The Model 3 is supposed to be Tesla’s humdrum car, the everyday, cut-price offering to the masses. Not the sort of thing that impresses Angelenos, so blasé about celebrities and rich kids valeting their supercars at restaurants. In LA, it takes a special vehicle to stand out.
Yet, as I’m driving around town in a (bright red) Model 3, I feel unusually conspicuous, attracting the eyes of passers-by, some of them walking into traffic for a closer look. Friends want a ride. Other Tesla owners come up to me to chat while charging. Surely, some of them are among the 450,000 people who have already put down a $1,000 deposit for the right to buy this car. And it turns out that driving one of the most anticipated vehicles, ever, is enough to shake these seen-it-all Angelenos to attention.
The real question is whether it lives up to the hype, to Elon Musk’s promise that this is the car for everyone. That’s what I wanted to find out, using the Model 3 to tool around LA, to hit freeways and winding roads, to traverse the desert and climb snow-covered mountains.
The car Tesla lent me to test is one of the first-production versions, and costs $57,000 when loaded with the currently non-optional options, including the premium package and long range battery. The first thing I did was look for misaligned panels, and try some speed humps to check for the squeaks and rattles that have plagued Model 3 buyers. I found none, but figure Tesla has given this loaner some extra scrutiny.
The automaker had similar quality control issues with early Model S and X production, and has mostly ironed those out. It’s fair to expect Musk & Co. will do the same here. So maybe driving this Model 3 is a bit like living in the future—this neatly finished model is the car Tesla wants to build for everyone. Eventually.
Heading to work in LA traffic means plenty of switching lanes to weave around the slow pokes, and that’s easy in the Model 3, which feels nimble. The steering takes just one full turn, lock to lock, and feels super responsive. And it is very much a Tesla, with body-smooshing acceleration. It can’t out-sprint the top-end Model S, but its 5.1-second 0 to 60 mph time makes it quicker than cars like the VW Golf GTi and BMW’s 330i.
A space to stop is also never easy to find in LA, but Tesla’s Autopark system helps. I drive slowly past a gap, tap a pop-up icon on the touchscreen, and watch the car fold itself into a tight parallel space. It’s scary at first—“watch the wheels”, I found myself yelling at the touchscreen—but, much as it pains me to admit it, it’s probably better at parking than I am.
If your friends are anything like mine, they’ll be most interested in the Model 3’s interior, whose minimal design would make Patrick Bateman’s New York apartment look cluttered. Tesla chucked out all the buttons, along with the instrument panel, traditional home of things like the speedometer. Every function in the Model 3 is controlled via, or displayed on, a centrally mounted 15-inch touchscreen.
I’m typically a fan of physical buttons, which are easy to find with minimal eyes-off-the-road time, and was apprehensive about Tesla’s extremist approach. But some modern cars have so many buttons across the dash and the steering wheel they look like a Yamaha synthesizer threw up, often with information split across several little screens. If designers insist on a screen, it should be like the Model 3’s: huge, high resolution, easy to read in sunlight, and smoothly responsive to touch, supporting gestures like pinch to zoom on the map. I found that most virtual buttons I needed (adjusting Autopilot speed, or the interior temperature) fell easily under hand, with my elbow on the center armrest for stability.
Glancing to the right to read the speed is a little odd, but I got used to it. Stranger is the blackness in front of the steering wheel at night. Everything on the left-hand side of the screen is easy to read, including the speedometer and Autopilot info. The stuff on the far right, like the turn-by-turn directions, requires a long glance away from the road, and is harder to see. Tesla is working on over-the-air software improvements to the interface, so that issue might be addressed in an update. It has already responded to complaints about the windshield wiper controls being hard to find, and made them more prominent.
Charging is easy if you have a 220-volt outlet, the type you might use for a clothes dryer, in your garage. The car comes with an extension cord and mobile charger. That means I could leave every morning, with a full battery and the advertised 310 miles of range. The cheaper battery, when it’s available, will be good for 220 miles. If you live in an apartment, or park on the street, you’re going to have to plan more carefully. Same deal if you want to take a road trip—which I did.
On Saturday morning, after a couple of days of LA life with the Model 3, I use the Tesla app on my phone to pop open the frunk (Tesla’s regrettable term for the place other automakers put their engines) and stow my suitcase. I type “Palm Springs, California” into the navigation system. Based on Google Maps, with Tesla’s guidance on top, it’s one of the easiest to use I’ve seen in any car. I only got annoyed when, thanks to a bug, it showed the road conditions on one part of my journey as green, then jumped to a more realistic deep red when I was already trapped in traffic and zoomed in to check more closely.
