On February 29, Whitney Tilson published his initial impressions of the Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) Model X on Seeking Alpha. The article mentions that it was based on a 15-minute drive in heavy Manhattan traffic.
While I don't want to sound like an issue of Car & Driver magazine, I have now spent a few weeks driving the Tesla Model X, comparing it against a long list of other cars. Here are my observations on what is a $147,700 MSRP car that has all non-cosmetic options except the 22-inch wheels.
For starters, the Model X has a beautiful exterior design, in my opinion. The design is clean, uncluttered and well-balanced. It's a large car, but the design makes it look smaller than it is. It's among the best-looking taller cars on the market, I think. When you see it in person, make sure you form an opinion looking at it with the air suspension in both low and tall settings.
The next thing you will notice is the key. I don't like it - it's slippery and cheap-feeling. What comes along with the key is the feeling of uncertainty when you leave the car, which is supposed to lock itself when you walk away. It makes me feel nervous - is the car really locked?
One is supposed to tell whether the car has locked itself or not by looking at the foldable side mirrors. If they have folded in, the car is locked. That is not a good system, because I have to keep looking at the car while walking away, as opposed to just pressing a button on the key to lock the car, which is what we all do with normal cars. On your existing car, click the button on the key and hear a clearly identifiable sound, and you know the car is locked. No need to look, wait, wonder and walk back to investigate the status.
Yes, I know that one can also press a button (the "roof") on the key to lock the car. However, it's not clear what the confirmation is, that this operation has been successful. Is there a beep? I can't hear any. Is there some other sign? Perhaps, but it's not immediately obvious to the user. Someone will inevitably point out that I'm "not doing it right," but the fact that this is so difficult to figure out is itself a problem, and an unexpected one at that.
Sometimes, when walking away from the car, I keep walking away, but the mirrors don't fold. Does this mean that the car is locked or not? I don't dare take a chance, so one walks back to the car and tries again. Sometimes, this could take several minutes, with multiple trials and errors - just to leave the car knowing that it's locked! Of all the things in the world, this is hugely annoying and a "solution" to a problem that did not exist in the first place with any other car in the market.
The doors may be the car's biggest outright problem over time. Let's start with the front doors - NOT the famous Falcon Wing doors for the rear passengers.
The first problem with the front doors is whether you are opening them or closing them, you feel there is an electric motor somewhere in there that "fights" you, regardless of the direction of opening or closing. That is unnatural to begin with, but the feeling that sinks in quickly is that this can't possibly be good for longevity. I'm no engineer, but when you physically "fight" a door's electric motor every time you use it, that doesn't spell well for the long term.
The front doors can also completely open and close themselves. That is a neat party trick, for sure - especially when as the driver, you open and close the right side passenger's door by pressing on the touchscreen. It's the modern version of the "Gentleman's door."
However, it's only good as long as it works without the door smashing into something. I parked the car in a regular parking lot, and the car offered me to press the button to open my door. I pecked on the touchscreen and the door flew up - right into the car parked next to me! BANG!
Then, to make matters worse, the door decided to slam shut as if it were an aggressive boomerang. Fortunately, it had all gone so fast that I didn't have a finger or foot in the way, so I didn't get amputated or bruised.
I almost had a heart attack from the door that smashed into the car next to me. However, it must have been my lucky day, as I couldn't discover any damage. It's like that one time when you drop a smartphone on asphalt, thinking that you might have destroyed it or at least scratched it badly, but you can't find even a single scratch.
When you park on the slightest incline, the doors produce a ticking sound that make it sound like a ticking bomb. It's the electric motor fighting the weight of the doors. One wonders how long this door mechanism will survive.
One more annoying thing about the front doors is one particular use case I discovered. I plugged into a Tesla Supercharger and was streaming SiriusXM (NASDAQ:SIRI) from a smartphone to the car's sound system, while sitting in the passenger seat with a laptop. Basically, listening to the news and working, while charging. At this point, if I close the door, the sound system shuts off. So, I have to leave the door open (!). Fortunately, it was not raining. Not the end of the world, perhaps - but majorly annoying.
And that's just the front doors.
The famous Falcon Wing doors didn't cause me any huge problems. They opened and closed every time - with one strange exception. Suddenly, the display has the door openings grayed out, and I would have to use any of the other choices for opening the doors (such as the key or the actual door handles). I have no idea if this is a bug or why there was this sudden lack of cooperation.
That said, the Falcon Wing doors work most of the time. They move relatively quickly, and the opening itself is large and make ingress and egress very comfortable. Not a huge improvement over a regular door, but not terrible either.
There are two really big issues with the Falcon Wing doors, however, that make them a terrible choice, in my opinion:
The attention. The moment you open the Falcon Wing doors, everyone within eyeshot looks at you. That's the last thing I want. I'm trying to attract as little attention as possible - not the other way around. As a result, I came to avoid opening the doors whenever possible, such as throwing in a gym bag in another place instead. You feel like you need to be dressed up and have your hair made up like a movie star, lest everyone around you report you to the police as that homeless person who just broke into a $150,000 car. I found this to be a huge psychological negative with the Model X.
The long-term reliability. As I mentioned before, I'm no engineer, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to be highly suspicious about the prospects for long-term reliability of these doors. And it's not just the door mechanism, but also the door seals, as they look extremely fragile and ill-fitting on top of that. One wonders what they will look like after a couple of harsh winters and, for that matter, extended exposure to blistering sunshine.
One can't talk about the door seals without also talking about the "fit and finish" of the various parts around those door seals. I examined double-digit Model X cars - almost all with serial numbers between 400 and 1,500 - and they had several build defects in common. Similar issues have been well reported on the forums, with plenty of pictures. None of these issues are impeding functionality - including opening/closing doors - as far as I can tell, but they sure look (and feel) very ugly and make one wonder about the overall quality control.
