by Jared Rosenholtz
They say when you marry someone, you are marrying their whole family. I can think of no better way to describe buying a new Tesla. When you buy a Tesla vehicle, you aren't just getting a car – you are getting a new lifestyle. Gas stations become a thing of the past, your driving habits will change, and all of your friends will suddenly be interested in your new purchase.
Buying a Tesla is like converting to a new religion, where Elon Musk is now the lord and savior. Along with the benefits of the owning the car, you are tasked with putting up with some minor annoyances, as Tesla irons out some of the bumps. His Muskness had a clear success with the Model S, but the smaller Model 3 is the true savior for the electric car that the world has been waiting for - because it is affordable.
A $35,000 car with all of the positive attributes of the far more expensive Model S, what is there possibly not to love about that prospect? Unfortunately, Tesla's production woes have put a damper on those dreams of an "affordable" EV, because the company has put a priority on the more expensive variants with larger margins. The current Model 3 ain't no $35,000 people's car.
This Model 3 comes from a private owner in Florida, who generously allowed us to find out if the car lives up to its billing as the messiah for electric cars. Let's start out with that $35,000 price tag. As discussed, Tesla promises that a $35,000 base model will be available at some point, but the cheapest Model 3 on sale now costs around $49,000 and will be delivered within six to nine months of your order. The long-range battery costs an even $9,000 and brings the range up from 220 miles to 310. The long-range battery is currently a mandatory option, as is the premium interior for $5,000.
The premium interior seems like decent value considering it includes heated seats (front and rear) with 12-way adjustable front seats, center console with covered storage, 4 USB ports and docking for 2 smartphones, a premium audio system, tinted glass roof with ultraviolet and infrared protection, auto dimming, power folding, heated side mirrors, custom driver profiles, LED fog lamps, and premium connectivity (1 year included). That last option is pretty important because it rolls in satellite maps with live traffic, in-car streaming media, and Tesla's popular over-the-air updates.
The interior design is very minimalist, despite having the "premium" package. The closest comparison to another car would be Volvo, though even this may be a bit of a stretch. The only physical controls in the Model 3 are two rockers on the steering wheel, two stalks for the transmission and basic windshield wiper functions, and a hazard light button on the headliner. Everything else is controlled via a center-mounted LCD touchscreen. If you have a touchscreen screen phobia, just walk away now.
If I performed the non-scientific, and patent-pending "put my mom in the car without any instructions" test, the Model 3 would fail... massively. I'm sure that given time with the car the central screen becomes intuitive, but since I only spent a short time driving the car, I felt more comfortable letting the owner show me how to control all of the car's functions. On one of the few times I tried to use the screen on my own, I clicked the wrong button and accidentally erased the owner's memory seat position. For the type of person who loves to experiment with the latest technology, the Model 3 won't be too intimidating. For people who are afraid of change, the controls will be downright terrifying.
Before driving the Model 3, I expected to miss having a gauge cluster in front of me. In practice, the central screen is so large and so high resolution, I didn't mind looking slightly to the right to see the current speed. That being said, I would recommend Tesla add an optional head-up display, which would easily solve other people's issues with not having a gauge cluster. Unfortunately, this wouldn't be possible with a simple software update.
This particular Model 3 was also fitted with Tesla's Autopilot suite for $5,000, which includes auto lane change, auto steer, adaptive cruise control, automatic parking, and summon. These features can also be added at a later time for $6,000. Tesla also promises full self-driving capabilities where the driver will be able to take their hands off the wheel completely for an additional cost of $3,000 on top of the $5,000, though this feature was not available at the time of testing.
Autopilot remains one of the best semi-autonomous systems on the market, keeping the car in its lane with minimal attention needed from the driver, though you do need to keep your hands on the wheel. This isn't a fully autonomous system and should not be trusted fully with your life. Like most systems, it still cannot detect red lights, and very curvy roads will still cause the system to deactivate. Autopilot is perfect for anyone who has a traffic-filled commute, where the car will basically guide itself through bumper-to-bumper traffic with ease.
Where the Model 3 really stands out against other compact luxury sedans is its smooth drivetrain. No gas-engine or hybrid vehicle in this class can accelerate as smoothly as the Tesla. The car I tested was the single motor rear-wheel-drive model, which can accelerate from 0-60 mph in just 5.1 seconds. Opt for the dual-motor all-wheel-drive model, and 0-60 drops to 4.5 seconds. What impressed me most wasn't the off-the-line acceleration, it was the responsiveness of the drivetrain once the car was moving. It doesn't matter if you need to go from 20 to 40 mph or 50 to 70 mph, the Model 3 delivers instant acceleration and shoves your head into the seat. It isn't as savage as the Model S, but is still quick enough to be one of the quickest compact luxury sedans on the market, and by far the smoothest.
The rate at which the Model 3 can overtake traffic is intoxicating, which makes up for its blasé steering. The steering isn't boring, but it is nowhere near as engaging as some competitors like the Alfa Romeo Giulia. It may not be the most fun to take on a race track or a canyon road, but how many people will actually care? When it comes to comfort, the Tesla Model 3 is in a class of its own. Competitors like the BMW 3 Series are very stiff, but the Model 3 just floats over bumps.
The interior may be minimalist, but it is also a very pleasant place to sit. Without the hum of an engine, you can be left alone to drive in peace. There are some added distractions from road imperfections that become audible without an engine to drown them out, but overall the Model 3 feels more tranquil than a normal car. In terms of visibility, the Model 3 feels extremely airy thanks to its glass roof, with minimal blind spots. I found myself wishing for blind spot monitors on the mirrors, but the central display does alert you when a car is back there. The rear seat is also very roomy and is large enough for adults – even the middle seat is somewhat usable because there is no hump for a transmission.
Now it's time to discuss the elephant in the room – the supposed $35,000 base price. In addition to the long-range battery, premium interior, and Autopilot, the owner of this car opted for the $1,000 Midnight Silver paint (only black is a no-cost option). This brings the total cost up to $56,000 as-tested. At $35,000, the Tesla Model 3 seems like a steal that is too good to be true. At $45,000, it is still a fantastic option and one seriously worth considering. I would still recommend the Model 3 at $56,000, but at that price you do have to at least consider other vehicular options.
My experience with the Model 3 was a positive one, and the car earns a ranking of "highly worth a look" at its current price tag. I sincerely hope the promise of a $35,000 Tesla wasn't just a fairytale, because at $35,000 I would change my ranking of the Model 3 from "highly worth a look" to "must buy." The Model 3 can technically be cross-shopped with similarly sized cars like the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, and Mercedes C-Class, but this car really deserves to be placed in a class of its own.