Tesla Model 3: The First Serious Review
The most important car since the Model T is brilliant—with one big caveat.
(Disclaimer: I don't own a Tesla. I don't derive any benefits from Tesla referral sales. I don't own any Tesla stock, nor do I derive any income from Tesla's success or failure. I'm convinced the majority of online Tesla commenters are personally invested in [or shorting] $TSLA. I'm also convinced the majority of them are bots. I'm not sure which group annoys me more, the shorts or the whores. It's almost impossible to read anything about the Model 3 that isn't clickbait or doesn't omit information of value to the only people I care about: potential buyers.)
I just drove 2,860 miles cross-country in a Tesla Model 3, setting a new electric Cannonball Run record of 50 hours and 16 minutes. This wasn't a specially prepared press loaner or pre-production employee car; this was one of the first customer-owned cars delivered at the Fremont factory on December 27th, 2017.
For those gambling on the 3's failure and Tesla's collapse, don't count on it. The Model 3 is delightful, odd, and brilliant—but there is one big, crackling bolt of a caveat.
The issue is not the build quality, nor is it the 15-inch touchscreen, which has absorbed almost all vehicle controls. Instead, it's the Autopilot user interface, which has gone from seamless to kludge overnight.
The good news: The majority of Autopilot UI issues are fixable with an over-the-air (OTA) software update.
The bad news? Until the Autopilot UI is updated, Tesla fans will bend like yogis to make excuses for it, and the $TSLA shorts will exploit it to deter new customers from what is otherwise a wondrous step forward for passenger cars.
I love this car, but Tesla cannot solve the Autopilot UI problem fast enough.
Let's dive in.
My co-driver was Model 3 owner Dan Zorrilla, a construction consultant and longtime Tesla Model S owner who was kind enough to give me unrestricted access to the car for four days.
See that $55,000 sticker price? Not quite the $35,000 Elon talked about, which is for a stripped, standard battery version that isn't yet out. That $55,000 is the price of a loaded, rear-wheel drive Model 3 with a larger battery that gets you 310 (EPA-rated) miles of range.
Is it worth it? I think so. What's the electric alternative at any price? A Chevy Volt? A Bolt? A Nissan Leaf? Be serious.
If you want an premium electric car, Tesla is still the only game in town. Actually, if you want any electric car, unless you've got a charger at home or work where the vehicle can recharge undisturbed for hours, Tesla is the only choice.
As for cross-shopping against internal combustion cars, it's pointless; you either buy Tesla's point of view regardless of cost, or you don't.
Range & Charging
Tesla claims the Model 3's 75kWh Long Range battery is good for 315 miles. The company also had an odd interaction with the EPA, which they asked to lower the official range rating, from 334 to 310 miles. With a 1,000-pound weight advantage over the S, I wouldn't be surprised if the Model 3 could be hypermiled to 350 or more. I wish I knew what the absolute range figure is, but when you're driving cross country for time, it's unwise to drive the battery down to zero, or charge up to 100 percent.
We stuck with Tesla's proprietary Supercharger network, without which the drive would have been 10-20 hours longer. Optimal charging speed generally occurs when the battery is below 50 percent capacity; above that, speed drops precipitously. Factor in temperatures below 20 degrees for most of the drive, and charging was further slowed. That's because Tesla slows down the charge rate when the cells are too cold "in order to maintain safety and maximum range."
I'll follow up on absolute range as soon as I get another Model 3 for testing.
One new aspect of electric Cannonballing in a Model 3 was having to pay for charging. All Teslas used to come with free supercharging.* With the Model 3 you pay as you go. Our journey cross-country cost $100.95 in electricity. Cannonballing in my record-setting internal-combustion 2000 BMW M5 would have cost about $600 in fuel; it also would have been a little more than twenty hours quicker.
Tesla's Supercharger Network remains the best of breed, but charging speeds still have a ways to go in order to find parity with fossil fuel refilling.
