Tesla Model 3: A Cross Between a BMW and an iPad in the Best and Worst Ways
The Model 3 could be truly unbeatable, if it wasn't so annoyingly quirky.
You can’t talk about electric cars without mentioning Tesla. But since the outfit effectively replaced its PR department with the CEO’s trolly Twitter account, we had to get a little creative to include one in our big Midwestern EV test. The 2019 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus we were able to grab off the car rental app Turo stickered for about $39,990 when it was new, putting it on par with some other EVs we’ve looked at. The Tesla’s price tag has a big asterisk on it, though. We’ll get into that, and everything else we’ve come to appreciate, in this review.
People have come up with all kinds of excuses against criticisms of Tesla and CEO Elon Musk’s eccentricities. But the reality is, the company’s opaque relationship with the press has made it harder to share accurate facts about its cars. I don’t have a horse in the race of Tesla’s success or failure; I’m just here to help you understand whether or not the cars are worth a damn.
All that said — while every car has some sort of brand energy and image, Teslas are uniquely charged with identity. It’s hard to divorce Tesla the car from Tesla the idea when Musk is always very publicly making provocative statements and tweeting cringe while diehard fans of the brand are so aggressively… vocal. So while we’re here to talk about what the car’s like to drive, we’re also going to be discussing the Tesla experience, which extends beyond four wheels and the road.
2019 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus
- Base Price (as tested): $39,990, in 2019 ($44,890 including destination, in 2022)
- Powertrain: 258HP/302 LB-FT, single electric motor, rear wheel drive
- Battery Size: 54 kWh
- EPA Estimated Range (observed range): 240 miles, (about 130 miles; 201 miles projected)
- Vehicle Type: premium compact sedan
- Curb Weight: about 3,700 pounds
Update 01/19/22: It seems that Tesla added autopilot to all new Model 3s, and the $12,000 fee is actually for Full Self Driving. Yet, this wasn’t always the case, back in the day, Autopilot was a $3,000 fee. Sometime in 2019, Tesla made Autopilot standard. Still, the Model 3 Standard Plus is a whopping $44,890, about $4,500 more expensive than what it went for in 2019. Sorry for the confusion. -KW.
I Booked the Smallest Tesla, Because That’s What We Could Get
Turo is a peer-to-peer car rental app that’s kind of like Airbnb for cars. You borrow cars from their owners, not (usually) a corporation. It’s worth mentioning here in the name of disclosure; we paid $95 a day while other OEMs loaned us brand-new vehicles for free.
This 2019 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus had done around 18,000 miles when I picked it up. I mentioned the original sticker price was just under $40,000 —however, if you want the full fancy “Full Self Driving” suite, you would have needed to pay an extra $7000. Today, an identical Model 3 would sticker at $44,990, plus an additional $10,000 for Autopilot. Scratch that, in the time it’s taken to write and edit this post, that number has increased to $12,000. Tesla did have a $35,000 model, but it was nigh impossible to get, and didn’t stick around too long in production.
The EPA has rated this version of the Model 3 at a 240-mile range claim. That’s no mean feat considering the Model 3’s 54 kW battery is the smallest I’ve had equipped in all the EVs I’ve driven.
The Model 3 Is the Only Shape in our EV Test That Is Unmistakably a Car
SUVs and crossovers are all the rage now, and electric vehicles only serve to enhance that perception. Most new EVs right now tend to be crossovers (just look at the other cars in our library of EV reviews to see that). Some say that manufacturers are just leaning into the new trends, others say that electric vehicles don’t make sense in traditional car shapes because of the way their systems are packaged.
Whatever the deal is, the Model 3 (and its predecessor/stablemate the Model S) buck the EV crossover trend by being a sedan. It was apparently the right move, as Model 3 is Tesla’s best-selling model. Its crossover equivalent, the Model Y, doesn’t seem to get the same love as the Model 3 sedan, probably because it’s kind of ugly. Honestly, the Model 3’s kind of ugly too; in my weeklong test, I struggled to find good angles of it. From some angles, the Tesla looked sleek; as its coupe-like roofline blended into a curt, taut rear end. From other angles, the Model 3’s blank-looking front fascia gave off “I have no mouth, yet I must scream” vibes, mixed with a background car from Jimmy Neutron. Whenever I thought I liked looking at the Model 3, I’d adjust my view, and realized it was a little bit ugly again.
