Last week, I wrote a column wherein I opined that the Tesla Model S is not a full-size luxury sedan, regardless of how many times Tesla likes to claim it’s the best-selling full-size luxury sedan on the market. As proof, I brought up its overall length and its price, both of which place it much closer to a midsize luxury sedan than a full-size luxury sedan.
I also made sure to spell out my appreciation for the Model S. I think it’s a fantastic car. And beyond that, simply getting it to the market is an unbelievable feat in an industry that has tremendous barriers to entry. The fact that it’s earning as many sales as it’s getting is nothing short of amazing. Find a Tesla Model S for sale
I thought this would temper some of the angry reactions from Tesla people. It did not.
Since the article went live, I’ve been assailed on Reddit and attacked in at least a couple of personal blog posts. I’ve also received a wide variety of tweets, virtually all from the Bay Area, many of which were frothing at the mouth with displeasure over someone who would dare insult Tesla. Their arguments have ranged from compelling to downright bizarre — and today, I’m going to summarize them for you. Then, I’m going to tell you why they’re still wrong.
The Sizing Argument
To start, I should acknowledge that I made a mistake in my initial column. I wrote that the BMW 5 Series is 196.0 inches long, when in reality the new 2017 model is 194.6 inches. But this doesn’t really change the argument, since the length breakdown looks like this:
Mercedes-Benz E-Class: 193.8 inches
BMW 5 Series: 194.6 inches
Tesla Model S: 196.0 inches
BMW 7 Series: 205.3 inches
Mercedes-Benz S-Class: 206.5 inches
That means the Model S is within 1.4 inches of the BMW 5 Series and 2.2 inches of the Mercedes E-Class, both indisputably midsize luxury sedans, while it’s 9.3 inches and 10.5 inches, respectively, away from the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class — both indisputably full-size luxury sedans. Looking at length numbers isn’t a very good argument to prove the Model S is a full-size luxury sedan.
Instead, the top argument that Tesla people have sent me in order to convince me the Model S is a large sedan is the fact that the U.S. government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies it as one. Indeed, the EPA does say that the Model S fits into its "large" class — which, on the surface, suggests I’m wrong when I argue that it’s not a full-size luxury sedan.
But there are a few problems with the EPA argument. One is obvious: The EPA created its segments for gas-mileage purposes, and nobody has ever actually used them to determine sales figures. Ever. In the history of the automobile.
But let’s say someone did want to use the EPA segments to determine sales leaders. The next problem is the EPA’s methodology: It defines its segments, inexplicably, by total interior volume. So, yes, the Model S is, by EPA standards, a large vehicle. Do you want to know what else is a large vehicle, by the same standards? The Honda Civic hatchback. The Kia Forte5. The Hyundai Sonata. Based on the arguments I’ve received from Model S people, this would be the Tesla’s competitive set.
EPA classifications get even more ridiculous when you look at other segments. The BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe — which is 197.2 inches long and starts at $81,000 — is a "compact," right along with the Chevrolet Sonic. So is the Bentley Continental GT, which uses a twin-turbocharged 12-cylinder engine and costs $200,000. Other lovely compact cars include the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe and the Mitsubishi Mirage. What a group of competitors.
So once you throw out the EPA’s sizing classifications, as any reasonable person would, you turn to passenger space. There are two reasons why most people assume the Model S would have more interior room that a midsize luxury sedan. First, because it has no engine in front to steal space. Second, because it rates as a large vehicle under the EPA’s classifications, which examine interior volume.
But the problem with the EPA’s classifications is that it measures total interior volume — which makes it difficult for a hatchback not to be "large" (like the Honda Civic hatchback and the Kia Forte5) and difficult for a coupe or convertible to be anything but "compact" (the Bentley Continental GT and the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead). It also takes into account a lot of unusable space that doesn’t actually give passengers more room but instead simply makes for a larger overall cabin.
Instead, to me, passenger space is all about rear legroom — and here once again, the Model S is more of a midsize than a full-size sedan. Here are the rear-legroom numbers from the Model S and the German rivals that define the midsize and full-size segments:
BMW 5 Series: 35.3 inches
Tesla Model S: 35.3 inches
Mercedes-Benz E-Class: 35.8 inches
Mercedes-Benz S-Class: 43.1 inches
BMW 7 Series: 44.4 inches
The Model S is also on par with the midsize sedans in other interior dimensions. So if you look at overall size, price and passenger space, the Model S remains a midsize luxury sedan. Or does it?
The most unusual arguments I had with Tesla people related to pricing. In my original column, a commenter defending the Model S’s full-size status wrote that "since the Model S started selling in 2012, the starting price has been $80K." This is at odds with Tesla’s own website, which lists the cash price for a base model at $66,000 but first lists the cash price with a series of EV-related tax incentives applied. In my state, Tesla tells me a Model S starts at $51,000, which actually makes it cheaper than the E-Class and the 5 Series, let alone the larger S-Class and 7 Series.
I also got arguments about the top end of the segment. Yesterday, someone tweeted me and sarcastically asked, "How many midsize luxury sedans go for $90K+?" My response was… virtually all of them. The top-level 5 Series model starts at $95,100, while the top-level E-Class starts at $105,000 — and that’s before options, which are plentiful.
A Certain Something
Some Tesla defenders abandoned the facts and noted that the Model S has "a certain something" that simply makes it a full-size luxury sedan. Several people used this exact phrasing with me, and two people actually tweeted me the phrase "je ne sais quoi" — though one later told me he was applying the saying to the Mercedes S-Class.
I’m not sure what to say to the "certain something" people. I’m also not sure what to say to the "you should measure it based on what other cars Model S owners considered" people. I don’t have those numbers, and I strongly suspect they don’t either.
More than anything, the last week has taught me a few things about Tesla people. One thing it’s taught me is that many Model S defenders don’t have much experience discussing cars; I encountered several people who simply didn’t understand why the EPA classification wasn’t sufficient to consider the Model S a "large" luxury sedan. Instead, I think a lot of Model S defenders are gadget-lovers who suddenly find themselves thrust into the automotive world — and the resulting clash with the car community has been interesting to watch firsthand.
Most importantly, the last week has taught me that Model S owners are eager to defend virtually any attacks on their chosen vehicle — and I think that’s absolutely awesome. For me, as a car enthusiast, it’s so cool to see people who are engaged with their car to the point where they actively spend time fighting for its honor against some guy on the Internet.
If I wrote this column about the Honda Civic or the Jeep Renegade, I might get one poorly worded tweet from one guy who takes offense. Instead, I got a dozen well-reasoned, carefully crafted notes from intelligent people interested in a reasonable discussion. I suspect my above arguments won’t change their opinions, and I also suspect their ensuing responses to this column won’t change mine — but it’s a fun argument to have. Find a Tesla Model S for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.