Tesla Model 3 Vs. Amtrak’s Acela Express: The Electric Future Acid Test

Two visions of our transportation future—a high-speed train and an electric car—face off in a sprint from New York City to Boston.

byWill Sabel Courtney|

The basic idea was simple: Race a car against a train. It's a story as old as the automobile, dating back to those Fitzgeraldian days when wealthy white men would race their newfangled Rovers and Bentleys against the likes of France's Blue Train simply for kicks. But our version at The Drive came with a distinctly 21st Century twist: Run one of the latest and greatest electric cars against the nation's top-of-the-line electric train from New York City to Boston, in a battle for no less than the future of American transportation supremacy. (Or, at the very least, bragging rights.)

To represent the United States's mass transit system, there could be only one choice: the Amtrak

Acela Express. Built by Bombardier and Alstom, America's first bullet train entered service in the futuristic-sounding year of 2000 C.E., stringing high-speed rail along the megaloptic urban corridor stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C. Many trains have run that route before, but none of them could touch the Acela's top speed; given the right stretch of track and enough current from the catenary wires above, the eight-car trainset of six passenger cars between two aerodynamic locomotives can hit a gear-limited top speed of 165 miles per hour—though it never makes it past 150 mph in revenue service. 

On the electric car side, only a Tesla could pull this off. No mass-production EV on sale in America today that doesn't have the pointed T on its hood could realistically make the 220-mile trip from New York to Boston on a single charge; while Jaguar's I-Pace and Chevy's Bolt both come close, neither one offers quite enough to do it in real world conditions—on highways and parkways, darting and weaving through cars piloted by some of the most aggressive drivers in the nation. The 75-kWh battery-equipped Model 3, on the other hand, serves up roughly a tasty 310 miles of claimed range, more than enough to knock out the trip with charge to spare. (So could the higher-end versions of the Model S and Model X, of course, but both of those are, by the fast-evolving standards of automotive evolution, old news.)

Besides, 2018 is poised go down as the Year of the Model 3. The more-affordable Tesla sedan has dominated the news cycle like few cars ever have, for reasons both good (becoming one of the 10 best-selling cars in America) and bad ("Honey, did you mean to order the rear passenger door in a different color?"). Whether the California-based company winds up a historical footnote or the dominant American automaker of the 21st Century remains to be written, but odds are good the world will have a far better idea on December 31st than we did on January 1. 

So it only seemed proper to grab the company's make-or-break model for this acid test of our electrified transportation future. I would drive the Model 3, while supervising producer Cait Knoll would hop aboard Amtrak's speedy train. The first one to Boston's South Station—the northern terminus for the Acela Express—would be the victor.  

The Acela Express, seen traveling less than 150 mph. , Amtrak

For the sake of an even playing field, we reasoned, the race ought to start as early as possible. Not only would traffic in New York City be minimal, but the odds of any sort of breakdown on the hectic northern half of the Northeast Corridor train line—shared between three Amtrak lines and three regional commuter rail systems across four states—would be reduced as much as possible. (True fact: I was once on what was supposed to be an eight-hour Amtrak ride that stretched out to nearly 17, due to a laughable pile-up of infrastructural failures.) 

Then again, those infrastructural issues lay at the heart of this train vs. car face-off from the get-go. In any other first-world country, a 150-mph bullet train would be able to outrun any car on an intercity journey of this length...but this is America, a land where neglecting passenger rail has become something of national pastime in the last seven decades. Apart from the occasional light rail project here and there, tracked mass transit from subways to commuter trains to intercity rail have, for the most part, seen little investment or concrete development, in spite of the occasional bout of public or private interest. But the United States is also the land of underfunded highway repair funds, structurally-unsound bridges, and a host of other roadway issues that often delay automotive travel. Plus, our inadequate mass transit pushes more and more people onto those decaying roads, clotting them up and breaking them down simultaneously. In other words, the nation's craptastic infrastructure was equally capable of kneecapping either contestant in this race. 

