The first Tesla Model 3 reviews are coming in -- and there's one thing everyone is talking about

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
  • “Build quality” is a term often used in the auto industry when assessing manufacturing capability.
  • Some observers have criticised the build quality of Tesla vehicles, most recently with the Model 3.
  • Tesla has at times struggled with manufacturing as the same level of the rest of the industry, but it usually improves its processes.

Since the Tesla Model 3 launched in July and started its uneasy path as a mass-market vehicle, Tesla watchers have been carefully scrutinizing the vehicle’s quality.

Last April, Reuters reported that Tesla skipped the “soft tooling” phase, which is a pre-production process that helps automakers work out manufacturing problems before starting mass production.

The company took a big risk by skipping this stage before commencing deliveries, and it has paid off. Holdups have kept Model 3 production well below its expected levels, with fewer than 3,000 cars officially delivered.

CEO Elon Musk has called this “production hell” and reminded everybody that no Tesla vehicle has enjoyed a smooth rollout. And naturally, all over the internet, there have been deep dives into how well the Model 3 is bolted together.

Tesla let us borrow a Model 3 for a few hours, and we gave it a good once-over. While there were some glitches here and there, the so-called build quality of our top-of-the-line vehicle – a press car – was good.

But what, exactly, is build quality? And why does it matter?

For many years, it wasn’t the forte of US automakers. American cars may have looked cool, but when Japanese and European vehicles began to show up in real numbers in the US in the 1970s and ’80s, US manufacturing started to look sloppy by comparison.

These days, build quality of American cars and trucks is generally excellent.

Tesla has been an exception, but the company is still relatively young. Ford and General Motors are each more than 100 years old, while Tesla has been around for just 14 years.

Build quality is both general and specific. If you look at a Tesla vehicle, the overall impression is usually pretty good. They’re beautifully designed, with a vibe that’s classic and futuristic.

But if you focus, you may notice body panels that aren’t consistently spaced, known as “panel gaps.” Or misaligned door handles. Or interior plastic components that look really plasticky. Or upholstery that’s crinkled. Or other various minor components that aren’t up to snuff for a vehicle that can cost $US100,000.

On our Model 3 tester, for example, I was bothered by some steering-wheel stitching that was too far toward the back of the wheel.

Build quality tends to improve over time as a carmaker gets better at building its vehicles and learns from customer feedback.

Interestingly, Tesla has been somewhat immune from build-quality criticism because owners think of its vehicles as rolling technology, completely different from gas-powered cars, regardless of how well those machines are made.

We’re under no illusions about Tesla’s build quality – it’s better than it once was, but it could be improved.

A comparable German or Japanese car creates a superior impression, and for some buyers, that will matter. But Tesla sold 100,000 vehicles last year and has a tremendous level of customers satisfaction.

So while the auto industry has across the board learned to respect build quality, Tesla has proved that it isn’t the only thing that matters.

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