By Douglas B. Kerr, aka “Unplugged”
I’ll start out with the fact that Tesla cheats. In fact, so do all fully electric vehicles to some extent. Build an EV and put the battery pack on the floor — instant superior handling is obtained by simple physics. Then, add a silent, dutifully designed and powerful electric motor, and gas cars don’t have a chance. We all have heard about EVs’ low maintenance and instant torque. Put all of this into a low-cost, attractive package and the modern electric vehicle should sell itself. And indeed, this is the tale of Tesla’s success with the Model 3.
Sure, we have all heard the complaints about how a $35,000 car morphed into a $50,000 car. The flip side of this “too much for more” argument ignores a corporate reality. Tesla has to satisfy the screaming Tesla stock shorts (and not a few investors) who likewise complain that “every Tesla built loses money.” It is hard to forgive the absurdity of disregarding basic corporate finance, but I can forgive the impatience of those who want a more affordable Tesla NOW.
I respond to those who complain about the Tesla Model 3 price with an easy comparison. Review a BMW 330i price sheet against the Long Range Model 3 pricing. Look at the performance and the options and you will find that, without incentives, the Model 3 effortlessly compares to the BMW in every way. And this comparison ignores the superior drivetrain and technology built into every EV. Yes, a $50,000 car is expensive, but I have no doubt that the basic $35,000 Model 3 is in the near future.
This is a different kind of review. I am going to go beyond the usual handling, acceleration, and cosmetic review of the Tesla Model 3 (for the most part). I’m going to gloss over most of the already well known exemplary performance characteristics of the Model 3. Instead, I’m going to drill down into some of the lesser known quirks and idiosyncrasies that only an owner of a Model 3 lives with.
My Model 3 was built and delivered in April 2018. Apparently, this date was late enough into the production process to allow Tesla to get over any alleged quality issues. As a recent review noted, Tesla explains the panel gap issues as being the result of metal stamping irregularities. The stampings of the deep-draft aluminum body panels were “moving” after they were stamped, explained a production engineer. This isn’t unusual for an aluminum body project, except that these adjustments had to be made under the glare of investors and speculators. Either Tesla fixed the panel gap issue by the time I purchased it, or Tesla knew I was going to publish a review of my car at a later date. (Just anticipating the usual stock shorts’ claims.)
Any Model 3s I have seen have very straight, uniform panel gaps. The quality of my Model 3 has been excellent, except for the driver’s side “A” pillar, which has an interior cover that bows out slightly. I still need to get that fixed. I don’t doubt that Tesla, like every automaker, builds a few lemons, so your experience can certainly vary.
The Tesla Model 3 exemplifies what a $50,000 EV should be. The interior is well appointed, with soft-touch plastics, cushioned vinyl, and fabrics everywhere. Only on the back of the seats will you find hard plastic, and even there, a vinyl pouch provides storage space. Everything is minimalistic and thought out.
Storage is abundant, with three separate compartments for phones and other items. Some have complained about having to push a button on the massive touchscreen in order to access the glovebox. Silly people — the glovebox might fit your manual and registration/insurance papers and a thin pair of gloves. You won’t use the glovebox, and you won’t miss it.
I have no problem with the touchscreen handling everything. For those who can’t get over having to look 6 inches to the right to see the speed readout instead of 6 inches down in an instrument cluster, I say, “Wow! I guess you never look in a rear view mirror, because the speed reading is on the way to the rear view mirror.” Besides, nearly everything on the Model 3 is automatic. You don’t need to push a button for the wipers, lights, or even the garage door, while the seat, mirror, steering tilt, and extension are stored in memory.
The ventilation system on the Model 3 is stunning. You can impress and entertain your friends with this unique blade that blows air the length of the dash. The lack of vents is both logical and ingenious. No more air on your face. Instead, enjoy a constant stream throughout the cabin.
Alas, no car is perfect. That big beautiful touchscreen hides a few big flaws. Interestingly, most reviewers ignore the sound system program and features. To me, it’s an important aspect of car ownership. But to Tesla, the music delivery appears to be an afterthought warranting less attention than the glovebox. Don’t get me wrong, the sound is sensational. Whoever designed the amps, the 11 speakers, and their positioning deserves a big raise. For instance, many reviewers comment on the strange open screen between the trunk ceiling and the rear passenger deck ledge. What could that be? It is a bass port. The subwoofer is in the trunk, and the bass port allows the bass to enter the passenger compartment easily. Brilliant.
But the lack of Sirius XM is a real detriment. XM has become an essential little luxury in everything from sub-compacts to premium SUVs. If you don’t subscribe, you don’t care. But plenty of people do subscribe and Slacker is a poor and unnecessary substitute. The lack of AM radio is also an inconvenience to those who listen to blacked out baseball. Traffic advisories also use the AM wavelength. Trying to play your own music on a USB drive is an exercise in futility. Tesla forces the driver to pick among the folders in order to begin playing the USB. The car forgets what you were listening to when you park and forces you to once again select “USB” and look up the folders and songs in order to begin again. Maybe voice recognition helps, but Tesla could do better.
