In Which We Buy a Car from Elon Musk
That is not what we expected to do. What we considered and how we decided.
Bringing home our first new car since 1999. A Tesla Model Y, with its proud principal driver at the wheel.
This entry is meant as a data point on the modern consumer / industrial / environmental economy, and as an answer to a question I raised several months ago: Which electric car should we buy?
The story starts nearly 24 years ago, so please join me as we head back to the previous century.
‘Paycheck to paycheck…’
It was the summer of 1999. Bill Clinton still had a year-and-a-half to go in office, having survived impeachment. My wife, Deb, and I were living in Seattle. I’d just finished a stint working on a program-design team at Microsoft. She was working on search engines for a startup internet firm.
Our transport around Seattle was a rotted-out antique Taurus, which each of our sons had driven though their high-school years in DC.
The paint on the Taurus had blistered. The seats had padding sticking out. If you parked on a slope and pointed the nose downhill, somehow a weird maple-syrup-like smell would come out of the engine when it started. The car had been that way for a long time: Sorry, kids!
One afternoon I’d parked the car in a downtown Seattle garage, when I was going to see some friends at the Seattle Weekly. When I got back to the lot, I found a card under the windshield wipers, which were also rotted and cracking. It was from an employment agency and said:
“Tired of living paycheck to paycheck?”
Maybe the time had come to get a new car.
So along with our younger son, Tad, who was back from his first year in college, I went to University Motors, near the UW campus on the north side of town, and started by looking at my then-dream car. This was the impossibly-chic, newly released Audi TT roadster.
It was indeed chic—and indeed, impossibly so. It was not realistic for our family purposes. With guidance from my longtime friend Mickey Kaus—known to the world for his political writing, which I often disagree with, but also known to me as a reliable expert on cars—we decided instead on Audi’s sedan, a 2000-model year A4.
“A timeless classic,” Mickey said in an email to me back in 1999. “You won’t be sorry.” On this he was right. Here is how that same car looks in June, 2023, nearly a quarter-century after I took my test-drive with Ivan of University Motors and decided that this was the one:
‘A timeless classic,’ as my friend the car-expert Mickey Kaus told me back in 1999: the Audi A4. He’s was right. But finding spare parts for it has become a challenge.
The car is elegantly designed and beautiful, and it’s also practically burglar-proof. It has a five-speed stick transmission, which I enjoy driving but which today’s car-theft rings skip. Several years ago, we came back to our house in DC to find that burglars had broken in, and among other things had tried to take the car from the garage. They showed a kind of chivalry, because when they were stymied by the stick shift and fled after hearing an alarm, they left the keys on the roof of the car. “We see this a lot,” the DC police detective told us.
I still love this car. But time and supply chains are not in its favor. The last time we took it in for repairs, we heard that Audi no longer made some of the parts we needed. A body shop said it would check around with some scrap yards. That was several months ago; the body shop is still looking. Not long ago, when I was driving down MacArthur Boulevard in DC, a guy in a van flashed his lights and signaled me to stop. On the spot, he repaired a drooping fender.
Being stopped in public by someone who thought our car looked shaky: As with that moment at the parking lot in Seattle, it was a sign.
Six steps toward deciding on a car.
We’d been thinking forever about what electric car to get. We considered and tried hybrids but decided that we wanted to make the full electric leap.
We followed the news about electric models from Hyundai, and Kia, and Cadillac, and Polestar, and all the others. We noted every ad on TV and every story about upcoming releases. We asked Uber and Lyft drivers who had electric cars or hybrids what they liked and disliked. One time a friend let us drive his Polestar for a few days and try it out. (It was great.)
And we decided on Tesla.
This is even though I consider Elon Musk’s role at Twitter to be wholly destructive, and even though I have followed the cautionary stories about Tesla as a company and about its “self-driving” technology and other systems. (My former colleague and longtime friend Russ Mitchell, of the LA Times, has taken a lead in this coverage.)
