2021 Tesla Model 3 Reader Rental Review, Part 1: The Future Is Interesting…And A Little Complicated
Tesla clearly isn’t just a car manufacturer anymore - it’s a buzzword. For some, it’s a synonym for disruption and innovation; for others, that disruption and innovation aren’t all that welcome. And Tesla’s existence is inextricably linked to politics, the ongoing “Full Self Driving” soap opera, and the Almighty’s gift to headline writers himself, Elon Musk. All of this tends to polarize people into “Love Tesla” and “Loathe Tesla” camps, but I think both camps would agree about the brand’s impact - the company has revolutionized the way mass-market cars are designed, powered, and sold.
But something’s been missing from all this Tesla talk on TTAC - an actual test of a Tesla*. That changes today. I spent a day with a rented Tesla Model 3 on a recent trip to Los Angeles, and I’m here to tell you that the Model 3, like the company that made it, is equal parts innovation and exasperation. It’s a lovable car, even if it’s not easy to love. It’s complicated.
Complicated things are never boring, and neither is the Model 3. And if you love driving - which I do - you’ll be glad to know that if EVs like the Model 3 are “the future,” then the future might be different, but it won’t be at all dim. It certainly won’t be uncomplicated. Neither will this review, which will be in two parts - today’s article will be a review of the Model 3 itself, and a subsequent article will detail my “EV experience” that came with this vehicle.
*Ed. note – Maybe if the company loaned cars to journalists for review. Just a thought, Elon.
I think it’s hard to understate the Model 3’s impact on the car business - it wasn’t the first EV, but it was the first one to achieve true mass-market acceptance. After an almost legendary “production hell” period early in the Model 3’s existence, Tesla has moved almost a million of these worldwide as this is written. Quite a few Model 3s were sold to Hertz, which is how I got my mitts on my test car, a base RWD model without the $6,000 Enhanced Autopilot or $15,000 Full Self Driving options. Aside from 19-inch sport wheels - a $1,500 option that I’d pop for simply to avoid the rather ugly base “aero” wheels - my tester was plain-Jane but came quite well equipped with all the power goodies you’d expect at this price.
As optioned, my tester would go for $43,380 as a 2023 model, before any potential tax credits - about the same money as you’d spend on a moderately equipped Audi A4 or BMW 3-series sedan, both of which are similarly sized and appeal to the same yuppie buyers.
At first blush, the Model 3 looks like a smaller, taller version of the Model S (which I think is still a great-looking car), but the 3’s added height makes it a bit too “egg-like” for my tastes. The design works best from the rear three-quarters view, which looks agreeably futuristic. I particularly like how the roof - an all-glass, no-sheetmetal affair - wraps from the trunk to the front of the windshield, and it looks even cooler inside.
Flush door handles make for a clean side look, but are ergonomically awkward - you press in on the back part of the handle, which pops the front part out, and then you pull on the extended handle to open the doors. This was the first of what proved to be a list of unnecessary gimmicks, which we’ll touch on a bit later (if you’re thinking this foreshadows the section on the dashboard, you’re right). The Model 3 has hatchback proportions, but it isn’t - the power liftgate reveals a trunk instead.
The Model 3 is about the same length as a BMW 3-series sedan, and the back seat is about as roomy as the BMW and the aforementioned A4, but the glass roof proves to be more than a stylistic flourish - it gives the car outstanding headroom, even with the sloping roofline.
The trunk is large, and there’s enough space to fit a 30-inch and 24-inch suitcase with ease. Open the hood, and a small “frunk” (yes, that’s its official name) lurks where the engine would be in a conventionally powered car.
You can open and operate the Model 3 two ways - with a keycard that’s about the size of a workplace ID, or with your smartphone. To use the card, you tap it on the B-pillar to open the car, and then place it on the center console to start driving. Per Tesla, the smartphone app works like the “comfort access” systems you’re probably familiar with - if you touch the door handle with your phone in proximity, the car opens up, and from there you push the stalk to the right of the steering wheel into the “drive” or “reverse” position to start driving.
