The Tesla Model 3 is the defining car of this generation. The first car to truly set the bar for what an affordable electric car can be. The only problem is that … well, it isn’t that affordable. Yet. Let’s rewind for a minute to see where this tale started.
Back on March 31st, 2016, Zach Shahan and I met up out front of the Tesla store in Santa Monica, California, at 6:30 am to wait in line for several hours with a few hundred enthusiasts to hand over $1,000 or $2,000 to make reservations for a car we had never seen before — the Tesla Model 3. We had very little idea what we were reserving, but we knew we wanted one (or two) of what Tesla had promised to be an iconic car.
At the Tesla Model 3 unveiling event later that evening, we learned much more about what the Model 3, the little brother to the Model S, would look like. With a snubbier nose that was reminiscent of Porsche, it would come with an industry-changing $35,000 price tag. It spoke of the future and of electric cars going mainstream. It wasn’t quite the everyman’s car, but it delivered 200+ mile range at a base price that was half that of the Model S, making it affordable for millions more people around the world.
Fast forward to today and the Model 3 has officially been in production for just over one year — but not yet the $35,000 version. Deliveries officially kicked off in July of 2017, but Tesla was very, very slow to get Model 3s out the door in large volumes due to numerous production-side issues that add up to what Tesla CEO Elon Musk dubbed “production hell.”
Last month, Tesla finally achieved a Model 3 production run rate of 5,000 per week, which had been the first core target production rate for the vehicle since launch. At that rate, it’s reported that Tesla could achieve profitability as a company and start offering more interesting options for the car, like All-Wheel Drive, the Performance Edition, and different color interiors. To the masses, the Model 3 achieving a high volume production rate means more electric cars getting into the hands of some of the hundreds of thousands of reservation holders who signed up to be a part of history in those first weeks after it was unveiled, more than two years ago.
One of our early reservations turned into a car this week as we took delivery of the first CleanTechnica Tesla Model 3 at the Tesla Santa Barbara showroom. It’s a Long Range Black Model 3 with the Premium Upgrade Package. Having owned and driven as many plug-in vehicles as I’ve been able to get my hands on over the last 5 years, I’m eager to share the things that have stood out — good and bad — with the Model 3 in the first 24 hours.
I’ve driven a number of Tesla Model 3s over the last few months, and the first thing that strikes me about it every time is just how invisible the nose of the car is when driving. When combined with the instant torque of the powerful electric motor, it makes the driving experience feel very much like a go kart — in the very best of ways. Visibility out the front of the vehicle is great. This is further emphasized by the low-profile, minimalistic dash.
As great as it is, I feel the car tugging at a long-suppressed desire to speed around far more than any car I’ve driven in recent memory. The 2010 Toyota Prius that served as my main gap car between our Tesla Model S and our new Tesla Model 3 did not evoke the slightest bit of excitement behind the wheel, nor did most of the plug-in cars I’ve driven. The Model 3 I was able to spend a day with in January was the most recent to tug at those same chords and only the Chevrolet Bolt even falls on the same scale of fun in recent memory.
My shirt in the photo above is no accident. It is the shirt from Mountain Pass Performance and represents the name of the company’s white Model S. After spending so much time digging around the company online for our coverage of its dominance on the track in “the Future,” the name really stuck with me due to its resonance with my belief in the car. This car — the Model 3 — represents the future. The future is electric and the Tesla Model 3 is the epitome of what an affordable electric car is today. That all ties back to our CleanTechnica slogan of “the future is now.”
About that affordability … I understand why Tesla has not released the $35,000 version of the car, but dang, it hurts in a strange way to have so many Model 3s being built and sold without that part of the equation being true yet. I was a holdout for the Model 3 but opted to pull the trigger early to take full advantage of the U.S. federal tax credit for EVs before it starts to taper off in 2019. I eagerly await the day that the Model 3 can be sold at $35,000.
The current $49,000 floor on the Model 3 is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination — it is a ton of money. But it gets the car halfway to the promise of an affordable, long-range electric vehicle, and that’s commendable. Having said that, I’ll be even more excited when the base configuration starts shipping because that’s the other half of the dream. Let’s do it.
Getting back in the car, the phone key is extremely underwhelming. I’m all about technology being used to solve problems, but coming from the Model S, where the key fob worked — and worked extremely well — the Model 3 key system is an utter failure. I would opt back into a key if I could. As it stands today, even with all of the low-power functions on my phone turned off and every permission possible turned on, it fails to unlock my car most of the time.
If given the opportunity, I would go back to the key fob for one simple reason — because it worked. Because it’s software, it’s possible that this is something Tesla can fix, but man, I feel dumb walking up to the car not knowing if it’s actually going to open, then having to dive back into my pocket, unlock my phone, and pull up the app just to get it to maybe unlock. I get the idea and I see the potential, but I’m going to have to call this one a fail for now.
One of the major changes in the Model 3 is the consolidation of nearly everything into the single, landscape, 15″ display. Getting rid of the gauge cluster behind the steering wheel has not bothered me at all. I don’t miss it. Glancing to the side at the 15″ display instead of glancing down to see the speed is effectively the same, if not a tad better.
The user interface on the new 15″ screen is not as efficient as the Model S or X. With the driving functions stuck to the left side of the screen (as they should be), the remaining functions don’t feel at home in the remaining square of the screen. Specifically, the music player is not intuitive at all and requires four swipes to get it off the screen after being maximized, the settings in the car have too many layers and are spread around into a few different locations, and the cruise control doesn’t flow extremely well on the touchscreen.
What does work well on the screen is the navigation. The car has the same great voice recognition and navigation as the Tesla Model S and Model X, which make finding your way around a beautiful experience. My wife doesn’t like how the screen zooms in and out automagically, but for me, it’s perfect. When on the freeway, the navigation zooms back to show upcoming exits and cities, then when you get off the freeway, the system zooms into neighborhood level details.
Let’s talk looks. Yes, I know not everyone likes the looks of the car — especially the dash — but I absolutely love it. It feels so high end and sleek on the inside that it just makes me smile every time I get in. It’s simple enough to not feel cluttered, but still manages to do everything I need it to do.
The Model 3 does have a pocket in the door, which is an improvement on the Model S interior, and the center console feels very natural, ergonomic, and functional.
The exterior of the car is absolutely gorgeous to me. I wasn’t sure what I was going to think about the aero rims, but I really like them. With the black exterior, they look like oversized, luxury rims on an exotic sports car. They accentuate the lines of the body and just feel right.
Obviously, there’s much more to come from us about the Model 3, but what has surprised me is just how much I’ve already learned about the car in just 1 day with it. Stay tuned for the next update, but until then — charge on!