2018 Tesla Model 3

The claimed "Car of the Future" is finally here

2018 Tesla Model 3

The claimed “Car of the Future” is finally here

By Randy Lioz, Editor, Car-ED.com | August 2018


The Tesla Model 3 has been one of the most eagerly anticipated cars in recent memory. After steadily building demand (and excitement) for its high-dollar electric vehicles, like the Model S and Model X, Tesla is attempting to put into place the next step of Elon Musk’s grand plan to electrify the automotive world, an “affordable” EV that can be had for less than the average transaction price for a new car in the U.S. market.

That day has finally arrived…sort of.

What is this vehicle?

The 2018 Tesla Model 3 is the car that, in theory, finally gets us to the holy grail of EVs: an attractive, feature-filled car with long battery range and at a price accessible to the proletariat. The Model 3 takes many of the aspects that Model S and X owners love about their cars and packages them in a smaller wrapper, with innovations aimed at making it cheaper to build, but that still please most customers.

The size and price of the Model 3 puts it in class with such compact luxury sedan stalwarts as the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4, stiff competition that has perfected the formula over several decades. But it also goes up against an array of electrified vehicles already on the market, including both full electric vehicles, like the Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf, and plug-in hybrids like the Toyota Prius Prime and Audi A3 e-tron.

Tesla’s approach to the EV market tends to be more performance-oriented than many of its competitors, so the Model 3’s 5.1-second 0-60 time bears a much closer resemblance to that of an Audi A4 than a Chevy Bolt. It also feels more like a car in the Audi’s class, but these advantages come at a price, in a very literal sense.

Right now the only versions of the Model 3 available to order are the Long Range cars with Premium Upgrades Package, which have a range of 310 miles on a charge. That car starts at $50,000 including destination. There are plenty of ways to go north from there, including the all-wheel drive Dual Motor version for another four grand, or the Performance trim, which adds $11,000 to the Dual Motor, but drops the 0-60 time to a truly batty 3.5 seconds. Then there are upgrades for paint, wheels and self-driving capability, meaning you can option your Model 3 up to $80,000.

What you can’t do right now is go south to the promised $35,000 price point. So the Model 3 is still positioned pretty solidly in the luxury space.

Who is this vehicle for?

The Model 3 is a car for tech lovers, who want the latest and greatest gadgets so they can be on the cutting edge. It’s also a great car for any driver who cares about performance and style, and might otherwise wind up in a compact lux sedan, but who also wants to embrace EVs as the transportation of the future. They might have hesitated at previous electric cars that had significantly shorter range, but Tesla has created a car that feels less compromised and much sportier.

It’s also better looking in the eyes of sport sedan buyers, who are likely to pass on the tall-hatch proportions of vehicles like the Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf and BMW i3. Those vehicles may have some packaging advantages, especially for rear seat headroom and cargo flexibility, but they can look a bit goofy, especially for former buyers of a BMW 3 Series or its ilk.

Why is this vehicle important to you, the buyer?

Tesla calls the Model 3 “the car of the future,” and there are certainly people who believe them. Part of the significance of the Tesla brand itself, even to consumers who, until now, couldn’t afford their cars, is that it pushed the industry forward as a whole. Luxury carmakers were definitely taking notice as the Model S and X began cutting into their sales. They’ve started to electrify their cars more aggressively, with luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes now accounting for more than half of the plug-in hybrid models on the market.

This car represents the next step in that process, and it’ll put more pressure on mainstream car brands to introduce affordable electrified options that don’t just serve the portion of the population that’s highly concerned with their carbon footprint. Independent analyses have shown that, even setting aside the tax incentives on these cars, the advantage in fuel and maintenance costs, on top of the positive experience that most EV drivers have with their vehicles, makes a car like the Model 3 highly competitive against a wide range of cars, from the Honda Civic to the BMW 3 Series. In fact, factoring in both objective and subjective measures, there’s a good argument to be made that a Model 3 owner gets an experience on par with a 3 Series for the overall cost of ownership of a Civic.

Full disclosure: your humble author just took delivery of his very own Model 3 last week. I’ve been putting it through its paces, and here’s my in-depth impressions of my new car.

