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A surprising look at who buys the Tesla Model S

If you think you know what type of person buys the Tesla Model S electric super-sedan you may be surprised by this interview with an actual owner. Maybe the experts are wrong.

We recently ran a series of stories about Tesla Motors and its coming Gen III mass-market vehicle. In one of the stories, we used the term “very wealthy men” to describe Tesla Model S owners. This was partly because Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, had recently used a similar term. While referring to the Model S, he said: “…this could be misinterpreted as Tesla believing that there was a shortage of sports cars for rich people.” Also, Edmunds had recently done an analysis of the Tesla ownership and found that more than 80% were men, and nearly 80% earned over $100K per year.

A reader contacted us to challenge our perpetuation of the stereotype in that prior story. That led to a dialogue between us that we found very exciting and educational. Here is our interview with a Tesla Model S owner, Ms. Charlotte O.

Hello Charlotte. Please tell us a bit about yourself.

In regards to information about me, I earn less than $100k per year. I am a Professor of Biology at Washington State University, Pullman, WA soon to retire. I am over 60 and Japanese American. I know of a couple of other professors, i.e. not uber rich guys, who own a Model S, too. I heard of
similar buyers of Model S who previously owned a Prius or Nissan Leaf. So I don’t think I’m unique in not being rich though maybe not fit the profile of the average Model S owner.

You brought up the other most popular green cars available. Did you have other green cars in the past? Why not a more affordable Volt or Leaf instead of a Tesla?

I guess you can call me an environmentalist. I bought my second Prius in 2009, and last year was considering getting an electric car. Unfortunately, at that time, there were only 3 cars that I could purchase in the state of WA, Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt and the Tesla. There are more choices if you lived in CA but that makes me think that companies that limit sales of green cars to CA are doing it just for the ZEV credit, not with the intention of selling lots of green cars. The problem with the Leaf and Volt is their range. I live in a small town in Eastern WA about 90 miles south of Spokane WA, the largest city in our area. I could not even get to Spokane without charging the Nissan Leaf, and Chevy Volt would have had to kick in its gas engine. Since my whole point was to get off of gas, and the fact that having both electric and gas would make the whole thing more complex, I decided against the two. The only negative about the Tesla was the price. But then I actually saw one in Seattle and got to test drive it. That sealed the deal. It is so cool looking.

Have you ever owned a performance car or a sporty car before this?

Decades ago, I purchased a used Mazda Miata. Yes, a red one and it drove great in the summer with the top down, but in our area, I could only drive it for 3-4 months out of the year. When I got my Prius, I just couldn’t justify the fun car because it got worse gas mileage. The Model S handles like no other car I’ve ever driven. I’ve never driven a sports car or luxury car so for those who have, it may not seem all that great. I don’t know.

We have driven it. Yes, it is all that great. Other automakers have responded to Tesla. For example, Porsche has come out with a plug-in Panamera Hybrid. Were cars like that on your radar when you shopped the Tesla Model S?

No. I didn’t know that Porsche made electric cars. Is it all electric and available in WA? It is interesting that you ask though because a colleague who is into fancy fast cars rode in my Model S and compared it to Porsche Panamera.

Buying a car as expensive as the Tesla Model S must be a little scary. Did you have any worries about such a big decision?

Before I committed to buying I did have some questions. I wondered if the insurance would be more with it, but my insurance agent said that it would not be more than for a car of similar price. I also worried about winter driving since if I paid that much for a car, it had to be a year-round car. I e-mailed Tesla, and they promptly e-mailed me back with a YouTube video of a Model S doing slalom course in Minnesota in the depth of winter. The Tesla guy did suggest that I opt for getting the active air
suspension option to go over large snow berms, which I did. Having now driven through two snow falls, I can say from experience that it handles great and it stops without any fishtailing or hesitation on icy roads. We will be having VERY cold weather soon high of 17! so we’ll see how the Model S handles that.

