As I posted earlier I purchased a Tesla Model 3, the mid-range version with one motor and autopilot.
There are many reviews of this car out there, so I will go quickly over the common issues to get to areas I can give a special perspective on.
The Tesla (all of them) is unlike other cars. It’s a car designed by silicon valley computer nerds, to some extent for silicon valley computer nerds. Since that’s me, it was an obvious car choice for me. If that’s you, I suspect this is the obvious choice for you as well. But it’s also good for many other people.
As many have said, this car is half computer and half car, and in the 3 weeks I’ve owned it there have already been two software updates, and many more are to come. This was another key factor in buying it — if the car is doing something wrong, the odds are excellent that it will get fixed later if it can be fixed in software. As such I am more forgiving of some of the issues I will outline here.
The driving, acceleration and handling are delicious. The low center of gravity and the powerful electric motor provide a driving experience unmatched in this cost range. This and other advantages of electric cars are quite large, and why they will take over from ICE cars fairly quickly
- The lack of smells, oils and drips. The only fluid you can add is wiper fluid. (BTW, mine came empty, the only problem as delivered.)
- The low cost of energy — about 4 cents/mile with 13 cent/kwh electricity.
- The lack of pollution (my power company at home uses exclusively wind and solar for generation.)
- That amazing handling and acceleration. (And I got the mid-range model. The higher end models have even more power.)
- Regenerative braking which vastly lowers the energy cost of going over hills.
- The amazing performance driving up the hill; you never feel the motor “working,” it just goes.
- The “do what I am thinking” that comes from having good power even at highway speed. You see a space you want to be ahead, and you enter it.
- The extra storage up front (though not very large in the Model 3, and you’re cheated because even if you don’t buy the front motor, it does not give you extra frunk space.)
- You’re not sending any money to oil companies or OPEC countries.
Then there are the Tesla touches
- The mobile app, and even fancier apps using its API, which give you a great deal of external control on the car, from controlling charging, monitoring, unlocking and locking things and warming or cooling the car. (You can’t see out the cameras, that would be nice.)
- The automatic locks which mean you don’t even have a key. Your phone is the key — though this is not perfect (see below.)
- The personalization of seat, wheel and mirror positions, including “easy entry” position for getting in and out.
- The fancy climate controls (touchscreen)
- The other central touchscreen features, such as (sucky) web browser, energy monitoring, driving environment, decent quality Nav (but still not as good as Waze) and more.
- The fairly nice audio system, with streaming and podcasts
- Supercharging network. You get it free for 6 months if you use my referral code when you buy one.
- The non-dealer buying system, including delivery right to my driveway. (A guy drove it from the factory and caught a Lyft back. He could have been a bit better at showing me the car, though.)
- Autopilot, which we’ll talk about in detail, but also the other ADAS like adaptive cruise control which is very nice.
- AI wipers which come on automatically when there is rain.
- Smart headlights which also come on automatically, including auto high-beam which is still not perfect unfortunately.
- The 3 Teslas have the highest safety ratings of any cars ever sold. The model 3 is the safest production car ever made.
All these things are fantastic, and explain why Tesla owners love their cars, and even put up with an above average amount of problems that have been present as production on this car ramped up. It’s clear that this is not a car with the reliability of the Mazda/Honda/Acura cars I have previously owned. I have yet to get a significant mechanical problem, but friends have. I have had problems I expect to be fixed in software.
Should you get one?
Probably. You can check if any of the problems that I or others list are deal-breakers. Here in California there are a lot of benefits which make the cost of the vehicle much more competitive. You can really compare a $50,000 Tesla with a $35,000 gasoline car, and I think it does very well in that case.
- There was a $7,500 tax credit. Now it’s $3,750 but they cut $2,000 from the price of the cars Jan 1 to make up for that.
- In some states, like California, there is a $2,500 credit if your income is under $150K.
- With high California gas prices, if you drive the average amount, you’ll save around $700 per year in gasoline over a typical car. Less over a Prius.
- You will have costs to install charging. Can be as low as free, or a lot more if you have to re-do your house panel. There are ways around that for most, like switching to a gas dryer.
- You get to go solo in the carpool lanes and pay less on bridges. (If you cross the bridge regularly you save $3 per trip, a huge win if you commute.)
