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Sorry, Elon — Tesla Model 3 Much Better Than I Expected (#CleanTechnica Review)

I thought the Model 3 would be great, top of its class, similar to the Model S we’ve had for a year. However, it seems I was caught off guard due to Tesla’s incessant improvements and all of the nitpicky, consistent attacks from Tesla critics (paid or otherwise). The Model 3 is better than I expected. I expected to love it, but I didn’t expect to love it so much. In particular, there were a handful of little things that made the car significantly more comfortable as a passenger and more enjoyable to drive than our 2015 Model S 85D.

I thought the Model 3 would be great, top of its class, similar to the Model S we’ve had for approximately a year. However, it seems I was caught off guard due to Tesla’s incessant improvements and all of the nitpicky, consistent attacks from Tesla critics (paid or otherwise) — which seem to have somehow influenced me a tad over time (yes, even me). The Model 3 is better than I expected. I expected to love it, but I didn’t expect to love it so much. In particular, there were a handful of little things that made the car significantly more comfortable as a passenger and more enjoyable to drive than our 2015 Model S 85D.

This is not our first comparison of these cars, and it will not be our last. A Tesla Model 3 will be joining the CleanTechnica fleet later this week when Kyle Field receives delivery of a black Model 3 in California. He has had ample time with the Model S (which he used to own), BMW i3, Mercedes B250e (which his wife has driven for years), Chevy Bolt, and a couple dozen other electric cars to write extensively about where the Model 3 excels and where it could use some work. My review here is just based on some short drives, sitting in a couple of Model 3’s for a while (two owners were kind enough to drive their cars down from Tampa for me to experience them), and how all of that compares to years of EV driving in 20–30 different electric cars.

Before I go further, I should say that I suffer from bias — I am hugely biased in favor of high-quality products. I like nice stuff. I like stuff that feels good, looks good, and sounds good. Heck, I even like stuff that smells good. Furthermore, I have cash money riding on Tesla [TSLA] because I think it’s a good company that makes amazing products, innovates like a maniac, and shows true leadership. I wouldn’t invest in the company if I didn’t consistently find that it creates high-quality products that are unmatched on the market. Did I mention that I’m biased in favor of high-quality products?

After having a Model S 85D in my stable for approximately a year, and even driving it from Poland to Paris, I thought I could guestimate fairly well how the Model 3 would feel. I was off on several topics. The Model 3 was better than I expected in at least 7 ways. Rather than doing a comprehensive, overall review (which there are plenty of), I’m focusing on the things that surprised me and things that I specifically find interesting to compare against the Model S and BMW i3, which I consider to be the closest electric competitor to the Model 3 in a few key ways (and not at all a competitor in other ways).

Opening the door: This may seem like a small thing, but I’ve found in time that the routine experience of opening and closing the door has a more important and lasting effect on people’s feelings about a car than we typically assume. Opening the door of a Model 3 from the outside is certainly not as difficult as various people made it sound. It didn’t take me any practice or odd maneuvering. I just pressed the handle on one side and pulled it on the other — easy. It felt good and clean. Maybe it could present challenges in certain situations, but I’d have to test extensively to discover if that’s the case.

Opening the doors from the inside feels awesome. There are two ways to do so in the front seats, with the seemingly preferred way being the press of a button near where your thumb rests when holding the door handle. That pops the door open automagically — in a way that is so typically Tesla. For some reason I can’t explain, I prefer that much more than a normal, manual door handle, which feels less premium and fun.

The doors sound great when you close them and the cars I checked out had superb fit & finish. With our 2015 Model S, I could see what people complained about with regard to the sound of the door when you close it, even though I didn’t see that as something that warranted complaining and don’t think any normal person noticed it. But for anyone complaining about the sound of a Model 3 as it closes, I have to recommend laying off the crack.

In net, while I would love to have the self-presenting door handles of the Model S back, the interior button to open the door makes up for that. And there’s surely less maintenance expense for the Model 3 door handles than for the Model S self-presenting handles.

So, when it comes to opening and closing the door, I’d give a slight advantage to Model 3. (I do reserve the right to change my opinion in time.)

Seats: After so much obsession over the years about Tesla not having comfortable seats, and after some public disappointment about the revealed seats when the Model 3 hit production, I didn’t expect much of the Model 3’s seats. I figured they’d be bearable, moderate. So, I was happily surprised when I sat down in the car and the seats were as comfortable as anything I recall in any car — whether Mercedes, Porsche, or BMW.

Seats are weird since different body types can have vastly different preferences. For my tall and slim body type, the front seats on the Model 3 seem to be as good as it gets. The back seats were comfier than I expected as well, but depending on who’s in front of me, they might be a bit cramped for a very long trip. I’m a bit more than 6 feet tall, and the space was close to cramped behind the 6’2″ driver’s seat, while there was an enormous amount of space behind his partner’s seat (she was not 6’2″).

Comparing to our 2015 Model S, the Model 3 seats are far nicer, but they are comparable to the seats in a new Model S. However, the surroundings of the front passenger seat seem better designed and I think more comfortable if you, say, wanted to write or edit articles while on a long road trip — or just around the city for that matter. Yes, maybe that’s not a normal need, but it’s one thing that gives the Model 3 a slight edge for me. (However, I could use a bit more time in a new Model S again to make sure I’m not forgetting design improvements in newer versions of the model.)

