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How to Buy a Tesla

July 20, 2016
Auto Loans, Loans

Tesla Motors has no dealerships, no commissioned salespeople, nobody trying to strong-arm you into getting the undercoating. There’s no negotiating. Tesla buying, once your Tesla shopping is done, is a no-haggle experience.

It sounds a bit strange, but much of the process remains familiar to anyone who has purchased or leased a car the old-fashioned way. There’s still paperwork to fill out, credit checks to suffer (unless you are paying cash or with preapproved financing from your own lender), test drives to take, and choices to make about color, performance levels and other features.

The Tesla difference

Except for the test drive, you can do your Tesla shopping, and Tesla buying, from home. Everything is computerized, and you don’t need to go to a Tesla showroom to buy if you don’t want to.

If you do choose to visit a showroom, and there are good reasons to do so, you should know that you won’t find the endless selection of cars in all colors and equipment levels that you find at most dealers (including those for makers of other popular electric cars).

If a conventional dealer doesn’t have a model with the exact combination of features you want, it can usually trade with another dealership and get it within a few days. Or the friendly salesman will suggest you buy a similar model (often with a higher price tag) so you can happily drive away, TODAY!, in the car of your dreams.

With Tesla, you order the car you want, the way you want it, at home or at the showroom on a large, high-definition display, picking from a menu of Tesla colors, trims, technology and performance packages, and a few stand-alone options such as wheels and tires.

And then you plunk down your deposit and wait. Because Tesla builds your cars to order, delivery can take anywhere from a month to three or four months, depending on which features you specified.

That’s the hardest part about buying a Tesla, says Dave Cavano, car buying service manager for the Automobile Club of Southern California. “You have to hold your emotions and needs in check … there’s no instant gratification.”

There is an exception.

Tesla showrooms usually have a few cars available for test drives, and the company will sell you one to drive away in if it’s got the features you want and you don’t mind that it has a few miles on the odometer. Tesla’s online order system displayed 40 test drive models with odometer readings ranging from 50 to almost 8,000 miles available around the U.S. the day this article was prepared. There’s also an online list of used Teslas, typically lease returns, that the company is selling.

Visiting the Tesla showroom

One benefit of a showroom visit is that there are samples of all of Tesla’s exterior colors, and interior upholstery and trim choices that can be matched directly against those various exterior colors.

There’s really no better way to see exactly what the colors look like — images on computer screens can’t reproduce the depth and richness of high-quality paint on sheet metal. The showroom is also the best place to feel the interior fabrics and leathers.

Each showroom also has a full-size Tesla platform on display so you can see what’s underneath the all-aluminum body.

And you’ll need to visit one, anyhow, if you want to take a test drive.

Showrooms also have Tesla-trained advisors who can answer questions, help you configure a vehicle, and assist in filling out and filing the purchase or lease forms. Best of all, they do it without pressuring you and without trying to upsell you into expensive features and trim packages you don’t need.

You might want to visit on a weekday or in the early morning on a weekend, when the showrooms aren’t so busy.

Ordering your Tesla

Once you’ve decided a Tesla is for you and have settled on which of the two available models you want — the Model S sport sedan or the Model X crossover — sit down with your computer, tablet or cell phone and call up the Tesla Motors site. You’ll want to do this even if you plan on a showroom visit later.

Just as in conventional car shopping, adding last-minute impulse items as you get caught up in the emotional thrill of buying a new car can add up. The best strategy is to configure at home and then stick to that list as you are placing your order.

You’re going to make a test drive appointment and then configure your car from Tesla’s relatively limited menu of exterior colors, upholstery and interior trim and accent pieces, powertrain choices and technology packages.

Other choices you’ll make include rear-wheel or all-wheel drive, battery size and performance levels.

For the Model S — the most popular Tesla so far — you can order an S 60, S 60D, S 75 or S 75D, S 90D, S P90D and the P90D with the much-ballyhooed, insanely quick “Ludicrous” performance mode. That adds a battery pack upgrade to boost 0-60 acceleration to a stomach-churning 2.8 seconds. The base S60, for comparison, does 0-60 in a respectable 5.5 seconds.

The Model X comes in X 60D, X 75D, X 90D, X P90D and P90D Ludicrous versions.

You also can pay a $1,000 deposit to reserve a Model 3, the upcoming, more-affordable Tesla sedan. But deliveries aren’t likely to begin until the end of 2017, and you can’t yet start ordering. The purchase price of a 2016 Tesla ranges from $66,000 to $109,500 for the Model S, and from $85,500 to $115,500 for the Model X.

For all Teslas, the “D” denotes all-wheel drive, achieved in the all-electric car by adding a second electric motor to drive the front wheels (D for “dual motor”). “P” means you are looking at a performance model, equipped with more powerful electric motors.

The numerals denote battery size. A 60 model has a 60 kilowatt-hour battery pack good for 210-220 miles of range; the base S75 has a 75 kWh battery good for up to 260 miles per change; the S90s have 90 kWh batteries good for up to 294 miles per charge.

You do your configuring in Tesla’s online “Design Studio,” which includes a tote board that displays the lease, financed purchase and cash purchase information (including down payments and monthly payments) for each version you look at. The tote board also tells you the month in which the model you’ve designed will be ready for delivery.

You can do all this from home — even the financing paperwork — or you can print out your configuration and visit one of the nearly 100 showrooms listed on Tesla’s website.

There are some states in which Tesla can’t sell cars because of dealer franchise laws. But people who want a Tesla usually find a way, often by making the purchase in a state where Tesla’s factory-direct sales system is legal.

John O’Dell is a longtime automotive writer who has covered alternative-fuel cars for the Los Angeles Times and Edmunds.com. He now runs the website The Green Car Guy and can be reached at thegreencarguy@gmail.com.