Editor’s note: In case you are new here, note that Kyle has owned a Tesla Model S 85D, Mercedes B-Class Electric, and Nissan LEAF, as well as gasoline-powered cars, of course. He has also reviewed a dozen or so electric vehicles for us. His own Model 3 is on the way soon. He and others on the site will then be conducting long-term reviews of the Model 3 to complement our long-term reviews of the Nissan LEAF, Tesla Model S, and Kia Soul EV. Now, go ahead and enjoy Kyle’s in-depth review of the Model 3!
The world desperately needs to cut transportation-related emissions in order to have a shot at mitigating human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change and keeping this planet livable.
Electric vehicles have proven themselves to be a key part of the solution to sustainable transportation by allowing for distributed electricity generation sources like residential rooftop solar and remote wind farms to charge up cars for their daily commutes to the coffee shop, work, and back home.
In addition to being a big part of the solution to climate change, electric vehicles also just happen to offer a nearly silent and smooth ride, a lower cost of ownership, less hassle fueling up thanks to at-home charging, and instant torque off the line — which makes them a ton of fun to drive.
The Tesla Model 3
With so much riding on the possibility of zero-emission electric vehicles taking over as the dominant form of personal transportation, the stakes were high when Tesla CEO announced the affordable, long-range Tesla Model 3 on March 31st, 2016. As a testament to the pent up demand for a vehicle that wasn’t just good for the planet but that’s also simply a better car than others in the price range, hundreds of thousands of reservations were put in for the car at $1,000 each.
Fast forward to 2017 and Tesla finally started building the Model 3, with deliveries starting a few months later to Tesla and SpaceX employees. The world eagerly waited for reviews of the Model 3, but with deliveries only going out to a few hundred insiders, progress was painfully slow. In December, the first non-employee deliveries started, one of which was delivered to a father and son who are friends of the site — Don and Max up in Northern California, who took possession of their loaded blue Model 3 just a few days into 2018. Don got an early Model X, which Zach and I were happy to review, and Max works on EV policy matters for NRDC, so certainly deserves a Model 3!
Pulling up to the meet up location, Max’s Model 3 sat peacefully under a white trellis with a light sheen of morning dew glistening off the top. Having seen a few Model 3’s at various stages of pre-production, I smiled at the familiar sight and took in the exterior features for the first time in the wild. At 185 inches (470 centimeters) long, Tesla’s latest creation is noticeably shorter than its more luxurious big brother, the Model S, which covers a full 196 inches (498 centimeters).
The Tesla Model 3 is also a tad narrower than the S at 73 inches (185 centimeters) wide. Though, this is less noticeable than the shorter length. The width is also hidden by the fact that the Model 3 and S both sit at the same height — 57 inches (145 centimeters).
Popping open the newly redesigned charging port cover reveals that it is much larger, and a bit less slick, than those in the Model S and X. More is not less as what feels like an excessive amount of panel pops up to reveal the normal two-prong Tesla charging port. The larger door does offer a bit more protection from the elements, which could be the reason for the increased surface area.
Our test Model 3 came nearly fully loaded. It had a blue paint laid onto all its curves, and it sports the premium package, which comes with Tesla’s new all-glass roof that transforms the driving compartment from a traditional box with holes in the sides (and perhaps one out the top) into a glassed in, stargazing, wonder dome.
Driving through the redwoods on California Highway 84, the expansive views made it harder to focus on the act of driving and made me want to constantly take in the beautifully revealed sights around me. Fortunately, I didn’t do this, but suffice it to say that the glass roof transforms the driving experience — and even more so for the passengers … which will be everyone once “Full Self Driving” is functional.
After chatting for a bit with Max and drinking a few cups of coffee, we jumped in and eased out of the driveway, where the real fun started. Little did I know that I should have stretched first … but we’ll get to that in a bit. Cruising around on city streets, it was immediately clear that the Model 3 was a different beast than Tesla’s Model S and X. The snub nose on the Model 3 gives the driver unparallelled visibility and all but removes it from the view of the driver. This results in a feeling of complete control over the vehicle for the driver.
