three Phase A/C Induction).
- Digit 9 – This is a check sum digit that will vary depending on the other digits in the VIN.
- Digit 10 – Is a year digit. This has previously been the year of manufacturer but Tesla now. seem to use this as a model year digit.
- Digit 11 – Place of manufacture (Should be F for Fremont California in most circumstances).
- Digits 12 to 17 – Serial number digits. For early models digit 12 was given the letter P.
Descriptions of the VIN can change year-on-year, so while you should find that the above is pretty accurate, you may find some discrepancies with the Model S you are inspecting.
Where Can I Find the VIN on a Tesla Model S?
There are a number of places that a specific Model S’s VIN can be found. We have listed these below:
- On a metal plate on the dash. This is visible from the outside of the car through the bottom of the window on the driver’s side.
- On the white Vehicle Certification Label on the centre pillar which is visible when the door is open.
- On a white label on the right of the hatch lip visible when the rear hatch is open (this is not on every car).
- In the front trunk/luggage storage space (frunk) under the centre maintenance panel that is near the windshield. This VIN should be stamped on the chassis.
- On the Tesla website when you sign in (the VIN should appear to the left of your vehicle image).
- At the bottom of the Tesla phone app where the software version appears (Scroll to the bottom)
It is a good idea to check that all these VIN numbers match (especially the body ones) as if they do not it may indicate that the Model S you are looking at has been in an accident or had some sort of other issue. For the last two points ask the owner/seller if they can show you the VIN.
Overall, there really isn’t too much to worry about when it comes to the newer drivetrains on a Model S. The electric motors should require no real maintenance and should last for years (here’s a Model S that has reached 500,000 miles with almost no problems at all).
Despite this, it is still a good idea to keep an ear out for any strange noises that may indicate a problem with the electric drivetrain. Make sure you turn off the climate control and any music playing while you do this as the car is whisper quiet, Additionally, winding down the windows will make it easier to hear any problems. Don’t be alarmed if you hear a faint whirring sound during acceleration or deceleration as this is perfectly normal, however, loud whining or grinding sounds are a sign of a serious issue.
The biggest area of concern is with older models that were produced up until 2015 (mainly 2013 – 2014 models). Tesla needed to replace the drive unit in the majority of these early Model S cars, so it is important to check if this work was done under warranty. If it has not been done, we would probably avoid that particular car as the warranties on most of them are coming to an end.
The main issues that lead to the replacement of these drive units was bearing damage due to induced magnetic fields and wear on the splines that was caused by inadequate lubrication from the factory. A buzzsaw sound coming from the drive unit usually indicates this problem (do not purchase a Model S with this issue!).
Following on from the problems with the drivetrain, Tesla decided to redesign the drive units in the Model S, which means that later model cars or those with new units should have no problem getting into the many hundreds of thousands of miles.
The biggest area of concern for most buyers of a used Tesla Model S is going to be the condition of the battery. How quickly a battery degrades can depend on a number of different factors, but for most owners it shouldn’t be a problem for years.
As you can see from the graph below, most Model S’ tend to lose around 5% of range at 80,000 km (50,000 miles) and around 7 to 8% of range at around 240,000 km (150,000 miles). Some cars will experience more battery degradation than others, so make sure you check this when you inspect any Model S.
Tesla also guarantees their batteries for up to 8 years or 240,000 km (150,000 miles), so try to look for a Model S well under these limits if possible.
Another important thing to note is that modern batteries fitted to later versions of the Model S higher capacities than the early batteries. For example, a modern Model S 75 has almost the same capacity as an old 85 kWh model (another reason to go with newer Teslas).
If the battery case is scratched or dented the battery pack may need to be replaced. Use a mirror to see the bottom side of the vehicle and check for any damage. Additionally, see if all the mounting hardware is still present as if it is not it is a sign that the battery as been replaced at some point.
90 kWh Battery Issues
There has been some talk about the 90 kWh battery pack showing some rapid degradation that quickly levels off. Some owners have also reported that maximum supercharging speed on their Model S 90 cars has dropped by about 10% since new.
This seems to have only affected a select few early Model S 90 cars, but it is a good idea to keep this in the back of your mind when inspecting one. Additionally, we recommended that you ask the owner if they have noticed any rapid degradation or drop in supercharging speed (many sellers won’t be 100% honest with you).