- Maintenance should be much lower. You will never need to smog it. Repairs are an unknown.
- Insurance on the Model 3 is lower than other cars in spite of the cost.
If your math works out, and you enjoy a fun car with massive acceleration, it’s hard to say no to this car. At 260 miles and above, range anxiety is pretty minimal, thanks to the supercharger network. (Once you start paying for the supercharger you are not saving as much on energy, though.) It doesn’t go away entirely, and this is not the best car for a “wander the wilderness” road trip. (You can take great road trips in the Tesla, but it is a constrained subset of what you could do in a gasoline car.) While you do get 4WD in the higher end versions, if you truly need an SUV’s high ride, cargo space and off-road ability, you might want to go for that — or rent one of those when you need it. If you have more than 2 kids, this may not be your family car, certainly not if you think you need a minivan.
While my readers have probably turned it off, go to Google location history and quickly skip through the months or days of your recent life. You will see all your driving. How many days did you drive more than 200 miles? In my 25 years in California, my personal car has never left the state except for the tiny bit of Nevada at Lake Tahoe. My long road trips have been in rental cars.
You may also care about pollution, global warming, and the likes of the oil companies and OPEC governments. You may find value in not contributing to these.
You will enjoy the responsiveness and handling of this car. If that matters to you, along with all these other factors, and there are no deal-breakers below, get it using my code for free supercharging.
What about the next one?
The main reason I can see not to get one is that they are improving much faster than gasoline cars. So there will be a sweeter one in a couple of years, probably a lot sweeter. In spite of this, Teslas seem to have held their value, while cars like the Leaf have not. Be ready for that — or lease if you like that sort of thing.
Battery life has turned out to be much better than expected with older technology, which is good news. Batteries will get cheaper, though.
There does not seem to be a car to compete with the Model 3 in 2019. The cheaper Bolt is a good choice if you need to cut the budget a bit. The Model S will face competition from some cars in 2019 and 2020, with offerings from Audi and Jaguar.
The offerings in the next couple of years will include some high-end vehicles from startups, and some vehicles from regular car companies. The car companies will have more experience at doing cars in general, but less than Tesla on electric issues. They will probably include regular dashboards.
I will now describe a number of issues, but I want readers to keep these in the context of the huge positives listed above. In many cases, what I write below is about how they could design things better, sometimes on features not even found in other cars.
My main problem with the car, which won’t be easily fixed in software, is that the visibility is a great deal less than I am used to. So much so that I almost decided not to keep the car — it’s that bad. But I kept it. This consists of both a very restricted rear view — you sometimes can’t see a low-slung car that is right behind you or things to the left and right — and quite small side-view mirrors. These mirrors are small to reduce drag. Outside the USA, vendors are now getting to use cameras for side-view mirrors to seriously reduce drag and get a better view at the same time. Larger retrofit mirrors are something I would readily purchase. (Sadly camera retrofit seems unlikely because you need to have the screens as well.)
This is compounded by the “feature” of auto-dimming on the side mirrors. At night, when headlights are behind you, they darken. A lot. Way too much. I have been used to a rear-view mirror that darkens, but don’t want the side mirrors to darken, because now at night I can barely see things that don’t have headlights, such as pedestrians, cyclists and scooters on my right side. Even cars are harder to figure out, as you only see their headlights and not the context around them. Without that context you can’t always figure out how far away they are. I am keenly hoping for a software update that will let me turn off or turn down this dimming. Otherwise I will have to go in and cut the wire. I no longer have the sense of the road I like to have and must do a lot more work changing lanes on city streets at night.
This could also be helped if the car had a feature I was very surprised to see missing, namely blind-spot warning. Yes, this car which is able to change lanes on its own in autopilot, lacks a very basic ADAS function found in so many other cars. You can look on the screen to see what it thinks is around you, but you don’t want to have to look 5 places at once for a lane change — rear-view, mirror, over shoulder, forward and screen is too much.
Another software fix would be to let me put up the rear-view camera on the screen in a small box. You can put it up now, but it fills the whole screen, which is not acceptable. A 360 view (some cars already have this) synthesized from the cameras would also be good.
I hope I’ll get used to this, or that they make it better and offer replacement mirrors.
