On December 29th, 2017, I took delivery of one of the first non-employee Tesla Model 3s.  This was a day which many of us longtime EV drivers have been awaiting for a long time – the realization of Tesla’s “secret master plan” announced more than ten years ago.

A lot has happened between then and now, and the industry has changed significantly.  At the time, basically the only electric cars on the road in the United States were DIY projects, golf-cart-like “neighborhood electric vehicles,” and the few first-generation RAV4 EVs which had made their way into private hands. GM had recently crushed its stockpile of lease -only EV1s.

The “plan” was that Tesla would be an example for the rest of the industry, that they would release a great car and other manufacturers would follow upon seeing that example. The plan would mean more competition as other manufacturers would try to make better and better EVs until they reached parity and eventually surpassed gasoline.

The Roadster impressed with its speed and inspired Nissan and GM to get back into the game with the LEAF and the Volt, but as a new car company, Tesla was also learning how to mass produce automobiles and experienced some hiccups. Then the Model S came out and since has crushed the competition in its price range, getting great reviews and extremely high customer satisfaction numbers.

Now, there’s several other EVs on the road, including some really great ones like the Bolt EV.  Manufacturers are even getting their second-generation EVs, like the upcoming next-gen Leaf on the road and they’re a great improvement over the first generation.  It looks like we’re finally getting there.

The Model 3, the status check for the success of the electric car revolution, is sitting right there in my driveway.  How is it?

But other manufacturers are dragging their feet.  They’re announcing more concepts every day, theorizing about future production dates (which coincidentally line up with the EV mandates which virtually all of them are lobbying to kill), but we’re all still waiting.

Notably, among the “big three” German automakers, each only has one full EV for sale today – the VW e-Golf, which is a retrofit, the BMW i3, which was built from the ground up, but still quite often gets sold with an optional engine in it (and has barely improved since its intro), and the Smart electric drive, which is neat but honestly smaller than most people are willing to drive, in the US anyway.  And other big manufacturers who had a head start on the green car industry have produced, well, total crap.

So here we are.  More than ten years down the line.  And the Model 3, the most-anticipated car in the EV industry and probably the entire auto industry with half a million people waiting in line to buy one, the status check for the success of the electric car revolution, is sitting right there in my driveway.  How is it?

For reference, though the base Model 3 will cost $35,000 (before government incentives) when it is eventually available, our test vehicle totaled $59,500 with every option installed – premium package ($5k), long range battery ($9k), enhanced autopilot ($5k) and full self-driving ($3k, not yet active), 19inch wheels ($1.5k), and red paint ($1k, and scientifically proven to make the car go faster, probably).

This review will go pretty deep into most aspects of the car, and some additional questions were answered in a previous article which you can also peruse for more information.  There will be a lot of comparisons to the Model 3’s predecessor the Model S, but I hope that I’ve kept everything accessible to non-EV audiences as well.

And there will probably be more detail and more word count than most of you need.  Sorry, that’s just how I am.  If you just want to read conclusions or certain sections, feel free to skip ahead.  For those of you who want to read a light novel and get into all the details of why this car will change the industry, grab a few cups of coffee and let’s dig right in.

Fit and finish

The first thing I and many people have noticed about the Model 3 is the fit and finish.  As mentioned in my early impressions article, prototype Model 3s had a lot of problems with exterior fit and finish, as did early Model S vehicles.  So all eyes were on early Model 3s to see if they would suffer from these expected issues.

The car, as best I’ve observed so far, has very few issues in this regard.  Exterior quality is very good.  Panel gaps are generally consistent.  The paint looks great.  Interior materials look and feel very high-quality.  The vegan “Tesla premium material” does seem like a significant improvement over leather.  The dash is gorgeous and looks better in person than in pictures.  The screen, despite its physical separation from the dash, floating above its beautiful minimalistic design, is rock-solid.

Here’s a gallery of random pictures of panel gaps, compared from one side of the car to the other:

In my hunt for rattles and noises, which are the thing that most bother me about a car in terms of quality (and I’ve got plenty of experience hunting for them in my Roadster, which is full of squeaks and rattles), I’ve found very little.

The Model 3 is extremely quiet, so any aberrant noises stand out immediately.  There is one rattle which I traced back to the driver’s side sun visor, which can be fixed by a slight wiggle of the visor when it crops up.  There is one more faint high-pitched whine which seems to be associated with both the steering and the headlights, and this whine is only present on the edge of my hearing and only when the sound system and the sound of the motor aren’t covering it up.  Speaking of which, the motor is even quieter in the Model 3 than in the S.

