2018 Tesla Model 3 First Review
The 2018 Tesla Model 3 is the culmination of more than a decade of planning and execution by Tesla and its founder, Elon Musk. Building an even more affordable car was the third step in Musk's "Secret Master Plan," published more than a decade ago -- it’s finally here. In fact, it may be argued that the Model 3 is perhaps the most anticipated car of the last five years, arriving from the most talked-about car company (for better or worse) on the planet.
Last week, I borrowed a new Model 3 from its private owner for a day. I drove it on South Bay highways, all around the hilly streets of San Francisco, and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Considering its all-electric powertrain and unique operator interface, sans a traditional instrument cluster, it was, perhaps, a bit like driving the future.
It's no secret that every major carmaker has pledged to bring a litany of electric cars to market over the next decade. Yet with the notable exception of Tesla and a handful of niche nameplates like the Nissan Leaf, it hasn't been at all clear that consumers really want to buy an electric car.
While it's safe to say that most Americans have never been in an electric car, Tesla’s new Model 3 is in a position to change that. The California-based company, which has sold far more electric cars in the US than any other car brand, has hundreds of thousands of preorders for the Model 3 compact sedan and, if it can build them, should continue to lead the electric car race for several years at least.
That's a big if. But the public appears fascinated. Between those preorders and the long lines to just sit in a Model 3 at Tesla stores -- the automaker doesn’t rely on a traditional dealership network -- around the country, there is an intense fascination here.
The Model 3 starts at $35,000 for a 220-mile range and base trim, but its price quickly rises to close to $60,000 fully optioned (the price is offset by a $7,500 federal tax credit, which will be phased out over the next year or two depending on total Tesla sales). A $5,000 Premium Upgrades Package includes heated seating, upgraded cabin materials, power seats, premium audio system, tinted glass roof, and a slick center console with smartphone charging and docking.
Enhanced Autopilot, which delivers the same Level 2 semi-autonomous experience that the Model S and X have, is an additional $5,000. "Full Self-Driving Capability" runs another $3,000 -- that option does nothing today, but will, if you believe Elon Musk, allow the car to completely drive itself. We wouldn't recommend checking that box for a while. Any color other than black is another $1,000, and 19-inch wheels will be a $1,500 upgrade over the 18-inch standard ones.
A $9,000 "long range" battery brings the driving range up to 310 miles. Unlike with the Model S and X, Tesla isn't pushing the size of its batteries in the marketing materials. This is a good move, as "kilowatt-hours" doesn't really mean much to most car buyers. Instead, selling based purely on electric range is the better long-term marketing option as comparing battery sizes across vehicles doesn't really work -- the Model S outweighs the Model 3 by more than 1,000 pounds, so the 3 will go much further with an identical battery capacity.
My time with the Model 3 suggests that Tesla has an excellent car here. Its modern design and clean interior, combined with spirited driving dynamics thanks to a sport-tuned chassis and the always-there electric torque, will please most buyers. The handling is sharp, and the chunky steering wheel is a delight to the hands.
The 15-inch center touch screen will please or infuriate, depending on the buyer -- but in my test, it stopped being awkward after about 10 minutes. There aren't many traditional hard buttons, either. Moving the steering wheel or the side mirrors -- an operation seldom executed -- requires a couple of taps on the screen. An easy-to-use system lets you save a half-dozen different driver profiles, and the car will adjust to the presets of whomever is driving.
With Tesla, build quality is always a worry, and production of the Model 3 -- Tesla's first mass-market effort -- has had notable difficulty getting up to speed. It will take some time for the engineers in Fremont to work out the kinks. But remember, for all the attention that Tesla garners, it's still a young company. Honda and Toyota and Hyundai and Kia were young once, and they're making terrific cars these days.
The Model 3 I drove had a few minor panel-gap and fit-alignment issues, but you'd have to be fairly picky to notice them. It was significantly better than what I’ve seen with some other Tesla cars. Wind noise was more noticeable than in the Model S, but not particularly bothersome -- perhaps akin to noisy winter tires. The electric motor whine was there too, rising in pitch as you went faster. Both the wind and motor noise were easily drowned out by the stereo even at low volume. In my limited time with the Model 3, with that Model 3, there was nothing about the build that gave me particular concern.
Tesla will, probably, get there -- and even if they don't, there will be dozens of other electric cars on the market in five years. But people will be interested in those cars at least in part because of the groundwork Tesla laid by getting the public excited about electric cars over the past decade.