Tesla’s journey into the world of mass-market cars has taken a bumpy road to say the least. Following its unveiling in March 2016, the Model 3 became one of the most eagerly awaited cars in history, though much of that wait can be attributed to what company CEO Elon Musk has described as “production hell.”
Despite Tesla’s inability to assemble it promptly, Model 3 sales have been nothing but promising, going back to the inaugural half a million customers that quickly stepped forward to place their initial deposit. However, the Model 3 still remains more BMW than Honda in terms of its price tag.
Since its announcement it’s been deemed the “affordable Tesla,” but that $35,000 starting cost doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Finding a Model 3 for under $50,000 is close to impossible at the moment, and according to the company’s site, standard models won’t be available for another 6 to 12 months.
Putting aside this false “inexpensive” label as well as Tesla’s inability to get enough of them off the assembly line, the Model 3 is a landmark car for the automotive industry. An all-electric vehicle with this degree of range, technology and performance for less than the tuition of a private university is quite an accomplishment.
After spending a week with a fully loaded Model 3, its clear why our Daily News Autos Awards’ trusted panel of judges granted it Best Luxury EV for 2018.
In terms of its outward appearance, the Model 3 borrows many design cues from the Model S, continuing Tesla’s visual assertion that swooping, unending curves are the way of the future.
While the Model 3 conveys the same sportiness as its older brother, the longer low-riding Model S looks more sleek and stylish, the slightly taller Model 3 coming across as a tad bit bubbly. This isn’t to say it has the same rotund figure as the Model X SUV, but its awkwardly flattened stump of a front end isn’t doing the car’s profile any favors.
The overall design isn’t a turn off by any means and fans of the brand’s futuristic aesthetic will appreciate it. There isn’t anything on the road quite like a Model 3, so East Coast drivers will still attract the same gazes and compliments that come with owning any Tesla in this region of the country. However, let’s just say this car is much more pleasing to the eyes when viewed from a front-quarter angle.
As a car intended for the masses, the Model 3 doesn’t necessarily require a cabin that meets the expectations of luxury buyers. However, with a final cost that falls into the premium market price range, one would still hope for a comfortable and well-finished interior.
Fortunately, the Model 3 delivers. As part of the $5,000 Premium Upgrade Package, cushiony synthetic leather adorns the front and rear heated seats, and the long strip of wood and metal trim across the dash breaks things up nicely and adds a warm feel.
As for space, take it from a lanky guy with bad knees who stands 6’4”: The Model 3 has all the legroom one could hope for in this size of a car. Both the front and rear seats were quite accommodating, even to passengers forced to sit behind a driver like myself who prefers his seat pushed all the way back.
Calling the inside of the Model 3 “minimalist” is a vast understatement. With only two controls that could even be considered “buttons,” your eyes aren’t simply drawn to the glossy 15-inch mounted touchscreen display – they don’t have anywhere else to go.
You may have heard about the Model 3’s lack of a traditional instrument cluster. Peek over the top of the steering wheel and you’ll be interested to find that all gauges and meters are gone and in their place sits a smooth panel of open pore wood décor that stretches across the dashboard. All of these handy driver’s tools are instead located on the far left third of the infotainment screen.
I’ll admit that at first it was unnatural to glance to my right every time I wanted to check the car’s speed or battery life. After a few hours with the vehicle, though, it was easy to get used to. My one suggestion to Tesla would be to add a head-up display, one of the most sought-after features by many car buyers today.
For a car with seemingly so little inside of it though, the Model 3 packs a heaping load of new age technology, starting with the key card for locking and unlocking the doors. The size of a driver’s license in order to fit neatly inside one’s wallet, owners use the card by simply pressing it against the vehicle’s center roof pillar.
To power the car on, drivers then press the card against a space behind the center console’s cupholders. Although I initially labeled it a party trick, different for the sake of being different, I came to appreciate the convenience of not needing to carry around a bulky key fob with my cell phone and house keys.
While eliminating redundancy and essentially grouping everything into one location is convenient, there are several downsides to it. The interface is intuitive and fairly easy to navigate, but many of the car’s most basic functions require clicking through multiple menus.
Something as basic as adjusting the side view mirror is done by selecting the function from within a list of options. I’m all for innovation, but do we need to make something so simple require taking one’s eyes away from the road that long? Even the most talented multi-taskers won’t appreciate the amount of effort it takes just to adjust the climate controls while driving.