Whipping a U-turn revealed a very tight turning radius in the Model 3 that is complemented by the tight sport steering. We put the steering to the test in the 3 with a few rounds through Northern California’s beautiful redwood forests, which surround Highway 84 as it threads through California’s coastal range.
The tight steering also highlights just how much lighter the Tesla Model 3 is compared to the Model S — ~1,000 lb (~450 kg) lighter, depending on the battery and configuration selected. This was achieved through a combination of the smaller overall vehicle footprint, which in turn needs less power to move the same distance, thus requiring fewer batteries … cutting even more weight.
EPA documents uncovered as the Model 3 was being brought through official range testing revealed that the battery pack is indeed a few hundred pounds lighter than the Model S — at 1058 lb (480 kg). This weight cut is apparent in the steering characteristics of the Model 3. The Model 3 offers an extremely responsive, tight steering that made our runs through the many curves on the 84 a pleasure and gave the car a feeling of an extremely low, grounded sports car.
Early testing by the gearheads over at Drag Times found that the Long Range Model 3 was pulling significantly faster 0 to 60 mph times than Tesla’s advertised speeds, even chalking up a 4.6 second run, which blows Tesla’s official 5.1 second time out of the water and brings me back to my pre-drive stretching … or lack thereof.
Heading out into the mountains with the Model 3 was a blast, and not just because I was driving the most anticipated vehicle in the last 100 years but because it was just so much fun. Tesla took the driving experience to the next level … again. The Model 3 fixes many of the issues in previous vehicles while also building in some fun new enhancements.
I have driven thousands of miles in the electric cars my family and I have owned as well as numerous media loaners from a wide range of manufacturers. Most are underwhelming and deliver a fairly vanilla experience that does little more than replace the internal combustion components with electric vehicle components. After all of that, it’s difficult for an electric or plug-in vehicle to impress me, but the Model 3 did far more than that. It brought the EV smile back to my face to the point where my face was hurting.
Turn after turn, it was a joy to drive and only served to reinforce just how much of a game-changer it is. It drives like a much smaller, more powerful car would, taking corners like a Porsche Boxster, thanks to its low center of gravity, with the power to blast out the other side compliments of its powerful electric motor. I can’t even imagine what it will feel like doing this in the even more powerful all-wheel-drive version when it comes out in a few months.
Electric vehicles aren’t just turning the hardware side of the automotive industry upside down, they are also changing the way cars think as they increasingly act more like charged up touchscreen tablets than traditional gas and go automobiles. The Tesla Model 3 is perhaps the tip of the spear in the transition, with Tesla consolidating nearly every control in the vehicle into the single center-mounted 15 inch touchscreen. The single outlier is the button for the hazard lights, which was pushed up into the overhead lighting fixture.
This shift changes the driving experience of the vehicle, as it does away with the iconic speedometer location in front of the steering wheel, opting instead to pin it to the upper left corner of the center display. Tesla’s Autopilot display was similarly relocated onto the center display, which reduces the functionality of the system a bit, requiring an intentional glance away from the road.
If Tesla can deliver on the promise of full self-driving cars, this will be a non-issue and the display will inevitably evolve towards becoming an entertainment center, but in the near term, in the real world today, it is noticeably less functional.
The Model 3 also brings the power of over-the-air (OTA) updates with it, which allows Tesla to remotely troubleshoot and repair software and firmware issues without having to bother the owner with much more than a quick approval of the update. It’s clear that Tesla is relying heavily on OTA updates in the Model 3 because…
The reality is that the software on the Model 3 is not fully baked, leaving a significant number of potholes for Tesla to fill at some point in the future. Full Self-Driving Capability (FSD) is an option consumers can purchase with their Model 3 — though, it comes with a disclaimer that there are still many hurdles for Tesla to overcome before it will be functional.
Close on the heels of FSD is the Enhanced Autopilot (EAP) solution, which is perhaps the most in-process system in the vehicle. In hours of driving the vehicle, the system would work sometimes and other times simply refuse to activate for no apparent reason. When it did activate, the control was jerky and did not inspire confidence, pinging side to side in even well-defined lanes. Tesla has successfully put a polish on the EAP system in Model S and X and it’s clear that Model 3 is going to evolve on a similar trajectory. It’s not a showstopper, but it’s worth noting that it’s very much a beta system at this point.