Storage: The Model 3 trunk is huge. It’s not as expansive as what the Model S has to offer, but my wife and I are fine with the i3 trunk, so we definitely wouldn’t have any trouble with the Model 3’s much more cavernous storage areas. YMMV.

The frunk is also not as large as the Model S’s, but it’s clearly enough for groceries, small luggage, tennis equipment, or various other goodies you might prefer to put in the frunk than the trunk. This is one thing I miss now that we have an i3.

Drive quality: Acceleration felt extremely similar to me as acceleration in our Model S 85D. It would be hard for me to distinguish between them. Of course, a P100D is in an entirely different league — horsepower is horsepower — but I’d have to get behind the wheel of a Performance Model 3 and a P100D to chat more about those high-end options. (Maybe soon.)

Handling, as expected, was much more enjoyable in the Model 3. The smaller size, nearly invisible hood, and cool steering wheel make the Model 3 a special kind of Tesla. I expected to enjoy the Model 3’s handling, and long expected it would be one thing that would make me prefer the Model 3 over the Model S, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It is truly awesome. The turns also felt more enjoyable as a passenger than they did in our 2015 Tesla Model S 85D, which I assume is in good part because of the seats. (I need a bit more time in a new Model S to make a comfortable comparison.)

I was concerned that the Model 3 would still feel “too big” to me, but it didn’t. The short hood had a similar effect as the short hood of our BMW i3. The clean, minimalist dash similarly helps you to feel that much closer to the road and helps you to enjoy the driving experience that much more.

The roof: The glass roof of a Model S is wonderful, but I found the Model 3 roof a certain kind of cool. It is particularly helpful in the back seat. For a fairly tall person (not that tall, but as I wrote, over 6 feet), the glass roof makes the back seat much more comfortable than the back seat of a Model S. If I sit up straight in the back of a Model S, my head presses against the car. In the Model 3, it doesn’t. It doesn’t feel cramped at all thanks to the open, expansive windows in the roof.

One of the Model 3 owners who came down from Tampa to let me explore the car didn’t seem bothered by the glass roof despite the sun & heat of Southwest Florida, but the couple with the other Model 3 got full tinting because one of them found both the sun and heat pouring through to be too much. In my time in the car that had only a bit of tinting on the back, I couldn’t notice anything unpleasant with the air conditioning on, but this was later in the day and shortly after a thunderstorm in which I wiped out on a slippery sidewalk and got soaked, so I’ll have to evaluate another day. In the end, though, you know the phrase: YMMV.

The touchscreen: Dude, after so much freakin’ concern about the location of the speedometer, I have to say that I trust Tesla critics even less and trust Elon Musk even more. The location of the speedometer makes it extremely easy to see without distraction. The touchscreen is also easier to access than I expected — more so than in the Model S. This is in part because of the car’s smaller size and in part because of the horizontal orientation and the way the touchscreen pops out of the dashboard.

Center console: I like the Model 3 center console a bit more than the Model S center console. I just like the interior design and orientation a bit more, but don’t take this as a dramatic preference. Maybe my opinion will change next time I sit in the car. Both are more useful than the dinky console we have in the i3, but they also block the nice empty floor space between the front seats of the i3 that I actually love and do use every time I go somewhere. I’d call it a wash in net.

Minimalism: As I’ve said and written several times before, I’m a big fan of Tesla minimalism. The minimalism of the Tesla dash is unbeatable. Nothing that I’ve experienced compares to it. I hear it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s one of those “little things” about the car that pull me closer to the checkout register.

The hood: There are some things you just don’t notice well enough until you drive the car. I noted above that the hood is “nearly invisible” from the driver’s seat. However, there are some sharp, “muscular” lines toward the sides of the hood that pop up. They are subtle, but they also look freakin’ awesome from the driver’s seat. The Model S has something similar, but as I’ve said too many times, the Model S is too big for my tastes, and I think those lines on the hood of the Model S make the car seem narrower than it is, creating an invitation for an accident or at least a scraping.

The colors after a rain: The beautiful colors of the water drops on the roof after a rain are one of my favorite little things about the car. I’m surprised they don’t get more attention. These are the things that just make a Tesla a Tesla, imho. A Tesla’s not just a better BMW. A Tesla is special.

Extra special thanks to Paul Fosse (photo below next to the guy with the lunatic eyes and Bugs Bunny teeth) for taking his Model 3 on a road trip to let me test drive it and also bringing along a couple of friends in their own Model 3 — which might have sold me on white.

Oh yeah, so why apologize to Elon? Well, for one, I underestimated what he and his team did with the Model 3. For two, it seems without realizing it that I sort of bought into various nitpicks that Tesla critics had made about the car — or at least let them influence my expectations. Maybe I didn’t expect the doors to be falling off, but I didn’t expect them to be as nice and sound as good as they do. Maybe I didn’t expect the seats to totally suck, but I didn’t expect them to be so comfy. For three, Elon has been trying to anti-sell the Model 3 for a long time in order to push more people into the Model S (or Model X). So, I don’t think he’d appreciate someone like me saying that the Model 3 is cooler and nicer in many respects. That said, it seems like the period of the anti-sell may be fading as high-performance Model 3’s are sent to showrooms around the country and production ramps up, so maybe Elon won’t be mad.

Photos (not of the Model 3 I test drove except the pics with Paul) by me, Tesla, and Model 3 Owners Club

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Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.


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