Problems With Cars Produced Before Mid 2016 (Especially 85 kWh models)
The models with the biggest battery issues are those fitted with 85 kWh battery packs, however, this issue can also apply to all models produced before mid 2016. In 2019 Tesla reduced the maximum charge level of these 85 kWh models which ultimately reduced the range as well.
Tesla carried out this update because Models fitted with these battery packs were failing and even catching fire at an alarming rate.
The result of Tesla’s alternation to the charge limit was around a 15 to 30% loss in range, a big problem when you consider that the car may have already lost 5 to 10% of range due to battery degradation (possibly even more). With this being the case, if you are interested in an 85 kWh model it is incredibly important to check the car’s range to ensure that it still meets your requirements.
It is also worth checking the software version of the car as a newer update may reduce range even further than what the Model S is currently displaying.
If the owner/seller won’t let you see the range or claims that they do not know anything about the Tesla update we would walk away from the vehicle. It’s simply not worth your time dealing with an untrustworthy seller.
With the above being the case and Tesla’s lack of interest in coming to some sort of resolution with owners, we would probably avoid any 85 kWh Model S cars with these old batteries.
Low Cooling Fluid Warning
This is a problem that seems to affect early Model S cars. While it may be something as simple as a bubble in the coolant, it may also indicate that the cooling pump has failed and needs to be replaced. A more severe sign of this problem is coolant dripping (or in some cases) spraying out from the car. If you notice any pools of cooling fluid under the Model S you are inspecting, walk away.
Suspension & Steering
It is important to take your time checking that the suspension and steering components are in good condition and work correctly on a Tesla Model S. If there is a problem here it can be very, very expensive to fix, so watch out. Below we have listed some things to keep an eye out for during an inspection/test drive of a Model S:
- Delayed or longer stopping distances
- Uneven tyre wear
- Excessive tyre bounce after hitting a bump
- Leaking fluid on the exterior of the shock/strut
- Sagging or uneven suspension.
- Knocking or creaking sounds during a test drive (don’t forget to drive in a tight figure 8) – often a problem with the steering rack or bushes
- Dipping and swerving when the brakes are applied
- Excessive Rear-end squat during acceleration
- Tipping during turns
- High speed instability
- Excessive vibration coming through the steering wheel (could indicate alignment issues or failed ball joints)
- Juddering on full lock
Remember to push the front of the car down to see how the suspension bounces. When you push you should have to use quite a bit of force. If the suspension goes down easily or it bounces excessively on return, then there may be a problem.
Front Suspension Issues
A number of Tesla Model S and X owners have reported front suspension issues on there cars. It has been reported that Tesla did not manufacture the front suspension fore links to the correct strength specifications. If the links fail the tyre can make contact with the wheel arch liner. This issue affects Model S cars produced from 2015 – 2017, but owners of different years have also reported issues with failing suspension as well.
Perhaps the biggest upgrade to the Model S’s suspension system during its lifetime is so far the addition of a highly sophisticated air suspension setup. This system became standard on Model S cars in 2017 and it got an upgrade to become adaptive in 2019. Model Ss fitted with adaptive air suspension have improved ride quality and handling capabilities.
To check if the Model S you are inspecting has adaptive air suspension look for Comfort, Auto and Sport Settings in the menu. Cars equipped with the older air suspension will only have an option to change the ride height.
Make sure you test that all the air suspension options work as intended as non-functioning components will be extremely expensive to repair or replace if out of warranty. If the air suspension has a leak or fails in some way it will probably cause the corner/corners of the car where the problem is to drop considerable (the vehicle will probably be undrivable if this is the case).
March 2018 Recall for Steering Bolts
There was a recall in 2018 for cars produced between May 2012 and April 2016 for faulty aluminium bolts that were used to retain the power assistance motor. When these bolts failed, they would lead to a loss of power assistance for the steering. Tesla replaced the aluminium bolts with stronger stainless-steel ones or in some cases replaced the steering rack completely.
If the steering bolts have failed, you may notice that the steering is heavier than normal and that there is a warning message on the dash. Remember to check that this recall was actioned upon (If the owner doesn’t know or can’t provide the required evidence than you can use Tesla’s ‘VIN Recall Search’).