Interesting facts about this vehicle!

  • Tesla unveiled the prototype version of the Model 3 over two years ago, and the world went mad. Observers seemed to quickly sort themselves into lovers and haters, and many of the former group put down $1,000 to reserve a spot on line to be an early buyer. The company took in over 300,000 deposits in the first week alone, on its way to over 450,000 reservations by the time the car was released for sale in July 2017. Tesla essentially got a free loan of nearly half a billion dollars from prospective customers!
  • The most shocking fact about this car’s design is that it’s eliminated nearly all of the buttons that a traditional vehicle has, in favor of centralizing controls to its single, large, centrally-located touch screen. And it’s not just buttons that are gone. Tesla threw out the whole gauge cluster. The vehicle speed and other vital info occupy the left third of the screen, while the rest has the info you would expect to be on a typical infotainment screen, like navigation, streaming audio and connectivity.
  • Tesla maintains its own charging standard for all its cars, distinct from the J1772 plug that has been standardized—at least for Level 1 and 2 charging—by the Society of Automotive Engineers. It’s a somewhat similar strategy to that of Apple, which has its own sleek and elegant charging connecter, rather than the common micro-USB standard. Like the Apple connector, the Tesla plug does seem like a more refined solution (unlike other EVs Teslas use the same connector for DC fast charging), but it can lead to compatibility headaches. Luckily the company provides a J1772 adapter with every car, so you can charge anywhere.
  • The Model 3’s glass roof, despite its heavy tint, can really heat up the car. So with its latest software update the car gained Cabin Overheat Protection, with the ability to keep the interior temperature at a “safe” level for up to 12 hours. What does Tesla consider “safe”? One hundred five degrees. Tesla says this is for the protection of children and pets, and claims an industry first.
  • Speaking of software updates, Tesla regularly pushes out over-the-air (OTA) updates via the cars’ internet connections, meaning that, like fine wine, the cars continue to get better as they age. With previous updates they’ve introduced features like Summon, which can bring your car to you from its parking spot—for cars equipped with Enhanced Autopilot—and Automatic Emergency Braking. So yes, every Tesla can now stop itself to avoid rear-ending someone, but so can almost all new Toyotas, as we’ve previously mentioned. The difference is that your Tesla will continue to add even more advanced features over time.

What Impressed Us / Top Likes:

1 – The Model 3 truly drives like a luxury sport sedan. With its center of gravity set way down low due to its flat battery pack, Tesla engineers had a great starting point. The chassis is extremely stiff, which allowed them to tune the dampers aggressively. The ride is fairly taut, which means that some drivers won’t feel fully comfortable, but the types of buyers who love European sport sedans will feel right at home. The steering effort is adjustable, but it’s tuned very naturally for a pure drive-by-wire system. The steering isn’t super talkative, so you may be guessing a bit at what’s going on underneath you, but we liked the weighting, which makes the car feel more premium. The Sport setting has a great on-center sensation, so you can always feel when you’re pointed dead straight, and the Standard setting is a nice happy medium, not too relaxed. I didn’t feel much of a difference with the Comfort setting, though.

My friend Dan and I took his Cadillac ATS—what many consider to be the gold standard for handling in the compact lux segment—and my Model 3 for an evaluation drive in the hills above Trabuco Canyon, Calif., and we put them both through their paces. We agreed on the fact that the Model 3’s power was “addictive,” with the instant torque of its electric motor kicking you in the seat of your pants. The motor is rated at 211 kW, or the equivalent of 283 hp, with 307 lb-ft of torque, and that torque comes with you as speed rises, unlike some gas engines that run out of breath at the higher ranges. We both liked the way the throttle pedal is tuned, with just the right amount of response to your eager right foot. The throttle has a “Chill” mode that acts like Eco mode in some other vehicles, but the Model 3 feels quite spritely even with that switch flipped.

While the Tesla pulled strongly away from the Caddy on the straights, the ATS could more easily keep up with the Model 3 in the twisty bits, with its sophisticated suspension and grippier tires. The 3 had quite immediate turn-in, which was impressive given its Michelin Primacy MXM4 low rolling resistance tires that come with the car’s base wheels. But ultimately the Model 3 runs out of grip sooner than the ATS, so if you’re looking for a track star you’ll want to upgrade to one of Tesla’s sportier wheel and tire packages.

