Still Impressive, Now Readily Available
The Tesla Model 3 is a mirror of everything right and wrong about electric vehicles in 2019. It’s far-and-away the best-selling EV in the U.S., but sits on the edge of affordability. It’s full of cutting edge technology (some of it optional), but still has some rough edges and unfulfilled promises in real world operation. It’s beloved by owners and dismissed by cynics. It was about time I spent some alone-time in one. It was as easy as signing up for a test drive online and showing up at the appointed time. Show a valid driver’s license, get a few pointers and take the credit card “key.” “Be back in about 30 minutes,” was the final send-off.
The Edge of Affordability
You can still order a $35,000 Tesla Model 3, but it takes a little more work. And it isn’t $35,000 any more. It’s $36,200. But, as the associate at my local Tesla showroom said, “nobody wants the Standard Range without leather”—and many other goodies. It starts to sound way too much like the loss-leaders you’ve see advertised at new car dealerships for decades.
The next step up is the Standard Range Plus, which is what I took out for a 40-minute test drive. Its list price is $38,990, not too much more than the basic Standard Range. Range and performance numbers are the same—240 miles and 5.3-second 0-60 from a single motor driving the rear wheels. Of course, the model I chose to drive had a sharp black paint job ($750 extra). If I wanted to make it in red that would be $1,500. Add 19-inch sport wheels to replace the “aerodynamic” standard ones is another $1,500. The controversial Autopilot with the promise of coming Full Self-Driving will tack $6,000 onto the purchase price.
The bottom line is, yes, there is a ~$35,000 Standard Range Tesla Model 3, but you could easily walk out the door with that same model (in terms of range and performance) for $45,200. It’s not the “affordable” car that was promised, but not completely out of reach for someone looking in the $35,000 price range. More likely, you’d opt to start with the Standard Range Plus like I drove and get an upgraded interior (not an option on the base model). Still, those options are tempting. The good news is the Model 3 Standard Range Plus can be leased for around $400/month or bought with $0 down and $629/month on a 72-month loan.
Out on the Road
For someone who’s driven a lot of electric cars, the Model 3 is not revelatory. It is good—and fast—and responsive, but the driving dynamics simply put it in a large class of good-handling cars available these days in this price category. The gently supportive seats encouraged me to press the limits on the readily available “fun” roads next to Silicon Valley. The car did not disappoint. Acceleration was available throughout the powerband and there was never a hint that a road could present a feature the Model 3 couldn’t handle.
With an aggressive regenerative braking system capturing energy and one of the best battery management systems in the business, spirited driving didn’t seem to bring that many penalties in the car’s range. Of course, a half hour drive doesn’t give you a full sense of what a vehicle is like to live with, but this drive didn’t raise any red flags or even hint that the hype around the Model 3 as a near-luxury sporty car is spurious. I liked the near one-pedal driving that the strong regen offered; that’s become my preferred type of EV system.
Much of the negative talk around the Model 3, as distinguished from the corporate chatter around Elon Musk or Tesla as an automotive company, has centered on the main fixture in the interior—the large display screen that sits mid-dash.
My half-hour take—it works and with some adjustment I’m sure would become a real asset. As with many recent experiences with non-analog systems, I feel it’s primarily a matter of getting familiar with a new system to overcome the sense that something has been lost in moving to a digital platform. I’d give it time to see what really works, but the size of the screen and the ease of access to key functions feels like overall Tesla has hit the mark.
The sparseness of the dash—which only has the display screen—is another issue. If minimalism in your car is seen as a virtue, you’ll likely applaud it. If you’ve got any sense of tradition and an expectation that more things to touch and manipulate is a good automotive thing, then you may take some time to get comfortable in this “new world.” Like the dash, the steering wheel is quite plain and unadorned compared to what has become the standard wheel in most cars.
The interior has ample storage and generally a pleasant and functional layout. The rear seat is another matter. Tesla likes to compare the Model 3 to the BMW 3-Series. The Model 3 back seat felt like the backseat of a several generations ago BMW—almost an afterthought for a driver-centric car. If the driver is short, the accommodations could be acceptable, but it’s not a place you would want to put friends for an extended period—assuming you want to keep them as friends.
One interesting feature I haven’t seen written about extensively is the Model 3 sound system. Tesla touts it as a premium system and I wouldn’t dispute that’s its impression. What struck me is that Tesla is using its large windshield to reflect music from what appears in essence to be a sound bar at its base. The sound is dense and fills the interior.
Anyone who’s followed the Tesla Model 3 saga over the past few years might be surprised at the final word from the Tesla associate, which was confirmed online. In spite of supposed deposits for more than 400,000 vehicles, well into its second year of sales the Model 3 is past 200,000 units, you could place an order and receive delivery in two weeks, which clearly means they do not have a backlog of orders. That may be disappointing for some who had higher expectations of this model, but for those of us who just appreciate a great electric car that’s in the affordable range, it’s all good.
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