You know what else has a way to go? Facilities at Superchargers, most of which are located near budget hotels and fast-food restaurants. Night-time charging is lonely, and bathroom visits in the winter mean a chilly walk, or ducking behind the transformers.
Hey, here's a business opportunity: food delivery for Tesla owners at Supercharging stations.
The Model 3 is handsome, but not as sexy as the Model S. Who cares? It's a Tesla. Anyone who can't get past the slightly awkward nose is missing out on the most important car since the Ford Model T. Tesla is the first company to successfully define what its idea of our automotive future looks like, and you either buy Tesla's vision or you don't. Again, what's the alternative? It's not a Bolt, and everything else is years away.
In a straight line, the Model 3 is fine. It delivers a bit more than enough linear electric torque to satisfy, making it feel slightly faster than it is. Tesla claims 0-60MPH in 5.1 to 5.6 seconds. A 2018 BMW 3-series hybrid does it 5.9 seconds; a 340i sedan in 4.6.
In an automotive world where power is increasingly commodified, this is all pointless. No one cares. If you're buying a car based on 0-60 times, save up for a nice used 2015 Tesla Model S P90D with Ludicrous Mode. That'll do the deed in 2.6 seconds, smoking nearly every supercar ever made. If you haven't already placed a Model 3 order, 2015 P90D's will probably come off-lease before your Model 3 arrives.
Excellent, but not necessarily fun—which is exactly what you'd expect from a 3,800 pound electric car with a very low center of gravity. It's certainly more fun than a loaded Model S, with an extra thousand pounds that negate its extra power.
Fit & Finish
Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Tesla has been suspiciously stingy with media access to the Model 3. The brief drives at last year's Hawthorne reveal demonstrated nothing other than the car exists; and that it looks pretty good in deliberately poor lighting. The first cars were delivered only to employees and those who appear to be friends of Elon—none of whom shared pictures of the interior or screen interface. Rumors suggested bad news for employees who let journalists into their cars. Jalopnik even put out a public plea for access Tesla wouldn't grant them.
Why the secrecy? The car is terrific.
I've now driven three different Model 3s over six weeks. Two were owned by employees, plus the car Zorrilla and I lived in for just over 50 frigid hours. I would have published my thoughts sooner, but it was unclear whether the employees' cars (or even Zorrilla's car, being one of the first such vehicles delivered) were truly representative. Some have suggested the cars currently being delivered are handmade because the production line is incomplete—or perhaps doesn't even exist.
I still don't know. I also don't care. What I do know is that the infamous panel gaps sticklers obsess over are there, but I wouldn't have noticed them if I wasn't bombarded by Seeking Alpha articles suggesting these are indicative of deeper production flaws, none of which I found.
The Model 3 we drove cross country ran perfectly save one exception: an airbag warning light came on three times in the first twenty minutes of our drive before going off and never coming back.
Tesla's reliability was an issue at one time, but Consumer Reports now rates the S above average, and predicts the Model 3 will be average. None of this appears to be an issue for the majority of owners who voted Tesla the number-one brand in America for owner satisfaction in 2016 and 2017, ahead of Porsche.
Here's what I found, somewhat to my surprise: Zero squeaks or rattles, even after 2,860 wretched miles of altitude changes, rain, sleet and snow.
My only complaint may or may not be a design flaw: sitting on either side of the car, cold air bled onto my legs from a gap somewhere around the front edge of the front door. This was mildly apparent with the heat on high, and very apparent on low, or off. (Of course, we were driving at high-speed through the coldest winter in recent memory.) Zorrilla didn't feel it as much as I did, but he was wearing three layers on his legs, whereas I only wore two until I bought a blanket halfway through our journey for $10.
I followed up with Tesla about the draft. They said they'd look into it.
What about touch points? The Model 3 reduces these 90 percent by moving almost all the interior controls to a 15-inch touchscreen. All that remains are the window switches, turn signals, partial wiper controls, the horn, a pair of sliders on the steering wheel, and the overhead hazard switch and lights. We're not in Audi territory in terms of quality, but all were adequate and worked perfectly.