At least equal to the lack of XM radio is the lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Unless you have experienced these interfaces between your smartphone and your car, you don’t know what you are missing. My half-the-price Focus Electric has excellent Apple CarPlay and Android Auto implementation. It’s really nice to be able to use Waze and default to HOV lane directions on my car’s touchscreen. Of all the maps in all the world, Tesla doesn’t have the ability to use the carpool lane to provide navigation directions. But Waze does. Sometimes, Tesla really bugs me about its Apple-like proprietary stuff. I don’t know how much it costs to add Apple and Android, but it can’t be much. Instead, I’m forced to play Waze on my own phone in my premium car’s console. Nice phone docking, bad navigation execution.
What Tesla does get right is the execution of handling and acceleration on this car. Comparing zero to sixty times between gas cars and EVs misses the point. Your BMW may be almost as fast as my Tesla Model 3, but think about how much effort your gas car uses to get there. When you push the pedal to the floor on your gas car, you initiate an extensive process to move those tires forward. Your pedal push opens the flow of gasoline to the fuel injector that sprays fuel into the combustion chamber, resulting in an increased spark timing along with oxygen supplied by the valves connected to the camshaft by a timing belt or chain that pushes a cylinder down with increasing velocity transferring more rotational forces to a crank that is also connected to the camshaft. All of this moves an axle that eventually is connected to the transmission that transfers the crankshaft rotation to the drivetrain.
While your car is doing this complicated process, my Model 3’s pedal to the floor instantly causes additional electricity to flow through opposing pairs of magnets to create a faster rotating magnetic field. This rotating force is directly applied to a transfer gear set and then the drivetrain.
At a stop light, the complexity of a gas engine versus the simplicity of an EV may result in less than a second’s hesitation, but to get to that obnoxious cacophony of rotating mass is truly an engineering miracle that must be engaged every single time the gas pedal is depressed. It gets tiring. There is always that hesitation, and at higher speeds, it is amplified. Passing another car on a two-lane road in a Model 3 is both effortless and without drama. There is no downshifting, no obnoxious cacophony, no hesitation. Just pure immediate speed.
As mentioned in my first paragraph, all EVs cheat in the handling department. The battery mass and location certainly keep the Model 3 planted. Tesla didn’t skimp on the suspension either. As mentioned in other reviews, there are upper and lower A arms (aluminum and steel) with virtual steer axis geometry, twin-tube coilovers and anti-roll bar in front; in the rear, a multi-link geometry, also with twin-tube shocks and anti-roll bar. The handling is indeed impressive, except for the darn tires. Decades ago, some Detroit executive thought that changing tires for the winter season was a pain, so “all season” tires were invented. Only in America do we get this miserable compromise of the all season tire, a travesty imposed upon all of us by the states to the north. Thanks. All season tires work poorly in the winter and perform even worse in the summer. Tesla needs to offer a summer tire option on all models.
To drive fast requires visibility. The Tesla Model 3 offers excellent views to the outside, including that infrared-blocking rooftop glass. The “A” pillars could go on a diet, though. Maybe the thickness is needed to hold up all that glass. My chief complaint are the outside mirrors (heated and auto dimming), which are too small. The blind spot is several car lengths long. Once again, Ford offers a better solution. Ford integrates a convex mirror into the regular mirror. Instead, I used the Amazon solution and purchased a convex mirror I caulked to the outside mirror. But the other failing by Tesla is that there is no blind spot warning system. With 8 cameras, one would think that adding an important feature like blind spot warning would be an easy task. Tesla can do better.
There are other areas that Tesla can easily improve with software updates that seem to arrive on a bi-monthly basis. My big whine is that the charge port locks to the charging cable. In order to unlock the cable, you have to get out your phone and wake up the Model 3, sometimes waiting several minutes for the car to wake. Why do I need to do this? If people who actually use public charging need to lock their cable, then Tesla should update the screen to default to unlocked or locked. Easy. Otherwise, it’s a pain to unlock the cable each day.
Another whine is about the front trunk (“frunk”) closing. The owner’s manual makes it very clear that to avoid denting the aluminum hood, the frunk needs to be carefully closed with two hands, pushing down on either side of the “T” emblem on the frunk lid. I wince every time I close the frunk thinking that I have somehow improperly latched the lid and I will have dents in the hood. How about if Tesla just reinforces the hood edge so owners aren’t fearful of denting their car?
And I leave the reader with a few non-issues that don’t bother me, and shouldn’t bother you. The exterior door handles. These are pieces of art that appear to be hewn out of molten aluminum. How can anyone complain about a handle that is both beautiful and practical? Push on one end with your thumb and the handle extends gently into your fingers. With just a small pull, the electric latch opens the door.
Exiting the door by pushing a button. Somehow, this is a thing. What could be easier? But some owners feel that it is confusing to occupants because they try to use the emergency manual door release. I have a solution: put packing tape on the passenger door manual release and point to the button when your slightly confused passenger tries to exit. Or do as I do, merely bark, “Use the button!”
As my favorite (and Pulitzer-awarded) auto critic writes about the Tesla Model 3, “It’s magnificent, a spaceship, so obviously representative of the next step in the history of automobiles.” I would add that the Model 3 is the best car I have owned in my 43 years of car ownership. It isn’t perfect, but boy do the good parts outweigh the bad ones.