Fortunately, Tesla makes up for its overstuffed infotainment display with excellent voice controls that work great for hands-free cell phone use, navigation, and the media system. As opposed to some frustrating voice recognition systems that come across as hearing impaired, speaking commands to the Model 3 was effortless with quick and efficient responses. Elon Musk also recently announced that future software updates will enable additional car functions to be voice controlled, something definitely worth looking forward to.
On the road, the Model 3 is by no means the same acceleration powerhouse as the big bad Model S that stole YouTubers’ hearts with its outrageously fast Ludicrous mode. However, it definitely manages to hold its own by putting up some fairly impressive numbers on the spec sheet.
Tesla says that 60 mph arrives in 5.1 seconds with a smooth but forceful shove off the line that’ll still put a smile on your face. For those keeping track or in need of some perspective, that’s faster than the BMW 330i and its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder.
Driving wise, the Model 3 is more than satisfying. Steering is quick, responsive, and simply put, fun. As with all Teslas the car packs a very low center of gravity due to the lithium ion battery that lies underneath floor. This makes for flat cornering in even the sharpest of turns. Around every tight bend the tires stay glued to the road while the car remains nimble as ever.
While many have complained of the ride being harsh, I personally can’t endorse that claim. Do you feel the road? Yes. It’s a sports sedan with a tight suspension.
However, as someone who spent plenty of his time with it on the ugly uneven back roads of New Jersey (the Daily News’ Jersey City office is located on what could be mistaken for an off-road course), I have to say it absorbed the majority of bumps and potholes smoothly. Poor road conditions never became distracting even on the construction mess they call New York’s West Side Highway. Keep in mind the Model 3 is also without the active air suspension available for both the Model S and Model X.
For the record, my car was equipped with the 19-inch, 10-spoke Sport aluminum wheels fitted with Continental tires ($1,500). This is a visual upgrade from the standard 18-inch wheels that come with Michelin tires, though both sets of rubber have an all-weather design and the same tread. So far the major differences reported between the two sets of wheels has been performance related rather than ride, with the 19’s being noted to improve acceleration, braking and handling.
For an additional $5,000 you can upgrade the car’s standard driver assistance system to include Enhanced Autopilot, which unlocks the car’s lane centering and traffic following capabilities. Similarly to what I found in the Model X, this semi-autonomous feature is effective at keeping the car within its lane without sending you ping-ponging between the lines. Adjusting the car’s speed and distance to match the preceding vehicle is also easily achieved. Overall, this technology makes for a less stressful commute during rush-hour traffic, and provides a helping hand on long highway trips.
Despite its quirks, the Model 3 remains an impressive achievement on Tesla’s end. It’s a “reasonably” priced all-electric supercomputer on wheels capable of providing a fun and fulfilling driving experience to even the most fussy automotive enthusiasts. However, while the car itself is worthy of the praise and recognition it’s received, Tesla’s production issues could still prove to be a problem for the Model 3 in the long run.
The company has yet to release a Model 3 even close to the car’s attractive base price of $35,000, and rumor has it that available tax incentives may start to evaporate before one of these more affordable versions arrives. In fact, the first Model 3 to come off the assembly line with a standard 220-mile range battery isn’t expected until the company finally reaches its production goals.
My well-equipped test car, with a long-range battery providing 310 miles of driving distance before requiring a recharge, came out to a total of $57,500 before tax and destination charges. Of course, applying any tax credits or state rebates lowers that figure.
The majority of Model 3’s produced so far aren’t far behind that number, and the company’s first souped up performance version of the Model 3 with dual motors and all-wheel drive has just left the factory.
In comparison to the Model S, which on average runs for a total of $100,000, this is all fine and dandy. But it appears Tesla is close to skipping over an important potential market and headed straight into upper class territory with its “affordable model,” and that is why it was chosen for Daily News Autos Award in the “Luxury EV” category.
No doubt, the Model 3 is an excellent car in a variety ways, and has had an undeniable impact on EV adoption. However, with Tesla seemingly ignoring its initial appeal as the electric sports sedan for the masses, a focus on making costly version of the car could prove to carry consequences. A continued wait time of 6-12 months for a low-priced model could easily send interested buyers looking elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a wave of all-electric options from Europe is headed this way, lead by the impressive Jaguar I-Pace SUV that sports a driving range of 240 miles and a starting price of $69,500.
Tesla is about to face plenty of competition in a market it once had cornered. Let’s hope for the sake of the Model 3 and everything it has to offer, the company can finally get the ball rolling.
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