Editorial note: Business Insider will name its 2018 Car of the Year on Monday, November 19. Each day this week, we’re taking another look at the five vehicles that were runners-up that were selected from a pool of 15 finalists. Earlier, we featured the 2018 Lincoln Navigator, the 2018 Ferrari 812 Superfast, the Jaguar I-Pace, and the 2019 Subaru Ascent. Our final runner-up is the Tesla Model 3.
- After driving the TeslaModel 3 several times for short periods, I finally got to spend some quality time with Tesla’s newest set of wheels.
- I borrowed a long-range TeslaModel 3, with rear-wheel-drive in Premium trim, to conduct my actual life for a week.
- I was already sort of blown away by the Model 3, but a week with the car wiped out the whole “sort of” part.
I feel as though I’ve been living with the Tesla Model 3 for years. I attended the unveiling of the car in 2016 and the subsequent launch in 2017. Later, I drove the rear-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive versions of what’s become the most anticipated new car in history.
But I really, really wanted to do what I’ve done with other Teslas, which is live with the Model 3 for a week. This is the ultimate test of Tesla ownership: Can one of its sexy all-electric future machines – with their sharp looks and neck-snapping speed, their layers of technology and aspirations of full autonomy – handle everyday existence?
The Model S is a lovely luxury sedan, and the Model X is a techy, over-the-top SUV. The Model 3, by contrast, was designed to be an entry point to The Tesla Way. For the moment, that means a four-door boasting more than 300 miles of range on a single charge that costs about $US50,000, a lot more than the $US35,000 base version that Tesla isn’t building yet.
Still, a car priced between $US50,000 and $US60,000 is going to attract plenty of attention – and not incidentally help Tesla and CEO Elon Musk achieve their goal of turning a profit in 2018.
And more importantly: If it’s an initially impressive effort, what’s it like after you’ve driven it around for a few days, in rain and shine, with a full load of passengers or by yourself?
I was eager to find out. Here’s what I learned.
I journeyed to the Tesla store in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighbourhood to fetch the Model 3.
It was a $US57,500 Model 3 Long Range in Premium trim, meaning it has a 75-kilowatt-hour battery pack and can travel 310 miles on a single charge. That’s a $US9,000 upgrade over the base-priced Model 3, a $US35,000 vehicle Tesla isn’t yet manufacturing.
About $US5,000 worth of Premium upgrades, plus another $US5,000 for Enhanced Autopilot semi-self-driving systems, and a cool grand for the red multi-coat paint job take the price up into luxury territory.
I got my first look at the Model 3 when it was revealed at the SpaceX headquarters/Tesla’s design studio in Los Angeles in 2016.
A short ride in the back seat was my first taste.
A little over a year later, I attended the launch event at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California. I actually got to drive the Model 3 then for a short period and was impressed.
Earlier this year, Tesla lent us a Model 3 Long Range Premium for a few hours. I had previously been impressed. Now I was sort of blown away.
A bit later in 2018, the $US78,000 all-wheel-drive Model 3 Performance appeared outside our office. Note the luscious white interior! I was no longer sort of blown away — I was totally and completely blown away. What a car!
As summer headed into fall in the Northeast, Tesla lent us a rear-wheel-drive Model 3 Long Range with an all-black interior, the vehicle I picked up in Brooklyn.
This would be the real test for the proper review. I would use the Model 3 like a normal person: driving to the grocery store and soccer games, taking family outings, commuting to work — and running all the battery charge down so I could re-juice the Tesla.
The summer was dominated by news from Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk.
But I put Musk out of my mind and focused only on the product. My life would be all about Model 3-ness.
The Model 3 is a sharp set of wheels, designed by Tesla’s Franz von Holzhausen to embody forward thinking without taking any wild and crazy chances.
The Model 3 is sleek, not overly curvaceous, and something of a hybrid of mid-size and full-size sedan. No grille because … there’s no gas engine to feed air!
The Model 3 bears more than a passing resemblance to its big brother, the Model S. To my eye, this design actually looks better at a smaller scale.
The roof is a continuous curve of glass, with a fastback rear hatch/trunk culminating in a crisp spoiler. The recessed door handles and the window trim are the only significant chrome on the Model 3.
What’s missing? Well, both “Model 3” badging and the trim-level badge.
The Model 3 is unadorned except for the Tesla badge. By the way, fit and finish on my test car were superb.
The headlights are a tad plain by 21st-century standards. But if you ask me, headlights have gotten too ornate.
Unlike on the Model S, the Model 3’s door handles don’t self-present. Instead, you rocker them out from a flush position.
Another wee splash of chrome-y bling.
The Model 3 has plenty of trunk space — and an offbeat hatch design to enable that continuous glass roof.
It handled grocery duty for a family of five without breaking a sweat.
Plus, the Model 3 has a front trunk, or “frunk.”
