Buying Guide Electric Cars

Tesla buying guide: Comparing Model 3 vs Model S and Model X

Looking to leave gas behind and buy a Tesla? Here's how to find out which model is right for you.

Tesla's range of EVs now consists of the Model S, 3 and X.

Tesla

Since Tesla began operations in 2003, the electric car company -- named after 19th- and 20th-century inventor Nikola Tesla -- has been a gamechanger for the automotive industry. In just 16 years, Tesla has become one of the most important automakers in the business.

Never mind just electric vehicle sales, the Tesla Model 3 is now the best-selling luxury vehicle in the US overall, with more than 140,000 sold in 2018. The Model 3 helped the startup car company achieve 197,517 total sales last year, according to industry sales tracker GoodCarBadCar, allowing the all-EV luxury automaker to rank 20th among the top 35 auto marques sold in America. That ranking means Tesla's 2018 sales bested brands such as Chrysler, Acura, Cadillac and Infiniti.

Tesla doesn't use a traditional franchise dealer model, instead, it has corporate-owned showrooms.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

As Tesla's popularity grows, it still has some hurdles to overcome, including build quality and reliability issues. For some customers, those issues have been exacerbated by Tesla's lack of a traditional service network. There's also ongoing concerns around the company's financial condition.

It's also a good idea to assess how your location and lifestyle will blend with an EV. Living in a rural area far from Tesla's Supercharger network could greatly impact your ownership experience. The answer, of course, is to ensure that you have access to Level 2 (240-volt) charging. The latter can run roughly $2,000 to $3,000 to have installed in your garage or parking space. Yes, a standard Level 1 (110-volt) connection from a common household electrical outlet will charge a Tesla, but the charge rates are problematically slow -- only about 5 miles of range per hour of charging. That means even a base Model 3 with the 220-mile battery pack could take more than 40 hours to recharge.

(Need to know more about keeping your EV juiced up? Our Electric Car Charging 101 Guide has you covered.)

Tax credits and other incentives 

One more important factor: Check on your tax credit situation -- there are federal, state, regional and other tax credits available for buying electric cars, including ones offered by your local power utility company. Research these closely, as they could impact your buying decision.

For example, for deliveries until June 30, 2019, Tesla vehicles are still eligible for a $3,750 federal tax credit. For new vehicles delivered between July 1 to Dec. 31, 2019, that incentive drops to $1,875. Tesla has an extensive website page dedicated to applicable tax incentives (including on its solar products). It's worth studying closely, as it could save you a lot of money.

Tesla also offers other short-term sales incentives regularly, including free Supercharging and referral code-based programs

Tesla's CEO, Elon Musk, has been a major force in the brand's rise to prominence.

South China Morning Post/Getty

Tesla through the years

Originally founded in 2003 by a pair of engineers, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, Tesla gained Elon Musk as principal investor and chairman in 2004.

In 2008, Musk became Tesla's CEO. That was the same year the company introduced its first automobile: the Tesla Roadster. Although priced at more than $100,000, the all-electric Lotus Elise-based Roadster was remarkably advanced for its time, with a 245-mile range and a sub-4-second 0-60 time on the way to a top speed of 125 mph.

The Roadster would eventually pave the way for the Model S five-door in 2012, followed up with the Model S-based Model X crossover SUV in 2015 and the Model 3 compact luxury sedan in 2017.

Tesla Model 3

Today, Tesla's least-expensive model is also its most popular. So popular, in fact, that Tesla received nearly 200,000 deposits for the car on the day reservations opened. That popularity was likely spurred by the Model 3's promised $35,000 base price, but it took nearly three years after the car's unveiling for the Standard Range model to be made available. In fact, after putting the cloth-seat-trim $35,000 model on their configurator for a while, Tesla subsequently removed it, although you can apparently still order it over the phone or in person at a showroom. The net-net? Nearly all Model 3 sales have transacted at much higher prices.

Assuming you don't want to try and go through that special-order rigamarole to save $4,900, today's de facto entry-level Model 3 is the Standard Range Plus. It offers rear-wheel drive, a battery with a 240-mile range (per EPA estimates), a 0-60 mph time of 5.3 seconds and a top speed of 140 mph.

The Model 3 has a sleek cabin that defines the word "Minimalism." It's not without its advantages, or drawbacks.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

The next rung up the ladder, the Model 3 Long Range, adds $10,000 to the MSRP but includes 310 miles of range, a quicker, 4.4-second 0-60 mph dash and a top speed that's 5 mph faster. More importantly, perhaps, it also includes dual-motor, all-wheel drive hardware and the nicer Premium Interior that includes a 14-speaker audio system and Premium Connectivity. The latter includes satellite mapping with live traffic, streaming audio and an internet browser. This trim also includes a nicer center console with additional charging, plus LED fog lamps.

Still itching for more? Then you'll want the Model 3 Performance trim with its 3.2-second 0-60 time and 162-mph top speed for $59,900. However, when fully loaded, the Performance trim comes within earshot of $70,000, putting such Model 3 sedans in a very different class of vehicle altogether.

