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Tesla's first Model S recall: Seat defect puts new brand to the test

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Noah Berger/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A Tesla Model S electric sedan is driven near the company's factory in Fremont, Calif., last year. Tesla will recall 1,228 of its 2013 Model S cars manufactured between May 10 and June 8 due to a defect in the mounting bracket of the rear seat.

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Most automakers aren’t chomping at the bit to issue vehicle recalls. Sometimes, they try to avoid it altogether, such as Chrysler, which reluctantly announced a recall of 2.7 million Jeeps Tuesday.

So on Wednesday in sweeps Tesla, the luxury electric automaker and new kid on the auto block, with a recall that nobody asked for.

A defect on a back seat of Tesla's new Model S is causing the recall of 1,228 cars manufactured between May 10 and June 8, 2013. Tesla founder and chief executive Elon Musk weighed in on the issue himself, writing in a blog posted on the company’s website: A “mounting bracket for the left hand latch of the second row seat could be weaker than intended. This reduces our confidence that the left hand seat back will be properly retained in the event of a crash.”

He continued: “We do not wish to cause undue alarm, so it is perhaps worth clarifying that:

  • The weld has not actually detached on any car
  • There have been no customer complaints
  • We are not aware of any injuries or near injuries
  • No regulatory agency brought this to our attention.”

Perhaps owing to the vehicle’s luxury status (and Tesla’s lack of traditional dealerships), the automaker will contact owners and arrange for the cars to be picked up, repaired, and dropped off on Tesla’s dime. The repairs will cost Tesla around $150,000 in all, according to a company statement.

Usually, a vehicle recall stems from customer complaints or a government inquiry. But it’s not unheard of for a company to initiate one unprompted, says Michelle Krebs, a Detroit- based senior analyst for Edmunds.com, a leading auto research website. “Ford did that recently with the Escape,” she says in a phone interview. “They had some engine fire issues, and they figured it out at the factory and passed the information along to the NHTSA [National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration].”

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Full cooperation and transparency in the event of the recall is generally expected, but Tesla’s treatment of the matter was borderline enthusiastic. Mr. Musk even posted a link to the Model S announcement on his Twitter feed, and Tesla’s communications e-mailed out a press release (trust us; that’s unusual). 

But being overly attentive to any hiccups is “smart” for a relatively new company like Tesla, Ms. Krebs argues, and there is some historical precedent.  In 1989 two customer complaints  over wiring defects and an overheated brake light prompted Lexus to recall all 8,000 of its LS 400 models – just a few months after the Lexus brand’s initial launch. “They addressed it very quickly and very proactively, and in doing so they earned great praise from consumers,” she says.  Plus it gave the then-nascent brand  “another opportunity provide great customer service,” and build brand loyalty. “It’s like Tesla has gone back to the history books with this one.”

This isn't Tesla's first recall. In 2010, the company recalled 439 of its Roadsters after an auxiliary cable brushed against a carbon fiber panel in a car and caused a short and smoke.

Back then, Tesla sent repairmen to fix the car at people's homes or offices. For the current recall, it's offering valet repair service.

“It’s an expensive car. But I’ve never heard of that [before],” Krebs says.

 


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