Making Sure the Wheel Alignment Is Good
To check that the wheel alignment is good, find yourself a nice straight and flat piece of road. The Model S you are test driving should drive straight with minimal wheel corrections. If it does not drive straight the wheel alignment is probably out or it may have some other suspension/steering issue. Wheel alignment is a big problem on these cars, so remember to check this. Uneven tyre wear is another sign of wheel alignment or suspension issues.
As the Model S utilises regenerative braking heavily, the actual brake components don’t get much use. However, it is important to check that the brakes are in good condition as replacing parts here can be expensive. Here are some things to watch out for:
- Condition of the pads – watch of for pads that become delaminated
- Pitted, scored, warped or grooved discs (quite a common issue on these cars)
- Corrosion – can be quite a big issue as the brakes don’t get used much.
- Modifications or changes
- Any leaks in the brake lines (get a helper to press on the brake pedal while you inspect the lines) – this may not be possible as the brake lines are pretty hidden.
- Check the fluid level in the brake fluid reservoir if you have the time. Here’s a guide on how to do it.
- Brake fluid tests/changes every 24 months
- Any brake warning lights
During a Test Drive of a Tesla Model S
A very loud noise on startup could be a sign of a failing brake booster pump. This is not a majorly expensive item to get fixed, but it needs to be done. A slight noise from the pump on startup is to be expected.
While the Tesla Model S is heavy when compared to a conventional engined car the brakes should be more than adequate for road use. If you find that the brakes feel spongy or noticeably weak then there is a problem that needs to be investigated (or simply move onto another Model S).
Remember to test the brakes under both light and hard braking conditions to make sure they work as intended. If possible, and it is safe to do so, try to do an ‘emergency stop’ to really test that the braking system.
The Model S has two settings for the regenerative braking system, “Standard” and “Low”. Standard recharges the battery more efficiently and promptly slows you down, but not excessively so. The braking in this setting should feel smooth and natural with no stickiness.
The “Low” option switches the braking to a more conventional feel, so you will need to use the brake pedal more when driving. Most Tesla owners seem to prefer the “Standard” option. Make sure that both settings work as intended.
If you notice that the Model S you are test driving brakes erratically or pulls to one side, it may have a sticking/seized caliper. This usually occurs if the car has been left unused for a long period of time, however, in some cases it can even happen overnight (not usually with modern vehicles). Another sign of this problem is a loud thud when you pull away for the first time.
Watch our for any juddering or shaking through the steering wheel or pedals when the brakes are applied as it may indicate that the discs are worn/warped. This usually becomes first apparent under high speed braking conditions and is surprisingly common (despite the fact that the brakes aren’t used that much due to the regenerative braking system).
Alternatively, if the discs/rotors aren’t worn or warped it may simply be that there are pad deposits or dirt/grease on them.
Other than the above, just keep an ear out for any loud bangs, knocks, grinding or other strange noises when the brakes are applied. Squealing sounds can be quite common and can usually be fixed through some basic use of the brakes. You can do the following to see if the squealing goes away:
- Set the regenerative braking mode to ‘Low’
- Perform long and gradual stops by applying brake pressure until the vehicle is at a complete stop
- Perform a few firm stops
Another thing to do is to check that the parking works as intended. Get somebody in the car to switch from “park” to “drive” continuously and make sure the parking brake motors work correctly and don’t make any strange grinding noises.
April 2017 Parking Brake Recall
There was a manufacturing fault with the parking brake on Model S cars manufactured between February and October 2016. Once again this should have been fixed by Tesla, so check that the recall was actioned upon.
Wheels & Tyres
Tesla fitted/fits the Model S with a range of different wheel options. Some owners have changed the original rims for aftermarket ones, but the majority of cars you come across will have factory ones. If the Model S you are looking at has aftermarket wheels fitted, ask the owner if they have the originals. Having the original wheels will only add value to the Model S if you decide to sell it in the future. If they do not have the original wheels, try to use this as a bargaining point.
