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Why Are Tesla Cars So Popular?

Michael Kern

Shipment delays, fires, autopilots gone mad, and charging times that have yet to compare with the time it takes to fill up a gasoline tank are only a handful of the problems Tesla has experienced since it became a mass car maker. Despite all these problems, however, people seem to love these electric cars. 

Here’s why.

Excellent Design and Engineering

If there is one thing even Tesla skeptics would agree on it is that Tesla changed people’s perspective on electric cars. All electric vehicles before the Model S were, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory for any driver. They were plain ugly, they were heavy, and they took forever to charge. No wonder interest in electric vehicles was sporadic at best. 

Then Tesla came on the scene and made the Roadster and the Model S, and everything changed.

The Model S had the design of a sports car, the safety of a Toyota, and could charge in minutes rather than the hours it took earlier EVs to get juiced up. In fact, the Model S was safer: it became the safest car ever tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, earning top marks across categories.

The Model S was also fast, faster than any EV until then, and this proved crucial for the success of Tesla cars as a whole by winning over thousands of gearheads who, although unopposed to the environmental advantages of an electric car over a gas guzzler, want speed and performance above all.

A Battery Revolution

Range has always been—and will likely always be—drivers’ first priority when they consider switching to an electric car. Everyone used to a gasoline car is also used to the freedom of driving as much as they want or need to, occasionally popping into the fueling station to gas up. Tesla probably knew this, so it made a special battery pack and built a Supercharger network.

To date, Tesla’s battery pack is better than the batteries of any of its rivals. Tesla models have a maximum range of 370 miles. That’s 370 miles you can drive on a single charge. The closest competitors have a maximum range of below 300 miles, with some of the more popular challengers, including the Audi e-tron SUV and BMW i3 sporting a range of just 200 miles.

Yet batteries on their own would not have been enough to make Tesla the brand it is today. That took charging points, too. So Tesla built a Supercharger network where charging is not just quick, it is also free. At one point, Tesla began to phase out the unlimited free charging option with CEO Elon Musk saying it wasn’t sustainable. But last year, it appeared Musk had changed his mind and Tesla brought back the free unlimited option.

The Car of the Future

Elon Musk has referred to Teslas as laptops on wheels, and this is an opinion Tesla owners seem to share. In this Quora thread, for instance, one Tesla owner calls the technology in the car “out of this world” and he doesn’t even mean the autopilot feature. Over-the-air updates, charger location, almost full driver control of car features, sensors in the Falcon doors of the Model X, the list can go on and on.

Interestingly enough, people are crazy even about features that are yet to be added to the Teslas; they are crazy enough about them to pre-pay for them and wait for years to receive them. A case in point is the full self-driving mode that Tesla announced in 2016 but delayed in 2018. In the meantime, people splashed $3,000 to $5,000 for the upgrade. When Ars Technica’s Timothy Lee reached out to Tesla owners for their reaction to the delay, he found it was still overwhelmingly positive.

Tesla, according to some fans and some analysts as well, is not your ordinary carmaker, and it shows. It operates more like a software company, as one Tesla owner said on the Quora thread. They develop a product, take in customer feedback and improve on their product right away, via its software capabilities that allow for immediate updates rather than waiting for a new model to fix what needs fixing. Tesla is, to most, the car of the future that is already here.

The Power of the Internet

The question of whether Tesla would be where it is today if it weren’t for the internet is an interesting one and the answer is probably no. The internet is the only place one can buy a Tesla, directly from the company. This is another unique take on car-making and sales on the part of Tesla, by the way. There are Tesla stores around the world, but they are information centers and not dealerships. You can learn everything you want about the cars at a Tesla store, but you can’t buy a car there.

Tesla fans don’t seem to mind as they are given the opportunity to configure their own car in the comfort of a location of their choosing instead of haggling over the price and waiting for hours to sign all the papers that accompany a traditional car purchase. There is even a relevant survey: Deloitte found a couple of years ago that as many as 60 percent of car buyers would much rather buy directly from a carmaker, cutting out the dealer entirely.

The things that most annoyed people in traditional dealerships were the paperwork, the haggling, and the fact that a car purchase simply took too long overall. Tesla, however, doesn’t have these problems. You go to the company’s website, you configure the car you want and you pay for it. For preliminary research, you can visit a Tesla store at a mall near you.

The stores are unusual, too, in that the people there would not encourage you to buy a car: something that placed Tesla last on a car salesmanship index compiled by Pied Piper. Its representatives at the Tesla stores, according to the secret shoppers that took part in the survey, acted more like museum curators than car dealers. This would have been bad if it was not a result of a conscious effort on the part of the company to use its stores to only inform prospective buyers about its cars rather than trying to convince them to make a purchase the way dealerships do.