All in all, I am very impressed with the quality of this car, and even more impressed with its quality given the somewhat low expectations from an early production car.

Performance and handling

The brightest spot on this car is its fantastic handling.  It feels so good on turn-in, it’s much nimbler than a Model S due to its ~1,000lb lower weight, and it still benefits from an extremely low center of gravity due to the large low-slung battery and as a result, there is virtually no body roll.

There are three settings for steering weight just as in the Model S (comfort, standard and sport, in increasing order of stiffness), and while sport mode in the S feels a little bit stiffer than I’d like, sport mode steering on the Model 3 feels just right to me.

Handling is fantastic and effortless, the car is nimble and exhibits virtually no body roll.

While some will think the steering feel is a bit “muted”, this is a natural consequence of electronic power steering and almost every car these days is moving to an electronic system for reliability purposes.  Plus, EVs can’t use engine pressure for hydraulic steering anyway.  For an electronic system, it feels great.

When I took the Model 3 on a drive through the “twisty bits,” the car inspired confidence and tackled turns effortlessly.  It’s common for drivers in a new EV to look down at the speedometer and be surprised how fast they’re going, because the ride is so quiet and acceleration is so smooth that the car deceives you into thinking you’re going slower than you actually are.  This commonly happens on freeways or other open roads, where you’re going in a straight line without obstruction and it’s not too big a deal.

But this car handles so effortlessly that I even had that same “deceptively high-speed” feeling on a twisty canyon road.  Myself and two passengers were amazed to find out that we were going about 20mph faster through the turns than we felt like we were, and it didn’t even feel like I was pushing the car hard.

The car stayed planted and the tires didn’t squeal, it just did what I told it to do.  And if I ever did happen to trigger the traction control, it was effective but felt non-intrusive – instead of wrestling control of the accelerator from you, it just lightly moderates your inputs to keep the car under control.  I never got really out of shape with the car, though, and I’m sure if I did that the traction and stability control systems would make their presence known a little more firmly.

Acceleration feels similar to a Model S 70D, and the Model 3’s advertised 5.1 second 0-60 time is roughly accurate (timed via stopwatch, not VBOX).  It’s not as “punchy” as my Roadster or any Model S with a “P” designation (P85 or faster), but it’s still got great pedal response and good power through the range.  The pedal response is perhaps just a tiny bit slower than the Model S, which is again a tiny bit slower than the Roadster, but we’re talking milliseconds here, and it’s still miles better than any gas-powered vehicle and also most EVs.

Regenerative braking is strong, but still a little weaker than the Chevy Bolt (which has a really great regen system).  I like strong regen as do most longtime EV drivers I know, so while it is by no means weak, I do wish the Model 3’s was a bit stronger.

It’s possible that regen will be stronger in the future all-wheel drive version of the car.  In keeping with the pedal response note above, regen braking seems to kick in just a tiny bit slower on the 3 than on the S and Roadster.  Friction brakes are smooth and linear and the car inspires confidence under braking.

The performance specs of this vehicle differ from the base model in three ways – one, the smaller battery means less power and slower 0-60 (5.6 from the base model, as compared to 5.1 from the long range model); two, the 19 inch wheels have tires which are presumably grippier, though I couldn’t tell much difference when driving a 19 and 18 back-to-back on normal city streets; and three, the smaller battery may result in a lighter car which might actually improve handling for the base model.  If this is the standard, non-performance, everyday version of the car, I can’t wait to see what a future performance model will do.

Comfort

The car is very quiet inside, even at highway speeds.  Bluetooth calls are clear and easy to understand both for the driver and for the person on the other end.

The seats feel great, and the headroom and leg room is extensive – there is plenty of each, even for above-average height passengers. As a lanky 6-footer myself who likes to drive with the seat pretty far back, when I set the driver’s seat to my preferred position, 6-foot passengers still have a few inches of knee room in the back.

This is a real five-seater with room for three in the back, though the normal caveat applies that for any long drives, rear seat passengers will probably be happier if there’s only two of them instead of three – especially since the middle seat folds down to reveal two rear cup holders, which was one the most-noted omissions in the Model S.  The glass roof adds to a sense of openness in the back, and the elimination of the crossbar above the rear passengers’ heads makes for pretty exceptional rear headroom as well.

Rear passengers have access to two powered USB ports of their own, in addition to the two in the front.  Tesla included a Lightning and USB-C cable with the car, which can be inserted into the front console area to make a dock for your phone.  Additional cables (including micro-USB) are $14 from Tesla.