While you are inspecting the rims make sure you have a good look at the tyres and check for the following:
- Amount of tread
- Uneven wear (Can be a sign of alignment or suspension issues)
- Brand (they should be from a good or well-reviewed brand)
- Same tyre in terms of tyre make, type, size and tread patter on each axle (preferably on all four wheels)
Broken or Damaged Rims
It is important to check for any damage on the rims as a problem here can be expensive to fix/replace. If the Model S you are inspecting is fitted with 21-inch rims, make sure you check them thoroughly. It is quite common for these larger rims to break/crack if the car hits a pothole or curb (not necessarily a Tesla issue as it is common on most brands’ rims this size).
If you live in a location with poor quality roads we suggest that you go for a model with 19-inch rims or source yourself some smaller rims after purchase. Aftermarket 20-inch rims are another option, if you want some slighter larger ones than the stock 19-inch ones.
Bodywork/Exterior of a Tesla Model S
This is going to be arguably your biggest area of concern when inspecting a Tesla Model S. Getting bodywork problems fixed on a Model S can be tremendously expensive, so it is extremely important that you take as much time as needed here.
One of the things that makes the Model S very expensive to repair is the lack of certified repairers. While some are honest with the prices they charge, some repairers can charge ridiculous sums for the smallest of bodywork issues.
Corrosion (not usually a problem)
With Tesla’s heavy use of aluminium to create the Model S, you really shouldn’t find any issues with corrosion/rust. However, while the aluminium body of the Model S shouldn’t rust like a steel body, aluminium is still subject to galvanic or intergranular corrosion. Here are some things that can make corrosion worse.
- If the car has spent time in countries or areas that salt their roads
- If the car has spent time in countries or areas with very harsh winters
- If the car has lived by the sea for significant periods of time
- If the car has always been kept outside (never garaged)
- Accident damage – if a Model S is showing signs of corrosion this is likely to be the biggest cause (especially if the car is used on salted roads).
In the slim chance that you do find corrosion issues on the Model S you are inspecting, you should probably move onto another car as almost all Model S vehicles out there should not suffer from the problem.
Accident Damage on a Tesla Model S
Accident damage is often a very serious issue and many owners will lie about the severity of the damage/incident or flat out claim the car was never in a crash. When it comes to accident damage you should assume the worst and hope for the best.
Below we have listed some signs that the Tesla Model S you are inspecting may have been in an accident:
- Bent or broken parts underneath the car – Check to see if everything is straight underneath the vehicle and watch out for any replaced parts. Take a good look at all the suspension and steering components for damage.
- Corrosion – Could be a sign that the Model S you are looking at has been in an crash or has some other sort of issue.
- Paint runs or overspray – Sometimes a factory (especially on earlier Model S cars) issue but can also be a sign of a respray due to crash damage.
- Missing badges or trim – Can be due to repair work (body shop couldn’t find replacements) or a number of other things (stolen, etc.).
- Misaligned panels or large panel gaps – Check that the front trunk/frunk lines up correctly and fits as it should. Additionally, check the catches/hinges as if they look new the Model S has probably been in an accident. You should also check the doors, boot/tailgate and the lights for any damage or signs of past damage. If the panels are uneven it could suggest an accident has occurred.
- Doors that drop or don’t close properly – If the doors drop or don’t open/close properly the Tesla Model S you are inspecting may have been in a crash.
- Inconsistencies such as waving, rippling or different coloured panels – Indicates a respray which may have been conducted as a result of accident damage or rust.
- If the front trunk/frunk looks like it is popped when it is not – This may indicate that the Model S you are inspecting at has been crashed into something (even a light knock can cause this problem).
While accident damage shouldn’t necessarily be an instant dismissal, we can’t stress it enough how expensive it is to get bodywork issues fixed on these cars. You could easily find yourself spending a good percentage of what you purchased the car for on bodywork repairs if you are not careful.
Most repair jobs are carried out by certified-repairers or body shops, but you can’t always guarantee that they have done a good job. If you are interested in a Model S with slight bodywork issues make sure you get a quote on how much it will cost to repair before purchase.
Minor accident damage that is repaired by a skilled panel beater/mechanic is perfectly fine. However, if the accident damage is serious and/or the repairs are poor you should move onto another Model S.
If the owner/seller tries to cover up or lie about the accident it suggests that the problem is worse than first appears. Alternatively, if the owner can’t tell you much about the accident/damage it may have happened when a previous person owner the vehicle.
