Payne: Life with my Tesla Model 3

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

As a young newspaper cartoonist and graphic artist, I wanted an Apple computer. So perhaps it’s logical I would own a Tesla Model 3. On the track, on the road, in the garage, the Model 3 is just different.

Including $1,000 and $2,500 deposits, Payne's Tesla Model 3 cost $57,450. He'll get $7,500 of that back on his taxes due to a federal EV tax credit — though Payne will probably just blow it on more wheels or something.

Like Apple, Tesla boasts a unique operating system.

Innovated by the visionary, controversial, mercurial Steve Jobs (Tesla’s version is the equally outsized figure, Elon Musk), Apple’s graphical interface was a sea change from the MS-DOS standard developed by Microsoft (which ultimately introduced its own Apple-inspired graphic interface).

Apple changed the computer industry, and then music players and then cellphones by fundamentally re-imagining products. Even as its innovations have been adopted by other makers, Apple stands alone.

Will Tesla have the same effect on autos? I don’t know. But I do know there is nothing like it today.

Tesla has been wowing Detroiters since it debuted the sleek Model S sedan on the auto show floor in 2010. Its 17-inch vertical console screen was a revelation. I had to stand in line to get inside the thing, for goodness sake. I drove it, coveted it, and ultimately put $1,000 down on the more affordable Model 3 to be part of Apple’s — er, Tesla’s — journey.

The Model S (and its Model X SUV sibling) was a leap, but the Model 3 takes the operating system to another level. My friends enter the cockpit for the first time and gasp.

Oh, my lord!
That’s amazing! Everything is in the screen?
Wow! It’s so simple.

The Model 3 is an iPhone on wheels. The 15-inch tablet screen is its core. It dominates an elegant, spare interior consisting of screen, wood trim and steering wheel. It’s complemented by just three buttons — an emergency flasher button on the ceiling and two scroll buttons on the steering wheel.

Tap the steering wheel box in the screen and adjust steering column position. Repeat for the mirrors. Otherwise, the button is for radio volume. It’s brilliant.

It also overshadowed a $90,000 Jaguar I-Pace that recently showed up in my driveway. The quiet Jag is a lovely thing (Ian Callum could design a sexy toaster oven), but without a sexy V-8 or V-6 note, its drive experience is Tesla-like. With familiar cockpit switchgear — shared with other Jags like the F-Pace SUV — the Brit seems sooooo bloody conventional next to the $30,000 cheaper Model 3.

“I gotta say, I prefer the Tesla,” said an impressed auto engineer pal after back-to-back spins in the cars.

Unconventional the Tesla may be. But like Apple, it also works.

I frankly expected to be disappointed. After all, I like to drive fast. Which means I prefer my car controls front and center. I’m an advocate of head-up displays and steering wheel controls. Like the cockpit of my Lola race car, the more gauges in my line of sight the better.

The Model 3 gives me none of those. No instrument display. No gauges. Just a screen-based, 3-D graphic monitoring everything around me (who needs blind-spot assist in the mirror?) and a speedometer. Because it's an electric motor, there's no RPM gauge. Just floor it and hang on.

Hammering the Model 3 around M1 Concourse’s challenging test track, I quickly grew accustomed to the lack of instrumentation. I didn’t need it. The simple electric-drive means I can concentrate on driving.

The Tesla Model 3 is almost entirely controlled via its 15-inch touch screen, making it an iPhone on wheels.

The Tesla’s battery-powered drivetrain is both a blessing a curse.

In the car’s basement, the 80.5-kWh battery is structurally integrated into the chassis for increased crash strength — and increased handling stiffness. Despite weighing 400 pounds more than a BMW M2, for example, the Model3 is impressively planted in turns with little body roll. Push to the limit in a corner and the car understeers.

I was on the limit longer than I thought, flogging it for six laps without any protest from the battery (big brother Model S notoriously overheats into limp-mode after a couple of laps).

It was the brakes that cried uncle after four laps of hard exercise. Paired with electric-motor regeneration for optimal range efficiency, the brakes aren’t made for the track. I felt a pang of longing for my favorite, similarly priced, track-focused BMW M2 which can pound around M1 all day. Next time I’ll have race pads installed.

Nine miles (six laps) on the track sucked 50 miles in battery range. Don’t go tracking EVs unless you have lots of charge.

The same can be said for long-distance travel. Driving 202 miles back home to Oakland County after picking up my 310-mile range car in Cleveland (Why Cleveland? Keep reading.), I kept within the factory-advertised range as long as I ran the 70 mph speed limit. Going with the traffic flow at 80 mph, however, meant getting just 60 percent of predicted range — that's just 186 miles of range.

So, every outing must be calculated within the limits of Tesla’s Supercharger network. It means feeding my filly every night at the home stable so she’s ready the next day. A rolling iPhone it may be, but charging the Model 3 is not as easy as plugging in a cellphone. I’ve become an expert on battery capacity, maintenance — even charging the car remotely (via phone app) while on a Caribbean vacation.

Within the confines of normal commuting, however, the Model 3 is the cure for the common car. Screen response and voice commands are phone-like, eclipsing other automakers. "Take me to Kroger." Instantly the nearest grocery pops up. Want to play a song? Ask the Slacker streaming service.

Autopilot is the best I’ve experienced outside Caddy’s geo-fenced Supercruise. Want to drive with one pedal? Dial up brake-regeneration. Need more storage? Put a suitcase in the “frunk.” Got the need for speed? Attack a clover leaf.

But like Apple, the Model 3 has its flaws.

Trying to reinvent the audio experience, Tesla ditched AM radio (seriously?). Reinventing the dealer experience with retail stores (like guess who?), Tesla has been stiffed by Michigan and other states. That forces me to service my car through Cleveland. Trying to fill 450,000 orders, manufacturing quality has suffered with body panel gaps wider than David Letterman’s front teeth.

And like Apple, I can’t find any owners who care about all those shortcomings. The operating system is that good.

I don’t know if Tesla will dominate autos any more than Apple dominates PCs (12.7 percent market share). But customers have something special.

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.

The Tesla Model 3 is available with AWD or RWD. This is the RWD version.

2018 Tesla Model 3

Vehicle type: Electric, rear-wheel drive five-passenger luxury sedan

Powerplant: 80.5-kWh lithium-ion battery with electric motor drive

Transmission: Single-speed transmission

Weight: 3,814 pounds, long-range battery; 3,549 pounds for base-battery model

Price: $57,500 as tested, including $1,000 order deposit and $2,500 configuration downpayment ($49,000 base with long-range battery)

Power: 271 horsepower, 307 pound-feet torque

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.1 seconds (mfr.)

Fuel economy: Range, 310 miles (186 if driving 80 mph)

Report card

Highs: Sweet operating system; nimble handling

Lows: Trips governed by charging infrastructure; poor panel fits

Overall: 4 stars