Tesla Model 3 California Road Trip — The Ultimate Road Trip Machine

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Some Background

March 31st, 2016 — the day the automotive planet was hit by a meteor called Tesla Model 3, changing its orbit forever.

When the Model 3 was presented to the world, it originated an unprecedented wave of reservations, with Tesla saying that it had received 325,000 after only a week, far exceeding even the best expectations.

Now, legacy automakers couldn’t continue to play ball like nothing had happened and say yet again, “No one wants EVs.” The times had changed. Many people did want EVs — or at least a Tesla.

I also made a reservation, but it took me a few days for it. Let me take a moment to get to why.

The Model S was a stroke of genius. Even disregarding the electric vehicle technology being years ahead of anything else on the market, the car itself was gorgeous. The free thinking behind a white sheet without any legacy model lineage to respect allowed the engineers to come up with some out-of-the-blue innovations, like the frunk, the large touchscreen in the center, etc. These innovations made its competitors look “old-school.”

And then came the bulbous Model X. Okay, let’s just say it doesn’t suit my tastes.

Despite having the same core tech as the Model S and sitting in a fast-growing category, a less gracious design and an overflow of outside-the-box tech (falcon-doors in the back, self-presenting front doors, etc.) seemed to prevent it from replicating the success of the Model S in its segment.

So, like in many rock bands, after one hit and one miss (in my mind at least), it was time for the all-important third release, that defining moment that sets the tone: Rock Star or Has Been.

Immediately after seeing the Model 3 presentation, I wasn’t sure what to think. On the one hand, the car was drop-dead gorgeous on the outside — a mix of the best Tesla with the best Porsche design — and the specs were impressive. On the other hand, I had a few issues with it: it was a sedan, so it would be a harder sell in Europe than a regular hatchback, and the interior was … spartan, at best. A big no-no, especially in a car that starts at $35,000.

For the past few months (er, now years), there have been times when I almost asked my money back, but like the drunk guy on the bridge, I stopped myself at the last moment. Then, on a recent trip to the US, I got the chance to try out the Model 3 in a one-week road trip. Thanks to Tesla for providing the opportunity. At last, I got to see if staying on the bridge was indeed the best decision.

September 10, 2018

After a short introduction to the car, we said goodbye to the Tesla staff and were finally alone with “Robin,” our Model 3 loaner.

In the first few miles driving it, I got the feeling I was driving a sports car, not a midsize sedan. We were low to the ground, with a short, low hood ahead of us. The handling was superb, as was the acceleration.

Another thing that struck me was that, with all those shenanigans from some reviewers regarding the center screen, I had serious doubts regarding its practicality — but turns out, it is easy to operate and see, with the most important features in the top left area of the screen, where our vision almost instinctively checks first when glancing over.

The navigation system felt particularly easy and accurate, thanks to real-time traffic data and calculation. It sometimes suggested less congested routes as well. We arrived at our base in San Jose on time and just one minute behind the original route plan, no small feat considering the chaotic Silicon Valley traffic.

When we went out to dinner, it was time for the “family sedan” side of the car to shine. It took 5 people (3 adults and 2 kids) out to a Mexican restaurant in total comfort.

While going there, I pushed a few Tesla-like accelerations, to the amusement of the kids, who said:

This is fun! Do it again…

To which I replied:

Okay, one more. Enjoy it now, as I won’t be doing this on the return trip, as someone might throw up dinner.

September 11, 2018

Early in the morning on the second day, we headed to San Francisco to assist a UC Davis event. During this commute-like trip, it was time to try out the Autopilot (AP) abilities. I realized they excel in two situations:

  • Freeway driving without a lot of traffic.
  • Stop and go traffic.

[Editor’s note: I wrote the same thing last year after some time with Autopilot in our Tesla Model S. This appears to be a strong consensus among Autopilot drivers.]

This last one was pretty useful when entering the city during rush hour, as the system did most of the service for us.

On the other hand, whenever the traffic features frequent lane changes or stoplights, the “Human-pilot” still wins the day, because the AI behind AP cannot (yet) anticipate events (e.g., a green light going to yellow and then red) and act accordingly in due time. It also can’t perceive context (e.g., if one car on our left lane has the right turn signal on, then it will merge into our lane sooner or later), something that allows the human driver to anticipate other car maneuvers or adopt the simplest solution to each situation (e.g., if a cyclist is slightly in the car lane, AP slows down the speed to that of the cyclist, while the human driver just turns the car slightly to the left and then surpasses the cyclist).

At the end of the day, after getting rid of the metropolitan San Fran–clogged traffic, we headed down to the Cupertino Supercharger for a first charge with “our” Model 3.

Considering the unique abilities of the Tesla models, we wanted to show that our Robin could entirely rely during the whole week on the Supercharger network, providing a great demonstration not only of the car’s range, but the extensive availability of Tesla’s unique infrastructure — something really important for people who for some reason cannot charge at home or live in areas where there isn’t significant EV infrastructure nearby.

We got to the mall car park (parking lot for you Americans) in Cupertino and on the first floor there were 12 charging plugs from ChargePoint, most of them empty. But when we got to the second level, where the Superchargers were, we saw that all 10 stalls were being used, and another car was waiting!

“Well, it seems there are a loooot of Teslas in the neighborhood,” I mumbled.

