Tesla Model 3: First impressions

posted by Jeff | Saturday, June 9, 2018, 8:40 PM | comments: 5

Yesterday we took delivery of the Tesla Model 3 that we reserved more than two years ago. (We also sold the Model S the day before.) We were eligible to order one fairly early in the ramp up, because we were previous owners, but with the delays in selling our previous house, we had to wait until everything settled so we could shift the money around and clear the title on the previous car to sell it. Unlike the Model S, which we had a chance to test drive, we never drove a Model 3 before we took delivery. Heck, the first one we got to see up close was just two months ago when my BFF and her husband got theirs. That's all fairly absurd for a big ticket item like this, but when the first reviews came out late last year, and they were largely along the lines of "drives like a Tesla," I wasn't horribly worried about it.

A lot has changed in three years. After being enamored with the Nissan Leaf we leased (and still have), we labored over the decision to buy the Model S but we were so into going all-EV. Tesla has since sold around 200,000 cars, closing in on the 250k sunset of federal tax credits, and most of those cars were the $75k+ Model S and X. The data and reporting seems to suggest that a lot of people buying those were like us, and not ordinarily customers who would spend that much on a car if it wasn't an EV. The promise of the Model 3 was to open that market further by introducing a $35k car, but Tesla has only sold it so far with the premium upgrades and larger battery, meaning there was just one configuration: The $50k version. You pay an extra grand for anything not black, and may buy bigger wheels, but that's it. The reasoning makes sense, in that having one configuration means a simpler manufacturing ramp up, which they need because of the approximate 400k reservations they need to build. Because of the tax credit, there's little reason to not buy now and save that $7,500. The 2009 version of me would still find a price tag of $42,500 for a car absurd, but after justifying the Model S, to be a part of the progress and science of EV's, this one was way easier. Three years of not going to gas stations is a lifestyle change you don't reverse.

Our Model S was an amazing car that performed flawlessly, and we covered a lot of ground from North Carolina to Florida in it. My only serious complaint about it was that it was too damn big. I think I just got comfortable parking it after three years! The Model 3 is smaller and about a thousand pounds lighter, and you can feel it. Having driven Corollas and Prii for 18 years, I prefer smaller cars. The 3 still isn't a compact, but it's a really great size for my perferences. It has a much smaller "butt" than the S.

The driving feel is very similar to the Model S, in that you have the always available torque and the regenerative braking. You don't need the brakes beyond the final stop. The cornering feels different because this one isn't AWD like the other one. It doesn't slip in a turn, but accelerating out of the turn feels less controlled. That's all new to me, because I've never had a rear-wheel drive car. I've only done a launch twice, and the first felt weaker because it was slightly up hill. The second felt "different" than the S, presumably also because it's not AWD. On paper, the 70D did 0-60 in 5.2 seconds, and the 3 does it in 5.1, though some measured track times have reported 4.6. Considering the car only had 9 miles when we picked it up, I bet the battery has no calibration or algorithmic "break in" that I'm sure it has to do.

The design is a similar to the S, though with a shorter body, the cargo area is not as large. They ditched the motorized door handles, which reduces cost and number of things that can break, but the new ones are still flush with the body, and they trigger an electronic release. Opening from the inside is push-button, though a well disguised release lever is also there. The mirrors still fold in when you exit the car, but annoyingly, they only tilt down but not in when going in reverse. There is no sun roof, another "downgrade" for us, but I learned that opening it in Florida mostly leads to sunburn. Still, it's glass, front to back, and it's part of the reason the back seat seems so enormous. The front of the car is similar to the newer S cars and the X, and I like it, though I came to like the "black bubble" of the "old" S as well. The wheels are alloy, but have covers that make them more aerodynamic and add significant miles to the range. They're nerdy, and I like it.

The inside of the car is super comfortable. It retains all of the adjustments we had on the S that pair with a driver profile, so no matter who drives it, I can always get the seat and steering wheel to exactly where I had them. They added a seat belt height adjustment, which I like because I felt the S was a little high. They're using a fake seat leather now that is super convincing, but no alcantara on the headliner, only a section of the doors. The back seat is pretty roomy for average size adults, and they added USB outlets on the back of the center console. You also get three individual heated seat zones, and all have weight sensors to nag you about unbuckled people there. The doors and seat backs have pockets. The only button not on the touch screen is the hazard lights, which is overhead between the lights. The mirrors on the sun visors are covered by an iPad-like magnetic cover that, when pulled down, turns on lights.

The trunk is a little smaller, and it's not a true hatch like the S. The only thing I can think of that I've put back there in the last three years that wouldn't fit is the 4-foot beanbag chair I moved a few times. It still has plenty of room for suitcases, and the well is slightly larger than before, while the side cubby to stow your cable no longer empties into the well. The frunk is just slightly bigger than what we had before, but I suspect the area behind it is just open space where the forthcoming AWD model will have its second motor. Again, consistency in manufacturing keeps the cost down.

The center console gets all its own discussion, because Tesla finally figured out how to balance functional space with minimalist appearance. Our S just had a big pit there with some rubber strips to keep stuff from moving around, while individually sliding armrests slid back to reveal cupholders in a totally awkward place. Now there's a substantial single armrest with storage under it, always available cupholders in the perfect spot, another pit covered by a door, and a door that reveals a no-look place to dock your phone, which is amazing. It shipped with one USB-C and one Apple Lightning connector, but I've already ordered a replacement so we'll have two USB-C connectors in there for our Pixel 2 phones. The whole thing is really elegant, though the top surface is that "piano black" surface that I'm not fond of. There are some nice 3M wrap products I may consider to cover it.

