Tesla Model 3

Style

For the Model 3, Tesla translated the sleek design language of the award-winning Model S into a smaller format—about the size of a BMW 3-Series. It’s well-proportioned and elegant. The Model 3 keeps a fastback profile while replacing the liftgate with a conventional trunk lid. The absence of a traditional grille makes for a clean front-facing design, although some critics believe the front fascia falls too abruptly from the hood.

Tesla fans will immediately notice the car from the brand’s finer design features, like its unusual flush exterior handles. Despite all the individual innovations—inside and out—the overall design pretty much blends with current trends and is not likely to attract attention on the road or grocery store parking lot.

Tesla Model 3

Most of the drama occurs on the inside. From the cabin, curved glass extends from the windshield all the way to the trunk. Inside, the expansive glass adds a panoramic sense of space that makes the small sedan seem bigger than it is. (The affordable model will have a metal roof.) The most radical design decision for the Model 3 is its dashboard and console configuration, which takes minimalism to a new level among mass-market consumer vehicles. The Model 3 has no instrument cluster and no climate control knobs. You won’t even find visible air vents. All controls and instrument gauges—including basic info like vehicle speed and changing the AC’s airflow—are located on the car’s sizeable horizontal touchscreen.

Given Tesla’s need to make a transition from a maker of niche luxury vehicles to a mass auto manufacturer, there has been great scrutiny placed on how well the Model 3s body panels align with one another. Critics are quick to point out wider-than-normal gaps. That may be true on some Model 3 cars, but those inconsistencies are likely to escape the notice of everyday drivers.

Performance

The Model 3 is one of the fastest cars in the compact class. The long-range 310-mile model being produced in 2018 accelerates to 60 mph in about five seconds—with the more affordable forthcoming 220-mile base version needing another half-second to reach that speed. As a rear-wheel-drive car from Tesla—a company that prides itself on demonstrating the maximum power output of electric powertrains—it stacks up well against gas-powered performance competitors like the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4.

Tesla Model 3

Due to its battery pack, the Model 3 weighs about 300 pounds more than a BMW 330i. Its low center of gravity and stiffness give it an edge on handling. As a smaller and lighter car than the Model S, it’s arguably Tesla’s most nimble car on the road. Reviewers give the Model 3 high marks for precise steering and tightly controlled road manners. (A higher-performance dual-motor all-wheel-drive configuration could be offered in the next year or two.)

Some reviewers have complained that the steering is numb and the braking is weak. Testing by Consumer Reports indicated a slow braking response—in fact, the organization said it was “far worse than any contemporary car.” A subsequent over-the-air update from Tesla improved the car’s braking distance by almost 20 feet, putting it back in line with competitive models. The Model 3 doesn’t provide the one-pedal driving experience—in which an EV’s regenerative braking brings the car quickly to a halt when you lift your foot off the accelerator pedal. You need to hit the brakes to come to a complete stop.

Performance options include a $5,000 self-driving feature. A single tap on the gear selector activates cruise control, and then a second tap activates lane-keeping. Go for the $8,000 option if you want the full allotment of sensors and cameras for full autonomy at some point in the future.

Efficiency/Range

Tesla is currently selling the version of the Model 3 with a 75 kilowatt-hour battery pack providing 310 miles of range. The more affordable 220-mile Model 3 with a 50-kWh pack is due in 2019. Either version will give way more daily range than average drivers need.

At 310 miles, the Model 3 provides more range than any other EV (except for the Model S). Moreover, with an official E.P.A. efficiency rating of 130 miles per gallon equivalent, it beats out the BMW i3, Nissan LEAF, and Chevy Bolt on efficiency. (Only the Hyundai Ioniq Electric is more efficient, with 136 MPGE.)

Tesla Model 3

Charging

For Model 3 owners with a $750 Tesla wall charger and 50-amperage capability at home, the car’s 16.5-kW onboard charger will add about 50 miles of range for every hour that it’s plugged in. That beats the 25 miles or so that most EV drivers experience from a standard charger (and about 40 amps of service).

With the not-yet-available affordable Model 3 providing 220 miles of driving range—and the average commuter traveling about 40 miles per day—most drivers will have plenty of energy reserve on a daily basis. The 310-mile version, of course, is even better. Either way, you will probably discover that you only need to charge every few days (unless you have a regular long commute).

In terms of long-distance highway trips, Tesla offers access to the about 500 Supercharger sites in the United States. These high-speed fast-chargers are capable of bringing a Model 3 battery pack to 80 percent of capacity in about 40 minutes. This opens up new possibilities for interstate travel for many EV drivers. Unfortunately, Tesla doesn’t offer use of the Superchargers to Model 3 owners for free. While rates vary according to location, you might think of charging costs via a Supercharger as being roughly equivalent to what people pay at the pumps. Charging at home is more likely to be about one-third of that cost—or about $1 per gallon equivalent. Of course, your mileage and cost may vary.