Fun Sells

Even the hardest Tesla critic would admit that if there is one thing these cars aren’t, it is boring. The Model S became the fastest production car in the world in 2016, with acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds. Even the Model 3, the affordable model that was planned to turn Tesla into a mainstream carmaker, accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds.

Acceleration is not everything, however. It is the whole driving experience that Tesla fans cite as reason to love their Teslas. Sure, there are those who love the sound of a revved engine and would not replace it for a “silent racer” but there seem to be plenty of people for whom noise is not the main thing.

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Many wax lyrical about how Teslas handle, but even more have fun with the Ludicrous mode—the mode that allowed the Model S to accelerate in 2.3 seconds and whose name was inspired by Mel Brooks’ classic Spaceballs. A Tesla, or at least the chief executive of Tesla, has a sense of humor and this is an integral part of the appeal of the cars and, consequently, of their success despite all the delays and unrealistic expectations.

The Musk Factor

It’s no secret that Elon Musk is at the heart of Tesla’s success. A controversial figure, no doubt, but the man who, according to most, made Tesla what it is today. Tesla is the first—and only so far—car company with a mission. That mission was detailed by Musk in his Secret Master Plan, which he published in 2006.

Critics have called Musk a snake oil seller and a masterful marketer. While car evaluation ratings have proved Teslas are not, in fact, snake oil, Musk has indeed proved to be brilliant at marketing, grabbing every opportunity to advertise Teslas. By now he does not even need to put a conscious effort into it. Every business venture the Tesla CEO starts pings back to the EVs.

A few years ago, for example, Musk started the Boring Company, which would drill tunnels underneath large cities with congestion problems to alleviate these problems by moving part of the traffic underground. The best car to take advantage of the tunnels? A Tesla, of course, since it is emission-free. 

A couple of weeks after Musk showcased the latest in the Tesla lineup, the Cybertruck, the Tesla online store began selling “Cyber Truck bulletproof tees” with the image of a shattered glass, the company mocking itself after the supposedly bulletproof window of the Cybertruck got shattered on stage.

Fun aside, however, Musk has become an icon for many with his sustainable future agenda, his ambitions for Mars colonization and, not least, the fact that in 2014 he made all Tesla patents available for all.

“Given that annual new vehicle production is approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet is approximately 2 billion cars, it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis,” Musk wrote at the time. “By the same token, it means the market is enormous. Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.”

This paragraph sums up everything that matters for a broad section of modern society: the business tycoon who is not in it for the profits but for the environmental impact. Critics and analysts have trouble wrapping their heads around the attitude since any business, by definition, exists to make profits.

Yet Tesla’s main target group is the new generation of environmentally conscious people for whom it seems to be more important that businesses are environmentally conscious too rather than profitable. It is a growing group, which means a growing group of prospective Tesla buyers. Tesla has already posted several quarterly profits over the years. It may well post a full profitable year at some point, thanks in large part to the unconventional attitude of its CEO to making and selling cars.

Brand Loyalty Like No Other

Last year Tesla became the carmaker with the most satisfied customers for the third year in a row. Consumer Reports said at the time Tesla had received 98 out of 100 points regarding the driving experience, comfort, value, and styling, as well as things such as the audio and climate systems.

How telling this is about the brand loyalty of Tesla owners is evident in another Consumer Reports ranking, this time of reliability. A year before it scored its third most satisfying car title, Tesla was ranked second to last in terms of reliability. The Model X was even named one of the 10 least reliable cars. Apparently, reliability is not as important to Tesla owners as all the things that make up the satisfaction index.

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Interestingly enough, this loyalty seems to have a lot to do with the simple fact that Teslas are electric cars. According to an Experian study, EV buyers develop a deeper loyalty for this type of vehicle once they buy their first. When they decide to buy their next car, some 62 percent of them choose an EV again.

Yet for Tesla this percent is a lot higher: 80.5 percent of Tesla owners buy another Tesla when they decide the time has come for a newer model. This is also the highest customer loyalty in the auto industry, exceeding Subaru’s and Ford’s.

Based on all the factors discussed above this degree of brand loyalty should not come as a surprise. Journalists and editors know that the words Tesla or Musk are the best clickbait in headlines, guaranteeing thousands of hits. And Musk himself has been pretty productive with content generation with his Twitter account. This productivity even landed him in hot water with the SEC a while ago, after he said he had plans to take Tesla private and had secured the funding.

Tesla’s CEO creates so much noise around himself it may be easy to forget that besides noise he also makes cars. He sets unrealistic deadlines, he complains about unfair competition from the Big Three and makes fun of short sellers, and insults people. He is also an iconic figure for millions. Many of these millions are of driving age. They are buying Teslas and have a very good reason to believe they are buying more than just an electric car. For many of them, buying a Tesla is buying a vision of a better, more sustainable future.

By Michael Kern for Oilprice.com

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