A Tesla owner from the Toronto area purchased a Model S just before Christmas, 2012. That makes it one of the older Model S sedans out there, but it still only has a just over 60,000 miles on it. The car is long since out of warranty. Concerned about a rattle and softness in the brake pedal, he took his car to his local Tesla service center and was shocked to find that it would cost $8,500 to fix his car.

Tesla Model S

Here’s a list of the items the service center said needed replacing:

  • Brake caliper assembly with piston (each): $745.00
  • Rear rotor (each): $331.00
  • Front Rotor (each): $290.00
  • Parking brake caliper with pads: $1,235.00

While the car was in for service, the upper control arm on the driver’s side was also replaced at a cost of $261.00.

The customer was told that all 4 brake pistons had seized due to a combination of several factors. First, with regenerative braking being normal on an electric car like the Tesla, the mechanical brakes don’t get used nearly as much as they do in a conventional car. The service adviser suggested he treat the car to several hard brake applications each week to keep the braking system in good working order.

Second, salt on the roads leads to corrosion on the brake rotors. Apparently, it can also affect the calipers themselves. Third, the brakes should be serviced by Tesla every year in harsh climates. In the end, the service center decided not to charge the customer for the labor involved, which lowered his actual cost to “only” $5,824.75.

There are a number of things going on here.

  1. A Tesla Model S is a premium luxury car. Several people commented on the Tesla Motors Club forum that prices for the same work on a Mercedes S Class or similar car would be nearly the same.
  2. Electric car manufacturers like to tout the low cost of maintenance for their cars because components like brakes last indefinitely. But there may be a downside to that lack of use as well.
  3. If you own a Tesla, you have to go to a Tesla service center to get your car fixed. This customer had to wait 3 weeks for an appointment. While he was waiting, he was driving around in a car with serious brake issues.
  4. If you need parts for your Tesla, you have to get them from Tesla. NAPA doesn’t carry them.
  5. Replacing the brake fluid in a Tesla on a regular basis may be prudent. This is not included in the routine Tesla 12,000 mile service.
  6. If it takes 3 weeks to get an appointment at a Tesla service center today, how long will it take when there are millions of Model 3’s and Model Y’s running around?

The thread on the Tesla Motors Club forum has gotten 80 responses. Some people suggest that the work could have been done by an independent mechanic for a lot less money. Some of us who used to own British cars always had a brake caliper hone handy. The rubber seals needed to complete a caliper repair usually don’t cost more than a few dollars. I once rebuilt both calipers on my MGB for under $30, and that included the price of the hone.

Some suggested the rotors could have been turned down to remove the pitting. Gas stations used to have a special lathe for that purpose, but those full service facilities are hard to find any more. The ace mechanic I take my Honda Civic to says that today’s brake rotors cannot be turned. They have to be replaced.

Perhaps the most cogent comments were from people who correctly pointed out that high maintenance costs after the cars are out of warranty could depress the value of Teslas in the used car market. That could have a knock on effect on their residual value, causing lease rates to increase. it could also burden Tesla with off lease cars that it owns for far more than it can sell them for.

How Teslas perform as they age will become more of a factor in coming years. Decades ago, Toyota and Honda were able to crack the American market because they made cars that lasted much longer than domestic brands. Some of you may remember when a car with 50,000 miles on the odometer was thought of as ready for the crusher. If Teslas get a reputation for being money pits after the warranty runs out, that is going to put a crimp in the company’s plans to sell millions and millions of cars.

This man’s story should be a warning to Tesla that it not only needs to look to the bright tomorrow of technological wonder it promises but also to protecting the substantial investment people are making in its cars. A company’s reputation has as much to do with future sales success as gee whiz technological innovations that dazzle the customer.

What may be the most curious part of this story is that, even after getting whacked with a $6,000 bill to repair the brakes of a car with only 60,000 miles on, this owner has nothing but praise for the staff at his local Tesla service center. Most of us would be livid. The Tesla magic is sometimes hard to understand. It is unlikely that owners of the Tesla’s lower priced cars will be as forgiving.

Photo credit: Tesla Motors