So why the Tesla Model Y? Here was our check list:
Scale. Tesla is for now the market leader in the US and some other parts of the world. When we were in the Bay Area of California last month, a huge share of the cars we saw on highways 101, 80, and 280 were Teslas. During the first quarter of this year, Tesla’s Model Y, the same kind we got, was California’s best selling vehicle of any sort—cars, trucks, hybrids, gas-powered, whatever. In second place was another Tesla, the Model 3.
I have a long track record of going against the grain in consumer selections. Time and again I’ve chosen the “interesting,” “elegant,” “actually, better value” alternative to the market leader. When first the Apple II and then the early IBM PC were coming onto the computer market, I proudly stuck with gorgeous-but-doomed outliers like the Processor Technology SOL-20 and the Victor 9000. I used the “technically superior” operating system OS/2 when the world was switching to Windows. I wrote several books with DeScribe as a word processor, rather than Word. Now I use Scrivener.
This is to say, I’ve explored the road less traveled.
This time we decided to go with the herd. There are real advantages of industry-standard scale. The most obvious is Tesla’s nationwide network of charging stations, which other companies are now joining.
Availability. Many articles about electric cars talk about multi-month waiting lists, or models that will come onto the market in a year or two.
We decided: The future is now. For better or worse, Tesla has a lot of inventory on hand for fast delivery. We brought ours home less than two weeks after we took a test drive and listed the specs for the model we wanted.
Price. This was a surprise. Usually I have terrible timing as a consumer. For instance, we bought our current house when mortgage rates were around 20%. But we happened to be shopping just after Tesla had cut prices significantly to build sales volume, and to stay below a price ceiling that qualifies for federal tax credits. Prices went up again slightly a few weeks after we’d placed our order, but not nearly as much as they’d previously gone down.
This leads to…
Taxes. According to Tesla, our car was manufactured in Austin and shipped for delivery to DC. This and other factors qualify the car for the current $7,500 federal tax credit for domestically produced electric vehicles.
This provision does not apply to cars from Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes,
VW, Polestar, and so on. Therefore it gives Tesla (plus GM, Ford, Jeep, etc.) a big edge.1 [UPDATE: Thanks to many people who wrote in, via email or comments like the one from James Wiltshire, to note that the VW model assembled in Chattanooga does qualify.]
After tax credits, the final cost to us was well under the current average price for a new car in the US.2 And, inflation-adjusted, it was actually less than the price of the Audi A4 back in 1999.
Vibe. This will mainly be Deb’s vehicle—I’m sticking with the Audi as long as DC inspection allows. For her it has just the layout, size, and space she had been looking for.
More importantly, she likes it — the look, the feel, the ride. I like it too.
There you have it! But then…
The Elon Factor. I believe that Elon Musk has damaged public discourse with his dismantling of Twitter and his related forays into politics. Naturally this makes me wonder about everything else he has been associated with.
What if there had been a comparably attractive choice—on price, availability, scale—from a company he didn’t run? We would have taken that. But there wasn’t The reality is that Tesla has transformed the electric-vehicle market in the US. We’re aware of the man but chose the car.3
That’s the report. Some day, the beloved A4 will no longer pass DC inspections, or no longer get by on its aging, hard-to-replace parts. When that day comes, I’ll see what new EV models have appeared.
For now, we’re Tesla people, and this is why.
To get into specifics, the $7,500 tax credit phases out if your taxable income goes above $300,000 for a couple. For us, no sweat. And, as mentioned earlier, there are ceilings on how much the car can cost, and other provisions. The official IRS rules are here.
According to Car and Driver, the average price for a new car in the US is now $48,000. For the car we bought, the all-in price—counting taxes and registration, delivery fees and so on, and after the $7500 federal credit—was less than $42,000. That is a lot of money, but cars are expensive now. And adjusting for inflation, it is less than the $23,000 my Audi cost.
The only extra outlay was about $400 to an electrician, to get a 240-volt charging line connected in our basement garage.
The obvious analogy is the decision car purchasers faced in the 1910s and 1920s. Henry Ford’s Model T and Model A had created the first mass market for cars, at just the time Ford’s Dearborn Independent was becoming a major platform for conspiracy theorists and antisemites. His reputation eventually suffered, but people kept buying his cars.