We mentioned this earlier but it is important to check that there is no damage or limited damage to the battery case underneath the Model S. Moderate to large scratches or dents will meant that the battery needs to be replaced.
Additionally, check that all the battery hardware is still present as any missing bolts, etc. are a sign that the battery has been removed at some point. Scratches around the battery hardware also indicate this as well.
Quality Control Issues
Tesla had some pretty serious quality control issues on early versions of the Model S, so expect to find some factory bodywork issues during your inspection. These quality control issues can also appear on later models, but it they are less common.
The most common issues tend to be things like bulging bumpers (especially near the headlights), the alignment of the tailgate and paint issues (peeling, etc.).
Make sure the door handles work as intended (both inside and outside) as this is a common failure point. The door handles should glide but the mechanism can often fail. Alternatively, the door handles may fail to open the door when pulled. Either way an annoying issue that is surprisingly expensive to fix if you get it done by Tesla or a repair shop.
The door handles can be fixed yourself, which will save you an enormous amount of money in the long run (make sure you watch this video from Rich Rebuilds below).
Condensation in the Rear Lights
It is not uncommon to find condensation in the rear light clusters. Replacing the lights is expensive if they are purchased from Tesla, however, salvage parts are becoming more common. This problem shouldn’t be a deal breaker as it is usually only a small amount of condensation, but worth keeping in mind (can also use it to bargain with the seller/owner).
Leaking Panoramic Sunroof
Cars fitted with the panoramic sunroof can suffer from leaking issues (more of an issue on early Model S cars). There is a fix for this, but it is important to check for any leaks. It is also important to check for leaks on cars without the panoramic roof (check the carpets, etc.).
Other Roof Issues
Check to see if the electric sunroof works as intended if the Model S you are inspecting has one. This is a common failure point and Tesla discontinued the option for a reason. Additionally, check that there are no scratches or chips in the glass roof (goes for all glass roof options) as it will need to be replaced to fix the issue. Make sure the roof is clean as dirt can hide any imperfections with the glass panel/panels.
The interior can be a bit hit or miss on the Model S. While some owners have no problems or complaints at all, many buyers have reported a whole host of quality control issues. Our main advice here is to just check that you are happy with the overall condition of the interior and there are no serious issues (missing or broken trim pieces, etc.).
Wear on the seats is always an issue (not just for the Model S), so check that they are in good condition. The seats will also sag with age, which is something you will probably just have to live with. If the seats and other interior trim pieces are in really bad condition it will be expensive to replace/repair them.
Another thing to watch out for is yellowing around the screen in the middle of the dashboard. Tesla can fix this, but they will not do it for free.
If the steering wheel, seats, carpets, and pedals show excessive amounts of wear for the mileage it suggests that the Model S you are inspecting has had a hard life.
Open the rear trunk and check for any water as more than a few owners have that their cars have had a massive leaking issue. See the video below for an example of this issue.
November 2015 Seatbelt Recall
There was a recall for Model S’ produced from February 2014 to November 2015 for faulty seatbelt pre-tensioners.
January 2018 Airbag Recall
In 2018 Tesla recalled three Model S’ for faulty airbags. Tesla did not state what year models were affected by the problem.
January 2019 Airbag Recall
A bigger recall for faulty airbags occurred at the start of 2019. In the event of a collision the front passenger airbag could rapture on vehicles produced from March 2014 to December 2016.
Electronics & Software
The Model S’s electronics is another area of concern. The control screen/Media Control Unit (MCU) can become very laggy on high mileage cars with the original version of the unit. Tesla updated the MCU in 2018 with a much-improved version.
The original MCU1 has a couple of major design issues. The first being that Tesla used cheap embedded Multi-Media-Card memory (eMMC) that has a finite number of write cycles. The second issue is that of excessive data logging. Combine these two issues and you have a recipe for disaster where the eMMC hits its write limit and fails in a relatively short period of time.
Tesla did respond by adjusting the amount of data logging, but some see this as a way to push the failures just outside of the warranty (rather than replacing the bad units). Below we have listed some symptoms of the issue:
- Significant lag
- Increase in MCU reboots/crashes
- Failed software updates
- Issues with Bluetooth connectivity
- Airbag warning light present (may be a WOF/MOT/Safety Test failure)
- Indicators stop making a noise
- Lights may not work
Owners can upgrade the original MCU1 to an MCU2 unit, but this will come at significant expense and is not available in all markets (around US$2,500). Third party repairers can replace the MCU at a much lower cost, but there are some risks to this.
