The Ultimate Tesla Buyer’s Guide 2020
Welcome to the world of Tesla. These electric vehicles are some of the most technologically advanced cars on the road today. Tesla’s strategy of rapid advancement excites its followers as the company addresses problems, introduces new features, and tweaks pricing, but that also leads to some confusion as the changes come quickly and often in the middle of model years, leaving no convenient way to organize and understand which version of a Tesla will have what capabilities.
It’s important to note that this guide is not a comprehensive record for every change Tesla has made to all of its vehicles—there are other places where such encyclopedic information is available. Rather, this is meant to cover the major updates of each car, to show you what to look for if you’re after something specific, and to clarify some of the common questions about Tesla’s universal features, like Autopilot.
Our goal here is to help you find the Tesla you will be happy with for years to come.
A Note on Autopilot
Autopilot is often the first conversation topic we encounter when someone is considering purchasing a Tesla from us. Unfortunately, Tesla has not made it easy for shoppers to tell which version of Autopilot any given vehicle has.
• Autopilot Hardware 1 (HW1) – Shipped from September 2014 – October 2016
• Autopilot Hardware 2 (HW2) – Shipped from October 2016 – August 2017
• Autopilot Hardware 2.5 (HW2.5) – Shipped from August 2017 – March 2019
• Autopilot Hardware 3 (HW3) – March 2019 – present
Autopilot wasn’t introduced until October 2014, when Tesla started including the hardware as standard equipment on every car that was built–though it would cost buyers an additional $2,500 for the software. To check and see if a car has Autopilot 1 hardware, look at the windshield from the outside, where the mirror attaches to the car. If the car has Autopilot, it will have a camera underneath the glass.
The big giveaway as to whether or not a car has Autopilot HW1 or HW2 is the presence of rearward-facing cameras on the front fenders. While Tesla has shipped Autopilot Hardware as standard equipment ever since the feature’s release, the software requires an additional purchase to be unlocked. Be sure to check on the screen inside to confirm that Autopilot is activated.
Hardware 2.5 was an incremental upgrade to Hardware 2. The cameras became color and some of the internal computer components were upgraded, permitting use of a built-in dashcam. Beyond the build date of the car, there’s no easy way to tell if it would have HW2 or HW2.5.
Autopilot Hardware 3 became standard on all cars in March 2019. This upgrade was once again internal, adding an upgraded processor to give cars the redundancy needed for Full Self-Driving. Because the upgrade was internal only, there’s again no easy way to tell if a Tesla has HW3—but all HW2 and HW2.5 cars can be upgraded to HW3 if the car has the Full Self-Driving package.
For a deep dive on Tesla’s computer hardware, we highly recommend this TeslaTap article.
A Note on Supercharging
Supercharging is one of the features that sets Teslas apart from the EV competition. Superchargers are Tesla-owned fast charging stations, capable of recharging the cars from zero to 80% in as little as 30 minutes. They’re easy to use, and placed all over the world’s highways, enabling Tesla owners to make road trips with relative ease.
At first, Supercharging was free for all Tesla owners. The company has scaled back that perk over the years; today, most newer Teslas require paid Supercharging—especially if you are buying a pre-owned vehicle. Teslas delivered before January 15, 2017 have transferrable free unlimited Supercharging, but there are exceptions. If a car is traded back to Tesla, the automaker removes it from the car.
Tesla Model 3 (2017–Present)
The Model 3 itself has been relatively unchanged throughout its production run, unlike its pricing. It has never had any extra packages beyond AP/FSD, so buyers can know exactly what to expect from each car based on its trim level and Autopilot status.
The interiors are all basically the same, with the big differences being:
Standard—No heated seats, basic sound.
Partial Premium Interior—Front heated seats only, upgraded sound.
Premium Interior—All seats heated, high-end immersive sound system.
The Model 3 is still relatively new and demand for the car is still pretty high, which is why pre-owned prices tend to be pretty close to new prices—customers are OK paying a premium for a used car to get it faster than they can get a new one made and delivered from Tesla.
Tesla Model S (2012–present)
The Model S is Tesla’s oldest vehicle in its lineup, though it has seen no shortage of updates, tweaks, and even visual design changes over its production run that is approaching a decade. Next year’s Model S will always have something fresh compared to last year’s Model S, even without a new vehicle “generation.” It’s also had what seems like a billion different battery and trim levels over the years.
The way that Tesla badged their vehicles is as follows:
• P – denotes “Performance”
• Number (i.e. 60 or 100) – battery size in kilowatt-hours
• D – dual-motor all wheel drive
• L – the Ludicrous Speed Upgrade.
Though Tesla didn’t include it in the badging, all Standard Range, Long Range, and Performance trimmed cars are all-wheel drive.