Sitting in the car, it's mostly similar to the Model S. On the upside, it's easier to get in and out of the seat, thanks to the SUV/minivan height/stance. Also, there are more storage cubbies around the driver's seat.
On the downside, the seat itself has a neck rest that doesn't move independently from where the seat cushion is positioned relative to the pedals (!). This means that at least for me, the neck rest pokes into my neck in a nasty fashion. The Buick Enclave has a similar effect on me, but for an unrelated mechanical reason. I was told to expect an update to fix this problem via software sometime in the future.
The seating position is pretty good. Not quite as good as in Tesla's own Model S with the new seat that became available a year or so ago, and not as good as in cars such as BMW (BAMXY) X5, Volvo (OTCPK:VOLVY) XC90 and Range Rover, but still pretty good. The steering wheel is very similar to the Volvo XC60, which is one of my favorites.
The steering itself is very direct and communicative. It's on the very sporty side, similar to Porsche. That leads to handling that is outstanding for an SUV. Together with the direct steering and, obviously, the powerful dual electric motors, this is the SUV if you want to drive fast on a tight, curvy road. Nothing will move you this fast.
The incessant acceleration and deceleration (from the regenerative brakes) did make me car sick, however. There are only so many extreme-gravity head movements forth and back that one can stand. I got out of the Model X and into the newest Range Rover diesel, which felt like a far more luxurious and calming spa in comparison.
Speaking of something that wears thin fast, Insane Mode isn't the only thing. Autopilot is the other one. Of all the cars available for delivery in the U.S. market today, Tesla has the most advanced Autopilot, available on both Models S and X.
Basically, pull the cruise control stalk twice and the car keeps to its lane very well for up to a few minutes, when it will ask you to take the wheel for at least a brief moment. People view this as an attraction. I did not find it relaxing at all. Why would it somehow be more relaxing to nervously supervise the car to correct any sudden mistake it may make, than just doing what you're supposed to be doing all along - drive the car yourself? I don't get the attraction of Autopilot. It's stressful.
The other thing I notice, especially driving the car back-to-back with a long list of other cars - from some of the most inexpensive, to cars that cost around $100,000 - is that the Tesla Model X has a lot more body flex and squeaks than just about any other new car on the market today. There appears to be a lower perceived body rigidity. If you have driven an old convertible, say a Dodge or Plymouth from the 1980s, you'll know what I mean.
Tied in with the body flex/squeaks is the hard suspension, which I found to be harder than the Model S, whose suspension I found to be very pleasant. Basically, consider that the Model X weighs a lot more than the Model S, and it's got those giant cut-outs for the Falcon Wing Doors, and then consider that it's got a higher center of gravity - and it should be no surprise that the suspension seems a lot stiffer. This car has the 20-inch wheels, not the 22-inch optional ones, so I imagine it would be even worse with those.
Combined with the various door seal and related build quality issues, it's really this boxy flex and squeaks that give the impression of low quality. These are probably fixable to some extent, but that may just underscore the notion that the product was rushed to market without enough testing in the field.
The infotainment system is substantially identical to the Model S, except it adds a menu for the doors. As with the Model S, it's great to have a big map, and the ability to look persistently at the rear-view camera is unique. It's easy to enter addresses. However, this advantage over other automobiles used to be far greater until a year ago, with the advent of Android (GOOG, GOOGL) Auto and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) CarPlay. I could argue that other automakers have now eliminated or at least significantly narrowed Tesla's infotainment advantage.
The second and third row seats are comfortable, and the third row is about as good as you will find in most better SUVs. It's got better headroom than most. It's not nearly as good as the proper minivans, but that's not to be expected either.
What might have been expected is that the middle row seats could fold or be removed in any meaningful way. The lack of this ability is a major setback to the utility of the car for some people. Others won't care much - sort of like the inability of the X to have a roof rack.
You can order a Model X for as little as $84,200, but that's with a smaller battery and without the kind of equipment you really need at this price level. Even with the smaller battery, you are probably not going to order the car without six seats, LED lights, air suspension, satellite radio and the ability to tow. And then you are at right about the $100,000 mark. You can add bigger battery and various other upgrades all the way up to over $150,000.
So that's the realistic range for Tesla's Model X: $100,000 for a minimum reasonable level of equipment, topping just above $150,000.
Considering the great cars of all shapes and sizes that are available for a lot less, all the way from under $30,000 to approaching $100,000, it becomes extremely hard to recommend the Model X even if all the quality/build problems and related body flex/squeaks were to be fixed. There is any combination of minivans, SUVs and other cars that you can buy for under $100,000 that will provide you with more utility and less malfunctioning technology. I will have more to be said about some of those examples in a future article, as that is a long one indeed.
Of course, none of those cars do 0-60 MPH in 3.2 seconds (even at a price close to $150,000), and none of them have Autopilot that is as advanced as Tesla's today. Furthermore, if you are in need to make a lot of new friends when you are opening those Falcon Wing doors - or when you are visiting the Service Center - then the Tesla Model X may be just the medicine for your boredom. Let the door swing itself open and hit the car next to you, and you'll be talking to them too.
One does get the feeling that like a 1970s rock star, the Tesla Model X will die young.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, but may initiate a short position in TSLA over the next 72 hours.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Additional disclosure: At the time of submitting this article for publication, the author was long GOOG. However, positions can change at any time. The author regularly attends press conferences, new vehicle launches and equivalent hosted by major automakers, and sometimes the travel logistics to those events are paid for by the hosts of those events.