Rear climate control is very strong.  Though the rear does only get two vents in the center console, the vents blow hard.  Rear climate control does not get its own “zone,” but does respect the left-right split of the front two climate control zones – so if you have four passengers and two of them are prone to feeling chilly, you might want to put those two on the same side of the car.

But the rear climate control isn’t the cool part, the cool part is the front climate control.  All of it flows through one long, almost invisible vent in the minimalistic dash, and is controlled through the touchscreen without any clunky visible louvers.  It combines streams of air to direct flow up and down and side to side on the vent, giving lots of control and one less part to break (the louvers).

If there’s a problem with the car comfort-wise, it’s a little bit too-tight in ride quality.  It does seem to magnify bumps a little more than it should.  This is natural for any tightly-sprung, performance-tuned suspension system, and were it not for this tuning, then the car’s handling wouldn’t feel as incredible as it does.  So there’s a natural tradeoff here, and Tesla picked the side of handling more than the side of smoothness.  Nevertheless I do feel like it could be a tad more comfortable ride-wise – maybe smaller wheels and larger tires would help, or a possible future suspension upgrade package.

If ride quality is your primary concern, then you’ll want to get a little time in the car and see how it feels to you.  By no means is it bad, it’s just “sporty.”  If you’re looking for something with a softer ride and less sporty in a similar price range, the new Nissan Leaf could be more your speed.   That said, I did have one passenger with a pretty bad herniated disc sit in the car for about 45 minutes (and through the aforementioned “twisty bits”), and he was surprised that his back felt fine the whole time, so maybe I’m just being hypersensitive to try to find a rare downside to the car here.

Interface

The interface has a few of the same cues as the Model S/X interface and should be reasonably familiar if you’ve used those, but it is rearranged and both simplified and significantly improved.  There is no lag at all with any of the screen interactions I’ve tried.  It’s extremely responsive, and honestly embarrasses every other in-car interface I’ve used:

It doesn’t take long to get used to center instruments, which are placed close to the driver’s field of view.  There have been other cars with center instruments before, and it was never a safety hazard or anything, just something abnormal for drivers to get used to.  In one way, the central instruments are even a bit better – oftentimes in a normal car the steering wheel will obscure part of the forward instrument panel, and that doesn’t happen when the instruments are in the center.

Nevertheless, even if you feel like you’re psychologically ready for the lack of a forward instrument cluster, the first time you’re driving the car at night and look through the steering wheel at the empty dash, staring into the inky blackness where you expect instruments to be, is slightly off-putting.  You get over it though.

As for the scroll wheels on the steering wheel, they’re very useful but are still missing some functions which I’d like to think will be added in a software update.  Both can be used to control the position of the steering wheel and mirrors, which is great because for the first time you can adjust those controls while your hands and head are actually where they’re going to be while driving, instead of leaning over to the side to reach the controls, then sitting up straight to see if you got it right, then reaching to the side again for another adjustment, and never quite getting it perfect.

The left scroll wheel controls media, with volume up/down, play/pause when pressing the button, and next/previous song by tilting the wheel sideways.  It would be nice if the wheel could advance podcasts by 15 seconds in either direction, as the UI on iOS does, instead of starting a podcast over from the beginning when you click to the left.

The right scroll wheel does…nothing.  It can be used for steering wheel and mirror adjustments, and pushing it brings up voice commands, but right now the scroll and tilt functions have no effect while driving the car.  In the Model S, this wheel can be configured for many functions, including fan speed adjustments and cabin temperature.   I’d like to see the ability to configure the right scroll wheel in a future software udpate, or perhaps it could intelligently switch functions depending on how the car is being driven.

When in Autopilot mode, the driver needs to reach for the touchscreen in order to adjust speed or follow distance – if these functions were added to the right scroll wheel, with scroll controlling speed and left/right clicks controlling follow distance, the driver could easily adjust these settings without having to go into a submenu or reach for the screen.  I’m sure something like this will end up in a software update in the near future.

The ability to play any song under the sun through the car’s internet radio is a real crowd-pleaser.

The voice commands are extremely responsive, more so than the Model S.  When you push the right scroll wheel, the car beeps and starts listening immediately, and interpretation and execution of commands is very snappy.  The navigation system does this really cool-looking transformation when you bring up directions.

The ability to select just about any song under the sun and have it start playing in seconds through the car’s Slacker internet radio system is a real crowd-pleaser.  I like to ask my passengers to pick a song, any song, and then it starts playing a few seconds later.  And the premium sound system sounds great, with good highs and mids but maybe lacking just slightly in the lows.