That active air suspension you mentioned on your Model S should have been changed recently. In response to the fire hysteria, Tesla modified your car so it will not lower automatically on the highway. What did you think of that?

The fact that they can do over the air software update is great. I heard that one of the most common accidents that Model S had been in are rear-end collisions. I suspect that that was due to the aggressive regenerative braking, and I bet that initially, the brake lights did not go on when one released the accelerator. But I know that in my Model S (because I keep the rear view camera on while driving) when I release the accelerator, the brake lights do come on. I think Tesla monitors any
problems or accidents to their cars, and if something can be fixed with a software update, they do.

What was your biggest surprise about the Tesla Model S?

The power is amazing, I love to be the first car at a red light and zoom off half a block down before other cars get out into the intersection. I also go fast, but since it’s so smooth and quiet, it’s the acceleration that I get a kick out of even from 0-30. I also have not gotten a speeding ticket, and there’s no law against fast acceleration! Of course, now that it’s snowy, I’m more careful, not because of my car, but I’d hate to T-bone someone who can’t stop at a red light.

Another feature that is new to me is the Tesla app on my iPhone. I think some other luxury vehicles have a similar thing, but it is new to me. I can see how much charge it’s got, for example, if I’m charging at a public station while I eat lunch. My favorite feature, now, though is the ability to turn the climate control on and have the car toasty before I get in. I’m sure it would also be great in the summer to be able to vent the sunroof or turn on the AC. I played around with the remote horn and lights, especially when there’s a group of people looking at it.

You brought up driving the Model S in snow. Have you done anything like getting special winter tires?

Yes, I contacted Tesla and they told me to get a Pirelli 240 Sottozero. I went to my Ford dealer to request it, but they had a lot of trouble getting it, so I got what they said was comparable with very similar looking treads. I also got chains just in case.

Have you ever used the Tesla Supercharger network?

No, I wish there was one close by so that I can use it. I expect to have one within range before next spring. Ever since I ordered my Model S, I think they’ve put in 1 or 2 superchargers per week. At least they did not have any in Washington State or Oregon and I think less than 20 but now they have 37 including in South Dakota! I’m looking forward to getting a Supercharger in the middle of the state so that I can get to Seattle and then up and down the coast. I keep an eye on their Supercharger network(which I can see on my places tab on the map in the car) and also the map on Tesla site. I did take delivery of my Model S in Bellevue WA, and charged up for a couple of hours at the Roadster charger in Ellensburg, but I’m afraid to do the trip in reverse, especially in the winter time. Of course, if I have to go to Seattle, I can arrange it to go to a hotel or RV site but since I don’t, I will eagerly await the installation of Superchargers.

Early in this interview you call yourself an environmentalist? What other things have you done to live more of a green lifestyle besides buying the Tesla Model S?

We do try to live a green lifestyle. Several years ago, we had an energy audit done, and were amazed that there were very inexpensive things that we could do to save energy, particularly loss of heat from the house. The month after we did these things, we saw an immediate drop in our energy use. We do not have air conditioning, and when it gets hot in the summer we open all the windows and doors at night. It cools off at night here. One of the first things we did was get a dual flush toilet a while ago before such things became more commonplace. We have rain barrels that we use to water our house plants. Now that I got a Tesla, I plan to install solar panels on an awning above our deck this spring.

We connected when you slapped my hand for perpetuating the stereotype in a recent story that all Tesla owners are “Rich men” as I put it. Do you want to comment on that?

Finally, just to let you know, I love to challenge stereotypes. My second Prius was sheathed in camouflage. I keep Jimmie Johnson hat in my Model S; the red trim matches my Tesla, and I heard that compared to the average American, Tesla owners are less likely to be NASCAR fans.

Our sincerest thanks to Charlotte. At Torque News our readers are our first priority. Nothing makes us happier than a comment back to us under a story. That a Torque News reader would be so generous with their time and personal information is very humbling. If you enjoyed this interview, please post your thanks to Charlotte in the comments section below.