Hinges? Latches? Door handles? They still worked perfectly when we got to NYC. I'm not sure what that proves.
Instead of a key, Tesla provides two RFID-enabled credit card-sized card keys, and a phone app. The cards unlock the car when held up to the B-pillar—but not if the pillar is covered in salt and ice, apparently. The Tesla phone app can also unlock the car via Bluetooth.
I grew up on traditional keys. I like the ritualized tabletop chi-clink of a metal key and branded fob. I also appreciate the redundancy of the phone/card combination. If this is the future, so be it.
Don't lose those cards, though. Zorrilla told me replacements cost $100 [EDITOR'S NOTE: A representative from Tesla contacted The Drive and said the cards cost $5 each; the first replacement is free]. Paying that for a plastic card may sound criminal, but consider that replacement keys for most modern luxury cars often cost far more.
Very good. As good as a comparably priced Audi? No, but the the seats were lovely even after 50 hours. I slept reclined in the passenger seat like a baby, without a single ache or pain.
Legroom was surprisingly good. I'm six feet tall, and it's possible for one six-footer to comfortably sit behind another. The high roofline offers more headroom than in an S, allowing one to wear cheap cowboy hats purchased almost anywhere along I-40, I-44, and I-70.
Interior storage is better than a Model S, with side door pockets and a nice little shelf below the touchscreen designed for two phones with integrated charging docks. The 3's frunk/trunk combo offer just half the storage of the S (15 cubic feet versus 30) but its rear seats also fold down, carrying on the convenience of being able to place a fully inflated twin mattress in the trunk.
Very good, and much better than expected. Most people think big bass, more speakers, more woofers, more modes, and more DSP is a good thing. WRONG. Don't be fooled. I own a hi-end audio dealership, so I know what I'm talking about when I tell you that clarity is everything. Electric cars have a much lower noise floor, which means everything sounds better, even at low volume. Elon Musk is allegedly an audiophile, and it shows. Unexpectedly low wind noise is a big help.
The Model 3 is a triumph of industrial design. Forget the naysayers. Ask anyone who isn't a car person, or especially women—a group too often excluded from the conversation, despite its size and disproportionate purchasing power, by an industry yet to have its Weinstein moment—for real perspective. Starting with a clean sheet, Tesla has out-Volvo'ed Volvo, delivering the purest interpretation of Scandinavian design in automotive history. I felt liberated from the tyranny of traditional car dashboards full of knobs and buttons.
I'm not saying I'm opposed to analog controls and traditional dashboards. Quite the opposite. What I am opposed to is overly complicated design in either direction. The best iteration is always the simplest, and traditional car manufacturers have largely blown it in their respective efforts to integrate digital with analog.
I love the size, design, and placement of the 15-inch touchscreen, which feels fixed to the dash by the steel hands of God. Mercedes-Benz engineers should be ashamed of themselves; the $200,000+ G-Wagon's puny display—a joke by comparison—has the structural integrity of overused Legos. It could be pulled off with one hand. The Model 3's display seems like it would require a sledgehammer to be dislodged.
Wonderful. In conjunction with Tesla's excellent voice control, it's a revelation. Other manufacturers should weep.
I especially loved the HVAC system, which disposes with a century of movable plastic vents that inevitably break, or droop. The Model 3 elegantly substitutes a wide vent above the wooden trim that spans the entire length of the dashboard. The other vents are concealed. An elegant control interface is accessed via that big dashboard display.
It's too bad we kept the heat off for most of the drive, to save power.
Why hasn't anyone done this before?
It's not all perfection, though, because the Model 3 takes Tesla's war for simplicity off the deep end.
The Bad News: Autopilot User Interface
A lot of people laughed when Tesla put that massive, 17-inch portrait display in the center of the Model S and X. Too big! Too distracting! What if it breaks? I felt the same way, until I drove an S cross country in 2015. Tens of thousands of Tesla miles later, I love it even more.
The S/X iteration works because, once you get past the loss of most traditional buttons and switches, the user interface strikes just the right balance between analog and digital, and the division (and optional duplication) of information between the displays is terrific. The voice control is terrific. The speedo is dead center.
