There has been plenty of anticipation for the Tesla Model 3 since it was first announced as an EV (Electric Vehicle). The goal was to bring EV to the mainstream auto market with an eco-friendly and affordable sedan. Due to its sudden surge in demand, Tesla would face a “production hell” in the words of Elon Musk. Mass producing a car that does not have a tried, tested and true framework can be a difficult task as Tesla struggled to produce their promise per month quota, leading to production delays. Nonetheless, the Model 3 is something worth looking into. It is fully electric, zero emission and non-fossil fuel dependent for starters. That means savings from gas and at the same time decreasing the carbon footprint. The Model 3 is more on the budget side of things, below the pricier Model S luxury performance sedan and the Model X SUV.
It is a warm and unusually humid Los Angeles summer in late August when I was invited to take a Model 3 road test. Prior to that, I had test driven the Model S and done research on it in Las Vegas. I really cannot expect the experience to be the same on both cars since the Model S is more high performance luxury. I didn’t expect Tesla had a gallery at The Grove, where they occupy a corner in the Nordstrom store. It is where you go to road test the Model 3, which had not been available before. This was going to be different from Vegas, since the streets of LA are more tighter and the traffic is more bumper to bumper. We were not going to drive on any of the freeways, though I wished we were allowed to. For this road test I will be driving the streets between La Cienega Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, where there will be pedestrian crosswalks, plenty of traffic lights and narrow side streets. The Tesla rep walks me into the parking structure of The Grove where there are a bunch of Model 3 parked. After a brief orientation, the road test begins. I am going to drive a Model 3 Dual Motor AWD Performance version.
Looking at the Model 3, it is just a normal car, the same way you would see a Toyota Corolla or Ford Focus. If I weren’t familiar with Tesla, I would not have thought of this as an EV. What makes it standout is its styling. It is not as lavish as the Model S or sporty like the Model X, but it doesn’t look like your ordinary sedan. It becomes apparent once you get closer and notice a few things. It is a keyless and wireless system, requiring no key fob. Tesla will provide a card that unlocks the car and starts it. This is the one thing that I usually forget, a Tesla automatically starts when it detects the wireless key card or fob. This thing is “NO keys” and “NO push to start”. Even better, you can download an app to your smartphone mobile device. This then installs an encrypted key on your device that must be running to be detected by the car to automatically start. As long as you have your app running on your smartphone, all you need to do is get close enough to the car and it starts up or powers itself on ready to be driven. The Model 3, like all EV, has no engine so ignition is not necessary which means the car starts up very quietly. In fact it doesn’t make any noise, which is unusual for long time motorists.
I would compare the Model 3 size and class to be like the BMW 3 series and the Audi A4. It is compact, but it is actually quite spacious and roomy on the inside. From the outside the glass roof is noticeable, a defining feature on the Model 3. The body is made from rigid steel and aluminum, a process that required precision welding that encountered problems during the early part of the Model 3’s production. That is because most of Tesla’s car’s like the Model S and X were constructed from aluminum, a process that Tesla has managed to optimize for mass production. However producing the Model 3 at a larger scale and using steel required a different process. The process of welding steel requires the precision because poor welding can lead to car body problems as the vehicle ages.
Getting into a Model 3 was confusing at first. The car doors don’t appear to have any handles. Then you realize that you have to push the actual handles for it to pop out. You then pull on the handle to open the door. How about making a push button rather than retractable handles? The design just adds an extra step to the whole process of opening the door. Car’s today already have their door handles exposed so it is a simpler and quicker process. The doors won’t open if you don’t have the app installed in your smartphone or mobile device or if you don’t have the key card.
Once inside you will notice this is not like any ordinary car interior. Their dashboard looks very clean, no instrumentation panel, odometer, speedometer or tachometer. Instead you get a spacious front panel, which are actually air conditioning vents with the steering wheel and at the center of the dashboard is a large touch screen. From this screen you control and monitor your Model 3. This is where you find the instrumentation, infotainment system, side mirrors, glove box and configuration settings you want to make to your car. This is also where you control the air conditioning for cooling or heating, access navigation, battery capacity status and all the other information displays related to the car. No more physical controls with your hands other than the steering wheel. It may seem tedious for those who don’t come from the smartphone touch screen generation. All your controls are handled from the screen and for beginners and even novices, this can be a bit of a learning curve. The interior was quite roomy, even though it looks small from the outside. There was plenty of leg room for both driver and even passengers, something I noticed can be lacking in similar compact sedans.
The Model 3 also has a low center of gravity which is required because of the weight of the batteries that provide power. They are placed at the bottom of the car and contribute to much of the weight. It has to be balanced so as not to affect the car’s stability and aerodynamics. The car is powered by an array of batteries (Li-Ion) that provide the range that a Model 3 can drive. The standard Model 3 has a battery capacity of 50 kWh for a range of 220 miles while the long range battery has a capacity of 75 kWh range of 310 miles. These values are estimates since the load on the battery for everyone would likely be different, but these are the rated capacity for reference. An EV will be much like using a smartphone, it requires recharging and uses advanced electronics.