So with the first light of dawn breaking over Brooklyn and bouncing off the glassy river, the skyscrapers on either side of me aglow from within, the ruby red Model 3 Long Range and I hurtle up the empty FDR Drive to a rendezvous with destiny...and the 6:15am Acela Express at Manhattan's Penn Station. 

The Tesla Model 3, poised to start the race., Will Sabel Courtney

I pull off at the 42nd Street exit in front of the United Nations, which boasts a hard 90-degree left that can only be appreciated between 11pm and 7am, those eight hours when Manhattan traffic could be considered "sane." The Tesla carves through it like Shaun White going to meet his weed dealer. Christ, this thing stays flat, I think. God bless that low-slung battery pack; with a curb weight of around 3,800 pounds, the Model 3 may not be light, but having the vast majority of the mass sitting on the floor between the axles gives it the sort of handling a mid-engined sedan would have, were that a thing. 

Likewise, the steering is remarkable; a bit lacking in old-school feel and feedback, sure, but ginsu-sharp and direct. Telepathic gets bandied around too much in this context, but it's honestly not a bad term for the Tesla's steering responsiveness; the immediacy makes it seem like Elon's engineers found a way to secretly wire brainwave-reading technology into the headrest. 

Indeed, the whole car feels immediate: the acceleration, the handling, the whole driving experience has that hop-to-it immediacy so rare in modern cars, obsessed as companies are with adding pillowy layers of distance between the harsh real world and the climate-controlled cocoon owners pay so much to occupy. And yet, the ride-handing balance is nearly ideal for a luxury sedan with aspirations of sportiness; the suspension and low-slung heft smooth out the bumps that make up approximately 97 percent of the surface area of NYC's streets.

I creep to the edge of the station at 6:14 and wait along the sidewalk, programming the navigation system while double-checking the range-to-empty display sitting prominently along the top of the screen. 293 miles to empty, so to speak. The car had 307 miles of charge when I left The Drive's garage the night before, and the drive to 34th St and 8th Ave was about 12 miles. Not sure where the missing two miles went. Lost in the night, maybe, wandering out of the battery as the car sat awake listening for wireless updates from the Tesla servers? Shouldn't matter. 293 is more than enough to ship up to Boston. 

BOOM, 6:15 hits, and BOOM, I hit it...then back off immediately, a passing construction worker giving me a "slow down, buddy" hand sign as I pass him a touch too quick for the narrow, shattered street. Guess he doesn't know the rush of instant torque that comes with being an EV driver.

Ready...set..., Will Sabel Courtney

Traffic is light as goose down at this hour, even in the heart of Manhattan. It takes barely longer than the length of a pop song playing on the car's Slacker internet radio—don't look for SiriusXM here—to hit the West Side Highway, and another two minutes to get far enough north that I'm passed all the traffic lights. I shouldn't hit another stop sign or red light until I'm within sight of South Station...at least, unless I have to charge. 

For now, that doesn't seem likely. Not only does the battery meter mounted alongside the speedometer provides an estimate of miles-of-charge remaining, but the nav system's guidance also includes an estimate of how much power will be left upon arrival. Right now, it reads 20 percent—more than enough to knock out the trip and still have enough juice to make it to one of the charging spots dotting the Massachusetts capital. I'd peeked online ahead of time to see where the Supercharger stations were located along the general route, but the car's nav system also includes the ability to reroute to any high-speed Tesla chargers along the way. To its credit, the company seems to have done everything it can to allay owner concerns about the hassles of #EVlife. 