Slacker is included for 4 years with the car, but Tesla hasn’t specified how long internet service is included.  On the Model S, they said free internet service would be included for 4 years starting Jan 1 2014, but the deadline for that passed on January 1st 2018 and we still haven’t heard anything about anyone needing to pay.  So perhaps they’ll continue to kick that can down the road in perpetuity, nobody really knows yet.

One small problem with the car’s physical interface is, predictably, the door handles – every Tesla so far has had non-standard door handles and this one is no different.  But the problem isn’t with the exterior ones though – they’re totally fine, easy to get used to, they don’t feel strange to use despite their nonstandard operation (except if you’re carrying stuff in both hands, you can’t open them with one finger).  No, it’s the interior ones.  To open the door, there’s a small button to be pressed near the top of the door’s armrest.

This is fine and easy to reach and not a problem, the issue is that the manual door release, meant only to be used in emergency situations where the car has lost power, is pretty easy to access and feels like a door handle and is approximately where a person might expect a door handle to be.  So this makes it easy for passengers who don’t know the car to reach for the manual door release and pull it instead of pressing the button.

Tesla says that using this release too often can damage the seals which keep noise and water out of the car.  So you’ll want to coach your passengers on proper door handle use.  Just another day in the life of a Tesla owner.  Tesla and their ever-weird door handles.

A final note on doors – they take a bit of a slam to close.  It’s kind of easy to leave them slightly open by accident, especially since you’ve got a nice pretty red car and you don’t want to get icky fingerprints on the clean paint.  You just have to work through that.  Give them a good firm close.

Cargo

One of the main concerns at the original Model 3 unveiling in 2016 was that the trunk opening seemed far too small.  This is a side-effect of the large rear glass roof and the missing crossbar, which gives the Model 3 its ample rear headroom.  And the Model 3 is not a hatchback, it’s more like a traditional 3-box sedan, though the rear seats fold down (with a 60/40 split) to allow capacity for large objects.  You might need to push the front seats forward a little to fold the rear seats down – it would be nice if the car did this automatically, or there was a button for it on the back of the front seats, as in the Model X.

While trunk space is less than in the Model S or other hatchbacks, it’s really quite large for what it is.  For example, it’s even possible to three people, a road bike (with front wheel removed), and still have room in the rear under floor storage and the front trunk for other cargo:

There’s even room for people in the trunk – if you fold the rear seats down and push the front seats forward, you can lay down in the back and sleep under the moon (though with the glass roof’s heavy tint you probably won’t see any stars).  One person is an easy fit, two would be a bit snug.

Other Tesla vehicles have “camper mode” which lets you run the climate control system all night, keeping your car warm or cool while it’s not running, but I was unable to activate anything of the sort in the Model 3.  Hopefully we’ll get that in a software update later.

The front trunk is “TSA-approved” so if a bag fits in the overhead bin of an airplane then it will fit in the front trunk.  In another clever bit of design, Tesla has included small hooks which you can attach the straps of grocery bags to so your oranges won’t roll around in the trunk.  Ironically, though, these don’t work great on reusable grocery bags with longer straps and work better on old-style throwaway plastic grocery bags, which are now illegal in California and in order to take a demonstration picture I had to scrounge around for this rare piece of contraband:

And, finally, Tesla has seen it fit to grace us with quite a lot of interior storage options.  Map pockets, door pockets, a large center console with two deep compartments (which you might want to cover with some sort of wrap, because their piano black finish is a fingerprint magnet), rear cup holders and hooks to hang the dry cleaning from.  It’s like it’s a real car or something!

Efficiency and charging

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the strengths of the Tesla Supercharger system and I’m going to echo all of those sentiments here.  While other EVs pretty much all have some sort of “level 3” DC quick charging capability these days, they usually use one of two standards, SAE CCS or CHAdeMO, and usually have a fairly slow peak charge rate around 50kW.

Tesla has several advantages over other EVs in the charging department.  The first is that manufacturer support is lacking in the installation of quick charge points, so most of the points are installed by third parties, charge networks like Blink, Chargepoint or EVgo.  These charge networks provide an inconsistent user experience because you need multiple memberships to use them, though they’re trying to fix that.  Also, there’s no standardized cost structure.

Tesla’s chargers are all built and maintained by the same company, easy to find within the car’s navigation system (which will auto-route you through chargers and tell you how long to charge at each one), and are relatively easy to pay for – the costs differ based on local electricity costs, but are generally lower than charging on other networks and payment is all taken care of through your MyTesla account.

