San Francisco, California
: When it comes to automotive hype, Tesla's Elon Musk has cornered the market. He's created not just a loyal fan base, but a rabid cabal of evangelists for him and his companies. When the Model 3 was announced as the company's inexpensive, entry-level sedan, it arrived with the same fanfare as the original iPhone.
Thousands of people rushed to hand over $1,000 deposits to join the cool kids club of electric car ownership, ignoring the other, low-cost electrics already available for purchase, like Nissan's top-selling Leaf
Whether electric automobiles are the best solution for the future of personal transportation is no matter because with Musk's influence, we're heading in that direction whether we like it or not. Through sheer force of Musk's will, Tesla has emerged as a player and as an automotive manufacturer, based more on its market cap than production quantities.
As one would with any other automotive manufacturer, a typical test goes something like this: make a polite request with a car maker to test a certain vehicle and said manufacturer will graciously make arrangements. However, Tesla is notoriously reluctant to engage with traditional media and seems to work best with the sorts of publications that aren't critical of the company's products or business operations, so obtaining a test car from the company is as easy as making peace between South and North Korea.
Instead, this test car was rented through Turo
, a platform that allows you to rent your personal vehicle to vetted renters in a safe and secure manner. This Model 3 was rented in San Francisco, California for the purposes of testing it in the city, on the freeway, and on the wonderful, mountainous roads north of the city.
The owner of this Model 3 Long Range, as it's called in Tesla-land, specified just a couple of options, which is money well spent. The $6,600 premium package includes the glass roof, upgraded interior materials, and a remarkably good sound system. The nineteen-inch wheels are an attractive upgrade, but cost a spendy $2,000, and at that price you could do much better in the aftermarket.
Tesla doesn't actually disclose the battery capacity, but rather the distance one can travel on a full charge, and the consensus among Tesla experts is that the Long Range uses a 75 kilowatt-hour battery pack. According to the company, this model is good for between 354 and 499 kilometres on a full charge.
The Model 3 is based on architecture similar to the Model S and X. Like its bigger brothers, it benefits from exceptionally safe construction, with an inherently advantageous low centre of gravity since the batteries are located in the floor.
Smaller in all dimensions than the familiar Model S, the 3 is cleverly packaged, with generous space inside the cabin and has trunks both in front and rear. Cargo space is more than adequate, though the trunk-type arrangement makes that space a little less usable than the hatchback arrangement of the Model S.
The low, flat floor benefits rear passengers most, as available rear passenger space seems to be more than most, if not all competitors. The full glass roof adds to the spacious feel of the cabin.
Like other Tesla vehicles, the front seats are mounted too high and can't be adjusted low enough to for an optimal seating position. Not that the driver's perch is bad, but it's one of those areas of the Model 3 that could be better if the company spent a little more development time with it. Designers developed one of the simplest phone docking solutions for front seat passengers and two phones will dock in a clean, simple space under the central screen.
Controls available immediately to the driver are the steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals, shifter, turn signals, and basic wipers. The driver is faced with only a limited number of controls because Tesla's designers took minimalism to the extreme, placing literally every other control and all display information on the fifteen-inch central screen.
That's right. Tossing out decades of proven ergonomic design, the Model 3 has no instrument cluster and all of the information a driver expects to have in a straight-on, line of sight dashboard is found on that centrally located screen. Checking the basics like current speed or whether your turn signal indicator is on, requires you to look over your right hand to the top left of the screen—eyes well off the road—to find that information. Perhaps Tesla should consider a heads-up display for the driver.
The screen's interface is among the best in the business in terms of both display quality and processing speed. Looking for some secondary controls requires diving into sub-menus, which is unquestionably distracting for the driver. If you've got a trustworthy passenger, it's best to leave them in charge. Thankfully, designers included a volume control on the bottom right of the screen that's easily accessed by the passenger.