Batteries aside, we will divide the car up into rough “versions” to better organize the chaos of Tesla’s incremental updates. Before getting into this, we want to make note of the Technology Package and the Premium Upgrades Package. The option content within these packages gets very granular and changes were frequent as more features were made standard over time. If there is a feature within either of them that are must-haves, then it’s best to just check for it on each car you’re looking at.
June 2012–October 2014 Tesla Model S – Classic Fascia, No Autopilot, MCU1, Lifetime Supercharging (if enabled)
The early Model S was impressive for the same reasons the new Model S is impressive. It’s stylish, with a beautiful exterior and strikingly minimal interior. It goes like hell—and the eye-watering nature of electric acceleration was more surprising to drivers back in 2012 than it is today because it was still so new.
That said, the first version of the Model S will be missing a few things fans of modern Teslas may crave. The 17-inch center touchscreen uses the Media Control Unit V1, resulting in a slower experience with fewer features. There’s no center console. It has the faux-grille look thanks to the classic front fascia, and these cars came in the time before Autopilot. Drivers will have to make do with traditional cruise control.
October 2014–April 2016 – Classic Fascia, Autopilot 1, MCU1, Lifetime Supercharging
In October 2014, Tesla began selling Autopilot Convenience Features—now commonly known as Autopilot 1.
This first version of Autopilot has most of the features you can find on Autopilot today, including Traffic Aware Cruise Control, Autosteer, Autopark, Summon, and Auto Lane Change—it just doesn’t have all of the extra cameras necessary for the latest and greatest in Tesla’s driver-assistance suite.
It was also within this time that Tesla released the first of its “Performance” branded cars, denoted by a “P” in front of the car’s trim level. When you see a “P85D,” “P90D,” or “P100D” on the back of a Model S, you know it’s an especially fast one.
With the release of Performance cars, it wasn’t long until “Insane Mode,” the predecessor to Ludicrous Mode, was introduced in October 2014. This speed upgrade allowed 0-60 runs in the low three second range. Not long after that, Tesla introduced Ludicrous Mode for a sub-three second run in 2015. Both modes have only been available on performance versions of the car.
With the release of the P85D, Tesla offered more supportive “Next Gen” seats built by Recaro. The standard seats, built by Futuris, didn’t have much in the way of support and bolstering. The increased support and side bolstering of the Next Gen seats was helpful for performance-oriented Teslas, and the more supportive seats were eventually offered across the lineup.
Model S buyers in March 2016 also received parts that were a sort-of sneak preview to the upcoming visual refresh. At this point in time, Tesla switched from their aero and turbine wheels to the Slipstream design that’s still standard on Model S today.
April 2016 – August 2016 New Front Fascia
In 2016, Model S received its first (and only) exterior refresh. It received a smooth new front bumper, headlamps, rear end, and the rocker panels were painted. Beyond the visual update, the cars are the same. Drivers still get Autopilot 1.
August 2016–January 2017 The “Unicorn”
A few months after the new front fascia was rolled out, Tesla released Autopilot 2 hardware and the Enhanced Autopilot package. Teslas with this configuration are the most desirable because they have the new look, the most up-to-date hardware (with the option to upgrade to Autopilot Hardware 3 for Full Self-Driving), and transferrable lifetime free Supercharging.
It was also built during the brief period of time that Tesla offered both the perforated, cooled seats and a heated steering wheel. Cars built with this configuration still have the potential to be the most fully-loaded Tesla Model S built!
The only thing it’s lacking over newer Model S is MCU2—meaning features like in-car video streaming and Caraoke are unavailable.
It was also in this time period that Tesla’s latest seat design—the “Tesla Premium Seat” was introduced.
January 2017–March 2018 Bye Bye Free Unlimited Supercharging
Cars built during this period have everything the cars above do, minus the free lifetime Supercharging perk. Instead, they have 400 kWh (approx. 1,000 miles) of free Supercharging credits annually. If you don’t tend to take many road trips where you would need to Supercharge, this change should not make a big difference to you. Even if you drove back and forth across the country twice in one year, you would only save about $300 with unlimited free Supercharging versus this perk.
March 2018–April 2019 Enter MCU2, AP3.
March 2018 saw the introduction of an upgraded Media Control Unit—or MCU2. This upgraded computer chip first appeared in the Model 3, leaving Tesla fans to wonder when it would make its way to Model S and Model X. The answer: March 2018.
MCU2 is generally faster and more capable than MCU1, making for a faster experience using the center screen. It’s also capable of running new software features like Caraoke and In-Car Video Streaming that the older control unit cannot.