Still, it’s not another goddamn SUV, so I’ll accept a few awkward styling choices if that means I don’t have to drive with a seating position miles in the air. The Model S was a stylistic home run, but it’s a shame that the Model 3, isn’t.
The Interior Is a Hot Mess, but I Got Used to It
Tesla’s insistence on being anti-normal tried and true concessions on vehicle ergonomics for no reason at all has been well documented. After three years on the market, the Model 3’s big, singular screen that controls all vehicle functions, makes the cockpit feel no less barren than it seemed when the car came out. The interior’s lack of manual air vent controls is no less awkward, and the menu-heavy operation of wipers, mirrors, headlights, and even the glove box, hasn’t gotten sweeter with time. It was dumb in 2018, and it’s still dumb now.
And yet, I kind of got used to it. I didn’t like it, but the Model 3’s interface is straightforward and iPhone-level responsive. Auto headlights make finding the control sort of redundant anyway.. Windshield wipers are automatic too, but if you must navigate to toggle manual wiper control, the dialogue box to do so is easily read on the move. The touchscreen-only air vent control was the most frustrating, the latency from my touch to the servos in the blower motor and vents was noticeably higher than other controls. Also, it was hard to figure out where and how the air was aimed, especially on the move. I don’t understand why Tesla opted out of regular HVAC vents.
The HVAC touchscreen vents seem like a solution in search of a problem; like the exterior door handles. The Model 3’s exterior door handles are finicky, requiring long hands, or two hands to effectively open. My old college design mentor had serious issues with the Model 3’s door handles, “what about someone elderly with arthritis? Or someone with poor dexterity?”, she asked, after a thorough examination and chat about Tesla design. I’m not alone on this, plenty of Model 3 owners have complained about the Model 3’s poor door handle ergonomics.
Remarkably, the Model 3’s seating ergonomics are good. Like most modern EVs, the batteries are floor mounted and span the car’s wheelbase, which means you sit on top of them. The rear seat cushion is a little low to the floor, but not uncomfortably so.
Overall build quality isn’t super great, weatherstripping had been sloppily applied, the frunk’s lid was badly misaligned, and the leatherette felt more worn than it should have been. My example was an early build Model 3, Tesla stans insist that recent builds of the Model 3 are far better made.
Drives Like the Best 3 Series BMW Ever Made, but Autopilot is Dumb
Tesla’s “enhanced self-driving suite” is a major element of the car’s value proposition. Initially, when introduced, folks thought Autopilot was “full self-driving”, but I’ll take this opportunity to remind you that it is not. My rental was equipped with Autopilot, but the Full Self Driving beta was not available on my vehicle.
To the layperson, “Autopilot” and “Full Self Driving” sound the same, and some may argue that that was Tesla’s point, but Autopilot is not a fully-self driving vehicle. Autopilot is essentially lane keep assist (LKAS) and radar cruise control, blended into the vehicle’s navigation system, that allows the car to somewhat pilot itself. You must keep your hands on the steering wheel. Full self-driving, according to Tesla, is in effect, a self-driving vehicle. If it’s like my experience with autopilot, it won’t work all that well.
Even with that in mind, Autopilot’s kind of dim-witted. its self-steering function would routinely turn off with minimal warning, and I’d be forced to resume control of the vehicle. Autopilot’s lane changes were slow, and leaving the car to figure out how to manage the lightest of freeway traffic was more complicated than just driving the damn car myself. But like, that’s the thing, the Model 3 is so damn good to drive.