The brakes feel quite natural for an EV, especially if you’re on low regeneration mode. The default way the Tesla suggests you drive your car is with regular regen, which pumps most of the energy from your braking back into the battery, rather than having it dissipated to the air in the form of heat. As a bonus, in this mode you can basically drive the car with one pedal, since lifting off the accelerator will start the car braking. But it’s more difficult to manage that process precisely in contrast to regular disc brakes, so low regen mode will give you better feel.

Overall it’s a very entertaining car to drive, and while it may not have the pure feeling of connectedness to the road that an Alfa Giulia might give you, it doesn’t feel at all like you’ve really compromised to cut your carbon output.

2 – This car is clever, in a lot of ways. Tesla’s approach to cars is unique in that they don’t feel the need to hold on to outdated practices just because that’s the way it’s always been done. So no need to unlock this puppy. As long as you’ve got your phone in your pocket—which acts as your car key and control module—you just walk right up and open the door. Walk away and it’s locked. When you get inside they’ve dispensed with the start button; what would you even be starting? Just throw it into drive and you’re off. Pull out of your garage? It’ll close the door behind you, and open it back up as you approach.

Climate control vent slats? Forget ’em! Tesla’s airflow control is solid state. In fact, it uses an upward stream of air to control the direction of an outward stream of air. Mind: blown.

We like that the car’s been designed with a smartphone mount, which is well-engineered, except for the fact that if your phone case is too thick it won’t work. I’m one of the lucky ones in that regard, but the delivery specialist assumed that my phone wouldn’t fit, so it’s a good bet that he’s been seeing a lot that don’t. But the car comes with both iPhone and Android connectors that integrate nicely into the center console, and the cover can be closed so your phone doesn’t distract you. Of course, we all say we’ll do that but then leave it open.

There are other nice little touches inside the car, like the elegantly engineered visor mirrors, with magnetic closure and a folding door, and the well-integrated hooks both in the cabin and the front trunk. The floor mats and charging cable organizer have a unique underside texture to keep them from sliding around, and it seems very well executed. And the cruise control can be adjusted with the right-hand scroll wheel on the steering wheel. Slick!

3 – The cabin is nearly Swedish in its elegant minimalism. My jaw dropped the first time I saw the buttonless dash, with its full-width swath of open-pore wood, and I started throwing cash at the screen, yelling, “Take my money!” The materials feel great throughout, but this is really just on par with the compact lux segment. The steering wheel is nice and meaty, with good contours for your hands, and the few buttons that exist around the cabin have a nice click feel to them.

The center console presents one long expanse of piano-black finish, which can actually make it seem like it’s missing features at first, but the space underneath is used wisely, and I actually quite like it now. The only problem with it is the inevitability of its ruination, in the form of smudges, scuffs and scratches. This thing is impossible to keep shiny, so I’ll be covering it with a carbon-fiber-look vinyl wrap, available for $30.

4 – The center screen is a tech showpiece, with elegant graphics and quick responses. It has cool tricks built in, like controlling the airflow or sound focus through dragging dots around with your finger. You can easily connect your smartphone to play tunes through that, or you could use Slacker to pull up different genre stations or other specialized streaming content. The screen also changes the function of the steering wheel controls when you need to do something like adjust you mirrors or wheel, though this isn’t the most intuitive thing, and can take a beat to get used to.

5 – The seats are super comfortable for this writer’s 5’7″ frame, and the fixed headrests seem miraculously in the right place, both for someone my height or a 6’4″ guy like Dan. For bigger people they might be a bit narrow. The rear seats are decently sized, with more room than the ATS, but he couldn’t sit behind himself. It’s certainly no executive class limo, but space is reasonable. The headroom upfront is ample, though Dan found himself with his head pressed against the glass roof while sitting in the back, which, had we been actually moving, perhaps over a bumpy road, I imagine would be pretty awful.

