“The Tesla Model S was a moment. The Model 3 is a product.”
That pair of sentences perfectly summarized the several hours we spent last month with the 2018 Tesla Model 3 kindly loaned to us by reader Jeff Southern of Atlanta.
We’d covered more than 100 miles on a variety of highways, back roads, and suburban stop-and-go arterials, testing everything from full-on acceleration to cruise control, on routes from straight-ahead six-lane Interstates to twisty mountain back roads.
The Tesla Model 3 turns out to be better, in some ways, than its advance press made us fear. Breathless reviews about its amazing abilities led our group of experienced auto reviewers to fear the effects of blinders, hyperbole, or naivete.
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Our drive reassured us. The Model 3 is an eminently competent electric car that should make owners happy. If the company can fix what appear to be major quality problems, that is.
But times have changed, and the Model 3 does not emerge into a vacuum as the Tesla Model S did in July 2012.
That car was a revelation, a bolt of lightning from the sky. It was a car no one had conceived or built before. It was the rolling, driving demonstration of a future then widely dismissed by the global auto industry as impractical or impossible.
Soon it was paired with the first real high-speed charging network that gave electric cars the ability to make coast-to-coast drives in the U.S., and then other regions around the world. The shock waves from 2012 still reverberate.
2017 Tesla Model 3 and Model S in Tesla assembly plant parking lot, Fremont, CA, November 2017
Six years later, the Tesla Model 3 delivers fewer firsts.
It’s not the first 200-mile electric car for less than $40,000; that was the Chevrolet Bolt EV. Those much-promoted $35,000 Model 3s still appear to be most of a year away.
Nor does the Model 3 pioneer new advances in charging. Given regulatory concerns over Tesla’s Autopilot, its self-driving capabilities aren’t far removed from those offered by a few other makers.
While it’s the car intended to take Tesla into mass production, that path has proven more painful and troublesome than the company seems to have imagined even in its nightmares.
Some of the Model 3s delivered over the car's first six months or more have the worst build quality of any electric car offered by a serious maker. That’s not a first anyone wants to write home about.
Those problems include touchscreens suffering from "phantom touch" that turn various functions on and off at random; unexplained battery capacity loss in parked cars; squeaks, groans, and rattles; and inconsistent panel fit and alignment.
2018 Tesla Model 3
For the record, Southern's Model 3 was configured in early January, and received a Vehicle Identification Number (between 4200 and 4300) in mid-January. It was delivered the last week of the month.
To be fair, some owners report their Model 3s are flawless on delivery. But too many don't—and the bar is higher now than it was in 2012.
The Tesla Model 3 previews a type of car that will be offered by up to a dozen makers within three years: a mid-priced, 200- to 300-mile electric car with high-speed DC fast charging and an advanced electronic user interface.
So how does that work in real-life use? By and large, quite well.
Understanding how to use the basic functions took about 5 minutes of instruction from Southern. To unlock a Model 3, you tap a flat card (very much like a hotel key card) in the middle of the center left-hand pillar to unlock the car, and again on the console to power it up.
To adjust things like the door mirrors, the car icon at the bottom of the central touchscreen has to be tapped to alert the car to that adjustment, which is actually made via the pair of roller wheels on the steering wheel.