2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range: first drive review of 310-mile electric car

Follow John

“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.

CHECK OUT: 2018 Tesla Model 3 - full review

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

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.

DON'T MISS: Tesla Model 3 quality is terrible, but will it matter to buyers?

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

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.

READ THIS: Tesla engineers say Model 3 parts need substantial rework after productiont

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.

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

Lights, wipers, and cruise control are all managed via conventional steering-wheel stalks, and the driver adjusts audio volume via the roller wheel. (Passengers have to tap the touchscreen, but the volume is at the right of the screen, convenient to a front-seat passenger.)

Voice input is also available, which we found very good until the car moved out of range for its built-in cellular connection, when its ability to interpret the spoken command via a cloud service abruptly ended.

The front seats are well-bolstered, comfortable, and supportive, though like the Model S, the driving position is somewhat legs-out due to the lack of conventional footwells from the battery pack under the floorpan.

The rear seat could have used more bolstering at the front of its flat bottom cushion to alleviate the knees-up position riders must adopt (again, no footwells). The backrest was also reclined at an angle that offers headroom for all but the tallest adults—but to a degree our lower back didn't much appreciate.

Still, once we got settings adjusted on the touchscreen and saved, the Model 3 was quite natural to drive.

2018 Tesla Model 3

2018 Tesla Model 3

Our test vehicle was fitted with a single 192-kilowatt (258-horsepower) electric motor that powered the rear wheels, drawing current from a battery pack whose capacity Tesla declined to give (consensus has it at about 75 kilowatt-hours). The EPA range rating is 310 miles.

Tesla's always been able to provide an ample flow of smooth, continuous acceleration, and the feel of the Model 3 will be familiar to any Model S driver. It still gives the sense of a heavy, solid car, but it's easier to place and fling around than we had found the surprisingly wide Model S to be.

Tesla quotes acceleration from 0 to 60 mph of 5.1 seconds for the Long Range Model 3. We didn't put Southern's car through timed acceleration runs, but that felt roughly accurate.

The regenerative braking is suitably strong, allowing all-but-one-pedal driving, though we noticed a consistent pause after lifting off the accelerator before the regen kicked in. Drivers who want an “automatic-transmission feel" and idle creep can opt for that within the car’s settings.

With the battery weight low in the chassis, the Model 3 cornered predictably and held on tenaciously through the twistiest of roads we could find around Atlanta and the surrounding mountains.

That said, it's not a light, lithe, eager sport sedan of the traditional sort. The Model 3 doesn't beg to be tossed into corners, though it behaves itself just fine when you do.

2018 Tesla Model 3

2018 Tesla Model 3

Tesla plans to start deliveries of an all-wheel-drive “D” version of the Long Range Model 3 this year, and the less-expensive 220-mile base version at the end of the year. A much higher-performance "P" model will likely follow in the future, sometime after the “D” version arrives.

The one thing that irked us about the Model 3 was a tendency to wander slightly when driving straight ahead. Southern has experienced the same phenomenon, and suggested it may be due to the car’s lack of toe-in.

Most carmakers angle the front tires slightly inward, to improve directional stability, but Tesla sets them to point directly forward, reducing tire friction and boosting energy efficiency.

While the Model 3 is smaller on the road and behind the wheel than the Model S, its relatively heavy steering in Normal mode gives it the feel of a larger car.

Altering the steering feel among Comfort, Normal, and Sport settings seems only to vary the effort, not the quickness of the steering.

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

Stepping back from our drive, we find ourselves optimistic about the potential of the Tesla Model 3.

But we're saddened that the rollout came six to 12 months earlier than the standard vehicle development process would have required, likely leading to most of the quality problems the car has suffered from in its early months.

We could easily imagine using a Model 3 as our only daily driver in most circumstances, especially if we had a dedicated charging station where we parked overnight.

The central touchscreen for virtually all controls is amply assisted by voice commands, and it works better in practice than we had expected.

The driving quality is exactly what we expected, and the Model 3 appears to be remarkably efficient, returning an indicated distance of 4 miles per kilowatt-hour or more during both our test and Southern's first 1,000 miles of use.

It's clear that the first Model 3 buyers—early adopters, previous Tesla owners, and friends of the company—are predisposed to discount issues of build and design quality and focus on the car's positive points.

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range electric car, road test in greater Atlanta area, Feb 2018

Unlike the Model S in 2021, the Tesla Model 3 will have several long-range competitors by that time.

Sure, they're not sleek sedans, nor will they have the Tesla mystique. Cars like the Chevy Bolt EV, 2019 Nissan Leaf, Hyundai Kona EV and Kia Niro EV, and others to come are mass-market hatchbacks with little premium image or appeal.

But while the Model S stood alone, and made history, the Model 3 is competing in an arena that will get steadily more crowded.

That's exactly why Tesla launched it last year, despite the "production hell" it remains in.

How that bet pays off among buyers seeking a "$35,000 Tesla" who will be required to wait well into 2019 remains to be seen.

As delivered, the 2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range we tested cost $49,000. The $35,000 Model 3 adds $9,000 for the Long Range battery option, plus $5,000 for the Premium Interior package and $1,000 for the stunning metallic blue paint.

Buyer Southern did not opt for the $5,000 Autopilot option. The mandatory $1,000 delivery fee adds a further $1,000 to the total, bringing this car to $51,000 as delivered.

 
Follow Us

Take Us With You!

 


 
© 2019 MH Sub I, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Stock photography by izmostock. Read our Cookie Policy.