The Traffic Adaptive Cruise Control (TACC) system, which takes normal cruise control and adds in intelligent sensors that allow the vehicle to slow down in response to traffic, functioned very well across a few hours of use. The one caveat is that Tesla’s simplified design also eliminated the ability for the driver to adjust the speed setpoint from the cruise control stalk, opting instead to relocate the controls to the touchscreen.
This move is not an example of beautiful design but instead makes the system harder and less safe to use, as it now requires precision touches on the screen to increase or decrease the setpoint. It was clunky in my time playing with it, but thanks to the software-based nature of the system, it is something that could (should?) be corrected in a future firmware build.
Other software-based items also were not functioning, like the rear seat warmers and automatic windshield wipers, making it clear that the software for Model 3 wasn’t fully polished when it went out the door … or even a few months after launch in customer vehicles. This is par for the course for Tesla, but not something customers will ever see in a Mercedes-Benz, BMW, or other mainstream automobile. Having said that, neither is the ability to choose a car with full self-driving hardware already in place.
The media player on the Model 3 works well but feels extremely understated compared to its footprint in the Model S and X. It still worked the same, but it did fail to restart my internet radio station after turning it off and back on again, instead reverting to FM radio. It wasn’t clear if this was a bug or a feature, but it didn’t feel like the intuitive, seamless media experience in Tesla’s other vehicles.
Getting into the Model 3, I was impressed at how much car Tesla was able to fit into the smaller footprint of the Model 3. The glass roof helps with this, as it gives an extra inch of headroom while at the same time opening up the feel of the cabin with extra light and visibility.
The open feel of the car isn’t just beautiful design — it actually is a very large space. Trimming the nose of the car compared to the Model S allowed Tesla to keep the cabin of the Model 3 nice and large. In the passenger seat, Max, who is well over 6 feet tall, had plenty of room for the rear-facing infant car seat for his son. We drove a Prius when our kids were infants and it was a constant game of Twister to get them in and still make room for two adults and all the trimmings. For the Twister fans out there, you may miss the challenge, but for the rest of the world, the interior space in the Model 3 is another best in class.
Storage in the Model 3 has suffered compared to the Model S. This comes with the shorter nose profile and the conversion from the uber-functional hatchback style to a trunk. Those reductions result in a total storage space of 15 cubic feet compared to 30 cubic feet in the Model S, but the ability to lay down the rear seats extends the storage and hauling capabilities of the vehicle significantly.
Looking at the trunk, it is a very healthy size compared to similarly sized vehicles, especially because it comes with the bonus compartment below the normal trunk level.
The seats in the Model 3 were extremely comfortable and very much in line with Tesla’s other vehicles. After hours of zipping through the redwood forests on tight, curvy roads at higher than average speeds, the seats held me firmly in place while keeping me comfortable at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, it is no Mercedes S-Class and won’t massage your lower back or your feet while you drive, but it is a comfortable seat just the same.
The dash has been one of the most disputed design features in the Model 3, and seeing it in person has changed my perspective on the design choice, as the center display feels very natural and stable. At the same time, the clean lines of the rest of the interior — and lack of buttons — was relaxing. Taking the time to get familiar with the controls, their location and layout on the display made the ride much more friendly, with the exception of the items noted above.
Tesla took another diversion from the norm with a new method for locking and unlocking the Model 3. The primary “key” for the vehicle is a bluetooth-enabled smartphone. That means drivers don’t really have to carry keys with them at all. Approaching the car with the phone in tow allows drivers to get in and drive without having to think about the mundane task of unlocking or turning keys in the ignition. It’s a small step up from its previous fob design and a massive improvement for those used to actually having to fuddle around with physical keys in the ignition — like we have to do with our 2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive and it’s massive fob.
Tesla included a backup option in the form of a credit card sized keycard that can be used to unlock and drive the car. The Drive found that replacements were a mere $5, with the first replacement even being free, giving owners plenty of options to keep spares close at hand if the two included with the car prove to be insufficient.