Navigation is effective, straightforward, and the speed of the system's processor makes entering destination information manually a snap, though most drivers will prefer the 3's voice controls. While it may be clever, burying things like mirror controls and steering column adjustments in a sub-menu may not be the best solution.
One of the interior's highlights is a complete re-think of a traditional ventilation system and rather than filling the dash with a number of vents, a single, horizontal vent runs across the dash, and if you desire anything beyond automatic climate control, direction of the airflow can be specified though the touchscreen, of course.
Like Tesla's other models, accessing the car is unconventional, but unlike the S and X, you open and lock the 3 by swiping a credit card-sized card along the b-pillar. Naturally, there's also a smartphone app for that.
This particular tester isn't equipped with Tesla's, controversially named, AutoPilot driver assistance system, which would require a separate review to fully articulate in this space. No, dear readers, it is not a system that removes responsibility from the driver. It's an assistance system that can perform a few simple tasks, much more advanced systems are also currently available from other car makers. We'll save a deep dive into Tesla's AutoPilot for another day and instead focus on how the Model 3 drives compared to other vehicles in the segment.
If you've not had a chance to experience an electric car, you're missing out because it transforms the notion of motoring. The first thing you notice is the lack of noise and vibration that comes along with every internal combustion engine powered car. This makes the car less tiresome to drive for long distances and provides a better platform for the sound system to perform. The upgraded audio system in this tester is exceptional with the separation and clarity of other automakers' five figure options.
Tesla claims this Long Range model is good for zero to sixty times in the low-to mid-five second range. Seat of the pants instrumentation would suggest that the low fives are possible all day long, even with passengers on board. This Model 3 is impressively quick and the torque of the electric motor is so perfectly linear that you're easily persuaded to believe in an electrified future.
Plenty has been said about the Model 3's sporting intentions and its centre-of-gravity advantage over conventional cars, which should lend it some fun to drive characteristics, but the 3 is let down by the disconnect between the driver and the road. While this sedan has satisfyingly quick and precise steering, there is little feedback from the front tires through the wheel. Similarly, the 3 has powerful brakes that modulate easily, but pedal feedback is non-existent.
Drivers then must rely on the old standby, that seat-of-the-pants kind of feedback, to feel what the car is doing. On mountain roads north of San Francisco, the Model 3 proves it can carve a turn and has high levels of grip, but in quick transitions, the suspension gets a little lost, never coming close to that excellent body and wheel control that something like a performance-optioned BMW 3-Series delivers.
Much has been said in the media, social and traditional, about the Model 3's build quality, but this tester was finished perfectly and no issues were detected during the test. On the other hand, Tesla could have spent perhaps a few more hours ensuring that the charge port cover at the left rear of the car didn't interfere with the trunk lid. Yes, open the trunk lid while charging and you can easily damage the charge port cover.
Speaking of which, Tesla's proprietary network of charging stations, Superchargers, as they're called, is fairly well developed today so that you can take your Model 3 on a road trip. It's nowhere near as quick as refueling a fossil fuel powered vehicle, but in practice, you enjoy a couple of relaxed fifteen minute breaks on a road trip from Montreal to Toronto, for example. Unlike the Model S, with the Model 3, you'll have to pay for your electricity, but it's thankfully a fraction of gasoline prices.
Even after driving this electric through a range of different conditions, the Model 3 comes off as something that missed key parts of a traditional automotive development cycle, where a few aspects of the car still needs improvement. Plenty of people joke that Tesla's customers are also their beta testers and perhaps with feedback from Model 3 drivers over the coming months, the company can resolve some of these issues and take this electric from good to great.
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2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range
: mid-size, four-door sedan.
: rear electric motor, rear-wheel drive.
: electric motor (258 hp, stated; 317 lb-ft of torque, estimated); 75 kWh battery (estimated)
: 425 litres (front and rear trunks combined).
: Range of 354 to 499 km (per Tesla, dependent upon battery capacity and final specification).
: Tesla Model 3, $56,900; as tested $65,500, less various applicable tax credits in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia.