My Tesla Model 3 Review Part 1

For proper entry to mid-life crisis mode, I have purchased a Tesla Model 3. I guess this is probably the first post of at least two parts, since I’ve not driven it enough to give a good assessment and a car is a thing you probably will live with for some time.

Just to keep all of this as personal as possible, it’s going to be mostly compared to my previous “daily driver” or the Mazda MX-5 Miata (NC 2012, MT, PRHT). In quotes because I don’t drive that often, but yeah I traded it in for the Model 3. So here is going to be a review of sorts from someone who came from a really fun-to-drive, emotional and just all-around blast of a car and “downgrading” into a mid-range luxury sedan. If you know me well enough you might know that for most of my driving life I drove a variety of cars. Before the MX-5, they were: a beat up Acura Legend (RIP x2) or a beat up 240SX (RIP), and occasionally in a CR-V, a Ridgeline, or an old RAM (RIP). Those who know me even better might know I used to rock a Mazda MVP (RIP). Very decidedly middle-class, and no, I don’t Toyota (although I did rock a ’91 Corolla for a very short while–was fun wondering if the car had enough juice to get over some on-ramps…). I am probably missing a car here or there, but that’s what happens when your Dad sold Hondas for a living (at least for a while) and gave/sold good value used cars as a charity to help out poor Chinese immigrants. Very Christianly of him to buy out the cheaper used cars (his customers’ trade-ins) and then turn them around, which meant I got to use some of them while we were “storing” these.

I thought the Miata was enough of a midlife crisis kind of thing, but I got a great deal on it and honestly it was priced similarly from a well-equipped Accord or Camry anyway. Why would anyone drive those cars when they can drive a Miata? I had the support network of beat up pickup trucks and sedans in the rare case I need to move or carry something big. The MX-5 is by a long shot the most fun I’ve ever had with a four-wheeled vehicle. It’s like you just need to drive normally and the whole thing is fun. No need to go to a track–just any nice, scenic road without a lot of traffic, and maybe nice weather so you can roll down the top. Revving up that linear engine to a massive whopping 40MPH in the MX-5 was as much fun as drag racing anything. It rolled more than you’d expect in turns, but what it really is doing is teaching you how to shift a car’s weight coming into corners. It is definitely the most exciting teacher I’ve had. And I miss it.

However the Model 3 is a good consolation.The TL;DR is that the Model 3 is an alien spaceship but that electric motor acceleration is sugar crack cocaine. Overall car is still just a compromise between luxury, utility and performance, once you get past its disruptive features and the fact that it’s electric from the ground up. Not that those things are bad by any stretch, if you can get used to how alien it is. And compared to the Tesla S and BMW/Audi generally,  you’re getting a sweet bargain at this price.

The Model 3 I have is the primary config Tesla is actually delivering in 2018: rear wheel drive only, extended range, and with premium interior upgrade. I added the 19″ wheels and Enhanced Autopilot to bring it to a total of ~55500 before doc and delivery fees. There are no taxes in the State of New Jersey for electric vehicles, which is a nice touch, but it isn’t as plush of a incentive than some other states. This is all on top of the Federal tax incentive, an issue that really got me thinking of picking up the car now rather than later.

Before deciding to take delivery, what I wanted was actually the same car, but standard range. Truth is, I drive very little these days–before I traded in my MX-5 it had only ~12000 miles on it after 6 years. I don’t know if I will drive my M3 more, but I don’t think working in the City and commuting by train will make things any different than before. That $9000 extend-range upgrade will largely come into waste I figured, but it should mean there’s some residual value I can count on. Plus, it’s cold in the winter here, so maybe that range could still be useful as a buffer.

Since most people buying the M3 are buying Teslas for the first time, the current process is like this. First you have to go and commit to a configuration. I was a day-1 reservation holder, which just meant I put down a $1000 refundable deposit 2 years ago (all-in-all, it took about 26 months? LOL). That $1000 reservation thing is something newcomers can ignore. The new, non-refundable $2500 deposit guarantees your config and if your config is one that they can produce now, until someone jumps in front of you in the priority queue, you’re going to be in line for that car. In other words, say if you want a M3 Dual Motor, which is the hot new one people lining up for, and you didn’t have a $1000 deposit on top of your $2500, you will lose priority to people who did and want the same car and paid the $2500 around the time you are in that queue to manufacturing and VIN assignment. But at some point, you will still get your car even if there are others waiting for it with priority, if they didn’t put that 2500 down early enough. The factory is working non stop to crank these out, so you might get lucky. If you are going for a config with a shorter queue, such as the one I got, you probably can get your car in a month or so barring any odd configurations. For example, I think eventually they will make the white interior available as an option to more M3, and that one is definitely a thing you have to wait for even in the M3P/M3DM.

