Paradoxically, the Tesla Model 3 is both the electric automaker’s most down-to-earth vehicle to date and its most ambitious project yet. Billed at its unveiling in March 2016 as a $36,000 electric sedan that would bring Tesla’s cult of personality to a broad audience, it’s a key part of fearless leader Elon Musk’s goal to change the automotive landscape as we know it.
As all established automakers know, a mass-market affordable car is more difficult to pull off than a small-volume luxury car. And despite an initial public-relations-and-cash windfall for the Model 3 that saw hundreds of thousands of prospective customers plunk down $1000 to secure their places in line for what was, at the time, an entirely hypothetical vehicle with few concrete specifications and only a vague estimate of delivery timing, the Tesla hype machine can do only so much. It can’t help that the production output of the company’s factory in Fremont, California, continues to fall far short of expectations. For example, Tesla originally targeted building 5000 Model 3s per week by the end of 2017, but as of this writing, Bloomberg estimates that the company is churning out only 1076 weekly, with approximately 11,500 built since July 2017 (Tesla doesn’t release detailed sales or production reports, so we don’t know the exact numbers).
This “production hell” (as Musk himself described it) apparently affected Tesla’s ability to provide us with a testable car despite multiple requests, so we turned to other sources—customers who had cars in their possession. For this test, we found a local owner in Ann Arbor, Michigan, willing to lend us his Deep Blue Metallic Model 3, built in February 2018.
It’s important to note that the Model 3, as it now exists, is not the $36,000 electric sedan for everyone. Tesla’s latest estimate is that zero-option Model 3s won’t enter production until late this year. Each current Model 3 is equipped with two mandatory options. First, a Long Range battery pack for $9000 takes the estimated driving range from 220 miles to 310 miles. Second, a Premium Upgrades package for $5000 adds features such as heated power front seats, leatherette upholstery, a panoramic glass roof, and a premium audio system. We’re already at $50,000. Any color other than black costs $1000, and ticking the box for Enhanced Autopilot semi-automation features adds another $5000. The car you see here had all these options and stickered for $56,000. (Oh, and Model 3 drivers pay for juice at the company’s Supercharger network, unlike Model S and Model Xowners, who get at least some of their electrons for free.)
At that price, the Model 3 is much more BMW 3-series than Honda Accord. And because it’s a moderately expensive status symbol, it’s no coincidence that the Tesla’s size and price fit neatly into the small-luxury-sedan segment that the 3-series and the Mercedes-Benz C-class dominate. Like the BMW and the Benz, it’s rear-wheel drive in base form, and its electric motor’s output is similar to that of certain turbo four-cylinder versions of those sedans: 221 horsepower and an estimated 303 lb-ft of torque.
The packaging, though, is pure Tesla, with the single motor mounted on the rear axle (a dual-motor all-wheel-drive version is said to be forthcoming) and a massive battery pack under the floor. Made largely of steel but with aluminum doors and hood, the Model 3 weighs about 300 pounds more than a rear-drive BMW 330i, but the placement of that battery pack puts its center of gravity much closer to the ground, at just 18.5 inches—equivalent to the modern Mazda Miata’s. The distribution of the Tesla’s 3897 pounds is a sports-car-like 48.2/51.8 percent front/rear.
Not So Silent Partner
When driven at up to, say, seven-tenths of its capabilities, the Model 3 is solid and satisfying. As its layout would suggest, it is eager to change direction, with quick steering, sharp turn-in, and tightly controlled body motions. The thick-rimmed steering wheel feels well weighted and precise enough that the three modes—Comfort, Standard, and Sport, in order from lightest to heaviest—are set-it-and-forget-it propositions dependent on personal preference. It is disappointing that the Model 3’s regenerative brakes aren’t tuned to bring the car to a complete stop. This means it’s not capable of the one-pedal driving that makes some other EVs tools of convenience in urban traffic. General Motors’ solution for its Chevrolet Bolt EV—a paddle on the steering wheel that increases the amount of regenerative braking on demand—would be useful, as would more adjustability beyond the Tesla’s Standard and Low regen settings.