I used it to prepare for my “Westworld” audition. In total, the Model 3 offers an ample 15 cubic feet of space. This gives the Model 3, a sedan, versatility on par with SUVs.
A Tesla smartphone app enables owners to manage a wide range of vehicle functions — and serves as the Model 3’s key!
It will even tell you when the frunk is open. Oh yeah, you can also name your Model 3.
Consider the level of detail on the app’s rendering — taken from reality! This is the underside of the frunk lid.
The frunk is also the closest you can get to the Model 3’s electric innards. The battery pack runs along the floor, and the three-phase motor sits astride the rear axle.
The brakes are pretty hefty, and they should be, as the Model 3 in this configuration can dash from zero to 60 mph in about five seconds.
That’s speedy enough for anybody, and the quality of that speed is very Tesla and very electric-car. EVs have 100% of their available torque at 1 rpm, which means potentially neck-snapping velocity.
A Model S P100D with Ludicrous Mode engaged can do zero to 60 mph in under 2.3 seconds. That’s jarring acceleration. The Model 3 is calmer. But not too calm. You are rewarded when you punch it.
The Model 3 also has regenerative braking, which can be customised to be heavy or light. Heavy acts almost like an engine brake and permits the driver to actively brake much less frequently than with a gas vehicle, while recharging the battery. Light mitigates the sense that the Model 3 is tugging when coasting.
For what it’s worth, the Model 3 I tested lacked a Ludicrous or Insane mode – the default is quick acceleration. But you can switch that to Chill Mode, which dials it back. And I did. Chill is considerably easier to live with.
A soggy week meant I’d get to see how the rear-wheel-drive Model 3 handled wet conditions. It handled them without effort. Who needs all-wheel drive?
You have to be a minimalist to love the Model 3’s interior. The leatherette upholstery is animal-free, and the flash is … well, there isn’t any.
Tesla makes its own seats. The Model 3’s are quite comfy and supportive for more spirited driving, and the front seats are heated.
They reminded me of an excellent memory-foam mattress. Note the subtle topstitching.
The rear seats are a bench design, but also comfortable.
Legroom is reasonable. I’m 5-foot-7 …
… and I had no trouble stretching my legs. Taller passengers might struggle, but for a car this size, the legroom is decent.
It’s a pity the weather was so bad all week that I couldn’t enjoy that stunning glass roof.
The showstopper for the Model 3 has always been the dashboard.
Begin with the steering wheel. Unlike nearly every other steering wheel on the planet, the Model 3’s has almost no knobs or buttons.
Quick comment: The stitching is curled back behind the midpoint of the wheel. I thought this was a mistake when I encountered it on a previous Model 3, but according to Tesla, it’s intentional, to downplay the detailing.
You have your choice of a left thumbwheel …
… or a right thumbwheel.
In addition to controlling audio-system volume, they’re used to adjust the steering wheel …
… and the side-view mirrors.
There’s no instrument panel, so the driver’s experience is completed by a pair of stalks. The Model 3 has rain-sensing wipers.
The one on the right is the gearshift, and it activates Autopilot (when available) with two downclicks.
That side-to-side strip of open-grain wood is so soothing. The vent above channels warm or cool air.
And the direction of the airflow is managed using a 15-inch central touchscreen display.
The rest of the interior is well appointed but, again, minimalist. Tesla has sought to subtract rather than add with the Model 3.
Autopilot hardware is concealed in the Model 3’s construction.
In case you’re wondering about Autopilot: I’ve reviewed the technology before and consider it very advanced cruise control. I strongly recommend against ever going hands-free with it.
The Model 3 is engineered to someday have full self-driving capability. That day hasn’t come yet. But it will surely add value if it does.
I used Autopilot with the Model 3 during my longest test, and it performed as it always has for me in other Tesla vehicles. But the truth is that I liked driving the Model 3 so darn much that I didn’t flip Autopilot on very often. I can’t be the only person who feels this way.
Teslas are a blast to drive – that ever-present temptation, to be honest, undermines Autopilot. If I were buying, I’m not sure I’d pay the additional $US5,000. But that’s me. I enjoy driving. And for what it is, Autopilot is an excellent technology.
The hazard button is, Tesla told me, the only button in the car. That’s almost right.
There are buttons for the doors.
And I’d call the horn a type of button. But you get the idea: nothing extraneous. Most functions are found via the touchscreen.
Storage is good — better than many other sedans this size I’ve tested. Losing all the internal-combustion stuff liberates a lot of space.
I’m especially fond of this smartphone cradle, which has a concealed USB charging port.
A pair of cupholders and a piano-black center console.
The glovebox is opened using the touchscreen, and it’s really large!
If your phone dies, or you don’t have it, or you need to valet park the Model 3, there’s a credit-card-size key that opens the vehicle and allows it to start up.
Typically, however, you rule the Model 3 with the app. Lock, unlock, trunk and frunk, climate control, status, charge level — and you never “start” the Model 3. When you climb in with your phone, it comes alive. Leave, and it shuts itself down.
