On the eve of Model 3, Tesla needs a new Model S

Commentary: Sorry, Elon Musk, but OTA updates aren't enough to maintain the prestige of a premium sedan.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
4 min read
Radio Flyer Tesla Model S for Kids
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If you listened in on Tesla's earnings call Wednesday, or indeed any of the company's messaging of late, you'll have heard a common thread being spun again and again. Tesla is incredibly keen to remind us all that the Model S wears the crown as Tesla's premium sedan, not the upcoming Model 3. In fact, Tesla CEO Elon Musk talked about this so often during the call that he warned he was going to sound like "a broken record on this front."

"We want to be super clear that Model 3 is not version 3 of our car," Musk continued. "Model 3 is essentially a smaller, more affordable version of the Model S with fewer features." The mantra of the superiority of Model S is becoming more insistent as we get closer and closer to the release of the Model 3, which despite many predictions to the contrary (including, I confess, my own) appears to be more-or-less on track to start deliveries this summer.

There are a number of ways to interpret the increasing urgency of that repeated messaging. A cynic will point to the surely slim profit margins on the Model 3 vs. those of the more expensive -- and more configurable -- Model S. Or, perhaps, to the need for the company to maintain strong Model S sales at least until the Model 3 is up to full production. Musk, however, points to misunderstandings about the naming scheme as the reasoning for these incessant reminders, never missing an opportunity to blame Ford for preventing him from using the intended moniker of Model E. "I thought we were being all clever by calling it the Model 3," Musk said, "but actually the joke's on me, because it caused confusion in the marketplace."

I don't think the naming has anything to do with it. If the Model S has a perception problem, the reason is far more straightforward: it's getting really old. While Tesla and Musk talked about everything from autonomous buses to semi-trucks on the call, there wasn't even a hint about a proper Model S update, a car that was first unveiled to the world way back in March of 2009.

The Model S has certainly received significant updates since then, including a wholly new driver assistance package and world-conquering performance in the guise of the P100D with Ludicrous mode. It's gained significant range and a dual-motor AWD system along the way, too, plus a fetching bit of rhinoplasty last year, but none of those change the fact that it's still basically the same car we saw last decade.

2016 Tesla Model S 60

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That won't fly in the luxury sedan world. The fourth-gen Mercedes-Benz E-Class was also introduced in 2009, but that was replaced by a completely new model in the beginning of 2016. The sixth-gen BMW 5 Series, introduced in 2010, was made obsolete by its successor's unveiling late last year. Step up a level and things get even more rapid, with the recently introduced Mercedes-Benz S-Class replacing a car that was just four years old.

The Model S straddles the dividing lines between these cars and, with the new BMW 5 Series coming to market now, it's considerably older than all of them. While the car continues to get smarter every day thanks to tireless OTA updates and the learnings of its rabid and loyal fleet of beta testers, Tesla is making a mistake if it underestimates the importance of plain ol' newness in the luxury sedan space, where the leases are short and the depreciation rates steep.

What would I like to see in a next-gen Model S? Well, the interior could use some updates. That daring, vertically oriented display was pioneering in its day, but the processing power and the usability could both use a substantial upgrade. Ventilated seats continue to be surprising in their absence, and there's plenty of room for materials and design updates. Adaptive suspension and stability control systems have come a long, long way in the past five years and, perhaps most importantly, there are still a lot of doubts out there about the build quality and reliability of the Model S. A new generation would be a great way to put those to bed.

If Tesla can indeed break out of the typical luxury sedan cycle and deliver a car that can evolve and stay fresh well beyond the typical product cycle, then that's truly great news for consumers. However, with companies like Porsche and Audi getting closer and closer to releasing all-conquering EVs of their own, Tesla the disruptor is at risk of being disrupted itself.