In terms of deployment, the other companies’ logic is generally that they should install quick chargers in areas with high population density, because that’s where the customers are.  But these are the very same areas where trips are generally shorter, where people spend more time parked home or at work where they have plenty of time to charge up at a slower “level 2” charger, and where people are already close to their home chargers anyway – so fast chargers are not quite so necessary.

Where they are necessary is on inter-city routes, ones where people just want to get back on the road and get to their destination as quickly as possible.  And Tesla is primarily focusing on deploying superchargers on those routes, rather than intra-city routes.  So the advantage here, again, goes to Tesla.  You can even use Tesla’s trip planner (either in the car or online) to chart your course for you.

The final advantage Tesla has is charge speed.  Other EVs have quick charge ports which generally cap out at around 50kW.  Superchargers cap out at 135kW, which is of course a lot faster.  From what we’ve seen so far, the Model 3 can charge at over 100kW, so doubly as fast as the comparatively-ranged Chevy Bolt EV.

The combination of these factors makes the experience of long distance travel in a Tesla much better to doing the same route in any other EV.  A lot of Tesla drivers even prefer taking their Tesla on a long roadtrip over taking a gas car – it’s cheaper and you’re going to stop for lunch and “comfort breaks” anyway, so you might as well stretch out a little bit while you charge, besides, you really don’t lose much time compared to driving on gas.

Tesla also sells a CHAdeMO adapter for the Model S/X, so those other networks are available to a Tesla, but this is currently not compatible with the Model 3.  We’ve reached out to Tesla for an answer as to whether the car will eventually be compatible with CHAdeMO, but have not yet received an answer.

As for efficiency, the Model 3 is significantly more efficient than its predecessors.  Model S and X have consumption numbers in the range of ~350 Wh/mi give or take, but the Model 3 uses closer to ~250 Wh/mi in normal mixed driving on Southern California roads in mild weather. If I had aero wheels and focused on driving more efficiently, I’m sure I could do even better.

In fact, the Model 3 is currently only second in efficiency to the Hyundai Ioniq EV (which I got 175Wh/mi with on the freeway) in terms of efficiency.  According to EPA numbers, the Model 3 gets 126 MPGe and the Ioniq EV gets 136 MPGe, but if anything I feel like Hyundai was underselling their efficiency (but then again, Tesla kind of is too – I gotta get my hands on some of those aero wheels).

Between the Model 3’s high-efficiency and faster home charging speed (up to 11.5kW with the long range battery, if connected to a 240V charger capable of supplying 48A of continuous draw), the Model 3 can add about 46 miles of range every hour.  This is a faster home charging rate than just about anything else out there – most other EVs have ~7kW onboard chargers and charge at home at a rate of 20-30 miles of range per hour (which is still fine for everyday charging, but sometimes a higher rate is nice to have access to).  My home charger only supplies 32A, so I can’t take full advantage of this, but it’s still plenty fast enough for an overnight charge.

Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard to keep track of your efficiency while driving the Model 3, because the “energy” app from the Model S is missing.  This was a great way to keep track of your energy use over the last 5, 15 or 30 miles, and learn how driving style affects efficiency.

In the Model 3, there’s only one horizontal bar which shows whether you’re using or regenerating power, with no units attached.  The trip meters are nice, with two configurable trip meters and one which automatically tells you your mileage and energy use since last charge, and another since the last time you started up the car, but they’re not as nice as the energy app was.

Technology

I’ve mentioned software updates many times in this article.  The Model 3, like the S and X, is capable of updating its software over-the-air.  It only makes sense that in this connected age, cars should be able to update online.  Everything else you own can be updated – your computer, your phone, your television – why not your car?

Everything else you own can be updated – your computer, your phone, your television – why not your car?

This allows Tesla to fix bugs and to roll out new features wirelessly, without the need for a service appointment.  This also means that as you own the Model 3, the car will only grow more capable.  Tesla has a history of responding to customer concerns and even rolling out new features based on twitter requests, so it’s likely that we’ll see not just many of the features theorized about in this article implemented eventually, but others that nobody has thought up or requested yet.

Some of those updates will have to do with the car’s autopilot system.  The Model 3 has an option for Tesla’s Autopilot 2 (AP2) system, otherwise called “enhanced autopilot.”  There is also an optional “full self-driving” system, which has not yet been enabled in software and probably won’t for a few years, but Tesla is happy to take your money for it nonetheless.  Tesla has been taking their time fully implementing AP2, the pace of updates to the system has been slower than expected, but they’re collecting more data every day which is presumably being used to enhance their neural network and teach their computers how to drive these cars better.