With this being the case, we would ask the owner/seller (and check any receipts) to see if the original MCU1 was replaced at any point (on cars with one fitted). If the car you are inspecting is suffering from the problems above, you should move onto Model S unless it is in great condition and you can get a heavy discount.
Erratic Windscreen Wipers & Lights
Electrical gremlins continue with the wipers and exterior lights, which can behave erratically. Some owners complain that the wipers can trigger randomly when it is dry and then don’t work properly when it is wet. Similar problems can happen with the lights where the high beams flash on and off, even when there are no cars in sign.
Both of these issues will be hard to test for during an inspection, but it is worth keeping them in the back of your mind.
This seems to be quite a common issue, especially on older cars. More than a few owners have reported that the heaters in their cars have failed at least once or in some cases multiple times. This can be an issue with the fuses, but if they are all good it may be a more serious issue such as a bad heating element or a DC-DC converter that has died and killed the heater with it.
During an inspection make sure that plenty of warm air comes out of the heater. If it does not the issue may be seriously expensive to fix.
Failing LED Lights
The LEDs in the headlights and taillights can fail overtime so check that they are all working correctly.
Make sure you don’t get talked into believing that an older model has self-driving “Autopilot” capabilities. Any Model S produced prior to late 2014 won’t qualify for driverless features as the brake actuator is run by a vacuum, rather than electronically (like on later models).
Autopilot 1 (AP1) was introduced from 2015 until the end of 2016 and is highly capable. Enhanced Autopilot (EAP) was introduced at the end of 2016 and can be determined by the different indicators on the wing with cameras built into them.
In 2019, Tesla decided to split EAP up, leaving just the traffic aware cruise control and lane keep in the package. This cut down version was made standard on all Model S cars and was simply renamed to Autopilot (AP).
The extra features such as auto parking, lane change and summon where moved to the Full Self Driving (FSD) package. At the time of writing this is still very much a work in progress package, but recently Tesla starting rolling out a beta version with highly advanced features to a select number of owners.
In summary, if you want driverless features you need to get a model produced from 2015 onwards.
While the standard sound system is okay, Tesla offered/offers an upgraded system. In the summer of 2017 this upgraded sound system was rolled into the Premium pack, however, quality was reduced.
You can check if the Model S you are looking at has an upgraded sound system by looking in the boot and checking if there is a sub-woofer (should be on the right side). If it doesn’t it just has the standard system.
Cold Weather Pack
This upgrade was originally launched without a heated steering wheel, but the feature was added later. With this upgrade package you can pre-heat the vehicle, a major plus for those in cold climates. Tesla rolled this upgrade into the premium package in 2017 and made it standard the next year.
A Word on Supercharging
One of the benefits of owning a Tesla is there supercharging network (not available everywhere). All cars expect for a small number of Model S’ from 2014 have supercharging enabled.
Tesla used to offer unlimited supercharging for the life of the car until the end of March 2017, when it became limited to a set amount per year. Once the allocation is used up, you will need to pay to use the supercharging network.
In July 2019, Tesla announced that second-hand cars would have their supercharging benefits revoked if they were resold by Tesla. This means that cars that previously had unlimited supercharging now may not have supercharging.
If you are buying from a private seller or third-party dealer the car may still have unlimited supercharging, but this is not guaranteed (you will need to check this).
General Car Buying Advice on the Tesla Model S
How to Get the Best Deal on a Model S
This information applies to both dealers and private sealers. Knowledge is power and it can save you a lot of money when purchasing a vehicle.
- Research, research, research – Prior to starting your search for a Tesla Model S, figure out what specs and condition you are happy with. Do you want a low mileage example or are you happy with a car that has travelled far? Are modifications okay or do you want a stock model.
- Shop around – It is always best to shop around a bit before you make a purchase. There are loads of Model S’ out there, so don’t limit yourself to one seller, dealer, area or auction platform.
- Test drive multiple Teslas – It is a good idea to test drive a many cars as possible, so you know what makes a good and what makes a bad Tesla Model S.
