Payne: It's been a wild two years waiting for my Tesla Model 3

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

More than two years ago, I put down $1,000 to reserve my place in line with 450,000 others to order the most anticipated car of the 21st century. On June 26, I finally configured my Tesla Model 3 for delivery.

No greenie, I'm a speed-addled motorhead who ordered the Model 3 out of lust for its design and electric performance. And because, as a journalist, I wanted to be a part of the most audacious auto startup in memory.

The wild ride hasn't disappointed. 

The Model 3 has proved to be slow to market, hell to manufacture, banned from sale in Michigan, and a stage for the brilliant, maddening, tweeting, disruptive Donald — er, Elon Musk. Yet the car itself has not lost its allure.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne poses with a Tesla charging unit, similar to the one he is still waiting to have installed at his home. He is also still waiting on the Tesla 3 he ordered and paid a deposit for.

Billed as Tesla Inc.'s entry-segment, $35,000 electric car to the Silicon Valley automakers' premium Model S and Model X chariots, the most-affordable Model 3 trim won't be available until next year. My rear-wheel drive, big-battery, 310-mile-range sedan will cost $20,000 north of the base 220-mile-range model. It also demands substantial upgrades to my house to meet its charging demands — more than $2,000 worth — a lesson in the challenges for electric-vehicle adoption.

Like all communication from Tesla, my notice came in a simple email: "Your Model 3 is Ready to Order," followed by a link to tesla.com.

The email came in the middle of my June-August order window for a $49,000 rear-wheel drive, long-range car. That's a delay of four months from my original February-April window (true to Musk's promise of "production hell" at the Model 3's July 2017 unveiling).  Want the standard-range $35,000 car? I'd have to wait another 6-9 months. Want the $53,000 all-wheel driver? Cool my heels until late 2018.

The website added a new trim: a $64,000 all-wheel drive performance model to rival gas-powered rockets like BMW's M3 and Cadillac's ATS-V. Tempting, but its sticker would push the price into nosebleed Model S territory.

I stuck to my budget.

Compared to the dizzying array of options available in most cars these days, my 3 was configured in five easy steps.

Step 1: Car. All-wheel drive for Michigan winters? I like rear-wheel drive handling for twisty country roads. The 310-mile range model I chose has a 140 mph top speed and does 0-60 in 5.1 seconds — among the quickest in its class.

Step 2: Exterior. Any color other than plain black costs $1,000. I chose Obsidian Black Metallic with $1,500 19-inch Sport wheels. Gotta have 19s.

Step 3: Interior. To paraphrase Henry Ford on the Model T (which also suffered production pressures due to high demand), you can have any Model 3 interior you like ... as long as it's black leather. Wood trim and that big, beautiful Tesla tablet screen are standard.

Step 4: Autopilot. "Enhanced Autopilot" adds $5,000 for self-driving features like auto-lane change, adaptive cruise-control, self-park assist and a "summon" feature that allows the car to back itself out of a tight parking space without a driver at the wheel. Another $3,000 and the car would be armed for full autonomy (when the software matures) — no thanks, we motorheads want autonomous cars like fish need bicycles.

Step 5: Payment. Bottom line, my Model 3 cost $56,000, comparable to the BMW M2 coupe I also lust for. Subtract the $7,500 federal EV tax credit and I'm under $50,000.

The cost doesn't end there.

Recharging on a standard, 110-volt wall charger would take longer than the wait for my Model 3 (well, 52 hours). The best bid from two electricians to upgrade my garage to 240-volt was $1,675. Add $500 for a 60-amp Tesla wall charger and I can recharge to 300 miles in seven hours overnight.

Before paying the electrician and my required $2,500 Tesla deposit (the rest due on delivery), I took a long pause. Fifty grand is a lot of money, and the headlines out of Tesla had become increasingly chaotic. 

Some of that chaos was to be expected. Musk and Donald Trump may vehemently disagree on the fate of the polar bear, but they are both classic disruptors on a collision course with the establishment. Musk also takes inspiration from digital disruptors like Steve Jobs to upend the status quo on dealerships (Tesla stores) and manufacturing (more automation). 

Never shy with a tweet, he's unloaded on journalists, investors and industry leaders. As I ordered, he even attacked his role model, Ford Motor Co., to deflect criticism about a makeshift tent he had erected outside his California factory to meet production goals. 

"Go to Ford, it looks like a morgue."

Good theater, but worrisome for a luxury-car buyer who fears the consequences of his $50,000 car being built in a tent. By sleep-deprived workers. By a company with a history of defects — and that, by law, cannot have company dealerships in Michigan.

I'm not the only customer with concerns, but I'm philosophical. Tesla is a startup automaker trying to achieve the unprecedented: fill 450,000 standing orders for a single model. To put that in perspective, Mercedes only sells 375,000 units a year in the U.S. across 15 models.

Which brought me back to product.

Despite similar build issues, the Model X SUV and Model S sedan are two of the best vehicles I've driven. While chatting with one of Michigan's first Model 3 owners in Birmingham this spring, I pointed out a sunken hood gap on her sleek red machine.

She and her husband hadn't noticed. She went on to rave about the car.

I, too, raved about the first 3 I tested. Its spare, iPhone-like design and nimble handling drowned out voices in Model 3 forums complaining of inconsistent paint jobs and electronic hiccups.

Two years on, and the Model 3 is still unique. Which probably explains why — despite the chaos and delays — Tesla sales still dwarf other EVs. There are very good alternatives, after all — like the tidy, reliable, 238-mile-range Chevy Bolt EV. The Model 3 is outselling it 5:1.

Mine is ordered, but delivery is a uncertain. Tesla says it will arrive at its Cleveland dealership for pickup (Ohio allows Teslas to be sold there) between September-November. Based on the experiences of other owners, it could arrive in a month. 

And to throw in one more blind turn on the wild ride, Tesla announced this week it is opening up orders to non-reservation holders. The company assures me that my place in line is secure.

The adventure continues. I'll let you know when it comes.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.