Ride and noise
Other reviews have noted that the suspension on this car is firm, and can’t be changed. You will feel the road. Some like it, some don’t. I would prefer it a bit less bumpy, or adjustable.
The motor is silent, but the tires and wind are not. And the interior is much noisier at speed than similarly priced luxury cars. Of course, in this car the money went into that big battery, and in the other cars it went into sound deadening materials. I think I would have liked the option of spending a bit more to get the silent ride of other $50K cars.
The minimalist all-touchscreen approach
Tesla made a very conscious decision to have a minimalist instrument panel. There is no instrument panel — only the touchscreen. The only physical buttons are two scroll wheels on the steering wheel (default to audio and autopilot/ACC/speech command control,) the “transmission” stalk and the lights/wipers stalk, plus buttons for dome and hazard lights. That’s really it. Everything else is on the screen, including a lot of your wiper control, all your climate control, all your audio and phone control.
It’s a bit strange having to look right for your speedometer and everything else that used to be in front of you. On the other hand the wheel never blocks it. An analog speedometer would be nicer than the digital one, but I suspect that might come in future.
The use of touchscreen buttons for everything is problematic for at least two of them — the defog controls. Sometimes you have to hit that while driving and it is not easy to hit a touchscreen button while driving, nor should you do so. A better choice would have been a small number of physical buttons at the edges of the screen with on-screen labels for what they do.
While the AI wipers and lights are nice, they are not perfect, and having to go into touchscreen for that is poor. The signals/lights/wiper stalk has a quick wipe button on the end, and it is too easy to hit it by accident when doing a turn signal. However, that button is the obvious answer to the wipers not being fast enough. The car should notice if I push the manual wipe button more than once, and take that as a hint to increase the speed, both at the time, and to a lesser degree in future. It could even set the exact speed from the interval between presses.
Another improvement would be to let the customer build a set of “favourite” buttons and have them be on screen all the time, or easily put on the screen with the press of some physical button. I could then pick the things I really do want to access while driving or otherwise access frequently and put those there.
Another issue is the lack of buttons to open the trunk, frunk, glove box(!) and charge port. This is all on the screen, though the trunk and charge port and charging cable have buttons on them. People often go to trunks with things in their hands, and it’s nice to pre-open it. Going to a phone app is no option. Reaching into the car when you are outside is not an option either. Tesla offers a $150 key fob as an option. It should be a $10 key-fob.
I don’t know if Tesla put a microphone outside. If they did, speech would be a good way to let people pop the trunk and frunk. Or gesture recognition on the cameras.
Many others don’t like the minimalist approach, but put up with it to get the great car. Elon Musk says something I have often said in response — that a self-driving car doesn’t need a dashboard — but of course this is not a self-driving car, nor will it be for some time, and I have to drive it today. Some people respond by mounting a cell phone on the dash and running Waze or other apps on it. One thing I always wished cars would do is put power jacks (or hidden inductive plates) up in the dash, because people are always putting stuff up there that needs power, from phones to dashcams to timelapse cams and many other things.
The interior is comfortable, minimalist and nice. But it’s just nice. $12K of your money went into the battery, so this is not the interior of a $45K offering from a luxury car maker. I am fine with that, it has most of what I want.
Customization and keys
The keyless entry is very cool. It locks the car if you walk more than about 15 feet away. You can set it, as I have, to honk when it locks. But it’s easy to miss if it doesn’t lock, which it doesn’t if you haven’t closed one of the doors properly. Which, unfortunately, seems very easy to do — they need more force than the average car needs. This should cause an alert if the car sees I have walked away with the door open. I should not look in my app and see the car is unlocked outside.
The car lets you set custom driver’s seat positions for multiple people, which is good. What it doesn’t do is figure out who is in the car (based on which phone or key unlocked it) and use that profile. If both phones arrive (which is common) it should either have a default (ie. the primary driver) or better still, figure out which phone went to the driver’s side. (A voice command would also be a suitable solution.)
Charging is mostly straightforward. There are a few annoyances though:
- You can’t pull out the cable if the car is locked. So when you approach the car, before you disconnect the cable you must push in the door handle to get the car to auto-unlock. Not sure why that’s needed if it sees your phone.
- A nice touch would be to notice that I have just parked at home and gotten out and to auto-open the charge port because I am almost always going to plug in. If I don’t, just close it 4 minutes later.