- Adjust your attitude – Never rush into a purchase. If you are desperate to buy a car you are more likely to get ripped off. Take your time when looking for a Model S for sale and only go for promising looking cars.
- Use any issues with the car to your advantage – Take a mental note of any issues you find with the vehicle. When it comes to discussing the price, use these problems to try and drive down the price. For example, if the car needs new tyres or brake pads make a point of it and try to get the seller to reduce the price.
- Don’t trust the owner/seller – While some owners/sellers are honest about their cars, many will lie to get a quick sale. Take in what the owner has to say but back it up with a thorough inspection.
- Go between sellers/dealers – If you are looking at multiple Model S cars, let the owner/seller know. This way they will know that you have other options and they may try to undercut the price.
- Be prepared to walk away – If you are not happy with the deal, simply walk away. You may miss out on the car or the seller may get back to you with a better offer.
Mileage vs Condition
Mileage vs condition is always a hot topic for debate, but we feel that it is always better to buy on condition and then on mileage. While electric cars are slightly different in that their batteries degrade overtime with more mileage, we still recommend that you go for a good condition model.
Tesla doesn’t include a service history/book with their cars, so you are going to have to rely on any receipts the owner has to make any important work/maintenance has been carried out. A really good owner may even create their own service history, which is something we recommend that you do as it will only add value to your car when you come to sell it in the future.
If the owner/seller can’t produce any receipts or documents relating to work done on the car we would be cautious, but Tesla does handle things differently. Additionally, while Tesla does keep a record of all service information you may have trouble getting the information from them.
For vehicles that have been in an accident you should be able to find information/receipts relating to any work done. It is important to check these receipts (if the owner has them) as you will be able to get a rough idea how bad the damage was.
Questions That You Should Ask the Seller/Owner
- How often do you drive the car?
- When was the last service and what was done?
- What is the battery condition like?
- What parts have been replaced?
- What modifications have been made to the vehicle?
- Has the car been in any major or minor accidents? Is so, what repairs were made?
- Is there any money owing on the car?
- Have you got any information on the previous owners (if any) and how they treated the vehicle?
- Where do you store/park the car usually?
- Has the Media Control Unit (MCU) been replaced at any point?
- Have the recalls been actioned upon?
There are loads more questions you can ask the seller, but we feel these are some of the most important.
Things That Would Make Us Walk Away from a Tesla Model S
Here are some things that would make as walk away from a Model S. While you may be happy with a vehicle with these problems, we are not.
- Significant Crash Damage
- Battery in poor condition
- Drive unit problems
- Money owing on the car
- Bad resprays
- Significant bodywork issues (crash damage, etc.)
- Owner who is not forthcoming with information (could be trying to hide something)
Notes on the Owner
The owner is one of the most important things to think about when viewing any vehicle. You need to ask them plenty of questions when inspecting their Tesla Model S (however, don’t trust their answers completely). Remember, it is your problem if you wind up buying an absolute lemon. Here are some things to watch out for.
- How long have they owned the vehicle? If it is less than 6 months it tends to suggest that the car needs major work done to it that they can’t afford. It also could be a sign that they deal cars as well.
- Why are they selling the vehicle? Could be a genuine reason or they may be trying to offload their problem onto an unsuspecting buyer.
- What sort of area do they live in? Is it a good area or a complete dump?
- How do they respond when you ask them simple questions?
- Do they know anything about the Tesla Model S and the version they are selling?
- What can they tell you about previous owners (if it had a previous owner)?
- Do they have lots of cars on their drive? If they do it may mean they are a dealer.
- What is their reaction when you ask them about money owing on the car? Tell them you are going to do a check and see how they respond.
- What is their reaction to you asking for details for HPi check?
- How do they respond when you ask them about battery condition (can they back it up)?
If you get a bad feeling about the owner, you are better off moving onto another Tesla Model S.
Tesla Model S Buying Guide Summary
In all there is quite a lot of things you need to consider when purchasing a used Tesla Model S. You need to remember that while Model S is a fairly reliable car, if any repairs or parts need to be replaced it can get expensive fast. Additionally, it is a good idea to look for models produced after 2016, if you budget can stretch a bit further.