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Tesla's front-end vibration issues aren't going away even after recall

Automotive experts say the power of the vehicles is too much for certain car parts to handle

Tesla Model X vehicle
Photo (c) krblokhin - Getty Images
For the last five years, Tesla owners have been reporting shuddering in their front axles when they show off their vehicle’s vaunted zero-to-60-in-two-seconds acceleration, or even just when going 30 mph. 

There’s been a lawsuit and a company recall of a key front-end part, but owners say they’re still experiencing issues that range from intense front-end vibrations to the front axles of their vehicles actually breaking. 

All of this begs the question: Should car buyers expect that a Tesla can’t handle its own speed? ConsumerAffairs tracked the complaints and talked to automotive experts to assess the damage, and the answer may be closer to “yes” than “no.”

Eric Cheney, the owner of Voodoo Design and Engineering, designs and builds high-performance automobiles and engines. He calls the Tesla Model S Plaid “freakishly fast” and suggests that many of the front-end problems may stem from the way owners are driving it.

“I’m sure you’ve seen where Model S Plaids crashed at racetracks because their brakes weren’t up to par. That’s essentially what’s happening with the front drivetrain,” Cheney told ConsumerAffairs. “You have a regular axle being put in a car that didn’t get upgraded but the power of the motors did. So, it’s essentially like saying ‘I bought a Honda Accord and threw a Ferrari engine in it’ and expect all the supporting parts to take that amount of power and load.”

Cheney calls Tesla’s Plaid Launch Mode, which gives the vehicle its sudden acceleration, “a gimmick” and says it’s not intended to be used repeatedly. According to Tesla, cars have three modes: “Chill,” which limits acceleration for a smoother ride; “Sport,” which provides a normal level of acceleration; and “Insane,” which is also called “Plaid” on performance vehicles.

“They’re (Tesla) just going to have to do some upgrades,” Cheney said. “Whether it turns into a recall, I don’t know. It’s not a recall issue, it’s a situation where people are using this vehicle in a way it was never intended to be used.”

Powered by three electric motors

According to Car and Driver, the Plaid driving mode is powered by three electric motors, including one at the front axle. “Plaid” refers to a scene in the 1987 film “Space Balls,” in which a spaceship goes so fast it turns plaid.

Tesla has already upgraded brake systems on the Model S. Cheney, who owns two Teslas and calls them great cars, predicts that the automaker will offer upgrades to its axles. However, he says it may be a special order item for owners who repeatedly test the vehicles’ zero-to-sixty speed.

“You’re going to have an upgrade package when it comes to drive axles,” Cheney said. “Because the metal they’re using in the drive axles was never supposed to support this kind of power.” 

The problems have been reported on at least three Tesla models – the Model X, Model S, and Model Y. All three models are powered by Tesla batteries, with the Model X and Y being SUVs and the S a sedan.

In a detailed review posted at ConsumerAffairs, John of Tracy, Calif., told us that his first Model S, which was purchased more than a decade ago, had no problems. However, he says his four-year-old Model S has developed extreme vibration on hard acceleration.

“So now I have this $113,000 car and when people get in my car…they want to see how fast it goes, so you hit the gas and it sounds and feels like it is falling apart,” John wrote in his review.

NHTSA investigation

Tesla no longer responds to media requests for comment, but the company has publicly acknowledged front-end issues in its vehicles. In a 2017 service bulletin, the company said “some Model S and Model X vehicles may have been manufactured with front suspension fore links that may not meet Tesla strength specifications.” The automaker uses fore links to control the suspension so that it moves in the proper direction and provides a smoother ride.

In late 2020, the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHSTA) launched an investigation into Tesla’s Model X and Model S vehicles for front suspension fore links based on 43 customer complaints. 

“The investigation remains open and under active review,” an NHTSA spokesperson told ConsumerAffairs.

Grant Feek, the CEO of the online automotive marketplace Tred, has been following the issues being reported by Tesla owners. He believes another Tesla part is to blame for some of the issues being reported by consumers.

“One primary cause of these issues is a suspension link fastener, which was prone to fracture and could result in the separation of suspension links,” he told ConsumerAffairs.

Feek says Tesla issued a recall in December to replace a faulty fastener, or “knuckle,” though no injuries were reported. He says Tesla owner forums feature numerous reports of a more vague “suspension shudder” that suggests there are additional front axle problems that are still unresolved and do not seem to have been addressed by the recall.

Sudden acceleration in electric vehicles could be a factor

When he introduced the Model S Plaid last year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said it was important to the future of alternative energy vehicles to show that they not only used less fuel but that they could also be the fastest. Karl Brauer, an executive analyst at iSeeCars.com, says the speed is great, but it could come at a price.

“Everyone loves the instant torque of electric cars, but torque is a twisting force,” Brauer told us. “So if you have any kind of electric car, you’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on drive train components that manage the torque, including the axle.”

Feek says the way some Tesla owners drive their cars may be contributing to the problem. But he says suspension parts, such as the suspension link fasteners, should not fail on new cars with low mileage. 

“They should be built to withstand the parameters of the car’s performance,” he said. “That, coupled with the recall, points to design and quality control issues as a major contributing factor.”

In other words, if the car has enough torque to go from zero-to-60 in two seconds, the drive train should be strong enough to handle it.

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