By the standards and traditions of a normal car company, Tesla's Model S sedan is now middle-aged: the first delivery took place in mid-2012, and generally speaking, cars are redesigned every six to eight years.
Tesla is no ordinary car company, though. So it got me to thinking, does it need to comply to the normal rules of car design? Does a Tesla vehicle need mid-cycle refreshes (where a car gets new headlights and taillights and perhaps a couple new non-structural panels so it looks new again) and periodic redesigns? Or can it just go on forever, looking basically the same as it does today?
There's precedent for this, actually. Take the Rolls-Royce Phantom, for instance, which has gone virtually unchanged since its introduction in 2003. (The Model S is less exclusive than the Phantom, granted, but not by much.) And there are vehicles that — although thoroughly re-engineered from time to time — look extraordinarily similar over many years or decades, like the Jeep Wrangler and Porsche 911. Tesla owners would point out that the company has already made big leaps in the Model S's engineering, adding features like LTE, imaging sensors for autopilot, and new seat designs.
The Model 3 is far more important than a new Model S
None of this is to say the Model S is an ugly car, but designs naturally grow tired over time — there's no avoiding it. Even the best-looking cars on the road start to look old eventually. Tesla's design chief, Franz von Holzhausen, is an accomplished automotive designer who has worked for Mazda, GM, and others over the years; I suspect he'd love to give the Model S a nip and a tuck at some point. But this is still a very small company of limited means that has many, many other priorities in the pipeline: it has to scale up Model X manufacturing, finish the Gigafactory, and get the absolutely critical Model 3 — the mass-market car that could make or break Tesla in the long term — on the road. After that, it has already committed to launching a new Roadster toward the end of the decade. There may simply not be the people or the money to make a new Model S any time soon. Elon Musk has explicitly said that the car will continue to improve over time, but I suspect he's far more focused on technical capability — battery capacity, autopilot features, and so on — than he is on aesthetics.
And so, back to the question at hand: can Tesla ride the Model S, as it looks today, indefinitely? On the one hand, I think that many (most?) Model S owners believe in the technology and the mission first and foremost — they're not saying, "Wow, I must own that pretty car," even though the S is a perfectly fine-looking sedan. It's form after function in this case, which is often a rare philosophy in the auto industry.
But on the other hand, it's just a matter of time before legacy automakers catch up to Tesla's technical capabilities, and they may (in some cases) do so at a lower price. These companies are accustomed to a regular cycle of refreshes and redesigns. And when you look at something like the Porsche Mission E, you're reminded that these companies have ultra-talented designers on staff who are capable of doing really, really spectacular things.
The Mission E shows that Tesla could have to make a move eventually
If Tesla chooses — or is forced — to let the Model S design wither on the vine, it'll cement Tesla's image not as a "car company," but as a technology company that is advancing the concept of personal mobility. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it will test buyers and loyalty when fresher-looking EVs are sprouting up left and right. In the very long term, that'll be an even bigger deal for the Model 3, where price sensitivity is the overriding concern for buyers, not brand or technology.
Me? I'm a car guy. Show me a new Model S in a couple years, Franz.
Verge Video: Riding in the Tesla Model S