The Model 3 has no keys or fobs, and instead uses either your phone or a card to unlock and start the car. The card works by holding it up to the B pillar, then placing it near the cupholders to start. Otherwise, it uses the Bluetooth of your phone, along with the app, to unlock as you approach and lock as you walk away, and operate the car when you're inside of it. This generally works pretty well, but the Android version (on the Pixel using the Oreo version of the OS, at least) requires that you make a tweak to the power settings so the OS doesn't try to "optimize" energy usage, otherwise it doesn't work until you unlock the phone and start the app. I was concerned about how this might affect phone battery life, because you can never really get away from the car while in the house, but the OS reports only 1% usage of Bluetooth throughout the day.

The controls have been a source of controversy since the start, but software updates have mitigated some of those complains. The S and X used stalks for shifting, turn signal, cruise/autopilot and windshield wipers. The latter two are gone. The wiper control is now on the touch screen, if in fact you want to pull them out of auto at all (we'll see how that goes... the S could mostly work that way). I think the muscle memory will build fast enough, but it's still a strange choice and potential safety issue. The cruise/autopilot is less of a big deal. Tap the shifter down once to engage cruise control, twice for autosteer. Once there, the right dial on the steering wheel scrolls up and down to adjust speed, left and right to change adaptive distance to the car in front of you. What I don't like is that the right dial on the S controled fan speed for climate, which I liked, but maybe the auto on that is better too.

The rest of the setting and control tweaks are organized similarly in menus to the S, though some things are arbitrarily hidden behind a settings menu opened by a gear in the upper right. Because of the single center screen, the left third always shows what used to be in the dash. As a former Prius driver, having the speed there doesn't bother me. The rest of the screen defaults to navigation, though you can pull up the read camera any time, or slide up the audio player from the bottom. The bottom still has "hard" screen buttons for temperature, front seat heaters and front and rear defrosters.

If there's anything totally weird, it's the dash vents that you can't see. There is a UI you can open up to change how they blow on you through the series of slits and channels, but honestly they still don't make a lot of sense to me, and I can't tell that it's even changing outside of the sound. Will have to play with those more.

The navigation isn't that different, but the tweak that I do like is that all of the background colors, including the bodies of water, are shades of gray. That leaves a red arrow for you, blue lines for direction, and the usual thin lines for traffic. It's subtle, but it really does focus on the visually important data.

The radio is a sore spot, if only because it doesn't do SiriusXM. The built-in streaming services are OK, but it's not the same. I've always liked AltNation and Lithium, with DJ's. It was annoying in the S, too, because you had to get the sunroof to have the antenna for XM. On the plus side, the sound is really, really good. The subwoofer is clean and the speakers really blend in.

Even with the 240 mile range of our S, we never had range anxiety. 310 is absurd even. We set it to charge at 80%, and on Diana's first commute, she arrived with around 220. In practical road tripping terms, the high range means we can not only visit either Florida coast, but have ton of cushion. Drives up the Atlantic mean skipping superchargers. And remember, these are the edge cases, since 99% of your usual driving is local, so you leave the house with a "full tank" every day.

The charging at home still puts on about 30 miles of range per hour, even though it only draws 32 amps instead of 40, like the S. The battery is 75 kWh, so to get 310 miles is a huge leap in efficiency compared to our S, which did 240 miles on 70 kWh. I'm pretty excited about how this may all play out once we have the solar installed, because I think in the summer we may avoid any grid draw if I'm getting home at a decent time. Our average price for electricity right now is 13 cents per kWh, but only because everything over the first 1,000 per month is more expensive, and we're flirting with 2,000 per month now (because air conditioning). This car doesn't have the "free" supercharger access that the S did, and Florida chargers are priced at 22 cents, far about the retail price, or even a lot of the Chargepoint spots that do 12 cents. It's still way cheaper than gas, and public charging is still the 1% scenario for charging.

Overall, the Model 3 strikes me as just as capable as the S, though for performance and wet road driving, I still wouldn't mind having the AWD version instead. It's mostly a silly want, not really a need, but it won't reduce my enjoyment of the car. We're looking for an excuse for a little road trippin'.


David Nye, June 11, 2018, 12:37 AM #

Great review, we are hanging out for our Model 3- and will be for a long time yet, as we are waiting for right hand drive version in Australia. I had a loaner Model S for a weekend and absolutely loved it, but just found it too big, and yes, ore money than I really wanted to spend. The Model 3 will be perfect, and I’ve read lots of reviews and thank you for yours as well.
Cheers from downunder.

Michael Young, June 11, 2018, 12:37 AM #

I'm glad you mentioned Sirius radio. I love the various music stations and Stern. Do you stream Sirius through the app? How are your results?

Jeff, June 11, 2018, 10:52 AM #

My data usage would get expensive if I streamed it from the phone, so I don't.

Dave Mac, June 11, 2018, 11:36 PM #

To speak to the air vents, turn off the auto setting and put the fan to max. It should be clearly evident where the air is directed, whether centered or split.

Jeff, June 12, 2018, 10:48 PM #

Yeah, I eventually figured that out.

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