Most importantly, Autopilot is controlled by a single perfect stalk left of the steering wheel. In conjunction with what remains the only effective situational awareness display in the auto industry—large, clear and mounted dead-center in front of the driver—Autopilot defined state-of-the-art for semi-autonomous driving systems.
This is what the Autopilot control stalk looks like in the S/X:
Move down once for radar cruise control, twice for Autopilot. Turn the knob to control distance to the vehicle ahead.
To paraphrase Antoine de Saint Exupery, this stalk system is perfect not because there's nothing left to add, but because there's nothing left to take away.
This is what the S Autopilot display looks like, right in front of the drivers face, all the time:
The S/X Autopilot display helps the driver understand the system's confidence—what it sees, and what it doesn't—when engaged, which can lead to the driver voluntarily disengaging the system before the system disengages itself. Understanding Autopilot is the key to using it safely; the more information a user has about what the system sees, the easier it is to master. Mastering it is the key to using any semi-autonomous system in a way that feels pleasing.
Here's what it looks like in the cluster:
People talk about driving EVs with one pedal, but once you've mastered Autopilot in a Model S or Model X, you can drive it almost all day, in good conditions, with no pedals, keeping the system safely engaged by adjusting its speed and follow distance with your left hand gently on the wheel, left fingers extended onto the stalk.
Here's the Model 3 interior:
I can totally buy the notion that a transportation appliance doesn't need to display any information directly in front of the driver. Why should it, if "Full Self-Driving"—as Tesla refers to Level 4 Automation—is supposed to arrive during the life cycle of the just-released Model 3?
But the 3 isn't capable of Level 4 today, and no one knows when it will be, so it remains a human-driven car.
As a human-driven car, I could even buy into the idea that the speedometer could be moved to the top left corner of the central display. It's not ideal, but it is in the driver's line of sight.
But the 3 isn't just a human driven car. It comes with Autopilot, and for hundreds of thousands of customers, Autopilot will be their first exposure to what they believe is the world's best semi-autonomous system. Autopilot, along with Tesla's Supercharger Network and its EV powertrains, is key to Tesla's competitive advantage, which erodes a little bit daily.
Unfortunately, the Model 3's Autopilot implementation currently sucks.
The Model 3 was clearly designed for Level 4 at the expense of Autopilot, a problem that will only loom larger the longer it takes Tesla to get to full self-driving.
How long before rivals release semi-autonomous systems as good as or better than Autopilot? Cadillac SuperCruise is the only contender today, but that won't last.
Why is the Model 3's Autopilot such a step backward? Because semi-autonomous driving systems require human interaction. The more complex and capable a semi-autonomous system, the more critical the human-machine interface (HMI).
Check out the 3's Autopilot UI:
The Autopilot software is all there, but that perfect UI in the Model S and X is gone.
The situational awareness display is the one thing that can’t be moved off-center without harming the driver’s optimization of Autopilot. And yet, there it is: off-center.
Half the controls previously on the left stalk are now on right stalk. Why? Because the other half are now on the touchscreen, a decision I can only attribute to cost-cutting.
The radar cruise follow distance controls? Now within a secondary menu on the touchscreen.
It may seem insignificant, but experienced Autopilot users will notice. I hated it. First-time users are unlikely to adjust this, or even notice they can adjust it. How unfortunate for them. This might be forgivable, as it doesn't harm Autopilot as much as diminish the apparently unintended benefits of the prior UI. The elegance of the old stalk appears not have been a function of Tesla's wisdom, but rather because they sourced it from Mercedes-Benz. The 3's stalk? I don't know where Tesla got it, but it's both cheaper in feel and less functional.
What isn't forgivable is THIS:
In the S/X, the radar cruise/Autopilot speed is controlled by tapping the the left-hand stalk up or down. It has detents allowing for one- or five-mph increments.