One of the advantages of having an EV with a big long-range battery is that it charges faster from empty. In other words, the rate of replenishment at a public fast-charger goes fastest when the battery is mostly out of charge. The rate starts to taper as electrons are increasingly squeezed into the cells. By the time the pack gets nearly full, the rate begins to crawl. So the best strategy is to arrive at a Supercharger with an almost empty big battery, and then unplug when it reaches close to 80-percent state-of-charge.

Passenger/Cargo Room

The Model 3 is a roomy five-seater—with more interior volume than most cars in its class. This is accomplished by the car’s lack of an engine and the placement of its large battery pack beneath the cabin floor. As with other EVs, Tesla moved the front seats closer to the nose of the car—adding leg room in the back. Still, it’s a compact vehicle so it won’t be as comfortable for relatively large rear passengers as the Model S or Model X. Some reviewers have complained about a noisy cabin, including wind noise and rattles from various loose components.

The rear trunk is relatively spacious for a compact. The space generously opens up when the rear seats are folded down. The front trunk—or frunk—is a fun feature, providing the means to quickly stow an extra duffel bag where most people expect to see an engine bay.

The user experience of getting in and out of the car, or in fact most common interior controls, is unusual. There’s no key. You use a credit-card shaped device, or a paired phone to open the doors and start up the vehicle.

The Model 3 has power-window switches, electronic door-release buttons, two control buttons on the steering wheel, and two column-mounted stalks for turn signals and shifting. Otherwise, there are no conventional gauges, knobs, or buttons. Instead, there’s just a horizontal floating 15-inch center-mounted touchscreen with well-organized graphics. While most functions are intuitive, it’s odd at first for many Model 3 drivers to have a dark space in front of the steering wheel. The need to glance to the right for basic vehicle info including speed is also unaccustomed. Avoiding distraction from the road while pinching and zooming on that screen (or looking at map-based directions) can be a challenge. Worse yet, the screen functions in early production models reportedly are buggy with numerous warning messages related to glitches.

Tesla Model 3

Safety

The Tesla Model 3 attained a Superior front-crash-avoidance rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The IIHS gave the car's headlights an Acceptable score. (The Model S has a poor rating for headlight glare.) Independent testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is not yet available.

The Model 3 has an expansive list of safety features, including automatic emergency braking, active cruise control, and lane-keeping assist. The Model 3 comes outfitted with all of the sensors and wiring needed for it to operate like a fully autonomous vehicle, but as of mid-2018, those features are not yet activated.

Price

The future $35,000 model comes standard with 18-inch alloy wheels, 15-inch screen, navigation, 60/40 folding rear seats, LED headlights and taillights, a reverse-view camera—and most importantly, the 50-kWh 220-mile battery pack.

The shift to the 310-mile 75-kWh pack adds $9,000 to the sticker. Premium Upgrades for $5,000 add heated power front seats, leatherette upholstery, a panoramic glass roof, and a premium audio system. Black exterior paint comes standard, but other colors increase the price by $1,000. Selecting the Enhanced Autopilot package adds yet another $5,000. So it’s clear to see how buying the goodies can result in a price that reaches or exceeds $60,000.

It’s important to note that Tesla could soon reach its limit for the $7,500 federal EV tax credit. As soon as Tesla reaches the 200,000-unit mark for total U.S sales, the federal government will still provide a $3,750 refund for the following six months.

Tesla Model 3

Comparison with Similar Vehicles

The gas-powered cars most often cited as Model 3 competitors are the highly regarded BMW 3-series, which has a starting MSRP of about $33,000, the Audi A3 which starts near $31,000, and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, with its base MSRP of $42,650. While Tesla is interested in matching the Bimmer and Benz for performance, handling and comfort, those cars are internal combustion—and therefore are not really in the same category.

The Chevy Bolt doesn’t have the same cachet (or innovative features and design pizazz) as a Tesla, but it starts around $30,000 after federal incentives and was in full production with wide availability a full year ahead of the Model 3. The Bolt has 238 miles of range and a nicely appointed, comfortable cabin. The comparisons pretty much end there. Whereas the Model 3 is a compact luxury EV with a price tag commonly closer to $50,000 (and all those innovative high-tech features), the Bolt is a compact that is styled and designed to work as a regular car (but with a smooth, fast electric propulsion) and a long-range battery pack.

Purchase Process

The Model 3 started production in late 2017, but Tesla is still working down the long waiting list or pre-orders halfway through 2018. If you have your heart set on owning a Model 3, the fastest way to get your hands on one would be to visit Tesla's website and put down a $1,000 deposit today. Then get prepared to wait six months or longer for the car to be produced.

Tesla Model 3 specifications

Availability: Now
Base MSRP: $35000
Est. tax credit: $7500
Technology: Electric Vehicle
Body type: Sedan
Seats: 5
EPA Range: 220 miles pure electric
Battery size: 50 kWh
Charging rate: 16.5 kW

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