By the time I'm on the Cross County Parkway just north of New York City, the monolithic 15-inch central display—so controversial when Elon Musk revealed the Model 3 back in early 2016—has come to seem logical. After all, an EV doesn't have need for most of the gauges in a traditional instrument panel; there's no need for engine temp, oil pressure, or a tachometer. All you need is speed, and that's found in the top-left corner—an equal glance from the road as the usual placement, just at an angle, instead of straight down. Moving the gauges to the center frees up the view ahead in a way you're not used to; the dashboard itself sits low, creating an even shelf of wood between wheel and windshield that clears up the road. indeed, between the expansive windshield and the all-glass roof, the minimalist interior feels less barren than spacious, in a way few modern cars do—especially in this size category. (Fun fact: The Model 3 has roughly the same amount of passenger space up front as a Honda Civic, and a mite less in back.) 

Inside the Model 3., Tesla

The lack of hard buttons for many functions does take a bit of adjustment, but it's not nearly as difficult as in many other vehicles that force occupants to operate controls through poorly-executed user interfaces. Tesla is, after all, a car company with a Silicon Valley mindset, and crafting human-friendly computers is the name of the game in that neck of the woods. The touchscreen responds with remarkable fluidity and immediacy (Car and Driver found it reacts more quickly than even an iPhone X, let alone any car's screen), and the multi-finger, swipe-'n-squeeze interface means anyone experienced with a smartphone can figure it out in minutes. 

Not everything runs through the smart screen. Autopilot and cruise control functions are handled by one of the bi-axial click wheels on the steering wheel, while the stereo's volume and tuning are controlled by the other. (Adjusting the side-view mirrors is accomplished using the same thumb controls, but you have to select that function on the touch screen, something that does prove too tricky to attempt at highway speeds.) The shifter, the window, the wipers, and the blinkers are still controlled the old-fashioned way—stalks and switches behind the wheel and on the doors. For the most part, the controls on the touch screen are the secondary ones that probably shouldn't be monkeyed with too much in any car while hauling along at highway speed. 

Zipping along the winding Merritt Parkway, it's hard not to grow addicted to the whee! factor of electric torque, delivered in such quantities. My rear-wheel-drive tester may lack the dual motors of spicier versions, but even its single rear-mounted electric motor delivers 271 horses and 304 pound-feet of torque—and it's available with the same sort of immediate oomph at highway velocity as it is off the line. Even at 70-plus mph, floor the throttle, and it's there. It's not what you expect from an electric car, considering most EVs released so far have been lacking in the sort of power needed for fleet acceleration when already doing highway speeds. (Then again, until Ol' Musky came along, electric cars weren't really known for performance in general.)

Long hood, and it's all frunk, Will Sabel Courtney

Still, all that high speed hustling quickly begins to take its toll. 45 minutes in, the charge-remaining-at-destination gauge has dropped to 16 percent. Range anxiety, that mental terror of the EV driver, flares its ugly head; I wonder for a second if I should plot a brief pit stop at a Supercharger somewhere along the way, but I brush the thought aside. As any racing driver will tell you, every minute you're stopped is a minute you'll never get back. If that estimate hits 10 percent, I'll reevaluate. 

The rest of Connecticut goes by in a speedy blur. Traffic grows thick for a few minutes outside Hartford as insurance company employees make their way in from their suburban homes, but the slow spots are brief and spotty; I'm through it in minutes, the city's adorable excuse for a skyline in and out of view by 8:04. But 15 minutes later, things grind to a halt. It's the deadline-driven driver's dreaded black swan: a crash. A bad one, at that—a tractor trailer has apparently smashed its front end to bits against some obstacle, leaving it crippled in the left lane and prompting first responders to block off two of the highway's three lanes. New Englanders are stubborn, study folk, however; commuters have already commandeered the breakdown lane to better sneak around the wreck, and within eight minutes, I'm past the mangled big rig and pushing the Tesla back up to highway speeds.

Ouch., Will Sabel Courtney

Which are, uh, high. The last stretch of Interstate 84 may stretch across both sides of the Connecticut-Massachusetts state line, but no matter which license plate their cars bear, the drivers are living up to the Masshole epithet. The speed limit signs read 65 mph, but the river of cars is flowing along at roughly 80. The number 90 even pops up on the top-left corner of the Tesla's screen once or twice—and I'm being passed by other cars even then. Yet in spite of this, the car's computer is feeling more optimistic about the battery's range; the percentage-at-destination meter has crept back up to 20. 

