Tesla Model 3 quality is terrible, but will it matter to buyers?

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2017 Tesla Model 3 "first production" car, in photo tweeted by Elon Musk on July 9, 2017

2017 Tesla Model 3 "first production" car, in photo tweeted by Elon Musk on July 9, 2017

So we've finally had the chance to spend time with a 2018 Tesla Model 3, courtesy of a generous and devoted Green Car Reports reader.

We'll have our first-drive report and a full review of the car within a day or two—but that's not what this article is about.

The build quality of the early Model 3 we tested in late February was, in a word, appalling.

DON'T MISS: Tesla now makes almost 1,000 Model 3s a week, Bloomberg tracker estimates (Feb 2018)

Before we were even able to visit the owner, the car had to go back to the Tesla service center to have the central touchscreen replaced.

You know, the one required to control virtually any aspect of the car except for turn signals, headlights, and wipers?

The car we drove 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.

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

As the owner wrote to us:

We took delivery of our Model 3 today. It looked like everything was working OK until we got within about 10 miles of the house. That was when the touchscreen started to malfunction.

It is getting random touches along the right side of the screen. The worst part is that the stereo will go to full volume without notice. It also makes the map and navigation mostly useless. I called Tesla and they had me try rebooting the screen several times.  

Unfortunately it didn't resolve the issue. They said they would call me back [within 24 hours] to attempt a software update or to schedule a service call. Nothing like paying $50,000 to be a beta tester. Again.

CHECK OUT: Tesla Model 3 variants delayed; will some buyers lose $7,500 tax credit?

He later added, "It also causes problems charging, as the charging screen pops up and it constantly presses the button in the upper right corner that stops and starts charging."

Also, "I have found the car twice in the garage, locked, with the stereo blasting at full volume for who knows how long."

In the end, Tesla replaced the screen and the new unit seemed to function properly. We scheduled our test drive for a couple of weeks later.

2018 Tesla Model 3

2018 Tesla Model 3

During the test itself, two things became clear: The Model 3 works largely as intended, and the build quality was the worst we have seen on any new car from any maker over the last 10 years.

The flaws and defects broke down into two categories: those that affected the functioning of the car or the owner's driving experience, and those that didn't.

The first group included:

  • The defective touchscreen and all the follow-on effects (above)
  • Persistent creaks and groans from the console or dash
  • An intermittent loud buzz from the upper right-hand center door pillar at highway speeds on some road surfaces
  • A steering vibration (in a car with just 1,000 miles)

Different owners have suffered blown main fuses in their Model 3 battery packs, varying and unexplained error messages that power down the car, and numerous other issues.

2017 Tesla Model 3, in photo tweeted by Elon Musk on July 9, 2017

2017 Tesla Model 3, in photo tweeted by Elon Musk on July 9, 2017

The longer list of assembly defects on our car that early owners seem likely to overlook are a remarkable number of fit and finish issues:

  • Misaligned body panels
  • Widely varying gaps between panel edges
  • Headlights protruding above panels in some places, sunken below them in others, varying side to side
  • Glovebox door that didn't sit square in its opening
  • Badly fitted chrome door trim that didn't align from piece to piece

Note that the cheapest Chevy, Honda, Hyundai, or Toyota wouldn’t make it out of the factory with any one of those observable problems, let alone the whole list of them.

Tesla has never been known for high quality, our owner admitted—his 2012 Tesla Model S had the same misaligned chrome window trim, though it was less visibly out of whack.

But we suspect early Model 3 buyers, and Tesla’s devoted fans and acolytes, will likely be willing to overlook flaws that don't affect the car's functioning.

2017 Tesla Model 3 window sticker, image posted on Google Images by Andrew Rhodes, Aug 2017

2017 Tesla Model 3 window sticker, image posted on Google Images by Andrew Rhodes, Aug 2017

Whether they should be is a different question altogether. The Los Angeles Times asked bluntly, "Do buyers care?"

The answer to that question may well factor into Tesla's ultimate fate if the company can't clean up Model 3 production quality.

 
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