Tesla's Model 3 is the most hotly anticipated car in history. And while it exceeds even our lofty expectations in many ways, it also has some notable flaws.
Here's the electric car you've been waiting for. Or, rather, here's the one the somewhere north of 500,000 of you who put down $1,000 to preorder one, anyway. We're finally getting a chance to try out the 2018 Tesla Model 3, the long-awaited solution to Tesla 's biggest problem: It sells cars that most people can't afford. The Model 3 is thus poised to shift Tesla down from hallowed, aspirational startup to legitimate, skeptic-free corporate success.
That's a lot to demand from a single, $35,000 car. While my first impressions behind the wheel of the Model 3 made it clear the car was going to be good, there's one problem already: The car you're looking at actually costs $56,500. That mean it's no longer a competitor of the $37,495 Chevrolet Bolt EV and instead has been elevated up into the range of a nicely equipped BMW 3 Series -- or even a base 530e. How? Let's start there.
Typically at Roadshow we don't talk about configuration until the end of a review. But since price is such a huge part of the Model 3's allure, I'm going to get it out of the way right up front.
The Tesla Model 3 theoretically starts at $35,000. For that you'll get a car with a healthy 220 miles of range and a 0-60 time of around 5.6 seconds. That performance is on par with a $40,000 BMW 330i, and a few tenths quicker than the $45,600 BMW 330e hybrid. (And if you're unsure whether you're ready to go full-electric, check out our full guide on everything from hybrids to EVs.)
However, for now at least, you can only get the Model 3 Long Range, with its 310 miles of range, and that starts at $44,000. There's a good chance you'll want to add another $5,000 for the Premium Package, which adds modern necessities such as heated seats. Tesla's much-hyped Autopilot driver assistance package is a further $5,000, and if you want to add the future "full self-driving capacity," that'll be $3,000 more.
Add another $1,500 for the wheels and, finally, $1,000 to get the red multi-coat paint. On the car we tested, it adds up to a final sticker price of $56,500, plus a further $1,000 destination charge. Yes, you could get away for as little as $44,000 right now, but then you'd be rolling on a car with no heated seats, and when you're talking this much money... that just feels wrong.
If I were buying, I'd skip the paint and find my own wheels to save $2,500. I'd also take the gamble and leave off the future self-driving option, giving me a price of $54,000. Just for comparison's sake, a BMW 530e hybrid starts at $52,650.
After configuring and paying for the thing, an owner's first experience with a Model 3 will be unlocking it, and believe it or not that's a task requiring some explanation. When you take delivery of your Model 3 you won't receive a traditional, metal key or even a fancy wireless fob with squishy buttons like on the Model S and X. Instead, you get a pair of black, chrome-embossed cards that use the same RFID technology that many hotels use.
Just tap the card onto the B-pillar and, open sesame, the door unlocks. Tap it again on the center console to enable the ignition. It sounds simple enough, and indeed it is, but if you're thinking this is decidedly less convenient than having the car recognize a wireless key fob as you approach, you're not wrong. Thankfully, there's another way to open the car.
It takes just a few taps to pair the Model 3 to an Apple or Android phone. Then the car will recognize you as you approach, unlocking whenever you get near and, optionally, locking again as you depart. You can also launch the Tesla app on your phone to unlock the trunks or flash the lights, and while that's more cumbersome than pushing a dedicated button on a key fob, it does at least mean one less thing to carry everywhere. One less thing to lose, too.
In practice this works pretty well, but on a few occasions I was left standing by the car for a couple of awkward seconds waiting for it to unlock itself. There seems to be some lag in the system that hopefully Tesla will tune out in a future OTA update.
Since it's a Tesla, you can control a whole lot more through the app too -- including preconditioning the temperature and checking charging status. But, crucially, you can't use the summon feature that wirelessly and autonomously pulls the Model S or X out of a parking spot. That, I'm told, will come later.
Once you figure out how to unlock the thing, you have access to the most distinctive interior I've ever seen in a modern car intended for the masses. It's truly unlike anything else in production today. The dashboard is a single unit with only slightly more curves than a straight edge yet all the presence of a Eames design. It's dominated, at least on the car I tested, by a strip of raw wood just a few shades darker than blonde. And it's punctuated beneath by a line of brushed metal.
There are no vents -- at least not in the traditional sense -- no gauge cluster and, ultimately, no distractions. Air flows from a seam that runs the length of the dash and from various other vents hidden in the cabin. The look is stark and refreshing and, combined with the openness provided by the glass roof, it's truly a remarkable-looking place. It's so zen that I half expected a whiff of incense the first time I sat down.