The first time I drove a Tesla, I remarked to my bosses Patrick George and Andrew Collins, “I don’t understand why Tesla stans want the car to drive itself because the car drives so good.” When the Model 3 was released, Tesla admitted they benchmarked a lot of sporty sedans whilst developing the Model 3, namely the BMW 3 series. I believe it, the Model 3 drives like an E90 era BMW 335i, but better. The E90’s one of those automotive legends, a car that was good to drive in nearly every trim, but I thought the E90’s controls and inputs were too high effort. The E90’s steering was heavy, but the ratio itself felt too slow. The shifter and clutch had a lot of travel, and the old school inline-six engines weren’t eager to rev.
Well, the Model 3 fixes all of that. Instead of a lazy I6 you’ve got an ultra-responsive, 258 horsepower rear-mounted motor. The steering is as hefty as an E90, but the ratio is lighting fast, probably the fastest I’ve ever used in a road car. The steering itself has good feel, coupled with the instant torque and response from the motor, the Model 3 is a delightfully responsive sports sedan, with sublime on-road grip. Heck, even the ride over bumps and at freeway speeds was generally good. The car felt light on the road, a positive change compared to the lumbering heavy EVs I had driven in the past.
Admirably Efficiency, but the Battery Was Too Small To Go Very Far
On paper, the Model 3 is one of the most efficient EVs on the market. In my travels, the Model 3 stayed above 2.8 miles per KW, happily staying in the 3.5 to even a touch past 4 miles per at slower cruising speeds. My best full charge, I got 127 miles over 34KW’s, at averaging 3.73 miles per KW. Multiply that by 54, which means the Tesla would be on track to achieve 201 miles, from a completely full battery, to a completely flat battery. My worst full charge, the Tesla averaged 2.69 miles per KW, setting the car on track to achieve a somewhat dismal 145 miles per charge.
Both numbers are well below Tesla’s advertised range, but my test took during full-swing Winter temperatures of around freezing. My driving was mixed, although biased towards freeways and faster country roads. I ran the heat, and drove the Tesla like I would any gas-powered car. The Tesla would lose 10-15 miles overnight, as it spent energy keeping the batteries warm. Someone with access to level 2 home charging would likely keep the Tesla plugged in.
On a positive note, the Model 3’s small 54 kW battery meant that supercharging was fast. From about 12% to 100%, the Model 3 only took about 45 minutes to achieve a full charge using a Tesla brand Supercharger. The owner did include a J1772 (CCS) to Tesla adapter, but I didn’t have provisions for DC fast charging. Luckily, the supercharging events were enough to work me through the week, despite Tesla’s limited range.
This Car Would Be Perfect if It Weren’t for the Gimmicks
“This thing feels like a flex, an impressive car to someone who doesn’t really pay attention to cars,” I explained to my colleague Kristen Lee, after returning the Model 3 to its owner. And it is… Teslas have strong style over substance vibes. The big screen, glass roof, weird door handles, that stupid yoke steering wheel, and extreme lack of physical controls for basic functions, are hogwashy. But of course, I’d argue that to the average person, that shit looks like “the future”, a dazzling and inspiring vision of what could come to be, like that Chinese train/bus thing that turned out to be a scam. They’re cool, but these ideas have real ergonomic and practical concerns. In spite of all that, the Model 3 really is quite nice to drive though.
But perhaps the most frustrating thing about these cars, from a critic’s perspective, is that Tesla and Elon Musk have such a strong cult of personality going that nobody seems to want a nuanced look at the vehicles. Tesla stans, at this point they’re a whole genre of internet commenters, seem committed to a “with us or against us” attitude and I doubt this review alone will change that. We kind of hope it will help, though. Because the “vibe” surrounding these things is one of the car’s few practical weaknesses.
If you strip away all of the Model 3’s dumb gimmicks, you’re left with a very sharp driving, efficient sporty premium(ish) electric sedan. I can’t help but wonder, how much better would the Model 3 be if Elon Musk weren’t so up his own ass? If the user experience was more normal, like say, the Hyundai Kona Electric or Polestar 2, the Model 3 would be unbeatable.
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