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Tesla Model 3 first drive: Far from perfect, but mightily impressive

by Danny Zepeda | February 17, 2018February 17, 2018 10:30 am PDT

One of the most intriguing cars to come out in the past decade is Tesla’s Model 3. It is the realization of Tesla’s Master Plan, a plan that included building a limited supercar and two luxury EVs. The profit of those cars led to the creation of an affordable EV accessible to the masses.

The Model 3 has piqued my interest like few other cars have. It offers something completely different from any other car available. After driving it for a few days, I came away with many thoughts, but one stuck with me: the Model 3 is not the perfect car we’ve been led to believe.

The Model 3 starts at $35,000 with the base trim, and it goes down if you take into account EV rebates. In California, for example, you can get $10,000 off through federal and state rebates. That’s much more affordable than previous Teslas and as competitive as other EVs in its segment (mainly the Chevy Bolt EV). That gets you the bare minimum and a long wait time because Tesla is not delivering the base Model 3 until later this year.

If you want to drive one now, you’ll have to buy one that eclipses the cheap price Tesla is advertising. The Model 3 I drove is the Long Range variant with Premium Package and Enhance Autopilot, bringing the price to $57,000. Here’s how the price breaks down:

  • Base price: $35,000
  • Long range: $5,000
  • Premium Package: $9,000
  • Enhanced Autopilot: $5,000
  • Full Self-Driving Capability: $3,000

The Long Range option bumps the range from 220 miles to 310 miles; the premium package adds opulent touches like leather seats, panoramic sunroof and open-pore wood trim; and the autopilot and driving upgrades deliver a fully-fleshed out Auto Pilot experience.

Looks good, not beautiful

The only upgrade the unit we tested didn’t come with was the premium 19-inch wheels (that would have been an additional $1,500). Instead, it came with the stock 18-inch Aero wheels. These maximize the aerodynamics of the car, as you can tell from the name, with the use of a distinctive matte black hubcaps. You can remove the hubcaps, revealing a surprisingly good-looking 10-spoke wheel, but you’ll be sacrificing some range (20 miles according to Tesla).

I wouldn’t call the Model 3 beautiful, but I will say it looks good. It’s what I’d imagine a miniature Model S would look like. Tesla’s signature contour design with swooping lines and aerodynamic finishes are present, adding to the allure of the car: the front end is completely seamless and the door handles are flush.

There is no front grille, not even the outline of an opening that the Model S and X come with, thus giving the car its most striking characteristic. I like the look, but it won’t appeal to everyone. It looks better with certain colors. The black color our review unit donned is not one of those colors. In fact, the black color is my least favorite option; it hides the design of the Model 3, losing the lines that makes the car so unique.

The interior of the future

Tesla took a drastic approach with the interior of the Model 3. It did away with the traditional dashboard from the Model S and Model X and started from scratch. Gone are the two main displays and normal array of A/C vents, and in their place is a 15-inch horizontal display and a single long A/C vent that runs across the dashboard.

This is the most idiosyncratic detail of the Model 3.

The 15-inch panel displays all of the information you will need and controls just about everything in the car, save for the dome lights and hazard light button. The left side displays the information that would normally be found in an instrument cluster—gear, speed, range and so forth—and the right side of the displays the radio, phone and navigation.

You have to be in the car to understand just how odd it is to control everything through the display. Everything from adjusting the side mirrors and steering wheel to opening the glove compartment is done through the screen. It’s so forward-thinking you can’t help but feel uncomfortable with it. The first thought I had was, “What happens if the display fails?” Absolutely nothing because you won’t be able to do anything with the car otherwise.

One of the most endearing details of the car is how you adjust the side mirrors and steering wheel. You activate the function through the display, but the action is done through the two round knobs on the steering wheel. It’s one of those minor details that blows your mind.

While a smaller car, the Model 3 still offers a lot of space. There’s plenty of leg room and head space as well. If you have kids, fitting two car seats in the rear is doable, although it’ll be a little tight.

The front and rear trunks are quite spacious. Both are much smaller than what you’d get with the Model S; only a decent sized duffle bag will fit in the front. In the rear, there’s plenty of space to stash luggage or groceries with the available 15 cubic feet of room.

Overall, Tesla did a very good job with the design of the Model 3. But not all is good news with the new EV.

The most disappointing aspect of the Model 3 is the fit and finish, or lack thereof. It feels like an early prototype in dire need of refinement. Some nooks and crannies were lazily painted and the seal trim on the door feels and looks cheap. It’s not something you’ll notice if you don’t look for it, but once you do, it’s impossible to ignore.

This is likely because Tesla is so backlogged on Model 3 orders, it is affecting quality control. The company is trying to pump out too many cars. These issues are unacceptable. If you are considering pre-ordering a Model 3, it’s something to considering.

Drive it and it’ll win you over

All the criticism of the Model 3 goes out the window when you drive it. I’ve driven the Model S before, and when I got into the driver’s seat of the Model 3, I thought I knew what to expect.

The Model 3 does not drive like the S or X; it drives better. The reason for that is simple: it’s a smaller car. The instant torque from the electric motor revs up and takes the miniaturized Tesla zipping through streets, igniting a joy in your soul.

While not as fast as its bigger brothers, the size and weight advantage make the Model 3 feel like it drives and handles better. I didn’t get a chance to take it out on any winding roads, but I still put it through its paces, and it delivered.

Tesla says the Long Range version goes from 0 to 60 in 5.1 seconds and I believe it—the Model 3 flies. As for the 140 mile per hour top speed, I wasn’t able to confirm. I did get close to cracking triple digits, but there wasn’t enough road to go the whole way.

Getting a regular range model with the 0 to 60 speed of 5.6 seconds and top speed of 130 miles per hour should be plenty powerful for most people. In fact, I believe that’s the barometer the Model 3 should be measured against because that’s the most accessible version. Getting performance like that for $35,000 is incredible.

Driving with the car display in the middle wasn’t much of an issue for me. It is quite odd and I never truly got used to it, but it’s something you just deal with. Still, I believe Tesla omitted the instrument cluster as a cost saving measure rather than it pushing us into the future, even though Elon Musk argues otherwise.

Auto Pilot works the same way it does on the other Tesla cars. You push the gear selector all the way down twice and the car starts driving itself. It does a good job, but I never really trusted it even on empty roads.

Even if you are a car person who loves loud gasoline engines, the Model 3 will sway you. It might not change your mind, but it will change the way you look at EVs. Its compact size and powerful performance, coupled with affordability, set it apart. Sure, it’s still going through some production pains and its futuristic interior might not be for everyone, but after driving the Model 3, all of those worries fade away.

The $57,000 version of the Model 3 is not worth it given the competition of luxury cars it’s up against. But the $35,000 Model 3 is definitely worth a look.

I vowed never to purchase another brand new car in my lifetime, but the Model 3 is dangerously close to changing my mind. I suspect it’ll do something similar to everyone who drives it.


Danny Zepeda

Born and raised in Southern California, Danny grew up on a steady diet Pixar, Star Wars and Steven Spielberg movies. Unbeknownst to him, this was...

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