Update: Consumer Reports has published a video discussion about all of this:
Consumer Reports and Tesla have had a complicated relationship over the years, with the independent testing company often finding nits to pick with Tesla cars even after it gave the Model S its highest rating ever. Last year, it angered Tesla when it gave an “average” rating to the Model 3 for its projected reliability.
It’s the Brakes, Man
Now it has completed a full test of the Model 3 and found it wanting in several important areas. As a result, the Model 3 is not recommended, Consumer Reports says. Its most serious complaint involves the car’s brakes. CR testers found their performance varied considerably from test to test. In some cases, the Model 3 took 7 feet longer to stop from 60 miles per hour than a Ford F-150. Ouch! That’s not good news.
Consumer Reports is not like the automotive magazines who test new cars provided to them by manufacturers. Often, those cars receive extra special attention prior to being handed over to make sure everything is adjusted, tightened, and fettled just right so that it is as good as it can possibly be. The testers never know if the company has fitted special tires that have more grip than the ones used at the factory or slipped in some brake pads with more bite than normal.
But CR doesn’t go that route. It buys the cars it tests, often using ordinary people to complete the purchase process. Their test cars are going through the same process the ones the general public buys. Over the past several decades, CR has built a private testing facility that is designed to produce consistent test conditions for all different brands of cars. One of the tests it conducts is an emergency braking protocol designed by SAE International in which the driver slams on the brakes at 60 mph. Special equipment measures how many feet the car travels from that moment until the car comes to a complete stop.
The test is repeated several times, with one mile of driving in between to allow the brakes to cool. CR found the Model 3 stopped in 130 feet the first time — one foot shorter than the average for similar cars. But thereafter the stopping distance ballooned to 157 feet, even after the car was allowed to sit overnight for the brakes to cool. CR obtained another Model 3 from a private owner and got essentially the exact same results.
To verify its findings, CR reached out to Car & Driver, which reported it found “a bizarre amount of variation” in its own recent test. One stop from 70 mph took “an interminable 196 feet.” In an interview with CR, test director K.C. Colwell said, “I’ve been testing cars for 11 years and in 11 years, no car has stood out with inconsistent braking like this. Some trucks have. … It was just weird.”
Elon Musk was uncharacteristically muted in his response to the Consumer Reports findings. In a tweets, he suggested an over-the-air software update might be needed. But he was also surprised by the report and said they had seen no sign of such a problem themselves.
Until then, at least, brakes apparently are a weak point in the Model 3 package. In March, we shared a video made at Laguna Seca raceway in California by Model 3 owner Matt Crowley. He took his brand new Model 3 out on track, where it performed brilliantly except for one thing — the brakes were toast after just three laps. Crowley said any serious racer would need to upgrade the brakes before subjecting any Model 3 to race track usage.
Software to the Rescue?
“Very strange. Model 3 is designed to have super good stopping distance & others reviewers have confirmed this. If there is vehicle variability, we will figure it out & address. May just be a question of firmware tuning, in which case can be solved by an OTA software update.” — Elon Musk
Elon has tweeted again this morning about the braking issue. For ease of reading, here’s each tweet in what the big boys used to call paragraphs:
“Looks like this can be fixed with a firmware update. Will be rolling that out in a few days. With further refinement, we can improve braking distance beyond initial specs. Tesla won’t stop until Model 3 has better braking than any remotely comparable car.”
“Also, Consumer Reports has an early production car. Model 3 now has improved ride comfort, lower wind noise & many other small improvements. Will request that they test current production.”
“To be clear, all Model 3 cars, incl early production will have same great braking ability. Nature of any product, however, is that if you care about perfection, you make constant small refinements. Today’s Model S is far more refined than initial production.”
The cause of the problem was reportedly the “ABS calibration algorithm.”
Even if it wasn’t a software fix, Elon had a bit earlier promised to fix the issue for anyone — including early production cars — if it was a hardware issue.
“Even if a physical upgrade is needed to existing fleet, we will make sure all Model 3’s having amazing braking ability at no expense to customers.”
“The CR braking result is inconsistent with other reviewers, but might indicate that some Model 3’s have longer braking distances than others. If so, we will address this at our expense. First time we’ve seen anything like this.”
Consumer Reports found some other things they didn’t like about the Model 3. They found the rear seat uncomfortable, wind noise on the highway too loud, and the ride unduly harsh. Worth noting is that the Model 3 has been praised for having race car like handling. Stiff springs are part of any handling package. You can have comfort or you can have high cornering power but you can’t have both.
More importantly, they were unimpressed with the fiddly controls, especially the center touchscreen that often requires the driver to take eyes off the road and one hand off the wheel to make even routine adjustments. “This layout forces drivers to take multiple steps to accomplish simple tasks. Our testers found that everything from adjusting the mirrors to changing the direction of the airflow from the air-conditioning vents required using the touch screen.”
Part of the problem is that either deliberately or accidentally, carmakers over the years have adopted a uniform set of conventions. The accelerator is on the right, the brake pedal is on the left. The turn signal stalk is on the left, the windshield wiper control is on the right. People have come to expect the controls on a BMW to be pretty much the same as those found on a Chevrolet.
Tesla, with its penchant for breaking the mold, has come up with a different way of doing things, one that defies conventional wisdom. When it comes to disrupting the marketplace, that may be a good thing. But when it comes to actually operating a car, it may be less welcome. Certainly Consumer Reports found the central touchscreen off putting. Perhaps in 5 years, it will be the new normal.
How important is what Consumer Reports has to say? That depends. For high-end vehicles such as the Model S and Model X, the influence it has on buyers may be slight. But the Model 3 is designed to bring electric cars to a whole different segment of the driving public, one that is more accustomed to poring over the reliability ratings and other aspects of a full CR test before making a buying decision. For them, what Consumer Reports has to say may carry more weight.
The ride and comfort issue is a matter of personal preference. The central touchscreen may take some getting used to — although, having to take your eyes off the road frequently seems more like a step backwards rather than a step forward. But brakes are brakes. The pedal pushes a piston that forces hydraulic fluid down a pipe to another piston that forces the brake pads against the rotors and the car stops.
Various brake pads have different performance characteristics. Some have more “bite” as soon as the pedal is pressed but may not wear as long as others. Some give superior stopping power but create excessive wear on the brake rotors. Some cover expensive aftermarket wheels in brake dust. But what they don’t do is perform inconsistently. There are few things more unsettling to a driver than not knowing exactly what is going to happen when the brakes are applied. Imagine if you turned the steering wheel and sometimes the car turned more and sometimes less. That would be pretty unsetting, wouldn’t it? Let’s see if the over-the-air software updates really solve the problem.