Eventually, we’ll see updates to add more capability to AP2, but it is already impressive as-is.  It does great on a highway, it will track lanes and follow other cars, it accelerates and brakes reasonably smoothly, it responds to other cars unexpectedly changing lanes in front of you, it will even change lanes for you if you initiate the change with a flick of the turn signal.

It also does well on surface streets, with the caveats that it doesn’t respect stop signs or red lights yet, and it won’t turn for you or change lanes for you.  I think the lane change function is restricted by the GPS system to highways only, because I can’t get it to activate even on “highway-like” divided surface streets with 55mph speed limits.

Its lane centering function occasionally leaves something to be desired, and sometimes the car can over- or under-correct on a turn.  In comparison to the competition, the 2018 Leaf does feel like it had better lane-centering than AP2 does. I also hear good things about Cadillac’s Super Cruise system, but I have not used it myself yet and can’t offer that comparison.  But the Leaf and Cadillac are going to be stuck with their current level of refinement, whereas the Tesla can get better with updates.

Another driver’s aid which I think could use some work is the lane departure warning.  When you drift lazily out of your lane without the turn signal on, the steering wheel will vibrate to catch your attention.  The problem is, this vibration is too subtle and there’s no audio warning either.

On the Model S, the steering wheel vibrates quickly and makes an audible vibration noise, and on many other systems, the car will beep at you.  Many drivers get annoyed at these beeps and turn them off, so it’s a delicate balance between being so intrusive that drivers won’t use it and not intrusive enough for drivers to notice.  I think the Model S gets the balance just about right, and the Model 3 errs too far into the latter category.

One hope is that Tesla will add “summon” functionality, which allows owners to move the car forward or backwards slightly from their phone’s Tesla app (including opening the garage door to park in the garage or back out of it), a feature which Model S/X have, but the Model 3 currently does not have.

Until then, the Tesla app still allows control over many car functions – you can find the car’s location, turn climate control on to pre-heat or cool the car, honk the horn, flash the lights, and turn on “valet mode” which restricts access to certain features.  These features all rely on internet connectivity, but locking and unlocking doors and opening the trunks can be done even without internet service (e.g. in an underground parking garage), as long as your bluetooth connection to the car is active.

Tesla Network

But all of this is just prelude to Tesla’s future plan for the Model 3: Tesla Network.  As much as the Model 3 is the realization of Tesla’s Secret Master Plan, mentioned above, it’s also the starting point for Tesla’s “Master Plan Part Deux“.  While Tesla Network is currently not active and thus I can’t review it, this portion will focus on how the Model 3’s existing design features are built to accommodate Tesla’s future plan.  In this plan, Tesla visualizes a future where car sharing services like Uber and Lyft exist, but since cars can drive themselves, the drivers are no longer needed.

So how do you design cars with this future in mind?  Well, you can make a (kind of awesome) “weirdmobile” like the REDSPACE, or you can make a normal car and give it all the capability it will need to eventually be used for this purpose.

And Tesla has done just that.  All Model 3s are equipped with hardware which Tesla claims will eventually be capable of full self-driving, even if you don’t order them with that option included, and you can later “unlock” that capability by paying for the option down the line.  Tesla thinks that owners will want to do so when the software matures, and when Tesla Network releases and allows owners to earn passive income by letting their car taxi people around.

Further, beyond this self-driving hardware, the design obviously takes into account this future.  The large central screen, which differs from the Model S’ screen in that it has landscape instead of portrait  configuration, happens to have a resolution of 1920×1200 pixels.  That’s a relatively standard resolution as far as monitors go, but what’s particularly interesting is that the bottom bar of persistent controls – climate control, defrosters, volume, etc. – is 120 pixels tall.  Which means usable screen resolution is the even-more-standard 1920×1080 resolution, the same as the “1080p” resolution used on HDTVs.  This is the resolution Netflix streams at.

What the view probably looks like from the cabin camera

So now we have a car that can drive itself and offers an optimal Netflix experience.  Cool, for the owner.  But what if the owner wants to hire it out, without being there?  Well, then maybe it would be nice to be able to check on the car every once in a while, to make sure it’s unoccupied when it’s supposed to be, or nobody left their stuff in it, or to make sure that nobody had too-good-of-a-night and left some bilious expulsion on the floor of the backseat.  So in that case, we’d need some eyes on the vehicle.  Like, perhaps, an internal camera which Tesla has yet to tell anyone the function of (the manual states: “The camera is not currently active, but might be used in potential future features which could be added to Model 3 with software releases”).