It took me exactly 14 days between putting down the 2500 and taking delivery of the car. It was frankly way too short, less than what I expected, and a learning experience. The configurator said 1-3 months, given my standing and config. I even made a minor change the day after I put down the deposit (before getting the VIN), but that didn’t make a difference (adding Enhanced Autopilot).

The process, as up to that point, was largely hands-off. I got maybe 4-5 emails over the 2 years from Tesla proper on Model 3 updates, but the news cycle does a good job telling me what’s going on, since it is a certified story in mainstream press. I would rather not this has to happen that way, but I follow tech news and such is life.

Oh I guess the reservation process was not entirely hands off–the initial $1000 deposit I made was at a Tesla store in Manhattan. I waited in line for like 30 minutes, and got my preorder at around 1pm.  I talked to a sales guy then, I looked at the MS and the then-new MX. Not too interested given those price tags. I got a couple emails after that to make sure I can log in and see my order, the estimator, etc.

Anyways, back to the near-past. On Thursday, or about 48 hours after my 2500 deposit on that Tuesday, I got an email from a rep based in Brooklyn about my order. He explained all the steps I need to do to get the car, at a high level. It was basically the same things on the website linked to you after you put in the deposit. You can make changes to config, you can input your driver info, insurance info, trade in, and financing. It was nice to have a human explain some of the things, even if the online configurator and process was straightforward.

The email also gave me a VIN, and gave me some rough estimate when my delivery would be. Yikes. It was soon: either 7/30 or 7/31. I got called a day later to walk through the items and I completed my trade in info later that week on Saturday. I also had to photograph a proof of ownership the week after because I had forgotten. The week after was also when I called about auto insurance, and shopping for insurance didn’t make that much sense, so I stuck with Metromile.

I didn’t figure out my financing situation until Tuesday the week after, but by Thursday I was just about completely done, which meant I can just chill and read up on the car over the weekend… Riding my MX-5 that one last time? LOL.

I probably spent the most time dealing with financing. My sister works for a credit union so I asked her to check their rates. It was worse than what Tesla was offering. Well, then. Second was the car insurance. For some reason, I guess due to billing cycle ending the same time as the delivery date, they can’t change it once I make the change? It was weird, but all it meant was I had to call the Monday before Tuesday’s handover date.

Metromile also had another wrinkle. For those who don’t know, Metromile is a bill-by-the-mile insurance system, and it requires the cars to have a GPS/cellular dongle installed. Typically it goes into the OBDII port. First, all my bad, I left my old dongle in my MX-5 but I got that recovered thanks to the helpful Tesla employees at the service center where I picked up the car. Second, the Model 3 does not have a OBDII port. I did not know this until I googled it–and it isn’t even reported by any official source. The two Metromile reps I talked to didn’t know either. The Tesla employees don’t know, as far as the ones I talked to. What I did find was that others have had this same issue, so Metromile (the entity and the system) does know about it, so it’s easy to get that addressed you if you call and ask. Basically, Metromile will mail you a different dongle, one that looks just like the OBDII plug you had, but the box also comes with a cigarette plug extension cord that you can plug into the same outlet in your M3. Well, I got that done too. The only complaint I have is that the plug is a little too long, and it runs into the tray inside the armrest storage thing. I hope it doesn’t damage the cord.

Well, I also hope Tesla allows 3rd party apps that could integrate more directly with Metromile, for example. A car is ultimately just a platform, so ways for 3rd parties to integrate with cars is vital. Just like how you can buy a camera lens case for iPhones and enable added features, you can do all kinds of things with a car. Like, how some people swapped out the spring shocks for the M3 and lowered it for a better ride, for example…

Or in my case, I bought some aftermarket floor liners. It is supposed to dampen road noise while being all-weather floor mats. I kind of don’t like the way if you put them on top of the existing floor mats, it makes the space from the back seats, between the floor and the front seats, kind of crammed. It works well for the front seats though, and given there isn’t a first party solution, these mats are pretty decent…for $200 that I got off of eBay. Tesla needs to make some M3 all-weather floor mats pronto.