Once inside, you find the Model 3’s most controversial feature - the touchscreen dash.
Except for seat and window adjustments, wipers, the horn, and gearshift, every single readout and control function in the Model 3 is crammed into a 15-inch touchscreen. The good news is that the readout itself is absolutely first-rate - it’s big and easy to read, responds quickly to inputs (though there is no “haptic” feedback), and allows for a huge navigation screen. This setup enables an exceptionally clean, futuristic dashboard look. And with that, I’ve run out of nice things to say about this setup.
However, I owe you a quick tour, and we’ll start from the main menu.
(Full disclosure here - it took me the better part of a half hour to figure out the most basic functions on the touchscreen, and by the end of the day, I was still fuzzy on how to use any number of them. Therefore, rather than bore you with every single button and menu, I’ll touch on the highlights - or lowlights, as it were - and if you want all the details, you can watch this video.)
When the Model 3 is stationary, what you see above is the main screen. You’ll notice that the key elements here are: The left-hand side of the screen, which controls the frunk and trunk; the right-hand side, which is a navigation screen, and the bottom part, which controls the sound system, HVAC functions, and a configurable center menu. Under the touchscreen are two padded slots for phones, which double as inductive charging ports.
By pressing the car icon on the bottom left-hand part of the screen, you can access the Model 3’s master menu, as you can see from the picture above. Selecting any menu item brings up a submenu. You’ll notice that two of the functions shown in this submenu above are for the mirrors and steering wheel - to adjust either, you hit the switch for the appropriate function, and then use the two rotary “wheels” on the steering wheel to make the adjustments. Other menus handle adjustments to the car’s steering, drive modes, and charging data (more on those in a moment).
The bottom of the screen handles the most-used adjustments - the sound system and HVAC - you can add shortcuts to the center bottom screen as you like. Curiously, the Model 3 does not support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and the touchscreen doesn’t support any kind of interface with any music service other than the ones Tesla builds in (which do not include Apple Music or Amazon). So, if you’re into streaming music, you’ll be using the options provided by Tesla, or an old-fashioned Bluetooth connection; if you want to change your playlist, you have to either talk to Siri or pick up the phone and do it manually. Given that systems like CarPlay are now standard on an $18,000 Nissan Versa, this is a curious choice, but I’m sure the arrangement makes a few bucks for Tesla. On the plus side, the base sound system was excellent, with bright, punchy delivery.
The other main function accessed via the bottom of the screen is the HVAC system. From this screen, you can adjust the vents by dragging your fingers along the “vents” on the screen shown above. You can also turn on the steering wheel heater.
The center-bottom menu is a “widget” affair that you would find familiar from a smartphone - you can drag several functions into it for easier access.
At some point, you’re going to want to drive this car, versus fiddling around with all these submenus, and when you’re in motion, the screen appears as above. If you’d like to see this screen in action, click here; as you can see, the left-hand display monitors surrounding traffic using cameras built into the Model 3’s B-pillars, and if you change lanes, a video picture of your blind spot appears. I’d rather use the built-in traffic monitoring system better known as “my swiveling head,” but the system in the Model 3 is well-executed and useful.
You’ll notice that the only gauge here is the speedometer, in the upper left-hand corner. Below it is a horizontal line that expands to the left or right of a center point that displays net energy expenditure. If the line crawls right, you’re in net gains, and net losses send the line to the left of center. Below this is a readout showing the position of other cars in relation to yours, which was enabled by the Model 3’s standard Autopilot system (more on that in a moment).
As you can imagine, given that it took me a good half hour to simply figure out where all these controls were, using them while in motion was inconvenient, to say the least; at worst, this all led to the kind of driving distraction that’s become a hot topic on this site (with good reason).
