I’ve just finished driving the new Tesla Model 3, which was a tremendously cool experience. I say this because you have not driven one yet. Nobody has driven one yet. They’ve only delivered something like 222 cars, and I got to drive one of them, so nanny nanny boo boo.
Here’s how this happened: I got an email from a viewer with a Tesla Model 3, and he asked if I wanted to review it. So I flew to California and spent the entire day with it. Now, I don’t fly across the country to review just one car lightly. I only do it under the following circumstances: Number one, if the car is the coolest car of 2017. Number two, if the car is a Jaguar XJ220. See the 2017 Tesla Model 3 models for sale near you
Now, at this point, you might take issue with me calling the Model 3 the coolest car of the year, but you’d be wrong. Love Tesla or hate Tesla — I’m somewhere in the middle — you have to admit this car is a sensation. When was the last time you saw people camping outside car dealerships? When was the last time you saw people plunking down $1,000 deposits for a car they’ve never seen? On the off chance they’ll be able to take it home sometime in the next two years?
Here’s the answer: never. You’ve never seen that, because it’s never happened before, until now. And I had to see what the sensation was all about.
So I arrived to check out the Model 3, and here’s what I discovered, first and foremost: It’s full of cool, exciting, weird stuff. You’d think it wouldn’t be, because it’s not that big, and it’s not that expensive, but it is. Some examples: There’s only one front air vent in the Model 3. It’s massive, spanning the entire length of the dashboard, and you control it with the center screen — one area for the driver’s side of the vent, one area for the passenger side. But here’s the cool part: As you control the giant air vent with the center screen, you can split it into smaller pieces — up to four total — if you want to direct air more specifically.
Here’s another crazy feature: There are two small wheels on the steering wheel that can move in four directions: They can scroll up or down, or you can move them side to side. These don’t control volume or stereo track like in most normal cars, but instead they’re configurable. You can use them for the volume, but if you go into the right menu in the center screen, you can also use them to move the mirrors. Or adjust the position of the steering wheel. It’s amazing.
There are a lot of these cool quirks in the video, but you’re probably thinking: OK, how does it drive?
And the answer is: better than you probably think.
First off, acceleration. The car is relatively quick from a stop — all the units that have been delivered so far, including the one I drove, are the "long-range" versions that do zero to 60 in 5.1 seconds — but it’s the midrange power that’s especially exciting; the Model 3 is raucously fast from 30 or 40 miles per hour — though "raucously" is probably the wrong word, since the car makes absolutely no noise. It’s like a drama-free BMW M3.
Then there’s the handling. I didn’t get to drive the Model 3 on too many curvy roads, but I was surprised with its performance in the few quirks where I did drive it. It stayed mostly flat in cornering and delivered no drama, even going fairly fast through some sharp turns. Body roll is minimal and steering is oddly responsive: The car has clearly been engineered to begin turning the moment the wheel is moved slightly, as if Tesla thinks drivers will equate "responsive steering" with "good handling." With that said, the quick steering response is pleasing, though the steering is also a little lighter than on rivals — an issue that’s only partially solved when you change the steering setting to sport mode.
In terms of interior room, the Model 3 excels: I, as a 6-foot-4 person, had no trouble sitting behind the wheel with several inches of headroom to spare; in back, things are a bit tight for someone my size when the front seats are moved into a normal position, but it’s totally livable. The compromise is trunk space; the Model 3 seems to have a little less than some European sport sedan rivals, but that’s mostly made up by the fact that the Model 3 — with no big combustion engine up front — features a front-mounted trunk that adds a little extra practicality.
There are a lot of questions about the screen in the Model 3, and I’m happy to report it’s just as sensitive, intuitive and wonderful to use as ever. It responds instantly to a touch, all features work exactly as you’d expect, and I never really found the screen had any trouble reading my commands. I had some trouble reading the screen, though: I don’t love the controversial placement of the speedometer (and turn-signal lights) in the center of the car; I prefer that information right in front of me. This isn’t as unusual as some people think — other cars that had the center gauge cluster setup include the BMW Z8, Plymouth Prowler, Saturn Ion and Nissan Quest — but I didn’t like it in those cars, either. Still, that’s a small gripe, and it’s something you get used to; I’m happy to accept the weird speedometer placement if it means I can have that wonderful, highly responsive center screen.
What I’m a little less happy about is the quality of materials: The interior is refreshingly simple, with virtually no buttons anywhere — an amazing look in the modern era of ultra-complicated new vehicles. But the steering wheel is laughably ugly compared those in Mercedes-Benz and BMW models, and the downside of such a simple interior is you can’t really show off the pizzazz of a cool automotive cabin; that’s an advantage BMW and Mercedes hold over the Model 3.
However, I think the interior quality is the 3’s biggest drawback, and possibly its only major drawback. Truth be told, the Model 3 is a brilliant feat: The one I drove starts at $45,000 before federal or local tax rebates, and it delivers 334 miles of range. That’s a great deal even before you get to the cool features, like AutoPilot and the fact that there’s no key other than a phone app, and how the backup camera tells you how many inches you are from hitting whatever’s behind you, and blah blah blah, all these cool little details that make it abundantly clear you aren’t in a "normal" car.
Here’s something else worth noting: During my time driving the Model 3, I didn’t notice any creaking or rattling or poor finishing anywhere in the car. Yes, I wish the overall materials were nicer, but they weren’t falling apart; given Tesla’s highly publicized difficulty bringing these things to market, I figured the interior trim would be loose and most of the interior panels would visibly shake whenever I went over a bump. Not so. Everything seems to be as well-tightened as you’d expect from any normal production car.
So what’s my verdict? Overall, I loved the Model 3. I love the simple interior, I love the cool tech, I love the acceleration and I love the fresh and innovative approach to all sorts of issues other carmakers seem to struggle with. I also think it’s a decent value: The one I drove was around $60,000, which is about what you’d spend on a nice 340i; the BMW handles better and has a nicer interior, but the Model 3 has more tech, and I sincerely think it’s faster once you get moving. Plus, ya know, the Model 3 doesn’t use any gasoline, which is a benefit that’s surprisingly skipped over in a lot of discussions about how impressive this car is.
The list of things I didn’t love was short: I wish there were an auxiliary speedometer in the center, the ride is a bit rough with the optional 19-inch wheels, and — most of all — I wish the interior were just a little nicer. But these are minor gripes; the Model 3 is an excellent vehicle, delivered by a company that’s known for excellent vehicles, and I suspect all those people who plunked down a thousand bucks just for the privilege of ordering one will be largely satisfied. I just hope they don’t get stupid Tesla-related vanity license plates to express their satisfaction. Find a 2017 Tesla Model 3 for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.