Now I am ready to take it for a spin. I sit back on the nice leather seats and do not have to put a key in the ignition or push to start anything. It is not like you are ready to drive because there is no sound coming from an engine either, this is all electric. So just step on the acceleration pedal and it quietly moves forward and the thing is you don’t feel much effort. That is the advantage of electro-magnetic induction motors. It creates instant torque for forward motion. You can feel the acceleration going from 0–40 (street legal) like you were in a roller coaster because it does it much faster than a conventional internal combustion automobile. You can also feel how the tires grip the road during braking. It was explained to me that on the console screen you can adjust how you want the regenerative braking to be. The harder you brake, the more power you feed the battery from the kinetic energy from the car’s motion. The braking converts that energy into power that is stored back to the battery, unlike with conventional cars which actually inefficiently burns more gas when braking. The streets were also a good place to test the braking system, and it did not fail. I was not allowed to test any emergency braking feature because of the liability that can cause, but for the most part the car came to a complete halt at stop signs and slow the car down when there are crossing pedestrians.
I briefly tested the Enhanced Autopilot feature which was similar to the Model S. Sure enough when you want to switch lanes in traffic, all you need to do is use the turn signal and the software in the Autopilot takes over. I don’t advise using this in crowded traffic areas, like main streets. It is more suitable for highways and freeways where there is more space. Let us not forget that Tesla may have the hardware ready for fully autonomous driving, but at the moment the Model 3 and other Tesla cars are not driverless. They are semi-autonomous only until the L5 fully autonomous feature is enabled (no official word on this as of writing). It is also wise to keep the hands on the steering wheel and engage when needed. The Autopilot can warn the driver when they need to take over. It has been controversial due to accidents that have occurred, but it still remains a point of discussion because it does not happen to all drivers. I have used the Enhanced Autopilot feature many times and have not had any unfortunate incidents. I use plenty of caution while doing so and never irresponsibly take my eyes off the road or assume that the Tesla will suddenly drive by itself. What I do find the Autopilot feature that is most useful right now would be for adaptive cruise control during long drives on the freeway. I have heard many testimonials of how it helps drivers relax more during road trips.
While waiting at traffic lights, the Model 3 has a feature that allows you to apply the brakes without your foot on the pedal. This is useful, especially for drivers who are on an incline or steep elevation. Instead of “hanging” where drivers balance gas and clutch pedal on stick shift systems or keeping the foot on the pedal for automatic systems, you can just press down on the Model 3 brake pedal once and it will hold the brake for you. You then step on the accelerate pedal to move forward again.
The Model makes tight turns, left or right, allowing the driver to not have to turn the wheel too much. It has electric power assisted steering as well so the driver doesn’t have to apply too much effort when making turns. This is good for people with arthritic conditions or temporary injuries that affect the joints or elbow. Another thing about the steering wheel is that it contains scroll buttons that allow you to control settings for your car rather than using the touch screen console. That is one way to add some ergonomics to the design, but you can also use voice activation commands for more convenience while driving. This seems to me to be a work in progress as Tesla continues to define functions for the scroll buttons and how voice activation can be further improved. An actual driving assistant that works like Siri or Alexa is perhaps the goal.
There were early complaints on the Model 3 regarding its suspension as being too stiff and the overall ride quality being uncomfortable for some drivers. The reviews seem pretty mixed between those who are more into comfort and ride to those who are more into the technology and drive. I did find the suspension rather stiff at first, but that was due to the regenerative braking feature. Once this was adjusted I felt the suspension a little more loose for my driving, but at the expense of feeding less power back to the battery during braking. I did run over some bumps and this is where I notice the difference in comfort between the Model S and Model 3. No doubt the Model S has a much better shock absorbing system with smoother drive on bad road surfaces as well. The Model 3 was not meant to be a luxury sedan, so it felt much like driving a conventional car sedan. I did drive the long range performance version which also has dual motors, so it may be a little more comfortable to drive than the standard version.
I learned later on that the Model 3 does not have a spare tire in the trunk or anywhere in the car. It may not be a big deal since many people don’t need to ever replace a flat tire themselves. However it may not go well with other drivers. The Tesla agents did explain that the Model 3 will notify the driver from the console to pull over when the tire or tires are losing lots of air pressure. Tesla will then provide road side assistance to help replace a flat tire. I think that is ok, but what if you’re in the middle of nowhere? I don’t have any satisfactory answer for that other than that it is Tesla’s commitment to get to car owners wherever they might get stuck.
Overall I liked the Model 3 version I drove. I do look forward to more autonomous self-driving features that make use of upcoming standards like V2X. I do not however like the door handles having to pop out and retract, no spare tire and putting all the instrumentation and controls on the console. I do prefer to at least see the odometer and speedometer center front of the steering wheel. I know that there are driverless cars being designed that remove the steering wheel entirely and everything is operated from a console screen like the Model 3. The Hop On driverless shuttle in Las Vegas is an example of this. It will seem really weird at first that all the controls are done on the console touch screen, but usually after using it many times people get accustomed to these features. For those planning to get a Model 3 it is worth looking into even if you don’t end up buying one. If not for the advanced features, it must be for the economy in savings on fuel and it is also more eco-friendly to drive.
Note: The article is meant for reference and entertainment only, and is the author’s personal opinion on the subject. In no way is this a paid advertising or promotion.