On the day of the pickup I drove to the service center in Springfield, NJ and overall it took about 45 minutes to get the car. A lot of it was waiting and going over paperwork. I got a quick tutorial on the M3. We walk through setting up the app on the phone, registering the car, and the one guy helped put up the temporary plates in the rear license plate holder. Other unique things worth noting is how the trade in required an extra waiver because Tesla is a Californian company. And they won’t do vanity plates for you. You were given the option of keeping your old plates or get new ones, which I presume gives you the usual 4-year inspection waiver as it typically does for new cars in NJ. All of that gets mailed to you, supposedly, a month later. So I don’t have my new plates or registration yet. In comparison, it typically takes 2-3 weeks at a normal dealership, as fast as a week sometimes.

It’s through this exercise I “feel” that what Tesla is doing is different than what dealers do. And that’s true, it’s direct sales versus franchising dealers. Okay, I guess, but I still have to pay a doc fee and a destination fee. It feels like if I am not going to get a red carpet type handling without the middleman, this direct sales model is a bit of an inferior product that the customers are still going to pay for. Dealing with financing and everything is stuff you have to deal with at a dealership but someone is there to help you through the process. It isn’t like I needed that someone, but it would be nice to not have to put up most of the elbow grease on my own, jumping through hoops that other dealers don’t have to deal with.

I was worried about the M3 fit and finish, as with most people. Turns out it’s mostly FUD because mine was pretty flawless. It’s not super tight, but it’s uniform and lacking in obvious flaws. I talked to the delivery dude about this and he says this has been the case with all the recent deliveries. Only the ones from last year were bad (and some were very bad). So let’s put that to rest. If there was a little quirk…it would be the wipers. Feels like they pushes on the windshield too strongly. Not a bad thing until it squeaks.

Driving away from the service center, I realized I didn’t actually pair my phone with the car yet. This is important because while setting up your phone as the key is one thing, that’s separate from the bluetooth audio connection needed to play music from your phone. I also left my EZ Pass tag in the trunk, so I had to pull over on the NJ Parkway to address these items. It’s not unfair to say getting into the M3 is like switching on an Android phone if you are a long time iPhone user, getting his or her phone for the first time. There are a lot of things that are just done differently in this car that there are few analogs to in other cars. I suppose the blinkers, for one, are like some luxury cars where the stalk doesn’t stay up or down while blinking. The nav is like Google Maps, minus auto traffic routing/Waze functionality (a big negative IMO) despite the ability to show traffic on the map. The Nav does a lot of other stuff Google Maps don’t do, such as automatically giving you waypoints if you need to Supercharge or something.

The on board audio, which is upgraded via the interior option, sounded pretty great. It comes with free internet streaming (AT&T) so TuneIn and Slacker is there. I didn’t get the time to poke around with it but it comes with some Utada, Cowboy Bebop, and the Pillows. Just weeb enough. That said I have not had the time to really play with it yet. Googling and researching says I should first get my login to my Slacker account and up the bitrate. It sounded better than Bluetooth from my phone (SBC probably), but only now I found out it can take files from the USB ports.

And that goes for other tidbits, besides the OBDII port and audio features. It extends to not just these kind of day-to-day experience stuff, but a lot of the car is an enigma. Maybe a never-ending Easter Egg kind of thing. I still remember a line from the customer rep at the service center, among all the “omg new fancy car” excitement, that some people enjoy discovering the features. I’m not sure I’m one of them, but I sure am discovering stuff…!

During the past month or so I did a lot of research on the Model 3, as you’d imagine. What I found was there is a lack of definitive source of all the info. What I also found is that your orientation changes before and after owning the car–you actually know exactly what to google now, rather than before it was more just a vagueness. The basic car-related functionality is well documented, the autopilot, the acceleration, etc. The car itself, however, is badly documented I think. The important stuff is the manual, but a lot of the things are just not documented outside of Reddit and the other two big Tesla forums. I hope someone put it all together in a way that is easy to read, but I also think this is one of those versioning nightmares since newer cars of the same model might have different features, and all of it can change after each firmware update, which comes out more frequently than Android versions, LOL.