- The charge timing is far too simple. All you can do is tell it when to start charging each day. Around here, that’s 11pm when power gets cheap. (7pm on weekends but Tesla does not understand the concept of the weekend.) You really want to also be able to tell it when to stop — to only charge on manual command during the 2pm to 9pm weekday peak time when power costs 3.5x as much as it does at night. There are 3rd party apps to fix this, which is part of what’s good about the Tesla.
- I’ve had some bugs with the charge timing that have not resolved, where it stopped charging for no reason and gave no diagnostic.
- Supercharging is nicely done, but because Tesla is giving most buyers free supercharging for 6 months, the superchargers around here are very frequently full with people trying to save money or no home charging. Here’s a way to partly fix that
The range estimate is off for people who do lots of highway driving. I find that consistently on highway trips of 90-100 miles it uses up 120 miles of “range.” This is expected if you will drive 75mph on the highway, as most people do around here. Drag losses go up with the square of speed. But if you are deciding what size battery to get, keep that in mind. In fact, keep in mind that you usually only charge to about 85% of full, and should not go below 10% very often. So 260 miles of range means about 150-160 miles on the highway, which is no small difference. You can get the more full 210 miles of highway range if you truly need them, with some degradation of your battery. You would not want to do it every day.
Nav system and calendar
The nav system is better than found in most cars, but that still means it is not as good as Waze or Google Maps at traffic prediction. It would be nice if it instead just let me say, “have my phone do the nav but let me interface via the Tesla.” Car companies, not even Tesla, don’t seem to figure this out. Of course, the Tesla nav does have features Waze won’t, like finding charging stations. Like Waze and GMaps, it lets me import my calendar so that it’s easy to navigate to my next meeting if I put it in the calendar. But it’s buggy, and doesn’t understand that the “Location” box in many calendar entries includes things like place names and floor numbers that humans like. I wish there were an easier solution here.
BTW, the calendar import (which also is a bit buggy) would be a handy way for the charging system to learn things. By knowing how far I plan to drive tomorrow, it can adjust the charging strategy.
Again, I am whining about calendar integration when most cars don’t have it at all.
A few quibbles. There are two things you really should get told when you get the car, because they are different from other cars:
- To open the door, use the electronic button, not the mechanical lever like most cars. If you use the lever, you may hurt the rubber seal, it tells you.
- To close the frunk, it needs a fair bit of force and you are supposed to press with two hands on two specific spots or you might damage it. Important to know!
I think my review of Autopilot deserves its own post. My short review is this: Autopilot is impressive, the best from any car company, but it is a shadow of a real robocar system. Tesla talks like full self driving is around the corner, they just need to improve Autopilot a little. It’s not true. The reason people rave about Autopilot is they haven’t seen or worked on a real robocar system.
Logging & Privacy
As a cloud connected car, there are a lot of matters of concern. Tesla knows everywhere you go. Tesla can dig in to what your car has been doing without your permission. Tesla can disable your car even though you paid for it. Somebody who breaks into Tesla’s computer systems can do all these things, and also update your car’s software to spy on you via the internal camera, or program the car to kill you.
These are serious things. I would like to see designs that can prevent this, and that’s not easy. At the same time, it is easy to see the seduction of a car always talking to the cloud. Many of the useful features come from that.
With all this data, one thing I was surprised not to see was the ability for me to easily log my trips and classify them as business/personal/charity. You need to do this for tax reasons if you drive for other than personal use. I would like to be able to tag trips and destinations as business, and even be able to do a quick command on the touchscreen or voice interface to declare a business trip or personal one. Or put it in my calendar entry. You don’t even get a trip log — you need to subscribe to paid apps with monthly fees to get that.
For privacy though, it would be good if the log were stored in the car, not the cloud, and I could transfer it to my phone over Bluetooth.
For some people, this is the right car choice. In some ways there is just no comparison to other cars. But it’s also far from perfect. The fact that it improves every month is a big deal, though. And that 3rd parties can do basic improvements is interesting too. I think if you buy it, you will be happy. But there will be something even better in 2 years. And 2 years after that, and so on until the robocars take over. The improvement won’t be like the improvement in computers or phones, but it will be unlike traditional cars. And you still buy a new computer knowing this.