6 – Speaking of that glass roof, it’s pretty stunning. The view upward is nearly unobstructed from the base of the windshield to the rear parcel shelf. It’s got a reasonably dark tint in the areas where a normal roof would be, but even with this you’re getting a lot of solar rays flooding into the car, so it may not be a feature for everyone.

7 – The Tesla App lets you control many aspects of the car from your phone, and when it comes to the cabin heating up, this is very welcome, since you can turn on the A/C to cool the car before you get in. Leaving a lunch spot, I saw that the car had hit 105º while we were eating. I turned on the A/C and it took a quick three minutes to cool down to 77º, so we were comfortable by the time we got in. Through the app you can also control charging and functions like the door locks, and even track down your car if you lose it in a parking lot.

8 – There’s lots of storage space, including trunks front and rear. The “frunk” is pretty modest in size, but the rear trunk is capacious, and it even has a large Igloo cooler-sized hidden well beneath the floor. You can fit a ton of stuff in it, and the seats fold down to enable even more cargo flexibility. Unfortunately this well precludes the inclusion of a spare tire. Hopefully you’ve got good roadside assistance.

9 – The charging infrastructure that Tesla has set up to support its cars is truly impressive. Tesla wanted to dispel any range anxiety among its customers, so it has arranged its DC fast chargers—dubbed “Superchargers”—along major travel routes throughout the country, and much of the world. As I hadn’t yet gotten my Level 2 adapter, and wanted to be topped off for a day of testing, I dropped by a nearby station that, like many of their Superchargers, was located in the parking lot of a mall. I went inside to have lunch while my car charged, and 38 minutes later I’d gained 168 miles of range. My phone told me the car was done charging and I was on my way.

Supercharging was free for early Model S and X buyers, but now new high-end customers need a referral to get that benefit. For S and X buyers who don’t know another owner (which is rare) and us Model 3 buyers, there’s a fee attached to Supercharging. But it’s fairly modest. That 168 miles of range came at a cost of just over ten dollars. The rate in California is 26¢ per kWh of charging—rates vary throughout the country—whereas my home charging rate, if I avoid charging between the peak hours of 5 pm and 8 pm, is 22.5¢ per kWh. And that slightly higher cost was for a charging speed more than ten times that of my 240v appliance outlet.

Tesla doesn’t want you using Superchargers on the regular, and there are plenty of other options, even if you don’t have access to a plug at home, including paid networks like ChargePoint and free, ad-supported chargers offered by Volta. But it’s really nice to have the Superchargers as a backstop, just in case you need a quick top-off, or for a long trip. At this point it feels like there’s not much of a compromise involved in owning this car versus a gas-powered ride.

Items to Make Better (Least Favorite Things):

1 – Make no mistake, when owning a car this radically different from its peers, there are a few compromises. That central screen? It’s super impressive, but it makes some things more complicated than they otherwise would be. Opening the glove box requires that you navigate to another screen and then press a virtual button. The dome lights are buried in the screen, as well. The only buttons in the car control the windows, seats, hazard flashers and an escape button to open the door. But you have to explain this last one to everyone who tries to get out of your car. It works really well, but it’s not at all obvious.

2 – The screen falls a bit short when it comes to connectivity. Tesla has a bit of paranoia about this, which is reasonable given you’re driving around a giant computer, so they don’t allow for any add-on apps, including Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. You’ll have to be happy with the car’s built-in functions, including navigation, Slacker streaming media and not much else. It’s impossible to interact with text messages, which is unfortunate given that most drivers simply don’t ignore their texts while they’re behind the wheel.

And the voice commands, while highly impressive within the functions they cover, especially for mapping, are a bit limited. It would be great if there were an option to make the voice command button pass through to Siri or Google Assistant, but you can’t.

It’s also tough to find media on your phone. It doesn’t appear searchable, so you just have to use your phone screen to do that, which seems quaint at this point.

3 – The navigation function is good, except for its location on the screen. Why would they possibly arrange the turn-by-turn instructions all the way at the right edge, at the furthest possible glance? It also took me a few days to realize that there were buttons that would only appear when you tap the map. And there didn’t seem to be any mention of this in the virtual owner’s manual baked into the screen.

