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Leasing a Tesla? You’re paying for the company’s robotaxis — whether you like it or not

The long-awaited leasing program for the Model 3 comes with a twist: Consumers can’t buy the vehicle at the end of the lease.

A worker unloads a Tesla Model 3. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)
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SAN FRANCISCO — Daniel Rey was excited to finally make good on his three-year-old reservation for a Tesla Model 3 sedan. But he was caught off guard when he read the terms of the leasing agreement.

The ability to lease the car — which Tesla began offering this month on the Model 3 — would cost an estimated $22,000 over 36 months, nearly 60 percent of the $37,200 cost of ownership, according to a quote Rey received from Tesla’s website last week. And there would be no option to buy the vehicle after the lease.

“It sounds like a subscription or almost like a rental agreement,” said Rey, 51, of DeKalb, Ill. “Like you’re renting it, not leasing it.”

The long-awaited leasing program for the Model 3, which Tesla has pitched as its mass-market offering that will make electric cars mainstream, comes with a twist: The automaker will not allow consumers to buy the vehicle at the end of the three-year period. Instead, the Silicon Valley automaker intends to absorb all returned Model 3s to launch a robotaxi fleet, a roving network of self-driving vehicles. But those who would lease the vehicle seemed to be getting shorted, consumers and analysts said.

“The nice thing is that essentially customers are fronting us the money for the car,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Monday at a Tesla investor event in the firm’s hometown of Palo Alto, Calif. “It’s great.”

Auto industry observers said they have never seen such a leasing program — subsidizing an ambitious fleet strategy intended to rake in profits for the automaker. Contrary to its deal on the Model 3, Tesla allows consumers to buy the Model S luxury sedan or the Model X, the SUV, at the end of the lease, according to its website.

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Consumers and analysts questioned whether Tesla’s move was merely intended to fill the coffers of the debt-laden company and buoy sagging Model 3 demand in the short term. Earlier this month, Tesla said it delivered 50,900 Model 3 vehicles in the first quarter, falling short of the previous quarter. Tesla is due to report its first-quarter earnings Wednesday.

Tesla’s leasing model presages one vision of the future of automobiles: in which consumers no longer own vehicles and auto companies become service providers of rides. But doing away with the option to purchase shows the way consumers might get shortchanged.

Tesla’s plans for a robotaxi service — which it said could operate for as little as 18 cents a mile, compared with manned trips that cost $2 to $3 to cover the same distance — may not materialize in Musk’s tight timeframe. And Tesla could eventually decide to let consumers buy the Model 3s at the end of the lease.

Tesla declined to comment.

“I’m just not aware of an automaker that doesn’t allow an option to purchase at the end of the lease and has plans to use it for their own internal ride-hailing fleet,” said Garrett Nelson, senior equity analyst with research firm CFRA, whose area of expertise includes all the major American automakers and the auto supply chain. “This is definitely something unique.”

One eerie parallel is a leasing program for the General Motors EV1, a consumer electric car that was available to lease two decades ago, before GM abruptly ordered the whole fleet returned without an option to buy, as recounted in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” The cars disappeared from the roads entirely.

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Some analysts said the reduction in federal electric-vehicle tax credits for Teslas from $7,500 to $3,750 could play into the firm’s timing on leasing, though it has long indicated it planned to offer the option on the Model 3. The demand problems could have prompted Tesla to offer leasing to a wider swath of consumers, who could afford monthly payments over outright ownership. Tesla announced its Model 3 leases earlier this month as part of changes to pricing on its vehicles.

“I mean look, they’re not doing this in a position of strength,” said Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. “They had to do something right now … because they’re going into a fork-in-the-road situation over the next six to nine months, and to do this without leasing would have been, I think, a huge dagger.” He called Tesla’s model a “shadow leasing program.”

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For months, Steve Berman, a technology executive based in Alpharetta, Ga., had seen the Model 3 displayed in a showroom. On Saturday, Berman and his son ventured to the Tesla shop to price one out.

“My wife and I are trying to keep a budget,” he said.

Berman said the terms of the lease made it impractical, though the insurance costs were the factor that ultimately dissuaded him. He said he began to consider a Volkswagen e-Golf or a Hyundai Kona EV.

“I think he thinks he’s Willy Wonka, in a way, with the Everlasting Gobstoppers,” Berman said of Musk. “I think he’s misreading the American market — I think people want to buy the car.”

Rey, who had waited three years to buy a Model 3, said he would look instead at plug-in hybrid models such as the Chevrolet Volt or Ford and Lincoln’s lineup of hybrids to replace his aging Prius.

“I think we’re gonna pass on leasing,” he said. “It just feels like I’m financing more of the purchase than Tesla is.”