And it doesn't just look good. There's plenty of headroom, even in the back, and everywhere is festooned with storage cubbies and cupholders, a big improvement over the Model S. There's even a dedicated phone-charging area you can set up with your choice of USB Type-C or Lightning connector, though sadly my Note 8 with a slim case wouldn't fit. A good-sized trunk lurks behind the 60/40 split folding seats. And a petite "frunk" (Tesla's name for a front trunk) in the nose provides a little more space. The Model 3 offers 15 total cubic feet of cargo capacity, about half that of the Model S, but more than a BMW 3 Series.
And that it does so in such a beautiful space is admirable, but that aesthetic appeal and purity comes at a cost, and that cost is usability. Things that you can simply and easily do directly in a normal car, or even in a Model S or X, here require a series of taps on the new, 15-inch touchscreen.
Tesla turned the world on its ear when it stuck a massive, 17-inch display vertically in the dash of the Model S, fitting the same basic system in the Model X. Now the company's moved to a traditional landscape orientation, and I think that's a shame. The vertical orientation quickly became my preference, giving more view down the road for navigation or, indeed, space for multiple apps running one atop the other.
The reasoning for the change here is clear. Since the Model 3 doesn't have a traditional gauge cluster behind the steering wheel, the only place for a speedometer is on that central display. By positioning it high and in landscape, the speedo actually isn't too far from your direct line of sight -- lower and portrait, like on the S or X, and it'd be a glance too far.
In general driving I actually don't mind this positioning one bit. It takes a bit of time, but you quickly become used to glancing down-right instead of just down to check your speed. However, it's when you need to interact with the display that things start to go wrong.
Roughly the left quarter of the display is occupied by a large vertical section showing the speed up top, Autopilot status below (assuming the car is so equipped) and, on the bottom, a series of cards you can swipe through. The leftmost card has a series of shortcuts for things such as showing the rear-view camera, displaying the charging interface, toggling voice control and jumping to the wiper page.
A swipe to the next card brings up the wiper controls, which is where the first issue lies. Unlike the vast majority of cars on the road, the Model 3 lacks a stalk or indeed any physical controls to manipulate the wipers, beyond a single button on the headlight stalk on the left. Push the button for a single sweep of the wipers, hold it to spray the wash. If you want to actually turn on the wipers you need to either swipe or tap your way into the wiper interface and toggle them there.
Now, the Model 3 has rain-sensing wipers and they work pretty well, but during the three days I tested the car in California I had to manually engage the wipers on at least three separate occasions because they didn't toggle themselves, or they weren't going fast enough for my preference.
On one occasion I was making a (hands-free) phone call while driving through some heavy fog and mist. When you make a call, a fifth card appears to display phone controls. The mist was accumulating quickly enough on the windscreen that I wanted to turn on the wipers. To do that, I had to make three swipes and then a tap on the touchscreen. That's a very long time to take your eyes off the road when driving in the dark through fog. And since this is a touchscreen rather than a physical control, it's much harder to build muscle memory.
After 60 seconds in a normal car you'll be able to toggle the wipers blindfolded. On my third day in the Model 3 I still had to look down at that screen.
And then there's the adaptive cruise control. In addition to losing physical wiper controls, somewhere along the line the Model 3 also misplaced the cruise control stalk featured on the Model S and X. That single stalk, which makes it easy and intuitive to change vehicle speed and follow distance, is now replaced by a clumsy mix of physical and touchscreen controls.
Press downward on the shift lever while in motion to turn on cruise control, or double-press to engage Autopilot and Autosteer. At this point, if you want to change your speed you then need to go over to the touchscreen and tap on a very small plus to increase speed, or minus to decrease. Hold either one to change your speed in 5 mph increments.
If that sounds unfortunate, it gets worse. To change the vehicle follow distance you actually need to go into the vehicle settings, then select the Autopilot submenu and tap another set of tiny plus and minus icons. At first I thought this was no big deal. How often do you really change follow distance? As I would quickly learn, the answer is more often than I thought. If I'm driving in heavy congestion then I want to be quite close to the car ahead, but if I'm in lighter traffic I prefer to be further away. Similarly, if road conditions change during the drive I quite often found myself wanting to adjust follow distance.
Frankly I'd never realized how often I tweak this control because, on a normal car, it's so easy to do I don't even think about it. Here, having to reach again to the touchscreen and look away from the road, made it a chore. Having to dig into a submenu? That, frankly, is borderline dangerous, as is having to swipe three times just to get to the wiper controls.
I expressed my concerns to Tesla representatives, who were eager for feedback and indicated that changes are coming. I was told that the wiper control interface is continuing to evolve and that, in the future, the button that currently does a single wipe will somehow be expanded to actually enable the wipers (presumably through a series of taps). I was also directed to this Elon Musk tweet, where he indicates the car is actually still learning to better detect water in the future. Hopefully, it'll learn to detect fog too.