4 – Again, you’re driving a massive computer. So there are bound to be “glitches” every so often. That magical Homelink system that opens and closes your garage automatically may randomly stop working for a bit, and only reset if you go into the setup screen. (So you think, but was it really that sequence of button presses that made it work? You’re not quite sure.) And maybe the button on the charging connecter that’s supposed to open the charge port won’t work. (Is it supposed to be opening it now? Is the car in the wrong mode? Ugh, just do it through the app.) And that app may take a bit of time to connect to the car. I’ve stared at a “Waking up” status message for the better part of a minute in anticipation of cooling the car down.

5 – Enhanced Autopilot is a $5,000 option—$6,000 if you upgrade later—and it includes adaptive cruise control. It’s a bummer to have to pay this steep price to get a feature like adaptive cruise, which is  becoming much more common even among non-lux cars. But the package also includes automatic steering and lane changing, and the ability to have your car park itself and to call it back to you, Knight Rider-style.

6 – There are other little niggles about the car, such as the tendency for your thumb to brush the left scroll wheel on the steering wheel as you remove it from the spoke, randomly turning the volume down. Dan, an automotive product planner by trade, has said this is a common issue with this setup. Speaking of that wheel, it looks a bit low-class, particularly compared to the shapely and elegant rudder on the Model S. The rearward visibility isn’t the best, given the car’s high rear deck. If you align the mirror with the bottom of the glass the view is awkwardly high, so it just makes more sense to point it straight back and deal with the view being a bit obstructed. The door handles, which can be confusing for newbies to figure out (press the back of it to open), are made of real metal, and can get kind of hot when sitting out in the sun for a while.

But overall, the good definitely outweighs the bad with this car. It may not be a 100% conventional experience, and that takes some getting used to. But so far, that trade-off seems totally worth it for this writer.

Segment and Competitors:

The Tesla Model 3 has really two sets of competitors. The EV alternatives include both long-range BEVs and plug-in hybrids:

  • Chevrolet Bolt EV
  • Nissan Leaf EV
  • BMW i3 EV & PHEV
  • Honda Clarity EV & PHEV
  • Hyundai Ioniq EV & PHEV
  • Chevrolet Volt PHEV
  • Toyota Prius Prime PHEV
  • Ford Fusion Energi PHEV
  • A used Tesla Model S

The compact luxury car market has plenty of offerings, since it’s one of the most established segments in the industry, but Model 3 buyers are likely to be drawn to the electrified versions, noted in parentheses:

  • BMW 3 Series (330e)
  • Mercedes C-Class (C 350e)
  • 2019 Volvo S60 (T8 Polestar Engineered)
  • Audi A4 (the smaller A3 e-tron is Audi’s plug-in offering)
  • Cadillac ATS (the larger CT6 is available as a plug-in)
  • Lexus IS
  • Infiniti Q50
  • Acura TLX
  • Jaguar XE
  • Alfa Romeo Giulia

To some, it seems like the Model 3 combines the best of both worlds from these two segments.

Unique Specifications:

Everything about this car is unique, but perhaps the biggest elements of its magic formula are the combination of a long-range battery (220 or 310 miles) with quick acceleration (0-60 mph ranging from 5.6 seconds for the RWD short-range car to 3.5 seconds for the long-range AWD Performance version) and great efficiency (130 MPGe for the RWD models, 116 MPGe for the AWD dual-motor cars). Combined with the way the car is executed and the charging infrastructure support that Tesla has built, it feels like perhaps Tesla was right to call it “the car of the future.”

Pricing and Availability:

The 2018 Tesla Model 3 is available to order now, but new reservations may have to wait several months to actually take delivery. The only cars available to order are the Long Range model with Premium Upgrades Package (synthetic leather and premium materials like open-pore wood, 12-way power seats, 5 heated seats, 2 rear USB ports, premium audio, tinted glass roof and covered center console) which starts at $50,000, and the more expensive AWD and high-performance versions. To get the promised $35,000 version with a shorter range and fewer bells and whistles, you’ll have to wait until…well, no one outside the company knows.

Corrections: This story has been updated to reflect the full functionality of the base cruise control and removing reference to Google Maps, which has not been verified as the basis for Model 3’s navigation software.