On the 10 freeway, it’s time to try Autopilot, a $5,000 option, that I’m willing to bet every owner takes. The stalk on the right hand of the steering wheel that shifts between drive, reverse, and park, also turns on the semi-autonomous features, with a double tap down. Autopilot keeps the car in its lane, and a fixed distance from the car in front. It’ll brake to a full stop, and then set off again, which makes it super-convenient in this inexplicable weekend traffic. It handles straight roads well, but is less confident in corners, even gentle ones on the freeway. It’ll change lanes automatically, if rather abruptly, after I check that the coast is clear and press on indicator stalk in the direction I want to go. (As I returned the Model 3, I discovered Model S and X cars just started getting an update to their Autopilot software which drivers report improves it dramatically. The 3 is likely to get that too.)
Tesla stresses Autopilot is a driver aid, not replacement, and requires that you keep your hands on the wheel. Let go for too long and the screen starts flashing to tell you to get a grip. I found the warning triggered even when I had my hands resting gently on the wheel. Cadillac’s Super Cruise system, which tracks the position of the driver’s head, is smarter.
LA to Palm Springs a 112-mile trip, so, technically, I can make it there and back on a single charge. But I want the option of driving around when I get there, and I’m turning up the AC up notch by notch as the temperature outside rises, which uses battery. (Even the front air vent flow is moved around by the touchscreen.)
So I decide to stop at one of Tesla’s Supercharger sites. Tesla is expanding its fast charger network to include more urban locations, instead of just having them spaced along freeways for long-distance travel. Even more than Autopilot and super-sized screens, this is Tesla’s top selling point. No other electric vehicle has such easy access to high-speed charging. I identify one of these newly opened stations in Riverside, California, a little over half-way to Palm Springs.
Charging an electric car, even at a Supercharger, takes a lot longer than filling a tank with gas. (Tesla says you can add 170 miles of range in 30 minutes.) To put a positive spin on my stop, I decide to be play the tourist. For 10 years I’ve sped past Riverside on the freeway, never giving it a second thought. On this trip, I pick up a walking guide, and discover a beautiful, historic, downtown. Fun the first time, but it could get boring on future trips. (City planners take note: Installing chargers will attract visitors.)
Unlike the Model S and Model X, which still typically come with at least some free supercharging, for the 3, Tesla now charges for the right to plug in. For me, in California, it’s $0.26 per kWh. That means a charge from empty to full costs $19.50. If you charge at home, overnight, it’s likely cheaper. And it’s still a lot less than you pay to put gas in the tank.
Leaving Riverside with 300 miles of range means I arrive in Palm Springs with 250 to spare. That’s more than the range the Chevrolet Bolt has when full. It might cost $9K, but the battery capacity in this more expensive Model 3 is a revelation. It means I quickly have more confidence to go farther without worrying about where the nearest charger is. In other electrics, I keep one eye on the range meter.
And it means I’m brave enough to throw in a 60-mile detour on the way home, with a 6,000 feet elevation climb, on a high-speed twisty (and fun!) route. The Model 3 keeps up with a Porsche Cayman whose driver was enjoying the same roads, and felt planted through the corners thanks to the low center of gravity created by the battery under the floor. Zooming through the mountain roads is so quiet and effortless I find myself wishing for some paddle-shifters so I could blip my engine and downshift into corners too, just to add some drama. (Hey Elon, can we get some sound effects with the next software update?)
California’s Palms to Pines highway leads me from the desert into areas of the San Jacinto mountains that had a light dusting of snow. The Model 3, even in its current rear-drive configuration handles it well, cutting power to save traction. The upcoming dual motor, all-wheel drive version will likely be even better. Now the temperature is dropping, but the seat heaters get super warm, super fast … as long as you’re in the front. Tesla hasn’t yet designed a button for the touchscreen to turn on the heaters in the rear seats. (That’s coming soon, with a software update.)
The Model 3 is the vehicle Tesla designed for the future, and for fully autonomous driving, with a suite of cameras around the outside and a small supercomputer onboard. Whether that’s possible without the addition of lidar laser sensors is still up in the air (Elon Musk says yes, most everyone else says no). But if it is, then the clever touches like using your phone to unlock the car, the lack of physical controls, and even the artificially intelligent auto wipers, start to make sense. They all mean a computer could assume control easily, drive autonomously, and possibly pick up paying passengers.
The physical car is well engineered, styled, and has great performance. I get an average of four miles out of every kWh of battery, including high-speed freeway and mountain road driving. That makes this also one of the most efficient electrics, beating Tesla’s other machines.
The virtual side is less solid. If you’re bored of me mentioning software updates, the Model 3 isn’t a car for you. Accepting you’re driving a work-in-progress is part of Tesla ownership, as is patience. The company initially said it would build 5,000 cars a week by the end of last year, but in its last update, revised that target to June 2018.
The backlog of pre-orders is years long, even if Musk hits his most ambitious production goals (he rarely does). But in this case, waiting may be a good thing. It’ll give Tesla some time to iron out early production bugs, and to introduce more options, so the Model 3 can live up to its potential as the best, affordable, electric car that you can’t buy. Not yet, anyway.