Last weekend I rented a 2018 Tesla Model 3 with the Extended Range battery and Premium interior options. Also notable on the options list was “Auto Pilot” but not the full “Self Driving” mode. I had the car from Saturday evening until Monday evening to enjoy most of the Labor Day weekend with. Included from Turo were 300 miles and the car started out with about 40 miles to empty in the battery so I got to experience charging as well as driving the car a fair amount. For the most part, it was a normal car once you got past the regen braking and charging aspect. There were then a multitude of quirks and features that ranged from outright dangerous to actually quite useful.
Comparing the car to my own machines (‘06 STi and ‘01 Miata) is kind of a silly endeavor but it makes sense to me as a way to really describe some of the “intangibles” of the Tesla. Like I said from the start, if you ignore some of the quirks, it really felt like a “normal” car. Sitting in my STi and just driving versus doing the same in the Tesla is not that different. Sure it’s a TON quieter in the Tesla without the petrol burning but its also probably even quieter in a modern E class Mercedes, even with a gas engine in there. The Tesla definitely felt way faster when switching back and forth and really exemplified “instant torque” vs “horrendous turbo lag”. I don’t actually notice the turbo lag once I am used to it and I am sure the Subaru is actually a faster car in terms of numbers but in terms of “seat of pants feel” the Tesla really showed me how electric cars have a definitive place in the future of “fun” cars. Normal functioning turn signals were also IMMEDIATELY apparent in my cars as well as non-regenerative braking, non-intrusive (non-existent) lane keep assist, and just an overall feeling of “freedom” became apparent after driving both. By “freedom” I just mean that the safety nannies in the Tesla made it feel “too safe” almost. I generally get this from most modern cars, but I think Tesla took it to the extreme with the Model 3. When not turning that stuff off, the car is VERY aggressive about keeping you in your lane and reacting to things around you, even when auto pilot is off. It was something I am left to ponder about that this car truly made me feel like a prisoner in some sort of dystopian future of autopiloted cars. Is there a point where “active safety features” have just gone too far?
Anyways, the quirks and features. The thing everyone knows about the Teslas are the giant screens in the center. The Model 3 takes the giant screen in the Model S one step further and completely removes any gauges and buttons and puts just about everything on the screen. I am generally not a fan of touch screens even for the radio and other non-important things. But even adjusting the mirrors, turning on/off the lights, using wipers, and climate control are all on the screen. I was surprised the turn signals werent also buried in there someplace. Also of note which actually confused some people, Those “OPEN” bubbles on the trunks are not indicators that the trunks are ajar, its just buttons to perform that action.
It took me a bit to get used to no gauges. Eventually I thought it was fine though, its much cleaner this way and I actually found the center screen to not be overly distracting. I didnt like having no obvious visual indicator of the turn signals being on since the screen indicators were not exposed or large enough. The steering wheel could also use more buttons since this is definitely less user friendly than other modern cars with cruise control and radio controls easily usable from there. I didnt really try out the voice control but I imagine that is suppose to be the replacement for those sort of things in a very apple-esque kind of way.
The strangest thing was definitely the “key”. From what I understand, the standard way of Operating a Model 3 is to use your phone as a “key” and that makes it function like a normal modern car with a proximity key of sorts. But since this was a Turo rental, I had the keycard which works more like a hotel room key or a tap to pay register at a store. To lock and unlock the car, you tap the card on a nondescript but specific place on the door. And to put the car into drive or reverse, you tap the card at another nondescript but specific place on the center console. I say nondescript because neither location is marked nor intuitive really. I watched a youtube video for both the first time I tried to do either action. I was also extremely confused that there is no OFF button for the car. This was the oddest feature to me by far. You dont use the “key” to turn on the car in any way. You dont get a “welcome” screen or a “good bye” screen. The AC and the radio just stay on when you get out and everything “goes to sleep” or something when you lock it. It simply does not turn off. I expected at least a touch screen on/off toggle although as CaptDale pointed out, a Giant ON/OFF toggle switch like a breaker switch for a powerful piece of equipment that feels hefty and makes a giant KER-CHUNK sound when switched would be ideal!
But anyways, the car never turning on and off just through me for a loop. Even push button starts are futuristic to me so getting rid of the concept of “OFF” entirely perplexed me. Overall though, the fully enabled suite of safety features were the most offputting aspects for actually driving the thing. Once I learned how to disable just about everything and reduce them to just chimes, it was much better. But by default, the autosteer “safety” feature and autobraking were both way too aggressive. I could go for an aggressivity dial or something if it really had to be kept but as is it was definitely dangerous for me. On the highway with autopilot off, I experienced a few times where the car steered me out of my lane and I had to fight it to stay in the lane. I could easily control it but given the average person, this is a bad idea in my opinion and could result in a wreck due to confusion. It made me not trust the car until I disabled all of it. Then it still chimed at me all the time for nonexistent lines I was crossing or objects that I was “in imminent danger of crashing into” according to the messages that popped up.
Autopilot! Or sleep while driving mode apparently. I actually found this to be a pretty neat concept. The constant warnings to hold onto the wheel and apply gentle pressure were annoying but I can see why its needed... Still though, in autopilot I found I had to hold the wheel MORE than I actually do when normally driving myself. It required constant attention to fight off the warning rather than paying attention to the surroundings. So its definitely more of a gimmick than a useful feature. It was pretty slick to use radar cruise control in general but the steering seemed pointless to me since it only really worked on well defined highways anyways. The scariest part was stopped traffic in other lanes and having an open lane to use autopilot in. The car absolutely took off with no regard to the stopped traffic and the possibility of people jumping out in front of me. I tried that once and declared NEVER AGAIN to use it in that situation. Overall, Autopilot was neat as an experiment but just radar cruise stuck out as the useful and key feature when used with an attentive drive still fully in control of steering and turning it off when need be.
So, Tesla Model 3. My final verdict? I’d love to drive one again some day. These are quite nice and I like the concept. Notably I left out the charging experience because that really deserves it’s own article. I am firmly in the camp that electric cars are completely useless without at home charging. Speed of charging just isnt there, even with being able to get an empty to full charge at a supercharger in just under an hour (as tested). But just as a car to drive, it was great. I enjoyed the instant torque and the quirks were manageable in the same way that I can manage to use an iphone even if I hate everything about the way they function (team android here, regardless of bugginess or what I refer to as character). I’d also like to try more electric cars since there is no reason for the quirkiness really. A normal car that just happens to be electric might be kind of cool and I can see that now. Assuming it had this sort of range of course, since sub 100 miles is absurd to me and a complete nonstarter in this country. Range is the thing Tesla got the most right here. I easily achieved ~280 miles while doing countless full throttle pulls, giving no regard to staying slow uphill to “save miles”. I just drove it like I do my Miata or my STi and didnt run out of juice. AC was also cranking the full time since it was upper 90s or more most of the weekend. No idea what “fuel economy” in terms of W/mi (or whatever the unit is) ended up being but smiles per gallon were plenty enough to get my stamp of approval!
So should you buy one? Idk, I would rather someone come out with a “normal” electric car that just gets this sort of range. But people have to adopt these to get the ball rolling. I am glad there are “tesla superfans” out there so maybe one day the normal population can enjoy normal electric cars that innovate in less unsafe and ridiculous ways. I’d definitely drive one of these if given one but for my own money, its almost there but not quite.