Autopilot HW3 was introduced in March 2019, but it’s not worth separating out into another build because it’s just a new computer that adds redundancy needed for Full Self Driving—all the cameras and other sensors remain the same across both versions.
If you’re after a car with Autopilot Hardware 3, the thing to do is to look for a car with confirmation of the Full Self-Driving package. Even if the car currently has Autopilot Hardware 2 or 2.5, it will receive the upgrade to Hardware 3 when Tesla releases Full Self-Driving.
While there is a brief overlap of the 400 kWh charging credit with this configuration, it’s best to think you’ll be paying for Supercharging when you need it.
April 2019–Present “Raven”
The newest version of the Model S features the longest range ever (more than 370 miles) and new active suspension components commonly referred to as “Raven,” which is what Tesla codenamed the parts when they were in development.
While Model S and Model X had long had air suspension, the new active suspension is adaptive to road and driving conditions, allowing for a more comfortable ride on rough roads and more mechanical grip during dynamic driving by stiffening the dampers via a “sport” setting.
Tesla Model X (2016–Present)
Model X didn’t receive quite as many battery trim levels as Model S, but there are still almost a dozen versions of the car. Smaller batteries with less range and performance will generally retail for less on the used market. All versions of Model X are all-wheel drive.
Besides battery size, the big differentiator most Model X buyers look at is the number of seats. The electric SUV can come in five-, six-, or seven-seat configurations depending on your particular needs.
Monopost vs. Fold-Flat Middle Row Seats – From release in 2016 to July 2017, middle-row Model X seats had a monopost design—they sat on a single post attached to the floor. This allowed the outboard seats to be power-adjustable and meant there was a fair amount of room underneath the middle row, but they couldn’t fold flat, reducing total cargo capacity.
From July 2017 onward, five and seven-seat Model X featured a traditional sliding, fold-flat bench seat in the middle row. Six-seat Model X retain the monopost design.
Five-Seat Configuration – Standard and least popular configuration. Seats the least number of people with additional cargo capacity under the floor where the third row of seats would normally be. It’s worth checking out if you want the additional cargo space of a Model X but don’t need extra people-carrying capacity, especially since these tend to be priced lower than comparable six- and seven-seaters.
Six-Seat Configuration – Offers most comfortable seating arrangements for all passengers, including two-way power adjustable seats in the middle row. This is the most popular (and expensive) interior configuration for Model X. Some vehicles have center consoles mounted between the middle-row seats, but most have an open aisle for easy access to the rear seats and cargo area.
Seven-seat Configuration – Takes the five-seater Model X and adds two third-row seats in the back. Obviously, this offers the most seating capacity, though middle-row passengers get the manually adjustable bench seat instead of power-adjustable standalone seats.
Hardware and Software Upgrades
Model X received Autopilot and Media Control Unit hardware and software upgrades at the same time as Model S.
July 2016–August 2016 – Autopilot 1, MCU1, Lifetime Free Supercharging
August 2016–January 2017 – Autopilot 2, MCU1, Lifetime Free Supercharging
January 2017–March 2018 – Autopilot 2, MCU1, Paid Supercharging
March 2018–April 2019 – Autopilot 2, MCU2, Paid Supercharging
April 2019 – “Raven”
The “Raven” suspension upgrade Model S received was also given to Model X.
Roadster (2008, 2010–2011)
Roadster 1.5 – VINs 1–500
Why does Roadster start with Version 1.5, and not version 1.0? Well, technically there was a Roadster 1.0 at first. The first 25 cars were released with a two-speed gearbox, but all of those models were retrofitted with single-speed units—which has become the go-to solution for electric car transmissions.
You can easily distinguish a Tesla Roadster 1.5 from the rest of the Roadsters by looking inside. Roadster 1.5 has a gated shifter, while 2.0 and 2.5 Roadsters have a push-button gear selector.
Roadster 1.5 is also lacking a glovebox—instead it has a small shelf on the passenger side of the car for the placement documents and other small items.
Roadster 2.0 – VIN 500–963
Roadster 2.0 was the biggest update to the car. It received a new motor and power electronics module (PEM), enabling the introduction of the Roadster Sport with increased performance. The Sport model was capable of making the 0-to-60 sprint in 3.7 seconds.
Roadster 2.5 – VIN 964–2500
Roadster 2.5 introduced a number of tech upgrades and a cosmetic update. The PEM was once again upgraded, this time to allow it to better handle hot climates. It received a back-up camera and double DIN touchscreen media unit – a hint of Tesla’s screen-oriented future. Drivers can also enjoy better side-bolstering on the seats.
Visually, the car received new front fascia and rear diffuser design, making them easy to tell apart from earlier Roadsters. New wheels were also available, including forged silver or black sport wheels.
Coming soon: A dive into Model Y and beyond.