Road tripping a High-Mileage Tesla Model S, In the Canadian Cold

Our web developer Mike is a strange man. When it came to making our annual road trip to the Detroit Auto Show, instead of taking his Infiniti G37 – a quiet, comfortable sport coupe, he decided to spend several hundred dollars renting a 2014 Tesla Model S P85. Luckily, his poor financial decision allowed us to explore an interesting question: there’s a lot out there about how the Model S drives, handles, drives, and accelerates, but how much of that performance and range is left after four years and 120,000kms of rental car abuse?

Our story starts on Sunday. Mike charged the Model S to 80% before the trip (charging your Model S and having it sit at 100% isn’t recommended), picked up Tyler and myself, and we started our 370km trip to Detroit. There were two superchargers on route – one in Woodstock Ontario, a mere 140 kms into the trip, and another closer to the Canada/US border in Comber Ontario. Given the car’s indicated 384km range, we were confident we’d make it to the later Supercharger.

We didn’t.

Because it’s January and this is Canada, temperatures hovered around –10C for most of the trip. That meant two things: one, battery performance inherently sucks in the cold, and two, we spent most of the trip abusing the car’s electric heaters. So we weren’t totally surprised when we ended up rolling into our first Supercharger – a mere 183kms into our trip, with 3% battery. Oops.

After an hour of charging, we got back to the car and discovered that the driver’s side door handle had failed. Mike would unlock the car, the handle would present itself, and he’d be left tugging the door handle to no avail. That’s because, as it turns out, the Model S’ door handle is a completely electronic, needlessly complicated, mess of sensors and micro switches that has a nasty habit of failing and costing Tesla owner’s $900 to repair. 

And the rest of the trip, went like that. We stopped at every charging station on route, and I had to climb through the passenger door to open the driver’s door every time we hopped in the car. Eventually, the door handle failed completely and stopped extending outwards.

Now, there’s a ton to like about the Model S. For starters, the infotainment system is fantastic. The massive 17-inch touchscreen is beautiful, responsive, and infinitely configurable. The navigation system makes finding charging stations simple, and the range and efficiency data it provides the driver is a statistician’s wet dream. More importantly, the LED instrument cluster shows you everything you could want: what you’re listening to, speed, navigation and whether you’re using energy or regenerating it.

Then there’s the way it drives. Even with a mere 416hp, it’s fast – really fast – fast in a way that makes gears, and gasoline seem antiquated. A single gear ratio and electric torque means acceleration is instantaneous, infinitely smooth, and of course, quiet. Unfortunately, the never-ending range anxiety means that in real life, you’re too afraid to ever enjoy any of that speed. What’s stranger is the Model S’ regenerative braking; taking your foot off the throttle activates regenerative braking, helping to recharge the battery, and it’s aggressive enough that that actually using the brake pedal almost becomes optional – you can literally get away with one pedal driving.

It’s easy to knock the Model S’ reliability. In this car’s short four-year history, it’s had its drive-unit replaced twice (on warranty), it’s had its charge port replaced to the tune of $1000, It’s now getting its door handle replaced, and that’s all Mike – a random Turo renter – knows of. Plus, motor replacements aren’t an uncommon occurrence. Owner data on early Model S’ indicates that two-thirds of Model S drive units will require replacement every 60,000 miles. Let’s not forget all the other common issues that a quick Google search will bring up – steering misalignment, folding mirrors failing to unfold, body panel alignment issues.

But despite all of that, the Tesla Model S offers you something literally no other vehicle currently on the planet can – massive speed, modern style, emissions-free travel, and what might be the smartest infotainment system on the planet, all for a very reasonable price. And to their credit, Tesla seems to do a great job of honouring their warranty commitments; they replace drive units before they start making noise or have performance issues, provide owners with Tesla rentals while their cars are in the shop, and constantly beam updates to their vehicles.

Hell, if you’re having an issue just tweet at Elon Musk – there’s a legitimate chance he’ll respond.

The best thing I can say about the Model S is this: after the owner purchased this Model S used, he went on to buy a Model X- and just sold the Model S we borrowed to purchase a dual-motor Model S with autopilot. Despite the range-anxiety and the bugs, Tesla has a good thing going. Just, for the love of god, don’t buy one outside of its eight-year warranty period.