You don’t need to carry a key anymore.  You just walk up to the car with your phone in your pocket.  I hate keys.  I don’t have to carry a key!

And finally, how are those temporary occupants going to get into the car without a key?  You can’t just leave it unlocked all the time, you’ve got to figure out a way to make sure only the people who hired the car can get into it.  So why not utilize the internet-machine everyone has in their pocket and send temporary keys out over the internet to people’s phones, which connect to the car via secure low-energy bluetooth connection?

Well, Tesla’s done that too.  The car has a physical key, an RFID card which you can keep in your wallet, but also has a digital key which can pair with your phone (and up to 18 others).  You don’t need to carry a key anymore. You just walk up to the car with your phone in your pocket.  I hate keys.  I don’t have to carry a key.  I don’t have to carry a key!

(incidentally, if you lose your keycard, Tesla will replace it for $5. That’s a little easier than the $200+ that the current fobs cost to replace)

This is how Tesla is so far ahead of everyone else.  They’re thinking of features this car will need five years from now, and including those features on every car regardless of whether the owner pays for them, because they know this will only make their cars better over time.

Other manufacturers haven’t done this because they are large and often too staid in their thinking to make big changes like this or to do something as crazy as include hardware for free on cars which might only create a profit stream years down the line.  Sure there are individuals and divisions within these companies that understand where everything is going, but they’re often not the ones at the helm of the large ship, and even if they are it takes a long time to turn a large ship.

Maybe this idea won’t work out for Tesla, there’s always that possibility.  Maybe this is a big boondoggle and Tesla’s full self-driving system never quite materializes and they wasted a lot of money on this hardware and it ends up sinking the company.  Yes, that’s possible.  But someone’s got to think about the future, someone’s got to apply technology to a device that has traditionally been very slow on the technology curve, and that someone is apparently Tesla.  And they’re way ahead on this one.

Bugs and issues

One week in to having a new vehicle, I’m already scheduling a service visit.  The rear defroster on my car is broken – I thought maybe it wasn’t enabled in software yet, or it just wasn’t very strong, but others have noted that theirs work well, and mine doesn’t.  So I’ve gotta get that fixed.

The charge port door often detects as open when it’s not, which isn’t really a big deal, it’s not like I can’t open it (with a light press of my finger against the charge port door), but apparently this is a common issue which may or may not be hardware-related.  And there’s that faint high-pitched whine which probably can’t be fixed, but I’m going to find someone at the service center with young ears to listen for it and see if anything can be done.

While fit and finish is good overall, those further back in line will benefit from us guinea pigs working through a few early kinks.

I expect that Tesla will provide a good service experience, as they have before.  It is annoying to have to bring a car in so early after getting it, but it does come with the territory of having an early production example of a new car model from a still-small company.  So, while the fit and finish has been good overall, early cars are still not perfect, and those who are further back in line will probably benefit from us guinea pigs working through the (surprisingly small) list of kinks.

There have also been a few software bugs.  After a Bluetooth call once, the speakers started making weird popping noises, which I fixed by resetting the touchscreen by holding down the scroll wheels for several seconds.  I had to do the same once when the screen wouldn’t wake up when I unlocked the car.  This button-press will become a familiar gesture to early owners while Tesla works out bugs.  It’s good that over-the-air updates exist, because they’ll be needed.

As the most glaring issue with this car, rear visibility leaves something to be desired (although front visibility is excellent).  The trunk lid in the rear rises up quite high, probably because of the aforementioned complaints at the introduction event about the trunk opening looking small.  They’ve managed to make the vertical aperture of the trunk opening roughly equal to that of the Model S with parcel shelf installed, which makes the trunk quite usable, but it’s tough to see out of the rear window – especially at night, when headlights of following cars might disappear in the shadow of the trunk.

The touchscreen makes it very easy to activate the rearview camera while driving, and I believe this design choice was intentional by Tesla as a workaround to the poor rear visibility.  But the backup camera is a little too fisheyed, and a little too low-quality, especially at night, to make up for it.  And the auto-dimming rearview mirrors get maybe just a tad bit too dark.  So, rear visibility is pretty bad – ironic, for a car which is so far ahead of everything else.

