Picture: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON
Picture: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON

Frankfurt — Stefan Moeller began 2019 with an ambitious target: to make his car-rental company Nextmove the biggest Tesla customer in Germany by adding 100 Model 3s to its fleet. He likened the electric car’s arrival on Europe’s shores to a tsunami washing over a region that’s been slow to embrace battery-powered vehicles.

But the powerful wave Moeller expected has collapsed to a trickle. After weeks of back and forth over unfulfilled repair work and quality issues involving the initial 15 sedans that Tesla delivered — from scratched bumpers to moisture trapped behind the headlights — the order of the remaining 85 Model 3s was called off. Tesla also tried to deliver cars that had been previously registered, which would have locked Nextmove out of Germany’s electric-car incentive programme and potential tax refunds, Moeller said.

“The Model 3 is a fantastic car. Some of our customers totally fell in love with it,” said Moeller, whose Leipzig-based company has more than 300 electric vehicles in its fleet, including 38 Model Ss and a dozen Model Xs. “But the organisation behind it doesn’t match that. It’s really sobering.”

Sub-par service could be a barrier to Tesla making more of an impact in Germany, where exacting car owners value how painstakingly their BMWs and Mercedes are cared for just as much as the speed of the Autobahn. CEO Elon Musk, who’s famously inimical to Twitter critiques, acknowledged earlier this year that a lack of service centres in Germany is hampering the company’s growth there.

Tesla believes Nextmove’s decision to cancel its remaining Model 3 order wasn’t entirely due to quality issues, and was largely influenced by frustration with an unrelated dispute earlier in the year, according to a spokesperson. The car maker was in the process of making repairs and had provided loaner vehicles to the customer at the time the order was canceled.

The Tesla spokesperson blamed the registration issue Nextmove described on a temporary issue with matching identification numbers to vehicles and said the matter was resolved for affected customers.

Norway woes

Poor service is an issue that’s already plagued Tesla in Norway, Europe’s largest electric-car market per capita. Dented and sloppily painted vehicles have fueled the highest level of complaints per unit among all vehicle makers, according to the nation’s consumer watchdog.

The car had stains on the outside and in the interior, and a cable dangled from where there should have been a light for the back seats

In Europe, Tesla is racing against time as more established players wake up to the electric future. The continent is projected to be the world’s second-largest driver of electric cars in the next decade, trailing only China. Customers can already choose between a growing number of battery-powered models from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Audi.

Moeller said the remainder of Nextmove’s Model 3 order was canceled after he demanded an improved process for handovers and fixes — and he says the car maker’s issues extend beyond the Model 3. He spent two years waiting for Tesla to replace a seat in a Model X that was delivered in July 2017 with a hole in it. A Model 3 arrived more recently with a protruding bulge on one tyre. Moeller shared his e-mail correspondence with Tesla and photos of the blemished vehicles with Bloomberg News.

The Tesla spokesperson said the company’s data doesn’t indicate any unusual vehicle quality issues specific to Germany or anywhere else in the world. The company said there’s a small chance cars are blemished during transport to customers and that it addresses those issues quickly.

‘Seriously worrying’

Nextmove isn’t an isolated case. German social media platforms and online forums are abuzz with customers airing complaints about faulty parts from sensors to suspensions. Many also describe Tesla’s sales organisation in the country as unresponsive.

“I’m still thrilled by the car, because it’s just so much better than anything I’ve driven before, but the quality of the service and some technical parts are seriously worrying,” Rouven Volk, who said by e-mail that he ordered his Model 3 in February and was slated to take delivery less than a month later.

Volk chronicled an odyssey with Tesla that began with a car that couldn’t be handed over because of a defective main display. The company opted to source another Model 3 from its European pool and set a new handover date for a month later. Then, the car had stains on the outside and in the interior, and a cable dangled from where there should have been a light for the back seats. The charging cables and winter tyres he ordered were nowhere to be found.

The Tesla spokesperson said unhappy customers can return their cars for a full refund up to seven days after purchase. The company’s data shows German customers have largely been satisfied with their vehicles, including the quality and condition of cars upon delivery.

Climbing the charts

Sales of the Model 3, Tesla’s most affordable model, helped make the brand the fastest-growing in Germany in the first seven months of 2019, according to data from the nation’s automotive industry watchdog KBA. While 6,816 registrations is still well behind market leaders, Tesla outsold brands that include Jaguar and Alfa Romeo.

Tesla is in the process of doubling the number of service centres in Germany to 17 locations, with a focus largely on urban areas including Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, according to the company’s website. The car maker is also branching out into mid-size cities such as Kiel, Ulm and Mannheim, and separately lists 16 retail stores in the country.

The bricks-and-mortar presence is still a far cry from the sprawling infrastructure that established car makers have built in Germany over decades. Volkswagen (VW), the top-selling car maker in the country, has hundreds of dedicated sales and repair outlets.

Then again, Musk is betting the looming shift toward electric cars and digital services will up-end the retail and after-sale business. Battery-powered vehicles have fewer components that are at risk of breaking down. Tesla also plans to expand its fleet of mobile service vehicles by 50% and increase mobile service coverage by five-fold this year in Europe, according to the spokesperson.

Rust and scratches

For Volk, rust started showing between the front fender and the driver’s door of his Model 3 after about 100 days and 15,000km, which he attributes to friction of sheet metal that wasn’t properly sloped. Getting a hold of Tesla service personnel has been challenging because some employees familiar with his case have left the company, Volk said.

Malte Ahl said in an e-mail that he withdrew the purchase contract for his Model 3 in March after Tesla didn’t respond to his concerns about glitches including poor paint quality, scratches on the passenger seat and dysfunctional switches.

He wrote in an attached letter addressed to the company’s German unit, “I view this way of dealing with the most loyal Tesla fans as unfair and not sustainable.” 

Bloomberg