Fortunately, our wait took just a few minutes and we could finally charge.

Having arrived there with 98 miles (157 km), we went to dinner, leaving it charging at a rate of 110kW+. Robin ended the charging session some 40 minutes later, with around 80% charge and showing over 240 miles (384 km) of range. That came at a cost of $8.84.

September 12, 2018

We finally started our first day of the road trip down south, by heading down to the coast in Santa Cruz and making our first stop at the Watsonville coast. When the first beach revealed its quiet beauty, Robin’s streaming service was playing the first chords of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” a perfect fit for the mood we were in while contemplating the deserted beach ahead.

After stopping to take some pictures and feel the chilling wind coming from the ocean, it was time to leave and continue visiting the next beaches, now left alone from the summer agitation brought by tourists.

Lunch time was coming when we reached Monterey, where we visited the Cannery Row boardwalk and took pictures of the bay ahead.

It was then time for lunch. Because Monterey was the last Supercharger before the Big Sur cross, we headed there to fill up the battery and have lunch during the charge. It’s a nice thing that Tesla preferably places its Superchargers at shopping centers or hotels.

With 160 miles (256 km) at the start of the charge, we wanted to charge the battery to the max, as we had a long drive ahead and not a big choice of Superchargers to choose from.

So we went for a 1 hour lunch break, leaving the Model 3 feeding itself with electrons.

When we returned, the car was still charging, so we took some time to play with the screen menus. Since the start, we had driven some 200 miles (320 km) with Robin, with a below average consumption of 214 Wh/mi, or 14 kWh/100 km, which was surprisingly good considering that I hadn’t really driven it slow and used the A/C ~99% of time.

While exploring the menus, we found some interesting features, like the Trip Planner, which adds Supercharger stops to your route planning in case you can’t make the trip in one charge. We also discovered online routing, which adapts in real time your route planner based on existing traffic conditions. That is probably useful 99% of times (more on the remaining 1% later).

One interesting item is the Supercharger map, where it shows not only the Supercharger available close to you, but also the number of stalls available and how many are in use. Then, if you select a given Supercharger, more info is shown — like the address, distance, charging rate, price, and the option to direct the trip there. (Destination Chargers also have these details featured.)

Another proof of the free-thinking geekiness of Tesla is the drawing program, which together with other Easter eggs (cowbells, a SpaceX spaceship, Santa Mode, funny menus, etc.) make having a Tesla just a little bit more special and fun.

With 99% charge and 309 miles (495 km) of range available, we stopped charging and started for the road trip for real. The first stops were during the 17 mile drive to Pebble Beach, south of Monterey.

The 17 mile drive has a costly entry (10 bucks), but it is worth it. On the scenic drive through the forest and white, sandy beaches, you can see seals and sea lions sunbathing, and then you end with the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course.

It was when we took Highway 1 to Big Sur that the real driving fun began, though, with the winding road allowing us to better explore Robin’s potential as a road runner. With its more compact(ish) size and better suited suspension, the Model 3 showed itself to be more apt (and fun) to deal with the twisty stuff than its older sibling Model S. Tesla’s baby sedan remained squat and glued to the ground every time, even with strong winds coming from the west. Add this to the instant (and plentiful) torque of the motor and you have probably the most fun car to drive in its size class.

At a given point, the cell network lost signal for a large part of the trip, leading the navigation system to stop working properly and ending the streaming service.

“Might as well,” I thought. “Now, it’s just me, Robin, and the road.”

The next miles served to push the Model 3 to the limits, going as fast as the curvy, narrow road (and the occasional Ford Mustang rented convertible) allowed. It felt great. This was a car that left a smile on your face and even made the Big Sur road easy.

“Bravo, Tesla, you have created the Ultimate Road Trip Machine!” – I kept thinking. “Despite being a big, comfy car for the other passengers, it drives like a sports car when you want. And on top of that, it has AP to help you deal with the long, boring, freeway parts of the trip.”

Having stopped at the Big Sur village, which reminded me of something taken from Road Trip movies, a couple approached us (in a rented Mustang, of course) when we were leaving Robin to take some pictures. One of them asked us, with a British accent, “Are you happy with your Model 3?” To which I replied, “For sure, it drives like a sports car.”

“I can imagine, I tried out a Model S and it was so much fun!”

“Yes, and this is even better,” I responded.

“Yeah, I wished it was already available in England, I would surely buy one!”

After a few more stops, in order to catch all the scenic landscapes and untouched nature, we finally reached picturesque Morro Bay, where we would have a sleepover. We had done 140 miles since leaving Monterey, with the range meter still showing 167 miles (267 km).

“Damn, if I knew this would be so good regarding range, I would have just charged it to 80%, allowing us to be here sooner,” I thought. “Oh well, now I know.”

Part two of this Tesla Model 3 review will be published here on CleanTechnica tomorrow.

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José Pontes

Always interested in the auto industry, particularly in electric cars, Jose has been overviewed the sales evolution of plug-ins on the EV Sales blog, allowing him to gain an expert view on where EVs are right now and where they are headed in the future. The EV Sales blog has become a go-to source for people interested in electric car sales around the world. Extending that work and expertise, Jose is also market analyst on EV-Volumes and works with the European Alternative Fuels Observatory on EV sales matters.

José Pontes has 477 posts and counting. See all posts by José Pontes