I try my hand at Autopilot for the third time in two hours, but the semi-autonomous system is being as fickle as a manic-depressive housecat. On my first attempt, while conditions seem appropriate, the steering wheel icon by the speedometer stayed resolutely gray, informing me the Autosteer part of the system was unavailable. On a second attempt to use the system an hour later, however, proved quite successful. Now, though, it's back to square one; the active cruise control is happy to come online, but the car is quite insistent that I handle the steering. A technical snafu, but not an unpleasant one, at least on a personal level. I'd rather drive this futuristic car the old-fashioned way. 

Onto the Massachusetts Turnpike—the arrival of which I'd been dreading a bit, as in a moment of foolishness, I'd forgotten to bring my E-ZPass for the tolls. If Cait's train is flying along nicely, the difference between stopping twice—once to grab a ticket, and once to pay up—and not at all could be the difference between victory and defeat. But the state of Massachusetts has leaned further into the future than I'd anticipated; the Pike has instituted cashless tolling, meaning I can blaze along without need to call upon either the car's regenerative braking or the mechanical stoppers to snag a ticket.

A quick check-in call with Cait brings news: Due to train traffic, the Acela is running 10 to 20 minutes behind schedule. Still, the Amtrak train is approaching the part of its journey with the highest operating speeds; that 150-mph Vmax comes on the stretch between Providence, Rhode Island and Route 128. I, on the other hand, have nothing to look forward to but the asphalt rat king of Boston ahead. 

Forward view in the Acela slightly more obstructed than in the Tesla , Cait Knoll

Passing Framingham, my stomach tightens along with my grip on the wheel. Boston traffic is the worst in the country, according to one study, with Beantown commuters spending more time than any other American city's residents in bumper-to-bumper aggravation. And I'm flowing with hundreds of thousands of 'em, into the city's center, at the tail end of rush hour. 

Yet God, the Dropkick Murphys, or Elon Musk must be smiling on me and the Tesla, because the Mass Pike is flowing fast, the occasional logjam breaking up almost as quickly as it forms. I surf a wave of electric torque past MIT and Harvard across the Charles River on the left, past Fenway Park on the right, and straight into the tunnels carved out beneath the city during the Big Dig that ironed out the infamous wrinkles of Boston's highway network. 

And then, almost anti-climactically...I'm there. 

I pull up to the stoplight beside South Station with the clock reading 9:40am. The Tesla hauled ass across 212 miles of roadway—much of it beaten, narrow, and filled with traffic—in three hours and 25 minutes, making for an average speed of 62 miles per hour. I have enough time to drive into the Seaport District to a garage, wind up to the fifth floor to find a spot, and park the Model 3 before moseying several blocks back to the station to buy an iced coffee...and then wait another 20 minutes for the Acela. 

More than enough time, as it turns out, to let my brain wander off and wonder if the car is well and truly locked. Unlike the Models S and X before it, which use a small wireless transmitter much like others car with modern keyless entry systems, the Model 3 is designed to use the driver's smartphone as its primary key. Download the Tesla app and sync it up with your car, and in addition to monitoring the state of charge and setting the interior temperature, the car will sense your departure and automatically lock itself as you walk away. The car beeps and the lights flash to signify as much, but anyone with OCD tendencies who needs the tactile reassurance of pressing a button or yanking a handle to confirm a car is secure—a description that may or may not apply to your humble author—will likely experience some anxiety at first. 

The Acela in South Station., Will Sabel Courtney

Still, when Cait and I made our way back to the Tesla after she reached the station at 10:25, the car loyally unlocked as I (or rather, my iPhone) approached. And it worked just as seamlessly when we walked away from the car half an hour later, after following the nav system's lead to a nearby shopping mall garage with a battery of Superchargers arrayed along the back wall. Plugging the car into the thick 480-volt cord proves as seamless as the entry and exit process; the charging port pops open of its own accord when the Supercharger's head approaches, a tiny glowing Tesla logo next to the car's port begins pulsing when the car is charging, and you can track the whole process on your phone while you wander through the mall or futz about on your phone or do whatever you feel like doing to kill the 30-to-60 minutes needed to suck back most of a charge. 

