Tesla Model S vs. Tesla Model 3 — Which Is Best For You?

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Now that production of the Tesla Model 3 is finally getting going in earnest, many folks who stood in line to reserve a Model 3 two years ago are faced with the reality of actually owning one. And that has forced more than a few to ask themselves whether they wouldn’t really rather have a Model S.

Over on the Tesla Motors Club (TMC) forum, new member Burnie sent up this plea for help: “I am STUCK! I can’t seem to justify the cost of the S over the 3…. what do I get that is worth $40,000 more?!? Please help!” Burnie got lots of suggestions in response, with most of those who responded pointing out that the price difference was likely not as great as it might seem at first.

The Model S starts at $74,500. The Model 3 theoretically lists for $35,000. However, it will be many months or even years before any of those base models leak out of the factory in Fremont. Tesla has only been building one configuration of the car during the production ramp. It comes with the long-range battery and a single motor powering the rear wheels. The company has made no bones about building cars with the highest profit margin first. The cars rolling off the line right now sell for a whisker under $50,000 on average.

Tesla has indicated now that it is getting ready to start building dual-motor, high-performance Model 3s — options that will increase the average sale price even more, as the high-end price tag is now $78,000. The upshot is, the difference in price between the 3 and the S is not as great as it might seem. And here’s the kicker: A Model S can be in your driveway in a matter of weeks. A Model 3? Who knows? There is still a backlog of over 400,000 reservations to work through.

Longtime TMC member ChadS, whose tagline is “Petroleum is for sissies,” posted this comprehensive list of advantages a Model S offers over a Model 3:

  • Considerably quicker in any trim; and P100D available.
  • AWD (also coming for the 3, although it will narrow the price difference).
  • Better warranty.
  • Twice the cargo space.
  • A large hatch to access that space, and it’s powered.
  • More screen space, and one of them in front of the driver.
  • Adjustable air suspension.
  • Better ride.
  • Better looks.
  • More range in any trim.
  • Includes a key fob.
  • Center console even with the base model.
  • Dynamic turning lights.
  • Free supercharging generally available.
  • CHAdeMO adapter available.
  • Bioweapon defense mode available.
  • Pano roof available.
  • Rear-facing seats available.

Several other people mentioned that a Model S bought today is eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit. By the time your Model 3 becomes available, that credit may be reduced or no longer exist. (Note: Tesla is rumored to be stepping up deliveries of the Model 3 to Canada and perhaps even Europe in order to delay the time when it delivers its 200,000th car in the US — to push that crossover point to Q3.)

SomeJoe7777 agreed with many of the items on ChadS’s list but offered his own list of advantages for the Model 3.

  • Better built vehicle in my opinion
  • High efficiency – more miles per kWh
  • Much less expensive
  • Superior audio system
  • Minimalist interior has an appeal to some
  • Superior handling and cornering
  • Electronic-control A/C vent system
  • Highest supercharging speed of any Tesla vehicle in terms of miles added per hour
  • Drive train is suitable for track use (motor does not overheat with extended high-power operation) [Caveat: Upgraded brakes required]

Several people had a different perspective. Why not buy a lightly used Model S and get the advantages of the larger car for about the same money as the smaller car? “My 2013 P85 CPO original/new sticker was $105,270. In June of 2016, I paid $55K for it, fully loaded, 4 years of bumper to bumper warranty,” says Atlantan. Stan Moraski agrees. “Go for a CPO model S. Best car I ever owned. There is even a P85D listed at $62,300 with only 13K miles!”

So, which is the best car for you? Model S? Model 3? New? Certified Pre-Owned? The only answer we can provide is: it depends. There is no right answer for everyone. But if in the end you are driving a Tesla, there are no wrong answers, either.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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