Note: The Q&A section above is presented in an interview format, but the content was taken from unedited e-mails. Charlotte’s words were not changed in any way and she approved this story prior to publication. The photo is hers and used with her permission.


Jared (not verified)    December 4, 2013 - 9:49PM

As a fellow Model S owner I can certainly attest to Charlotte's love of the car. But what was really profound in this instance was that actually cares about its readers and is willing to hear (and air) contrarian viewpoints. Very rare these days. Thanks to both Charlotte and!

Aaron Turpen    December 4, 2013 - 11:25PM

Awesome, Charlotte. Thanks for shattering the usual automotive assumptions people have. It's often easy to forget that about half of all car buyers right now are over 55 and over half of all buyers are women. It's slowly changing, but the automotive press is still very man-centric. Glad to see someone like you who's willing to step forward and say "I own one and I don't fit your mold."

HT (not verified)    December 5, 2013 - 4:20AM

Thanks Charlotte,
Great info. I watch NASCAR ,Indycar and Formula One racing. I own a Model S.
Look out for Formula E racing in 2014 (electric car racing)

Charlotte Omoto (not verified)    December 9, 2013 - 9:28PM

In reply to by HT (not verified)

Wow thanks for letting me know about electric car racing! I totally fell for the April Fools joke about Tesla sponsoring cars for NASCAR :-(

Charlotte Omoto (not verified)    December 25, 2013 - 4:43PM

In reply to by HT (not verified)

I just read that Formula E all use the same engine from McLaren. I think it would be more interesting for different manufacturers to provide their own engines and cars.

John Goreham    December 26, 2013 - 12:29PM

In reply to by Charlotte Omoto (not verified)

I'm not really a race fan. I like WRC, but even that is getting boring for me. It seems to have lost something since Subaru left. I knew nothing about Formula E until this past week. One of the car mags had a whole story on it. I was shocked to learn that the cars can't complete the race due to lack of range. Part way through they actually switch cars to one that is newly charged up. That pretty much wrecked my interest in it.

Charlotte Omoto (not verified)    December 26, 2013 - 6:07PM

In reply to by John Goreham

I totally agree. It would be much more interesting if they set up the race so that a car can do it on a single charge, or allow different manufacturers to do different types of charging up or swapping batteries. This may help develop new technologies, both in battery technology and charging technology. In NASCAR, there's always fuel strategy and cars losing because they run out of fuel at the last lap.

Sherry Cox (not verified)    December 5, 2013 - 11:55AM

I am also a woman model S owner. I am not rich(retired teacher). While I waited for a car like this to be developed, I saved my money (for 8 years). A "real car" that is all electric was my goal. I guess you could call me an environmentalist as I also have solar panels on the roof. Do I enjoy the power delivery? Oh yes! Even though I have never been interested in learning what NASCAR means.

Wayne (not verified)    December 5, 2013 - 2:04PM

I make lass than 100K a yr. Make choice was easy, I just did the math. I was spending $400/month on gas because a drive 80 miles per day for work. So with my Tesla Model S if you deduct the saving in gas and what I would pay for let us say a Mazda 6, it is a good deal, but ofcorse I get to drive an S. Best decision I made in a long time.

Shira (not verified)    December 6, 2013 - 1:28AM

Charlotte, woot! I bet I'm not the only one who'd like to take a spin in your car! I loved this article for more than one reason. You rock!

Stephen Pace (not verified)    December 9, 2013 - 5:00PM

I have met at least four women in Houston that have the Tesla Model S as their daily driver. Not only that, I attended the annual Tesla conference (TESLIVE) and there were many woman owners there as well. The statistic John Goreham used from Edmunds could well be wrong. If Edmunds skews to a male readership, then of course their poll numbers would be off.

