Just 16 months passed from when Tesla first showed its Model 3—and we got our first ride in a Model 3 prototype with its VP of engineering Doug Field—to when it made the first batch of deliveries. And it was certainly not our intent to wait nearly another 16 months before considering it for our Green Car Reports’ Best Car To Buy award.
But last year, while the Model 3 was officially on sale and in production, we couldn’t track one down in time to make the cut. Tesla reported 220 Model 3 deliveries by October 1, 2017. And while we knew there were a few early demonstration vehicles loaned out to other media outlets, Tesla declined our requests for time in one of them.
This year it’s quite different. Tesla passed 100,000 Model 3 deliveries last month, when we brought our contenders together. The electric sedans are a frequent sight in bigger American cities—not just the left-leaning, eco-image-conscious coastal ones. Yet one thing carries through from last year: Tesla has either denied or postponed several requests from our editorial staff for a Model 3 for review.
Despite that, we’re here to evaluate the car, not the company, and help you make the best vehicle choice. To that end, the Tesla Model 3 is soundly a contender for Green Car Reports' Best Car To Buy award.
The Model 3 easily meets all the criteria needed to put it in the running. It’s available in all 50 states—either from Tesla facilities or, in other states, delivered via third-party distributors. And even as Tesla has scaled up, it seems to be delivering the customer experience its buyers want; unhappy owners are few and far between.
2018 Tesla Model 3
Part of that is rooted in the strength of what many see as Tesla’s greatest asset: its Supercharger network. Tesla vehicles typically charge on Supercharger hardware at 120 kilowatts—more than twice the rate that’s common for DC fast chargers on the CHAdeMO or CCS (Combo) standards—and they’re more often located where you need them for road trips. From our experience, they’re also more likely to be located near useful travel-related amenities.
The Model 3 can go a long way on a charge, too. All three versions of the Long Range Model 3—rear-wheel drive, Dual Motor (all-wheel drive), and Dual Motor Performance—have a 310-mile EPA range rating. Based on owner reports and our own minor experiences, these cars tend to do even better than that. As we’ve covered, it offers the most miles of range per kwh of rated battery capacity of any longer-range production EV.
Now, back to the car itself. We’re limiting this nomination to the Long Range, rear-wheel-drive version—the version of the Model 3 that has been delivered in the highest numbers at the time of our assessment. Come final voting time, four of seven voting Internet Brands Automotive editors had managed to find some time in that version of the Model 3.
This year, right after driving the other two nominees, the Hyundai Kona Electric and the Jaguar I-Pace, we looked to an alternative source to affirm our impressions: We rented one via Turo.
2018 Tesla Model 3
Especially after time in our other two nominees, the Model 3 feels lean, relatively taut, and sport-sedan quick. The combination of the proportions and how you sit within the vehicle—with a very low hood, easy sight lines, and a low belt line in front, reminds us of the E46-era (1999-2005 model years) BMW 3-Series. The steering is light and precise and the regenerative braking, in its standard mode, is like driving in a low gear, leaving you to dab the brakes only occasionally. You don’t hear any wind noise at highway speeds, although coarse highway surfaces create some cabin din—much more than the Jaguar I-Pace.
Interior space and packaging are excellent. The front seats are supportive sport-sedan buckets, with a wide range of adjustability. Once we got used to the odd thumbwheel-and-touchscreen adjustment for the steering wheel and mirrors, we found a nice, upright driving position with enough head room to spare. Rear leg and head room are just enough for two adults, and the long glass roof helps it feel less confining. Trunk space is mammoth for this size of vehicle—we fit three small suitcases without having to puzzle it. The frunk isn’t all that usable, but there is one.
And that central speedometer, at the edge of the large, tablet-like screen that everyone frets about? We were used to it in about 10 minutes.
2018 Tesla Model 3
The Model 3’s touchscreen system requires looking down from driving tasks and tapping, swiping, and zooming just as you would with a tablet. But to its credit, each time we’ve tried this system in a Model 3 it’s been very quick—near free of the latency that can leave your eyes checking back down to make sure the screen did what it was supposed to. There’s a cheerful simplicity to how key vehicle functions are seldom more than one level deep. A term that keeps coming up is “Apple-like,” but with today’s iOS that probably gives Apple more props than it deserves.
Some of the Model 3's features, like its RFID-card keyless entry system and lack of an on/off button to press, make certain conventions instantly obsolete.
There are some gripes. Most of them have to do with assembly quality and the quality of the trim. The center console area, for instance, feels like what you'd find in a base-level mainstream sedan costing less than half the amount. And we still haven’t seen a Model 3 that’s put together as well as we’d want of a vehicle that costs $50,000 or more, but even this latest one we drove, via Turo, was a January delivery.
All this waiting, all this drama. The Wall Street shorts, production hell, Elon Musk’s tweets. Despite it all, the car is good. Very good.
Is that enough to win the top nod for the year? Check back Monday.