The payoff of all this, I suppose, is design minimalism, which I get - I spent way too much money making my living room look like Don Draper’s office in Mad Men - and I like the clean lines in the Model 3’s interior. But I suspect minimalism wasn’t the real goal of the touchscreen-uber-alles approach - Tesla has been touting self-driving cars for years now, and yes, if your car is truly driving itself, then you have plenty of time to figure out the four submenus you need to access to switch to a different radio channel. But Tesla’s self-driving tech is a work in progress, at best, and the worst-case scenarios range from hilarious to tragic. Either way, this control approach is unnecessarily complex, leads to distraction behind the wheel, and is the one reason I’d never buy this car.
But the Model 3 has other charms, so let’s leave the cursed touchscreen behind, and move on to a far more positive aspect of the Model 3 experience - driving it.
Before we got distracted by all the center-screen nonsense (seriously, it’s distracting to even write about), I told you a bit about my Model 3’s specs - it was a base model, with a single motor driving the rear wheels. So equipped, my Model 3 weighed about 3,800 pounds, had near 50/50 weight distribution, and 283 horsepower. Those figures should sound vaguely familiar if you’re into near-luxury sport sedans - they’re quite like the again-aforementioned A4 and 3-series BMW sedan, and overall, the Model 3’s driving experience is quite a bit like driving either of those cars. But the Model 3’s killer app is the 330 lb-ft of torque, and I’ll put it simply: It’s choice.
From a standstill, after the nannies finish deterring excess wheelspin, the Model 3 simply goes off into extralegal speeds. Objectively speaking, if you strap a test wheel to this car, you’ll find it hits 60 in about five and a half seconds. That’s about as fast as a decent sport sedan, like my Jetta GLI, but to get that kind of performance out of my car, you need to engage the launch control system, which waits a beat for the turbo to spool up and feathers the throttle. In the Model 3, it’s absolutely effortless - you punch the gas (yes, I know it’s not “the gas” in this car - old habits die hard), and you’re gone. There are no power plateaus or redlines - the car just goes faster until the wind stops it. And in heavy traffic, the Model 3 is superb - the instant speed makes it easy to squirt into traffic openings.
But this car’s power is best enjoyed on the highway - you just leap right from 50-60 mph into triple-digit speeds without the slightest effort. Once at highway speeds, the Model 3 feels as stable as an Audi or BMW; road noise is a touch high, which probably isn’t helped by that all-glass roof.
All of this should confirm what people who own EVs rave about: The power is addictive. And this is just the base model - Tesla also makes a 480 horsepower dual-motor Model 3, and after driving one of those a few years ago, I can attest that it’s ridiculously - some would say ludicrously - fast.
Handling is also a Model 3 strength. L.A. isn’t well known for curvy roads, but the hills above Pasadena offered me a chance to toss the Model 3 around a bit, and even in base form, the Model 3 corners quite well - the suspension is firm, and the steering, while numb, is precise and quick (overly so if you choose the “Sport” steering setting). The only real challenge is the Model 3’s built-in regenerative braking function, which applies the brakes automatically if you take your foot off the accelerator. This feature, which cannot be switched off, is meant to improve range (which it does), and in traffic, it’s nice to be able to do one-pedal driving, but if you’re looking to go fast on a twisty road, there’s a bit of a learning curve to master. With that accomplished, I could hustle the Model 3 fairly hard through the curves.
This isn’t a car you’d use to aggressively carve up a back road, a la M3 or Miata, but if you’re used to more of a “touring” sedan in this price range - yes, I’ll make one more A4/3-series comparison - you should be happy with how the Model 3 performs on back roads.
The Model 3 is also quite happy in heavy traffic, thanks to its basic Autopilot system. As I mentioned before, my test vehicle didn’t include full Autopilot capability - the $6,000 setup that enables this kind of Darwin Award-level stupidity - but rather the basic Autopilot system, which operates much like an advanced adaptive cruise control system. To engage it, you enter a maximum speed and a pre-selected following distance via one of the multitudes of touchscreen menus, and then push the right-hand stalk all the way down; from there, the Model 3 basically regulates its own speed in traffic (and, yes, the car will warn you if you don’t keep your hands on the wheel). The only other self-driving tech found in the standard system is basic lane-keeping assistance. I’m no fan of self-driving, but I found myself appreciating how the car relieved me of the tedious accelerate-and-then-hit-the-brakes nonsense that comes with bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic.