The touchscreen carries an immense amount of responsibility. I’ll dive into the whole thing in a later review. But it’s divided into left and right areas, with important driving info on the left and infotainment on the right. Where the “P” is, for example, becomes a speedometer when the Model 3 is in motion.
The rear camera is surprisingly not capable of delivering quite as brilliant an image as I expected.
You have the usual Bluetooth integration and USB connectivity, with a wide range of apps to choose from and views that can be tweaked.
The audio system is Tesla’s creation — and it sounds fantastic! Some reviewers have complained about the lack of physical controls for the AC and heat, but I got used to the touchscreen pretty fast.
Navigation is a standout feature. The screen is so large that you can get a big picture of your trip, and it’s smart enough to adjust views and manoeuvre you through a route.
If you take a trip that taxes the Model 3’s battery, the system will plot a route that leapfrogs you from charging location to charging location and optimises your recharge time.
It also supplies accurate traffic data.
The voice-recognition system is about the best I’ve ever used in a modern vehicle. So why did I want to navigate to Paramus?
Because that’s where I took the Model 3 for a juice-up, at a Supercharger location close to my home.
It was at a Tesla store, where I could relax in the waiting room with a beverage …
… while the electrons flowed at high speed into my Model 3’s charge port.
Free supercharging for life used to be a great perk of Tesla ownership. But as ownership has grown, Tesla has adjusted the deal.
The company also discourages owners from using Superchargers for casual daily fill-ups, preferring they plug into slower charging options at home and save supercharging for longer trips.
A Supercharger will recharge a Model 3 Long Range from zero to full in about an hour. Using 240-volt power will get the job done overnight, and a basic wall outlet will get you a mile an hour in an emergency.
The Tesla app provides a convenient way to keep track of the charging process …
… as does the touchscreen in the vehicle.
And guess what! All of this tech updates from time to time over the air! This happened at the beginning of my test. The whole process took less than an hour.
When it was time to say goodbye, I returned the Model 3 to the Tesla store in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.
And I wiped away a tear as I left the car all safe and sound in its home.
So, what’s the verdict?
You already knew that I was impressed with the earliest drive I had in the Model 3 and that getting to spend a few hours zipping around New York City and the New Jersey suburbs only enhanced my positive opinion.
You also knew that after I drove the Model 3 Performance, I was further dazzled by what the Model 3 is all about.
But you didn’t know what I thought it was like to live with the Model 3 for any length of time.
A week is obviously not a comprehensive test, but I’ve gotta tell you: The Model 3 isn’t just my new favourite Tesla – it’s my new favourite car.
There is no better vehicle of this type at this price that I believe I could currently buy. I literally craved looking at and driving the Model 3. But beyond that, I now count it among the small cadre of vehicles I’ve driven in my life that I have felt fit me absolutely perfectly and satisfied my every desire.
I’ve driven many, many vehicles, from small economy cars to wildly luxurious road-going hotel suites to some of the fastest sports cars and supercars on the planet. Throw in a bunch of minivans, SUVs, pickup trucks and pretty much every all-electric vehicle on the market. But three cars dramatically stand out for me.
They’re the Porsche 911, the Mazda MX-5 Miata, and the Tesla Model 3. I feel at home in these cars, relaxed and fully self-actualized. I understand them in an immediate way. If you want to get dreamy, I bond with them, effortlessly.
The 911 and the Miata are both rear-wheel-drive, perfectly balanced driver’s machines, so it makes sense I’d love ’em. Interestingly, the rear-wheel-drive Model 3 inspires something similar when it comes to driving confidence, more so than in any other Tesla I’ve piloted – and I’ve piloted them all, right back to the intense original Roadster.
But what’s really so hypnotically and addictively compelling about the Model 3 is how many great ideas have been crammed into one automobile. This is a car that’s absolutely bursting with thought, about the present and the future – and the distant future. Those ideas are overwhelmingly optimistic. Clearly, because it creates no tailpipe emissions, you can buy a Model 3 to feel better about yourself and your life on the environmentally embattled Earth.
But you can also feel better about yourself because the Model 3 by its nature makes you feel better about yourself. It is intellectually stimulating, a mood-improvement machine. I perked up every time I slipped behind the wheel, and most days I had to deal with rainy Northeast gloom. Grey skies weren’t going to clear up, but it didn’t matter, because the Model 3 helped me put on a happy face.
The Model 3 impresses on all fronts.
It can blast to 60 mph in five seconds, it can drive itself under some conditions, and it has a five-star safety rating from the government. What’s more, it’s a California-made, all-electric car from the first new American car company in decades.
But the truly astounding thing is that Tesla, in only about five years of seriously manufacturing automobiles, could build a car this good. That’s a staggering achievement.
Wait, did I say good? I meant great.
Hold on, did I say great? Sorry, I meant greatest.
Say hello to the best car money can currently buy.