The car we tested rode on the base 18-inch tires, which means workaday 235/45R-18 Michelin Primacy MXM4 all-season rubber. As such, the chassis test numbers—a 176-foot stop from 70 mph and 0.84 g around the skidpad—were unremarkable, even by mainstream-family-sedan standards. There’s no YouTube-friendly, power-boosting Ludicrous mode here as in the Model S, but the electric motor still provided a decent if not eye-opening shove as it propelled the car from zero to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds—just a smidge quicker than the Audi A4 and the BMW 330i, which both have turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-fours. That acceleration rate suggests that the Tesla puts out more than the quoted 221 horsepower. Push the Model 3 a bit closer to its handling limits, as we did on our 10 Best loop, and the tires give up early and understeer becomes the predominant dynamic trait.
Although the Model 3 is a bit less involving than the best sports sedans on these roads, it lacks the refined isolation of its similarly priced rivals. The stout structure stifles harsh impacts, but you do hear what’s going on below as the tires persistently thwack and thrum over pavement imperfections. Our sound meter measured 69 decibels at 70 mph, louder than an A4. There were also some subtle yet annoying rattles and creaks in our test car, which had less than 2500 miles on the odometer. The high recommended tire pressure of 45 psi seems partially to blame for this racket, but letting some air out would result in a decrease in efficiency and driving range.
That latter metric, although a crucial one for any EV, is prone to such a large degree of variability that it’s difficult to gauge exactly how disappointing the Model 3’s result is in our real-world 75-mph highway fuel-economy test. Our calculated range of 200 miles is far below the EPA’s overall estimates of 310 miles in combined driving and 293 miles in highway driving, but it was certainly affected by the 28-degree-Fahrenheit ambient temperature. Two similar tests of a Chevy Bolt, the Model 3’s closest EV competitor, revealed a difference in observed range of more than 25 percent between a 56-degree and a 36-degree run (190 miles versus 140 miles against an EPA-estimated highway range of 217 miles).
Different, for Better and for Worse
The Model 3’s 15.0-inch infotainment display, mounted on the center of the dashboard, beautifully presents everything from range and charging information to navigation and audio. It’s a good thing that this touchscreen is responsive, clearly organized, and graphically appealing, because the monolithic screen is the point of contact for nearly all the car’s functions. There are hardly any physical secondary controls inside the Model 3 other than power-window switches, electronic door-release buttons, two multifunction control buttons on the steering wheel, and two column-mounted stalks (one controlling turn signals and the windshield wipers’ functions and the other serving as the shifter and the cruise-control/Autosteer activation switch). Conventional gauges, radio buttons, and HVAC knobs are nowhere to be found. It’s not even immediately apparent where the air vents are.
On balance, Tesla may have been smart to design such a simplistic interior, as it’s presumably easier and cheaper to assemble on a large scale and also is distinct enough to avoid direct comparison to the more complex and special cabins found in some of the aforementioned German luxury cars. But while we did not observe any glaring fit-and-finish issues inside the Model 3, the exterior was a different story. Inconsistent panel gaps around the doors and myriad ill-fitting trim pieces were among the worst we’ve seen in recent memory.
Such a glaring misstep makes us wonder what Tesla could have made of the Model 3 without the ambition to produce so many cars so quickly. Although it shows promising flashes of cleverness in its execution, the Model 3 in its current form feels just shy of complete. What’s more, at $50,000 and up, it also falls short of its mission to provide affordable and accessible electric motoring to a wide spectrum of the population. As much as Tesla has achieved here in creating a nicely integrated, capable, and relatively fun entry-luxury EV, we’re still left waiting—along with all those hopeful would-be owners—for the Model 3 to change the world.