No discussion of a Tesla would be complete without talking about build quality, which is historically the brand’s weakest spot. The news here isn’t bad either. My rental, which had 30,000 miles on the iPad, was tight and rattle-free, even over some rough pavement.
I pored over the body fits and paint and found only one real weak spot - the fitment of the left rear door was somewhat off. The sharp-eyed among you are no doubt pointing out the horrid fit and paint job on the trunk. If so, I commend your optometrist, but upon inspection, this turned out to be the result of some truly awful body shop work that included overspray on the rear Tesla logo. I’ll give Elon the benefit of the doubt on this one, which I’m sure he’s eternally grateful for.
But there will be no passes given for the driver’s side headrest, which appeared to have a bad case of Biblical boils and sores. As it turns out, this has been a known issue with this car; apparently, when the oils or hair product on the back of your head meets the “vegan leather” (read: pleather) used on the Model 3’s headrest, they combine with heat to make the material bulge like this. That’s inexcusable, particularly for a car in its fourth model year.
Aside from that, and the rather tinny door-close sounds, which are endemic to this model, I didn’t find any glaring quality flaws on my renter. Given the model’s rep, I also checked some newer Model 3s on local dealer lots to see if my renter was representative, and it was; surprisingly, the panel gaps on the Model 3s and Ys on the lot were fine, but many of the Model X and S vehicles had the kind of issues we’re accustomed to hearing about.
Overall, the build quality was certainly acceptable, but at this price point, you expect more - stuff like nicer, more lustrous paint, or more solid-feeling door slam sounds that you don’t really get here. Tesla should improve its game if it wants to keep up with the coming onslaught of competitive EVs.
With the basic road test completed, it’s time to talk for a moment about range. The follow-up article will go into more depth, but we’ll go over the broad strokes here. My renter was delivered with a 75 percent charge, which I ran down to 4 percent before recharging so that you could share my range anxiety (which, again, I’ll go into more detail on in the follow-up article). My trip totaled 151 miles, the majority of which was done on the freeway - the least efficient place for any EV - and I endeavored to keep my right foot planted as much as possible. My bottom line: Before I recharged it for the trip back to the airport, I’d used 71 percent of the battery to travel 151 miles. Using some sixth-grade math, that would have worked out to about 215 miles on a full charge.
Again, I’ll have some more detailed thoughts on this car’s range, and a report on how my rented Tesla got recharged in part two of this test (sneak peek: The charging system didn’t leave me stranded, but it didn’t leave me happy either). But based on the rough data above and what I’ve learned about charging, I’m comfortable with making a generalization: Joining Team EV is a lot more feasible and convenient if you have a place at home to charge up. I don’t, so buying an EV would not be a viable choice for me at this point.
That aside, after having lived with a Model 3 for an entire day, there’s no mystery why this car has been such a hit - it’s stylish, comfortable, reasonably efficient, practical, and rewarding to drive. It’s also evident that Tesla has made some meaningful improvements in its product quality - even if it’s not quite up to the standards of its competitors, the kind of embarrassing assembly issues that were commonplace on earlier cars (including that dual-motor Model 3 I test drove a couple of years back) aren’t happening anymore.
The touchscreen-dash silliness would have been enough to make me pass on this car, but aside from that, I found driving the Model 3 to be very much like driving any other mid-priced compact luxury sedan, which isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, the Model 3’s “normality” (well, that and absolutely demolishing other cars at stoplights) is its strongest selling point - Tesla wisely made the Model 3 feel familiar to drive, and that made buying an EV easier for a large number of buyers. The significance of that can’t be understated.
Then again, there’s that touchscreen dash, the question of away-from-home charging, and other overarching EV issues - electrical grid capacity, material sourcing, battery life, and a host of other things - that make this car not quite so normal.
As I said…it’s complicated.
[Images: The Author]
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