Well, the driving experience is well documented, but as someone coming from a Miata it felt a little one dimensional. Maybe a better way to phrase it is that it drives like a quality, solid luxury sedan with little body roll. Paired with that instant and big acceleration the whole vehicle feels almost a bit go-kart-y. As much a 4000lb thing can be a go-kart, anyway. Is it good? It does not feel heavy and solid like German luxury, but in exchange it has a more lively performance characteristics. Perhaps, it feels more American? I only really handled the car in sports mode setting, for reference.

I’m not a huge fan of this steering wheel, coming from the Miata. The M3 steering wheel is a good wheel and I like the texture, but I don’t like the button placements. I didn’t use the buttons on my wheel much back when driving other cars, come to think of it–maybe only the Acuras were well-used, and the buttons were ergonomically well placed given the way that steering wheel was designed. It’s just okay on the Tesla. I’m sure part of it is I’m not fully used to it, and frankly I don’t know what it does half the time.

The big touchscreen that controls everything is fine. It is pretty sensitive and does the job. I sometimes wish the touch interfaces (buttons, dials, +/- signs) were a bit bigger so it’s easier to hit while on the road. My strategy has been to use the bottom menu buttons as the go to. The car icon brings up all the important controls immediately. Pressing the same thing again bring up the background, which is usually the map. Having to swipe up and down on a big screen to get the audio menu up is probably the worst part of the UX I think.

The real holy grail of in-car interface is really voice. And it works for the most part. I speak with poor/below average pronunciation so it doesn’t do a great job picking up everything I say correctly, but it generally works okay. As long as I stay away from anime names I guess. In other words for nav, it works well. For audio, it barely works. I don’t even know how to change inputs via voice (probably the most important thing). Anyways, YMMV on this, I don’t think it’s bad but I’ve not gotten used to it yet. Nor do I know where I can find a list of commands to try…which goes back to what I was saying earlier.

Oh, I guess I should also say that the even better UX solution is “auto” mode that is right. Light and wiper are automatic, and for the most part they do a fine job. I’m a bit OCD about wiper speeds, and they would be PITA to change on the M3 if I were to manually change the speed. Auto is fine usually.

I do use the summon feature. Oh, so I had to clean out my garage to fit the M3, since it’s full of my Dad’s junk, and the Miata is a tiny car by comparison–mostly in length. And the M3 fits, barely. Surprisingly Summon can drive the car in it automatically. It has this really cool display in the interior touchscreen when it’s in that “parking” mode, and it’ll show you literally the area near the front or rear of your car and the distance of the closest point to collision. Great for parking in a tight spot as you can now get a 180 degrees view of all the nooks and crannies. Which is to say my garage is small, so God bless summons, which lets me park and pull out the car without opening the door. Although I might still want to drive in to the garage manually…

Charging the car is a big question mark even today. Because my garage is detached across the backyard, it will cost me like 1400 to wire up a 10 gauge and plug in a NEMA 14-50. We would have to trench the driveway. Thankfully the 120v in the garage juices up to 5 miles per hour, which is more than plenty for my use. If I go on a long road trip I will have to user a Supercharger anyway. In this sense it is really just like charging a cell phone… One that can blast air conditioning and have kickass speakers. (Hey Musk, Camper Mode before the summer’s over please?) Well, more like I have not driven enough to have a conclusive thought on the range and electric aspect of this yet.

I can drone on for a few more. But in retrospect, the lack of good information and easy-to-access information on how to get to all the nook and crannies of the Model 3 annoys me almost more than the fact that I have to drive an electric car that doesn’t “creep” or trying to get used to Autopilot. Those are straightforward things I can adjust to. Not knowing how stuff works because it’s not in the manual is a very different thing. Sometimes it’s kind of important, like not having a OBDII port.

And yes, that acceleration. In the car, you let it roll, on highway speeds, you stomp on the gas pedal, it zooms. It’s better than a go-kart. It better be better than a go-kart. I wish they would release the track mode mod for even the regular M3…

To be continued…