In the Model 3, the speed control is moved to the screen right below the speedometer. They're not even up/down. They're left/right. This sucks. It makes it far more difficult to optimize Autopilot. Instead of tapping the left stalk down all the way a couple of times to drop 10 or 20 mph within the system, one has to repeatedly stab at the 3's screen to achieve the same outcome. The other option is to tap the 3's right stalk up, or tap the brakes, to disengage Autopilot, then reengage it at the desired speed. A decidedly inelegant solution.
Another big problem? A clear transition warning system is essential for safe use of a semi-autonomous driving system, especially in any car that lacks an active driver monitoring system (DMS) like the one in Cadillac SuperCruise—a system Teslas lack.
Tesla's DMS uses both audible and visual alerts if the driver takes his hands off the wheel for too long. Fail to take control and the system will disengage. If it forcibly disengages three times, Autopilot won't reengage until the vehicle is stopped.
The good news? The Model 3 has the same audible alerts as the S/X, which are adequate. The really bad news? Visual alerts are moved to the top-left corner of the 3's touchscreen, right on top of the speedometer. This is as close to the driver’s line of sight as Tesla can get given the 3's centrally-mounted display, but it isn't good enough.
Visual alerts are the second item that cannot be moved to the center display without harming optimization of Autopilot. Over the course of 50 hours I can't remember how many times I missed the first blue flashing alert, which isn't accompanied by an audible warning, only for Dan to hit me in the arm and say, "Put your hands on the wheel."
The S/X driver display is shrouded and clear; the 3's touchscreen can be hard to read when daytime reflections are an issue. There is no universe in which moving the transition warning system off-center is a good idea, unless its placement is mitigated by warnings that are MUCH bigger and louder than currently found in the Model 3.
The Model 3 treats all of these concerns as afterthoughts—to Autopilot users' peril.
The Good News: How Tesla Can Fix This
As I was writing this, Tesla released an OTA (over-the-air) software update for a problem I was going to spit fire about: the absence of automatic windshield wipers. Why was this necessary? Because Tesla moved the primary wiper controls to the touchscreen. Ugh.
Were this car from any other company, franchise dealer agreements preventing OTA updates would have forced owners back to a dealership. Thank god for OTA.
But Tesla needs to act immediately on the Autopilot issues, because the more Model 3's are delivered in its current iteration, the more people will experience the inferior version.
Maybe if Tesla had been a little less stingy with testing—or even, god forbid, pre-production media access—they might have ironed these issues out sooner.
Here's what Tesla must do to solve the Model 3's Autopilot UI problems:
- Move the cruise follow distance control to the left scroll button on the steering wheel;
- Move the cruise speed control to the right scroll button of the steering wheel;
- Double the size of the situational awareness display on the touchscreen;
- Double the size of the hands-off warning on the touchscreen;
- Make the first hands-off alert audible;
- Double the volume of hands-off warnings.
I loved the Tesla Model 3, a fantastic and unique milestone in the history of passenger cars. For those who want to own a piece of tomorrow, today, there is nothing else currently on the market. I would happily own one, if only I didn't live in New York City, and also the Autopilot UI was updated. I think it's a bargain even at $55,000, because it's far more than a car. It's a work of art, a concept car come to life, more revelatory than the Model S, and historically even more important.
Without a personal stake in Tesla's success or failure, I can only say that I am rooting for them to meet their production and quality goals. The industry benefits from competition. The better Tesla does, the sooner the shakeout of legacy manufacturers who abandoned true innovation long ago. Cars like the underrated Cadillac CT6 with SuperCruise are evidence that the old world is paying attention. The Porsche Mission-E is coming. Startups like Rimac, Nio and Lucid are pushing the envelope of EV performance and design even further than Tesla.
Love him or hate him, we have Elon to thank, because the Model 3 is evidence that our automotive future is brighter than ever.
Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports and author of The Driver, has set numerous endurance driving records in Europe & the USA in the internal combustion, EV, 3-wheeler & Semi-Autonomous Classes, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
*This article was updated to clarify Tesla's Supercharger pricing for non-Model 3 vehicles