Conclusion

I included the above “bugs and issues” section because I’m trying to find problems with this car – it’s a review, after all.  I’m trying to be objective here.  I will absolutely admit that I wanted to like this car.  I want to like any EV, and despite my move from owning one Tesla to another, I do like other EVs (the Bolt and Leaf topped my list, until now).  I especially want to like any serious effort which isn’t just a compliance vehicle.  This is a serious effort, so I expected to like this car.

But I didn’t expect to like it as much as I do.  I expected it to be a solid entry which is better than the ICE competition (it is), but which still has its quirks.  I expected to have to rationalize away those quirks, like so many early owners have eagerly done with the Model S, and with my proof-of-concept, bucket-of-bolts Roadster.  But I didn’t think the Model 3 would beat my already-high expectations so thoroughly, and in so many ways.  It’s not perfect, but nothing is perfect.  All things considered, it’s as close to perfect as you need to get.

Tesla knocked it out of the park here.  This car screams “somebody put a lot of thought into this”.

In the time since I’ve had this car, and in response to the articles I’ve written about it, I’ve heard comments from car show onlookers, test drivers and riders, and seen comments from readers, other owners and other reviewers. I have found what seems to be a unanimous opinion: “wow.”  Tesla knocked it way out of the park with this one.

There are so many nice little touches on this car, and the combination of all of them makes a car which screams “somebody put a lot of thought into all of this.”

This is how design should be done.  There are no sacred cows here.  If something is the way it is just because that’s the way it’s always been, Tesla has no qualms with doing it a different way.  Why reinvent the air conditioning system?  Well, why not?  If you can make a gorgeous dash while adding new functionality, simplify the system by removing failure points (those louvers to direct air), and add to the “cool factor” all at the same time, then you’ve succeeded at doing design the right way.

The problem is, in doing so, they’ve given themselves a tough job.  In the run-up to the Model 3’s debut, Tesla has been worried about consumers seeing the 3 as the “next-generation” car which will be “better” than the S and X.  While the S and X still have benefits over the 3 – cargo capacity, seating, performance, ride quality – and I’m still enamored with the X and its front windshield and cool seats and cool doors, the 3 strikes me as a better vehicle overall.

If Tesla doesn’t want people buying a 3 instead of an S or X, they’re going to need to refresh those cars before they finish working through the line for Model 3 orders.

Many publications title their EV reviews with some reference to the future.  As if these cars are something to be looked forward to, not something you can drive now, integrate into your life today.  The implication is that these cars aren’t mainstream and maybe even that they shouldn’t be yet, that they are worth consideration at some future date but not right now.  This is perhaps not an intentional implication, but this is the side-effect of referring to a car as being from the “future.”

This isn’t the car of the future, it’s the car of the present.  Everything else is in the past.  It says ‘yes’ when everyone else says ‘not quite yet’.

I’ve heard this “future” stuff for several years.  Driving my MINI E back in 2009, a prototype not meant for the mainstream, I was nevertheless able to use it and put many more miles on it than I usually put on a car. This was because it was so much fun to drive, and so usable for me, and so efficient, and so cheap to run, and so convenient to fuel at home.  Driving my Roadster, a car built in 2008, I routinely get comments asking if it is “the new Tesla” – apparently a 10 year old car has aged well enough for people to still think it’s a car of the future.

Well, here we are.  It’s 2018.  I took delivery of my Model 3 on December 29th, 2017.  It’s here.  It’s in my driveway.  It’s got hundreds of miles on it.  Other drivers are taking delivery, production is ramping, and if you put down a reservation early enough you should have yours soon™.  The future is here.  The future is now.

So the Model 3 is not the “car of the future”, it’s the car of the present.  Everything else that isn’t onboard with the EV revolution is a car of the past.  They are antiquated, they are inefficient, they respond slowly to driver input, they have overly complicated powertrains, and they have slow interfaces designed by the best software engineers in Detroit, not Silicon Valley.  They’re dinosaurs – such dinosaurs that they literally fuel themselves with the decomposed bodies of dead dino-material and loudly belch it out into our air so all of us die a little bit more with each breath.

The Model 3 is none of those things.  It’s fast, it’s quiet, it handles like a dream, it looks good, it’s well-thought-out, it’s usable, it’s convenient, it’s efficient, it’s high-tech, it’s reasonably priced (or will be when the 35k version hits the road).  It says yes when everything else says “not quite yet.”  It’s out now, not in the future, but in the present.

And from where I am, the present looks fantastic.  If you’re in the market for a new car in this category, but are worried about the long line to get a Model 3, you shouldn’t be.  It’s worth it.

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