John Goreham    December 9, 2013 - 5:49PM

First of all, I think it's great you met 4 women :) I would love to have more data from Tesla directly, but it is pretty secretive about that stuff. I hope to hear from some snow belt folks that they drive their Teslas in the snow (which really means salt, sand, and risking being out with other drivers who can barely drive in the dry). I'm not afraid to be mistaken.

Charlotte Omoto (not verified)    December 9, 2013 - 9:43PM

I now wonder how Edmunds got their data because my Model S is under both my husband's and my name just because we bundle our insurance. In fact, Tesla asked me if my husband was coming with me to pick up the car, and I told them that he was not, and that this is my car. His name is on it just for insurance purposes. I saw TESLIVE video and there was a woman there who got a Model S for a birthday present. I bet that if that was not registered in both their names it was in his.

Charlotte Omoto (not verified)    December 9, 2013 - 9:47PM

I now wonder how Edmunds got their data because my Model S is under both my husband's and my name just because we bundle our insurance. In fact, Tesla asked me if my husband was coming with me to pick up the car, and I told them that he was not, and that this is my car. His name is on it just for insurance purposes. I saw TESLIVE video and there was a woman there who got a Model S for a birthday present. I bet that if that was not registered in both their names it was in his.

John Goreham    December 10, 2013 - 8:21AM

In reply to by Charlotte Omoto (not verified)

They might have just done some math based on the ownership requirements. For example; to get a Model S one either needs 1) About $90,000 (I know there is a range, but I still have heard of almost nobody with a base model) 2) The ability to pay off a car loan that is as large as $ 90,000 over about 6 years 3) A trade vehicle and the balance of the two above.
Rich is a very relative term. However, they said about 80% of Tesla owners have an income over $100K. What do you think that number should be? Remember, they really mean "family" income.
I'm caught here defending Edmunds, who I respect, but I have no idea how they came up with it.

Aaron Turpen    December 10, 2013 - 10:56AM

In reply to by John Goreham

Sound financials would say that a car should not cost more than your annual salary and should, in fact, be less than that. This is the basic assumption, I'm guessing, that Edmund's used. With an EV, those numbers change since the expected fuel and maintenance costs are not there, changing the metrics.

John Goreham    December 10, 2013 - 11:17AM

Well said. I am also wondering if the Model S will actually GAIN in value. I was convinced it would, but not so sure now. I am being overwhelmed by owners that say they 1) Drive a ton of miles 2) Drive in all weather, particularly snow 3) Use it to carry dogs and go to the dump etc. Those behaviors wear out a car, EV or not. Which is fine, but it does not point to a car being sold for more than its initial cost (like a Ferrari)

E Paul Lian (not verified)    March 23, 2014 - 6:22PM

THX Charlotte, excellent info you provided during your interview. My Tesla Test Drive is scheduled in early April here in Scottsdale, Arizona. I'm retired from a thirty-three year career in the Life Insurance - Pension business. I LOVE TO DRIVE and am looking for a classy electric car with which to continue my life adventure. The Tesla might be the ticket. Continued good health and HAPPY DRIVING to you !!

Alan Leong (not verified)    August 8, 2014 - 9:52PM

Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed your article. My wife and I are visiting WSU veterinary hospital 10-11 august. We plan to drive our tesla but cannot seem to find any EV charger in Pullman. Can you please advise if there is an EV charger in Pullman we can charge at? Thank you.

Charlotte Omoto (not verified)    August 9, 2014 - 6:45PM

In reply to by Alan Leong (not verified)

I am traveling and won't be back until the evening of Aug 11, otherwise you can use my NEMA 14-50 in Palouse. Palouse has an RV park with full electrical hookup, and that is the only thing I know of in the area. I don't know where you are coming from, but there is a new Supercharger in Ritzville. I have tried very hard for local businesses including hotels and governments and utilities to put in ev charging, but so far without success. You might mention your desire to have ev charging wherever you stay and even the vet school.