Tesla is a polarizing company, and its Model 3 is the physical embodiment of that sentiment designed for mass market reach and affordability1. We had ordered ours way back, just before the Model 3 announcement itself went live, to try to secure an early spot in the inevitable lengthy queues. That deposit, blindly paid without having even seen the car, eventually led to us picking up the car—also without having test driven any Tesla vehicle—a little over 2 years later.
We’ve had the car now for a couple of months, enough to integrate it into our regular lives as a commuter car that could have come from the near-future. Compared to my experience buying, picking up, and waiting for the Volvo XC90, the Tesla Model 3’s delivery experience is rather plain, to the point that by the time we drove it off the lot2, the experience had felt underwhelming and there was an uncomfortable sense of “that’s it?”
Fortunately, the Model 3 makes good on its price tag and most of its hype by being a pretty fun car to drive. I call it our first Smart Electric Vehicle, with each descriptor alluding to a distinct aspect of the car that makes it tangibly different than most other cars. In reverse order, then—
Vehicle: How it Compares
Electric vehicles (EVs), of course, don’t exist in a vacuum. In its bid to replace Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars, EVs have to be competitive as actual vehicles. While early EVs often went out of their way to look distinctive3, the Tesla Model 3 invites the comparison with its fairly pedestrian exterior and aggressively minimalistic interior.
The exterior isn’t unattractive, but isn’t too remarkable either. There are some flourishes like flush door handles and a giant glass roof with the premium package, but nothing like the Model X and its attention-grabbing, over-engineered doors. The interior is minimalist to the point of barren, but what it does have—the various cup holders, side door pockets, hooks and lights and sunshades—are reasonably designed. The materials are about what’s expected from an entry-level luxury vehicle; I suspect Model 3 owners who have been impressed by their interiors are trading up from more utilitarian cars in the first place. Fit and finish issues have gotten a lot of play from the press, but the model we picked up seems fine.
In many ways, it feels like a $30k car that’s being sold for $50k+. That difference is reflected in the next bits.
Electric: How it Runs
The first generation of EVs had to contend with both range and infrastructure limitations. They couldn’t find or fit big enough batteries in these cars4, and so became commuter-only vehicles for those looking to reduce their carbon footprints. There were almost zero places outside of your own house that could charge an EV; it was a big deal when Google installed charging stations on its campus.
Tesla knew early on that it had to provide fueling infrastructure to rival at of the ubiquitous gas station, and has been building out their Supercharger network for most of its cars’ existence. There are now other charging stations as well—we see Chargepoint and Volta-operated ones most often—set up in office parks and malls and restaurants, and we actually end up using those a lot more than Tesla’s Superchargers5. Right now EVs are rare enough that these stations double as valuable parking spots; I expect that to shift these next couple of years with more Model 3s running around, which in turn will drive additional charging infrastructure.
With the car itself and its electric motor, the consistent feedback I get from Model 3 owners (including my wife, who is the primary driver of our Model 3) is that it’s hard to go back to an ICE vehicle. Tesla has long pushed for an uncompromised driving experience in its cars, and the combination of:
- Low center of gravity due to the batteries and their weight, which helps with cornering,
- Instant torque from the electric motor from a standstill,
- The lack of gears and hence shifting between them,
Means that the car is quite fun to drive, whether it’s lurching from a stoplight or eagerly rounding curves. The Model 3 has the added advantage of being a mid-sized sedan, which means that it features a nimbleness and agility that reminds me of my old Accord V6—but even lighter and even faster.
Smart: How it Interacts
There was a recent episode of the ATP podcast when they veered into car territory, and one of the hosts brought up a salient point about Tesla: their brand represents the future of travel, and to justify their premium pricing, the engineering and design have to remind its buyers of that modernity. The Falcon wing doors, the retracting door handles; these touches add mechanical and electronic complexity and are likely to reduce reliability down the line, but are featured as Tesla-led innovations that up their coolness factor.
For the Model 3, Tesla introduced the smartphone-app-as-a-car-key, with special keycards6 as backup. The app itself has a bunch of remote functions that work reasonably well with a persistent data connection in the car itself, and it’s something that other car manufacturers have kept behind a subscription wall—e.g., Volvo’s Oncall service—though that perk ended for Model 3 buyers with the recent production ramp-up.
The singular 15″ touchscreen is probably the most controversial design decision7 in the Model 3. Its role in replacing 95% of the physical buttons8 in the car as well as the instrument dashboard behind the steering wheel is certainly unique, but even after a couple months of driving, I’m still not ready to make a verdict on its efficacy. For comparison, the XC90’s interior is also quite minimalistic, stripped of only 90% of physical buttons, but retains enough important ones like the volume knob for a comforting sense of tactility.
The Model 3 also has a puzzlingly small set of bells and whistles which exclude features that are pretty common even in mid-level cars: blind spot detection, lane-keep assists, multiple cameras9, heads-up displays, cross-traffic alerts, etc. aren’t available at all. The hope is that some of these can come to the car with future software updates, though as noted above, it feels like Tesla would rather prioritize unique Tesla-only functions over just catching up to standard features set by the rest of the car industry.
One last point here: Tesla’s Autopilot. I’m used to the XC90’s Pilot Assist feature, which behind the fancy marketing name is largely a combination of adaptive cruise control and aggressive lane assist (i.e., detecting and turning with a lane) meant for highway cruising. And while Autopilot is more polished on the margins—literally keeping itself to the center of the lane moreso than Pilot Assist—it essentially provides the same functionality. That is, it doesn’t do city streets, it doesn’t navigate heavy freeway traffic all that intelligently, and it’ll disengage on encountering unexpected conditions.
Trade-offs of a Smart Electric Vehicle
In some ways, the broad and uneven set of trade-offs that embody the Model 3 is emblematic of Tesla’s history as an automaker: the original mission to promote sustainable transportation; the initial Tesla Roadster and its focus on performance; the frantic pace of vehicle development to catch up to traditional car manufacturers without their decades of design, feature, and logistical iterations; the ongoing need for operating capital to fully move into mass market production. The positives and negatives listed above can be traced back to public events and news, though admittedly much of that visibility is only possible because of the hype surrounding the company.
After a couple of months with the car, I’d characterize the Tesla Model 3 as a fun little vehicle that still feels like it’s meant for early adopters, in both the lack of standard features and attempts to innovate beyond expectations. The car is less Smart than I would have hoped, is a reasonable Vehicle albeit overpriced for what it offers, but impresses with its Electric motors and infrastructure. And with the accelerating number of other Model 3s I see on the roads, plenty of other folks have accepted these trade-offs.
Of course, they realized they needed profits now and pushed the $35,000 base version way off in the future so they can capitalize on the current hype and sell higher-margin performance variants first.↩
Mind you, that was the first time we had driven the car, ever.↩
Though now I wonder if that design language is to discourage buyers to compare the EV to their other cars, when the limitations of early EVs were so prevalent.↩
And plug-in hybrids still have this issue; they usually get 20–30 miles by taking up significant trunk space.↩
It also may have to do with the fact that Superchargers are not free for Model 3 owners.↩
In some ways, more annoying to use than modern car keys that wirelessly unlock and start their vehicles↩
There are two scroll wheels in the steering wheel that can be clicked, scrolled, and tilted horizontally.↩
Frustratingly, the car itself has a bunch of cameras around its perimeter, but most of them are unused and disabled.↩