The “car of the future”, the “final stage of the master plan”: Superlatives are in abundant supply when Tesla describes the Model 3, its bet to conquer the mass market. Many an automotive writer has supported this narrative; sometimes, a quick spin around the corner in the presence of a Tesla watchdog has proven sufficient to arrive at a comprehensive conclusion.

Lacking such awesome skill, we needed a bit more time to find out how Tesla’s latest car actually performs on the road. We drove a long-range, rear-wheel drive Model 3, fitted with autopilot functionality and priced in the mid-50K dollar range. And the experience was revealing in several ways.

With its grille-less duckface, a large greenhouse and a sloping back, the Model 3 looks somewhat inconspicuous. A first surprise: Despite its sloping roofline, there is no large rear hatch. But there is a good reason for the lack of a tailgate: The generous glass roof that spans over the passenger compartment, reaching far back.

The view of the sky, however, hardly compensates for the inadequate rear seating comfort: the bench forces passengers into an uncomfortable angle. This is the worst rear seat in the segment, hands down.

Up front, the seating position is comfortable, but the Model 3 feels unusually small. The all-round vision is good and the cabin is airy, but we wonder how this look will fare with modern-day customers who often prefer a high, tank-like beltline in order to feel protected.

There is a second luggage compartment up front that complements the average-sized rear trunk. It holds an extra carry-on bag.

The cockpit: Flawed and futuristic

The extremely reduced cockpit contributes to the svelte look: Before the driver, there’s nothing but a horizontal air vent and a wooden strip. And, of course, that huge central screen by which virtually all vehicle functions are controlled. It works in conjunction with two thumbwheels on the cheap- and conventional-looking three-spoke steering wheel. The charging area for two cell phones is well thought out: While charging, they are within the driver’s view.

The central screen itself is a disappointment: The dated graphics are a matter of taste, but hiding important and safety-relevant functions in cumbersome submenus is a serious flaw. And that’s when the screen doesn’t crash, which has been a frequent occurence with Tesla.

To be sure, there are elaborate and expensive gimmicks such as the electronically controlled air vents. But they exist in stark contrast to the frugal and cheap materials throughout the cabin – and build quality so careless that one has to question the priorities of the company. At least the gaps and joint patterns in our particular vehicle were within acceptable standards. But CEO Elon Musk’s statement that “we will keep going until the Model 3 build precision is a factor of ten better than any other car in the world” is simply risible. In actual truth, the various units of the Model 3 that we sampled render it the worst car on the market in this respect – by a considerable margin.

Moderate driving dynamics

Time to briefly tap the center console with the card key, and off we go. We put the old-school column stalk into “Drive”, and the Model 3 takes off in near silence. And it really gets down to business if you press the accelerator pedal. The sprint from 0 to 100 kph takes just over 5 seconds, and Tesla claims it can do a full 225 kph (140 mph). This performance is within the gasoline- or diesel-powered competitive set, and surprisingly good for an electric. Torque is available instantly and without the slightest lag. Moreover, this is quiet car. An Autobahn test is pending, but during our test drive in the speed-limited US, the cabin remained well isolated up to 130 kph (80 mph) and beyond.

The claimed total range is a full 500 kilometers (310 miles), but we did not experience the favourable conditions needed to achieve this figure. In any real-life scenario, the range is far more modest. Recharging can be a lengthy and costly affair, depending on your access to fast-charging or subsidised networks.

While its straight-line performance is convincing, the chassis and handling of the Model 3 are not particularly impressive. The low center of gravity is helpful, but the heft of this EV is always felt. There is considerable body roll, and the Model 3 understeers at the limit, with squealing tires providing an early warning to back off. The steering feel is artificial, and the brakes are utterly joyless: They are spongy, lacking feedback and a defined pressure point. One thing is clear: Tesla did not build a go-kart with the Model 3.

Unfortunately, the just-average handling characteristics do not correspond with superior comfort. To the contrary: The suspension feels overly stiff.

Risky Autopilot

Tesla claims to excel in yet another area: The “autopilot” aims to outclass the competition’s assistance systems by a “magnitude”, as Elon Musk might say. But we found that it needs to be treated with caution. Yes, the steering wheel requires a touch every 30 seconds or so to document the driver’s awareness. But in 30 seconds, a lot can happen.

Tesla’s “autopilot” can take over not only on freeways, but also on curvy, two-lane highways – and it does so in a confidence-inspiring manner. But every so often, the system will take on a demanding corner, only to discover it has bitten off more than it can chew. Then the “autopilot” suddenly disengages, the steering snaps back to the center position, and the car is heading straight off the road. Only extreme driver awareness can save these situations.

When clear lane markings were missing on the freeway, we experienced sudden twitching, and a Model S with the most recent software update, driven at the same time, merrily changed lanes with another car driving right next to it. On Model S and Model X, there have been fatal accidents connected with “autopilot”, and we believe that Tesla’s aggressive implication of the technology calls for extreme driver attention – and, unfortunately, the very regulation that other carmakers have tried to avoid with more responsible approaches.

Tesla is different

But Tesla, so far, has worked by a different set of rules: It is a cult and a lifestyle brand as much as an auto manufacturer. Elon Musk’s Twitter account is followed by over 22 million users, many consider him a universal genius. To better understand the world of the Tesla disciples, it is insightful to check out some of the more or less witty “easter eggs” hidden in the Model 3’s user interface.

For instance, you can pull up a map of Mars, the planet Musk has vowed to cultivate as a travel destination. Another feature turns the road into a shining rainbow, and in yet another mode, the Model 3 is be transformed into a virtual sleigh operated by Santa Claus and surrounded by hopping reindeer. Use the turn signal in this mode, and be exposed to the heartwarming jingle of Christmas bells.

Given the existence of such mythical creatures in the Model 3’s infotainment system, we would not be surprised if Tesla were hiding the vaunted 35,000-dollar version of the Model 3 – as the ultimate “easter egg”. That model, so far, exists only in the dreams and prayers of an army of customers who have made a staggering 1,000-dollar deposit each.

Today, of course, you need to pay at least 49,000 dollars for a Model 3. Perhaps that’s why demand for the Model 3 has crash-landed. That, and the mounting evidence that far too many customers are experiencing serious difficulties with the delivery process and the quality of their vehicles.

There are good reasons to doubt that electric vehicles represent the future of mobility at all. But even if they are, the Model 3 has us convinced that Tesla won’t be anything but a footnote in the long run.

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