The premium package on the Model 3 includes a center console with two phone mounts that tap into the built-in front-mounted USB ports in the car. These are the only two ports that tap into the data functionality of the car’s infotainment system, which creates an unfortunate constriction for many drivers who will want to dock two phones AND play music from a thumb drive.
Navigation, phone syncing, and the rest of the infotainment system are top notch and an area that Tesla has excelled at since the launch of the Model S. The built-in voice control is the best around and the only one we know of that provides intuitive controls while functioning with consistent accuracy.
The optional premium sound system (included in the single Premium Upgrade Package — $5,000) delivers sound to your ears with the equivalent of white glove accuracy. The soundstage is beautifully constructed and provides depth, accuracy, and plenty of bass to keep your foot tapping to the beat.
The Model 3 gives owners the choice between the Standard 50 kWh battery that provides 220 miles of range or the Long Range 75 kWh battery that provides up to 310 miles of range. Documents acquired from the EPA revealed that Tesla actually requested the EPA to lower the official range of the vehicle from the 334 miles EPA analysts realized down to the official 310 mile range of the vehicle. It is not clear why this was done, but it should provide peace of mind to potential owners concerned about the real-world range of the vehicle.
The Model 3 includes the Generation 2 Mobile Connector bundle, which includes the standard 110v NEMA 5-15 wall adapter as well as a NEMA 14-50 adapter that allows the car to tap into RV outlets to charge at speeds up to 32 amps (only with the 14-50 adapter). The price on these has come down to a much more reasonable $300, which gives owners another option when it comes to charging — though, Tesla is currently out of stock of this item at the time of this writing.
The Tesla Model 3 has been billed as THE affordable, long range electric vehicle, even though it actually came in second place in that race — with the Chevy Bolt taking first place with a base price of $37,500 and an electric range of 238 miles. All signs point to the Model 3 still being the top selling vehicle in this class, and it does offer a lower price point with a base price of $35,000 for the 220 mile range version. (The add-ons you can get if you want to really jack up the price of the Model 3 are things the Chevy Bolt doesn’t offer at all — much more range, Autopilot, a glass roof, etc.)
Time will tell how the Model 3 sales actually ramp up, with the constraint for the near future being production. Tesla has assembled an army to reinvent vehicle manufacturing and early signals point to a serious amount of difficulty in dialing in these new manufacturing processes in the first few months of Model 3 production.
The pricepoint of the Tesla Model 3 is further improved for US customers until Tesla’s federal tax credit runs out. The beginning of the phase-out period is expected to occur in 2018 … if Tesla is able to successfully ramp up Model 3 production and delivers on its promise of shipping it in significant numbers to customers. When Tesla hits the magic 200,000th delivery, the US federal rebate begins a slow ramp down over several quarters, which may still leave 330,000 Model 3 buyers with a tax credit of some amount.
Alex Roy may think that all Tesla reviewers are bots that exist only to churn out gratuitous accolades for The Company in an attempt to keep it afloat, but here on CleanTechnica, honesty and transparency reign supreme. We review, highlight, and critique all manufacturers, vehicles, and products with an eye towards the future and how they are, will, and can positively impact the world as solutions to the climate change and air pollution problems we face.
After all is said and done and the cars are all back on the chargers in the garage, Tesla truly has done, is doing, and, by the looks of it, will continue to do what it set out to do — “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” That is straight out of its mission statement. That’s why we love Tesla here and love being able to share the beautiful products Tesla is making and selling today.
As Key said so iconically in the cleantech classic Hustle and Flow:
“There are two types of people: those that talk the talk and those that walk the walk. People who walk the walk sometimes talk the talk but most times they don’t talk at all, ’cause they walkin’. Now, people who talk the talk, when it comes time for them to walk the walk, you know what they do? They talk people like me into walkin’ for them.”
Tesla is walking the walk and the Model 3 is proof positive that the march into the future continues in Fremont, California. Tesla is putting all the chips on the table and going all-in with the Model 3. As it attempts to ramp up production and make the Model 3 the affordable, long-range electric vehicle for the masses, we hope our first in-depth review of the Model 3 will help to temporarily give you more patience and insight into the car you are waiting to drive into your own parking spot.