Model

Driveline

Range (miles)

0-60 accel. (sec)

Top speed (mph)

Base price

Model 3 Standard Range Plus

Single motor, rear-wheel drive

240

5.3

140

$39,900

Model 3 Long Range

Dual motor, all-wheel drive

310

4.4

145

$49,900

Model 3 Performance

Dual motor, all-wheel drive

310

3.2

162

$59,000

Recommended configuration

In my reviews, I typically recommend that people try to add as many options as possible, but my approach with the Model 3 is a little more conservative. I think 240 miles of range is good enough for most people, so I'd start with the Standard Range Plus car unless all-wheel drive is required.

Autopilot is now standard on all Model 3 trims. In addition to the expected blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, forward- and side-collision warning, Autopilot adds adaptive cruise control with lane-centering.

It's important to note that a lot of people confuse Autopilot with autonomous driving technology. They're not the same -- there still are no self-driving cars on the market today. Autopilot is a hands-on SAE Level 2 system, albeit a very good one when operated correctly.

Tesla's optional so-called Full Self-Driving hardware is not without its critics.

Tesla

Next, if you can swing it, I'd consider spending another $6,000 for Tesla's "Full Self-Driving Capability," which includes Navigate on Autopilot. Your $6,000 also gets you automated parallel parking and Tesla's Summon feature. Again, according to Tesla, with Summon, "Your parked car will come find you anywhere in a parking lot. Really." The website also says that later in 2019, the system will "recognize and respond to traffic lights and stop signs," while also allowing "automatic driving on city streets."

A note about that last bit: CEO Elon Musk has promised that this pricy Full Self-Driving option will shortly enable full, hands-off autonomous driving via over-the-air update. However, most industry experts and critics take serious exception to this assertion. That's largely because the system doesn't make use of technology like lidar and extensive 3D mapping, two features nearly all experts consider to be cornerstones of future self-driving tech. If you value some of FSD's other features, including Navigate on Autopilot and auto parking, then it's probably worth spending the extra $6,000. If you're seeking true full autonomous driving capability, the jury remains very much out on the viability of this system, so you might want to save your money.

Yep, the Model 3 has two trunks!

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Moving inside, the $1,000 black-and-white interior is nice, but the all-black cabin looks just fine, while still offering the same features of the multi-color cockpit. It's also worth noting that the Long Range Model 3 is the most affordable trim to offer the Premium Interior with the 14-speaker upscale audio system.

Next, I would spring for the 19-inch sport wheels. They're $1,500 dearer than the 18-inch Aero wheels, but they go far in making the Model 3 pop. Finally, I'd order mine in black, because all four of the Model 3's other available colors cost a whopping $1,000 to $2,000 extra.

As configured, that keeps me a few thousand under my $50,000 buyer's remorse threshold. Furthermore, considering the Model 3's features and performance at that sub-$50,000 price, it gives the coveted German compact luxury sedans like the 2017 Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class a run for their money.

Naturally, if you live in an area that sees real winters, you'll likely want to pony up for one of the all-wheel drive trims that start at $49,900.

Buy the Tesla Model 3 if:
You want a game-changing, compact luxury sport sedan that's all the rage and is also really fun to drive.

Don't buy the Tesla Model 3 if:
You don't have easy access to Level 2 charging and you live away from convenient Superchargers.

Our in-depth reviews:

Also consider:

Tesla Model S

When the Tesla Model S arrived in 2012, the midsize five-door signaled to the world that Elon Musk and Tesla weren't just flashes in the pan, they were here for the long haul. Now on the market for almost seven years, the Model S received a visual update in 2016, but is overdue for a complete redesign. Of course, that will have to wait until the company can iron out the kinks with Model 3 production, not to mention launching the Model 3-based Model Y crossover, the Tesla Semi and eventually, the second-gen Tesla Roadster.

Over the past year, Tesla has ceased production of its lower-cost, smaller-battery, rear-drive Model S variants, which ultimately gives the product line more breathing room between itself and the Model 3. In 2019, the Model S continues to soldier on with its simplified lineup, but it can still travel farther on a single charge than any EV on sale today.

Model

Driveline

Range (miles)

0-60 accel. (sec)

Top speed (mph)

Base price

Model S Standard Range

Dual motor, all-wheel drive

285

4.0

155

$75,000

Model S Long Range

Dual motor, all-wheel drive

370

3.7

155

$85,000

Model S Performance

Dual motor, all-wheel drive

345

3.0

163

$96,000

Model S Performance with Ludicrous Mode

Dual motor, all-wheel drive

345

2.4

163

$116,000

Recommended configuration

If I was moderately conservative with the Model 3, I am much more penny-pinching with the Model S, but that's really because the $79,000 base sedan offers most of what the average premium EV buyer needs at a lower monthly payment.