On the cruise control side, Tesla indicated that the right thumbwheel on the steering wheel will be repurposed to allow the changing of speed. As it stands, only the left thumbwheel is fully utilized, for adjusting volume, muting and changing tracks when listening to music.
Those changes will improve on the currently unsafe Model 3 interface, but they will not fix all that ails the car. Regardless of the motivation, deleting key physical controls on the Model 3 creates a user experience that is fundamentally less convenient and more cumbersome, all for the sake of removing a single, 3-inch stalk from the steering column.
There are other frustrations, too. The way the display pokes out of the dash means it infringes into the cabin space, to the point where two members of the Roadshow staff with long legs found it hitting their knees. It's also glossy, so glare can be an issue, and in bright sunlight it's a little hard to read -- never a problem with a proper, shrouded gauge cluster. Finally, while the software itself works well and the responsiveness seems to be improved over the Model S and X, neither Android Auto nor Apple CarPlay are available here, and skipping both is borderline inexcusable these days.
AM radio is also lacking, though FM now works. (It was absent in the earliest cars to ship.) Slacker and TuneIn are both integrated in the system, and Bluetooth A2DP streaming from your phone is supported, but you'll find no 3.5mm line-in.
Thank goodness you'll spend most of your time in a Model 3 looking forward through the expansive windscreen and not down at the dashboard, because this car is a joy to drive. Initial acceleration off the line shows that this is a quick car -- not Ludicrous quick by any means, but far more responsive than a Chevy Bolt EV -- or indeed, just about anything electric short of a Model S. It's more than capable of putting a smile on your face at every stop light.
The Model 3 jets away with barely a whir from its electric drivetrain, a silent rush of torque that, in concert with the minimalist interior, makes motoring down the highway a calming experience. It also gives you more opportunity to appreciate the sound system, which more than lives up to what you'd expect in a car costing in excess of $50,000.
But when the road gets twisty and you decide to have a little more fun, the Model 3 continues to engage. Its steering is tight and direct and the handling sharp. This is a smaller, lighter car than the Model S and it shows. While the Model S is good fun on fast, flowing turns, the Model 3 keeps its composure on much tighter bends, its rear end squirming a bit when accelerating hard out of them.
It straddles the fine line between engaging and composed, and while the ride quality here isn't quite up to what you'd find from a comparable BMW, it does make for a more engaging drive.
Be aware that if you get too engaged you may find yourself burning through that battery charge. And, unlike the earlier Model S and X, Supercharging doesn't come free with the Model 3. Rates will vary depending on where you're charging, but in rural California I paid less than $10 for a nearly full charge. That surely beats paying for a tank of gas.
Supercharging is fairly quick -- a 50 percent charge takes just 20 minutes -- but if you need that second half you could be there another hour or more.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the build quality on our test car was quite good, with no rogue squeaks or rattles. A few panels were a millimeter or two askew from what I'd expect from a car at this price, and some of the interior stitching left a bit to be desired as well. But overall this Model 3 looked miles better than the earlier production examples of the Model X. I was also able to scope out another Model 3 waiting for delivery and it appeared to be of a similar quality.
Oh, dear readers, this was a tough one to write. The anticipation around the Model 3 is unlike anything I've ever seen in the automotive world. And in so many ways it lives up to the hype. The look, the feel, the driving dynamics, the performance and even the range all point to a car that delivers on all its many promises -- if not on that $35,000 price tag just yet.
But as it stands now, the core basics of interacting with the car are broken enough that it's impossible to recommend without caveat. I have no doubt that Tesla engineers are, right this moment, working furiously to make interface tweaks and address these more serious concerns. But that they're having to scramble to try to make up for the senseless deletion of a few key controls is disappointing.
Some will surely liken this to Apple deleting the headphone jack on the iPhone: That was a relatively minor inconvenience and most people quickly moved on. The difference here is that the Model 3's minor inconveniences mean taking your eyes off the road. I can get behind decisions made in the name of aesthetics and design purity but not when balanced against safety.
We're left with a phenomenal machine sporting some key rough spots that will, over time, receive a whole lot of OTA polish. The annals of automotive history are filled with truly great cars that, if anything, were made even greater by their foibles. Perhaps history will look back on the Model 3 in that same way. For now, though, Tesla needs to just throw a cruise-control stalk and a wiper switch on there already and let us all enjoy this car without reservation.
By the way, if you need a little help deciding whether the 3 is the right Tesla for you, if maybe you're better off with a Model S or Model X, check out our new Tesla buying guide.