Review: Tesla Model 3 lives up to hype

Henry Payne

Correction: This review has been updated to reflect that the Tesla Model 3 keyless entry system responds to a digital key transmitted by Bluetooth from the car owner’s phone or by tapping a thin card on the car’s b-pillar. The system was incorrectly described. Also, the “Autosteer” feature cautions drivers to check mirrors for oncoming traffic before activating a lane change. The level of autonomy was incorrectly characterized. Finally, the characterization of the body panel fit as inconsistent has been restored from an earlier version.

Peering over the instrument-free dashboard, I threw the compact Tesla Model 3 into an M-10 cloverleaf. Its balanced rear-wheel drive chassis rotated easily, then — zot! — I bolted silently onto the freeway with instant electric-motor torque.

The “mini-Model S” is here, and it’s everything its iconic big brother is. And less.

Less, as in half the price. I spent a day around Metro Detroit driving one of the first customer-owned Model 3s delivered to Michigan. At a loaded, $59,000 ($35,000 base), the newest Tesla family sedan is considerably easier on the wallet than the $130,000 ($74,500 base) Model S sedans I have driven in recent years. Yet, in many ways, Model 3 is a more satisfying product.

Unless you’ve been living on Mars, you know the Model 3’s production launch has been a pickle — “production Hell” CEO Elon Musk calls it — as the young Silicon Valley automaker has struggled to get the assembly line moving for its mass-market EV with a range of 200-plus miles.

Musk’s bravado hasn’t helped. He boasted that Tesla would be turning out 5,000 vehicles a week by December 2017 (actual production: about 1,500 for the month). He took shots at legacy automakers, calling the pace of today’s manufacturing slower than “grandma with a walker.” Added Musk: “Why shouldn’t it at least be jogging speed?”

Critics have delighted as the most audacious auto entrepreneur since Henry Ford has struggled to get production up to a jog. But product will ultimately define Tesla — product that spurred an unprecedented 450,000-plus pre-orders from customers like me.

Take the much-ballyhooed issue of Tesla build-quality. Walking around this blue Model 3 tester, body panel fit is inconsistent. Gaps in the lid of the “frunk” — the front trunk — vary from nose to fender. An A-pillar seam is slightly misaligned. That doesn’t happen on, say, the similarly priced Audi RS3 I recently sampled.

I doubt owners will sweat such minutiae because the Model 3 is unlike anything they have driven. It’s the iPhone of autos.

Take that frunk: Luggage storage like that doesn’t exist on other cars except for the Porsche 911. But the 911 has a frunk in front because its engine is in back. With its battery-pack stowed under the floorboards, the Model 3 also has ample trunk-storage in the rear, augmented by bench seats that fold flat so you can pass through big toys like flat-screen TVs or skis.

The front cabin is as striking as the first iPhone you saw in 2007. The austere dash is uninterrupted by an instrument panel or butterfly-vent controls. Most controls are contained in a 15-inch, horizontal tablet that’s positioned high in the center console. Indeed, there’s not a single button in the cabin except for door openers and a federally mandated “emergency flasher” button in the ceiling. Glove box button? In the screen. Temperature controls? Screen. Radio? Screen.

Like a smartphone, the touchscreen uses a Google Maps interface for Tesla's voice-activated navigation system. More responsive than the last Model S I tested, Google Maps loads quickly and responds to direct voice-commands — there are no multi-step navigation commands like most cars. “Navigate to Vinsetta Garage,” I barked after a sudden urge for mac and cheese. Done.

Only the mirrors and steering-wheel position are not controlled through the screen; they’re adjusted by two thumb-operated orbs on the steering wheel. If the iPhone redefined phone glass, then Tesla expands auto glass with an uncluttered front screen, full sunroof and easy rear-visibility.

I’m an advocate for cockpit-centered displays — Audi’s Virtual Cockpit is the best — but with key data like speed and range located in the tablet’s northwest quarter, the Tesla layout works OK. It would work better if complemented by a reflective heads-up display.

The simplicity of design and lack of console shifter (the right steering-wheel stalk controls the electric drive) means the center console is one big piece of furniture with multiple cubbies for storage. Battery location in the basement also opens more rear seat acreage for 6-foot-5 giraffes like me. I sat comfortably in the back seat with headroom to spare under the tinted glass roof.

The exterior is a sleek sportback-eggshell that — while not as elegant as the longer Model S — is distinctly Tesla.

Instead of keyless entry via a fob like the Model S (and other autos), the Model 3 responds to a digital key transmitted by Bluetooth from the owner's phone. A thin card also grants entry if tapped on the b-pillar. Sensing the phone, the car unlocked as I approached, and then turned on when I slipped inside. Luke Skywalker would be impressed.

You’ll want to slip inside a lot because this Starfighter is a blast to drive.

My favorite compact sports sedan is the athletic Cadillac ATS. This 3,814-pound, 310-mile-range, 75-kWh Model 3 tester was every bit its match. Multiple Woodward stoplight launches (no Ludicrous mode here) yielded zero-60 times in the 5.2-second range (Motor Trend has recorded 4.8 seconds). The top-line 335-horse V-6 ATS? 5.6 seconds. The fat steering wheel feels rooted to the ground, the 113-inch wheelbase (the ATS has a 109-inch wheelbase, BMW 3-series measures 111) is balanced, the chassis flat as a board.

Flinging the Model 3 through 180-degree cloverleafs, I barely got a squawk from the Continental tires.

My tester came equipped with the latest version of Tesla’s self-driving Autopilot, which worked competently on I-696, though its turn-signal-activated, "Autosteer" lane-switch feature still not-so-autonomously cautions drivers to safely check the mirror for oncoming traffic first (impressively, sci-fi Telsa is constantly improving such features with over-the-air software updates). Most impressive is auto parallel-park: No hands — or feet — are needed.

As has been typical in my lead-footed Tesla Model S test drives, I took 44 miles off the battery for every 30 miles on the odometer. Under more civilized driving across Michigan and Ohio, my tester’s owner says he’s been able to average 305 miles on a full charge — not far off Tesla’s claimed 310 miles for the big-battery EV.

Only long-range Model 3s are currently being delivered — the standard-battery, 240-mile range $35,000 base-entry comes later this year. The wait isn’t getting any shorter — my projected August delivery is jogging four months behind schedule. But the mini-Model S lives up to the hype.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.