Tesla-baiting has long been a popular sport among auto industry spokespersons. We’re likely to see a lot more of it in the coming months, as the legacy brands prepare to release a new wave of EVs that many expect to present the first credible competition for the California carmaker.
The latest snide remark came from one of Ford’s top EV execs. In a recent interview with Autoblog, Darren Palmer, Global Product Development Director for Ford and Lincoln Battery Electric Vehicles, talked about his company’s upcoming Mustang Mach-E, which he hopes will bring a lot of new buyers into the electric camp. However, he couldn’t resist getting in a back-handed dig at Tesla, saying, “The [Mach-E’s] doors fit properly, the plastics and other materials color-match, the bumpers don’t fall off, the roof doesn’t come off when you wash it, the door handles don’t get stuck in cold weather.”
Although Palmer didn’t mention Tesla by name, it’s not hard to guess what competing brand he was alluding to. Of course, as Electrek’s Fred Lambert noted, one could respond to the implied criticism by noting Tesla vehicles’ greater range, faster charging and better efficiency, but an objective observer must admit that Mr. Palmer has a point. Tesla has had some fit-and-finish issues, and the fact that we all knew exactly what automaker he was talking about shows that this continues to be an image problem for the California carmaker.
How serious is the problem, and does it amount to a competitive disadvantage compared to other, more experienced automakers, as Palmer implied? Well, there are two things we need to keep in mind.
First, by all accounts Tesla has made a lot of progress towards solving its quality-control issues.
In May, Henry Payne, writing in the Detroit News, noted that the automaker was getting “new respect from some of its loudest quality-control critics.” Auto manufacturing expert Sandy Munro has documented Tesla’s progress in a series of teardowns. In 2018, after taking apart a Model 3, Munro described “flaws we would see on a Kia in the ‘90s.” This spring, he tore down a Model Y and found a host of improvements. “It’s a well-designed car,” said Munro. “It’s so much better than the Model 3—no comparison in fit and finish. They are miles apart.” He reiterated this assessment in an interview with Charged, saying, “The body build [of Model Y] is 1,000% better. There are still issues, but they’re minor in comparison to what I have seen in the past.”
Former GM CEO Bob Lutz, who evolved from an early champion of Tesla into a harsh critic, also praised the company’s progress in an article in Road and Track. He spied a Model 3 in an Ann Arbor parking lot, and “was eager to see the oft-reported sloppy assembly work, the poor-fitting doors, blotchy paint, and other manifestations of Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s ‘production hell’ with my own eyes. But, when next to the car, I was stunned. 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, equal side-to-side, and completely parallel. Gaps of 3.5 to 4.5 mm are considered word-class. It was impossible to find fault with the visual quality of that Model 3.”
Another aspect of Tesla’s fit-and-finish issues: some believe that the problems result from a deliberate strategy of prioritizing fast innovation over quality control. Philippe Chain, Tesla’s former VP of Quality, recently told Electrek that the company subjects its cars to much shorter testing programs compared to legacy automakers, which fits in with an overall mentality of making decisions quickly and reacting to problems as they come up. Chain describes a conversation with Elon Musk about the pre-production testing for Model S: “I told him our engineers’ calculations led to at least a million equivalent miles of driving before launching the car—a six-month phase required to discover potential weaknesses and fix them. Elon, in his customary laconic way, answered: ‘OK, do it. But we are not delaying the launch date for it.’” Musk understood that there might be some awkward issues with early production models (and there were), but opted to deal with these later through OTA upgrades, or recalls if necessary.
Apparently, at Tesla, maintaining the rapid pace of innovation is a top priority, even if it means dealing with some quality-control issues. For consumers, this means that trying to get hold of a new Tesla model as soon as it comes out may not be the wisest policy (as most of us have learned, this tends to be the case for any tech product). On the other hand, EVannex’s Roger Pressman, as knowledgeable a Tesla owner as you’ll find, was one of the first to take delivery of a Model Y, and he reported no major problems. On the contrary, he told Charged, “the key word for the whole car is refined.”
Written by: Charles Morris