If I had to sum up the whole Model 3 experience in a word, that'd be it: seamless. By building a car (and a charging infrastructure) from the ground up, Tesla had the advantage of thinking outside the box in a way few automakers can—or would. The user interface, the recharging infrastructure, even the driving experience itself have all been drafted specifically with electric mobility in mind, ditching the vestigial pieces of internal-combustion, 20th Century thinking. (For what it's worth, the Model 3's oft-discussed quality control issues didn't make an appearance on our test car—though I'd expect Tesla, like any carmaker, would seek to only hand out the highest-quality examples of its products for review.) Clearly, certain aspects of the company's approach are more effective than others. But overall, the carmaker is presenting a new way of looking at the automobile—a true clean-sheet design that reexamines how we use these ubiquitous machines.  

Amtrak is badly burdened by its lack of such a clean sheet of paper. The Acela Express isn't held back due to a lack of technology as it is the weight of history; instead of a start-fresh approach like Tesla had the advantage of, America's first high-speed passenger train was born with the weight of almost two centuries of history on its back. It doesn't just connect the same cities as trains of the 1850s, it rides along much of the same route as those steam-powered locomotives; nearly every section of the line between Boston and New York was first used before Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and while the trains have changed over the years, the route—and number of tracks—haven't much. 

Sharing those communal tracks with all those trains past and present forces the Acela to run at such pokey speeds. High-speed rail needs dedicated tracks to be truly effective for the same reason we don't have 75-mph speed limits on surface streets: safety. With the Northeast Corridor tracks snaking through some of the wealthiest, most densely populated parts of America, the prospect of snapping up the land and building a devoted set of tracks for true high-speed rail would cost, by Amtrak's 2012 estimate, $150 billion—and that's assuming they could punch through all the political resistance to 220-mph trains blasting through picturesque New England towns and tranquil wetlands.

This was, admittedly, a very unscientific test. The Drive staff is filled with New Englanders (or, in Cait's case, those engaged to them), and every one of them has at least one horror story to tell of the nightmarish traffic that can pop up in and around Boston. I was damn lucky to scoot across the finish line in less than three and a half hours; on another day, I might well have been left pounding the steering wheel in frustration while creeping down I-90 at walking pace for hours while Cait sipped iced coffee in South Station reading the news. The electric car may have beaten the high-speed train this day, but it's hardly a guaranteed proposition.

But riding on Amtrak, even on its fastest train, still feels very much like the present. Driving the Model 3, on the other hand...well, it really does kind of feel like the future.

Acela Express sure does look good, though., Amtrak

The Tesla Model 3, By the Numbers:

Base Price (Price as Tested): $35,000, in theory ($55,000)

Powertrain: permanent magnet electric motor, 271 horsepower, 307 pound-feet; direct-drive; rear-wheel-drive

Efficiency: 136 mpg-e city, 123 mpg-e highway (EPA figures)

0-60 MPH: 5.1 seconds (Car and Driver test data)

Top Speed: 141 mph

Who the grill-less front end resembles most on our test car: A sunburned bank robber wearing a red bandana over his mouth

The Amtrak Acela Express, By the Numbers:

Train Price: About $600 million per eight-car train, based on $1.2 billion figure for 20 trains, though that included repair facilities and extra locomotives

NYC—>Boston Ticket Price, as Tested: $123.00

Powertrain: four three-phase asynchronous traction motors per locomotive, total train output 12,400 horsepower; front- and rear-mounted locomotives

Weight: 565 tons

Top Speed: 165 mph

Scheduled to be replaced by new version circa: 2021-2022