For a car starting at $75,000 (plus $1,200 delivery), the aging Model S has an interior befitting a vehicle priced in the upper $40,000 range. Therefore, I think it's worth $1,500 to upgrade to the somewhat more expensive-looking Black and White or Cream interiors. But even if you want to save your $1,500, you'll still get the same features the upgraded interiors have.

Those accoutrements include HEPA air filtration that can block ambient viruses, activated carbon filters that, according to Tesla's website, "Block offensive odors, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon exhaust fumes from polluting cabin air," a premium audio system with satellite radio, heated seats for all occupants and a heated steering wheel.

Tesla's mainstay Model S received a grille-less visual freshening in 2016.

Manuel Carrillo III/Roadshow

Standard advanced driver-assistance features include Autopilot's automatic emergency braking, as well as forward- and side-collision warning. However, I'd still consider splurging for the $6,000 "Full Self-Driving Capability" option, which includes Navigate on Autopilot -- automated lane changes, auto parking and on-ramp to off-ramp semi-automated driving. This hands-on driver assist system can accept over-the-air updates to further enhance these systems as technology progresses.

That all adds up to $83,700 delivered. If you want to go nuts on Model S options, you'll be staring down the barrel a nearly $130,000 MSRP. One note of caution, however: Despite the Model S being in production for a long time, this is still a startup automaker, so as with the Model 3, reliability and build quality are normally nowhere near typical Honda or Toyota levels. I tested a fully loaded Model S last June, and after only three days, the electronically retracting and deploying driver's door handle decided to stick in its deployed position.

Buy the Tesla Model S if:
You like high performance and green credentials.

Don't buy the Tesla Model S if:
You demand a top-quality interior including $100,000 car creature comforts like ventilated and massaging seats.

Our in-depth reviews:

Also consider:

Tesla Model X

In 2015, Tesla entered the premium crossover segment with its Model X. Because it hatched from the mind of Elon, though, the Model X isn't just some ordinary electrified crossover. It has differentiating features like Falcon Wing doors, and you can even get it to dance for you. While the Model X doesn't offer the same level of light off-roading capability as similar-sized, three-row crossover SUVs, this vehicle, with its 5,000-pound towing capacity, can certainly trailer with most of those soft-roaders... at least for a short distance (towing has a disproportionately deleterious effect on electric range).

Like the Model S on which the Model X is based, Tesla now only sells higher-range, dual-motor versions of the crossover. Despite the resultant elevated starting MSRP, overall pricing on the Model X has come down in the past couple of years. Back in 2017, a fully optioned Tesla Model X commanded an eye-watering $177,000. Today, with all the bells and whistles, you're looking at $142,000 -- a saving of $35,000. The Tesla Model S and Model 3 have also seen similar price drops.

Model

Driveline

Range (miles)

0-60 accel. (sec)

Top speed (mph)

Price

Model X Standard Range

Dual motor, all-wheel drive

255

4.6

155 

$81,000

Model X Long Range

Dual motor, all-wheel drive

325

4.4

155

$91,000

Model X Performance

Dual motor, all-wheel drive

305

3.4

163

$102,000

Model X Performance with Ludicrous Mode

Dual motor, all-wheel drive

305

2.7

163

$122,000

Recommended configuration

Now that we know you can easily blow past $140,000 for a Model X, let's option one with the stuff you want, but at a price that doesn't translate to "myocardial infarction." First, we'll start out with the base Model X at $81,000. The standard version still offers plenty of range and performance to impress you and all your friends.

The more upscale-looking black-and-white or cream interior upgrades are a comparable drop in the bucket at $1,500. I'd go for black and white, but even if you want to save money with the standard black cabin, you'll still get all the same features as the upgraded-look interiors. That means the self-presenting front door, HEPA and carbon filtration, premium audio system with satellite radio, all-occupant heated seats and a heated steering wheel.

The Model X features an optional third row of seats.

Tesla

A five-seat interior is standard, while the seven-seat cabin costs $3,000. That's a lot for a third row, but that seating configuration row adds a lot of possibilities, so yes to that. Funny enough, the six-seat trim with second-row captain's chairs costs twice as much! No, no, no to that!

Add on $6,000 for the previously explained Full Self-Driving Capability pack if you want. As optioned, then, you're looking at $91,500 to be a cool kid in a Tesla Model X, while still hanging onto a grip of cash.

Buy the Tesla Model X if:
You want the first -- and quickest -- all-electric, seven-seat crossover you can buy.

Don't buy the Tesla Model X if:
You don't need the extra room over the Model S. Also, Falcon Wing doors are cool as all get out (pardon the pun), but they've also been a major reliability pain point and have proven to be hard to open in the event of a power failure.

Our in-depth reviews:


Also consider:

Still on the fence about buying a Tesla? Here's one more nugget worth considering: Unlike nearly every other automaker out there, Tesla allows unsatisfied customers to return their new cars within seven days (or 1,000 miles) for a full refund. That's a pretty reassuring offer.

With contribution from Steven Ewing.