All photos credit Eric Armstrong

The Tesla Model 3 was revealed 19 months ago, promising access to the fun and futuristic world of Tesla’s high-end electric cars at a relatively affordable price. The car’s been hyped, speculated about, discussed to exhaustion and obsessed over since it was unveiled last summer. But few people have driven one without Tesla’s corporate supervision—until now.

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Elon Musk and company made good on their promises to put Model 3s in customers’ driveways in 2017, albeit narrowly. While the very first cars went to employees, in the final days of the year a large batch of early builds were delivered to regular, civilian customers who had no professional affiliation to Tesla and pre-ordered them months ago.

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Any way you look at it, the Model 3's a big deal. It’s the make-or-break mainstream, volume car for Tesla, and its hype and sexiness could potentially make electric cars catch on in a way more boring ones won’t. And while Tesla itself isn’t really loaning cars out to the media on a large scale yet, we had to know if the Model 3 could live up to all that hype.

So we asked the internet if any Model 3 owners would let us drive their car. Fourteen people responded, and I got with one who lived in the Los Angeles area near me and was willing to let me check out his.

What resulted is the one of the first independent, non-Tesla supervised or Tesla-sourced Model 3 tests you’ll read anywhere. And while we scored a few hours with the car, and a fuller long-term review and road trip test are hopefully coming soon, it doesn’t take long to figure out what this car’s all about. The Tesla Model 3 is cohesive in design and composed on the road—but it’s also the closest anyone has come to making a smartphone on wheels.

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(Full Disclosure: We were granted access to the car featured in this story by its owner Mason McLead, VP of Engineering at Fair, which is a car leasing service you access entirely through a phone app. McLead’s not professionally or officially affiliated with Tesla in any way other than being a customer.) 

The way the Model 3 looks and feels is unequivocally sterile. Whether you find that refreshingly simple or oppressively boring will depend on your own sense of style, but the Model 3 acts more like a tool than a toy. Between the abundance of glass and absence of a gauge cluster, you’re barely even aware of the car as you’re driving it. And when Autopilot’s working, I guess you’re more minding it than driving it.

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But that’s not a bad thing, and this most certainly isn’t a bad car. It’s actually quite good. And right now, it’s as unique as it is easy to use.

The Owner

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Mason McLead is exactly the type of individual I would have expected to be an early adopter of the Model 3. He’s an enthusiast of both cars and technology, and in fact is VP of Engineering at a company designed to simplify car leasing by porting the entire process onto a phone app called Fair. I haven’t checked it out thoroughly yet myself, but I did promise McLead that I’d mention it since he was kind enough to lend us access to his car.

Anyway, he also owns a Volkswagen Golf R and a Tesla Model S, so clearly he knows and loves fast machines. And he’s turned onto the conveniences of electric cars.

“I love that these cars are always full [of juice] when I leave my house,” he said to me, explaining that he thought it was a pain to refuel his high-performance VW after having been spoiled by his Tesla.

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Naturally, I was curious about what appealed to him about Tesla. He said he liked how distinctive the car felt, and futuristic. He was proud of his new car, and cited the glass roof as favorite feature so far. That said, he got most excited about showing me the Model 3’s “key,” which is really a phone app, that also allows him to swipe between his two Teslas. “Now that is cool,” he told me.

Tesla and its colorful CEO Musk certainly have a distinctive aura of fun and futurism about them. (We’re trying to be nice to Musk so he saves a spot for us in the Mars colony.) So my last question to McLead, which I try to ask every Tesla owner: Would you have bought this car if it were made by a mainstream automaker like Chevrolet or Honda?

McLead’s answer was a definitive and immediate “absolutely.” I think that bodes well for the Model 3 as a car, and not just a novelty.

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The Specs That Matter

You might have heard the Model 3 hailed as “affordable” because of its $35,000 base price, which is just a few grand above the average selling price of all new cars in the U.S. in 2017. Indeed, you can order a rear-wheel drive Model 3 in black with a minimal loadout of creature comforts, no “Autopilot” semi-autonomous functionality and a 220-mile range for $35,000.

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The Model 3 I drove was significantly better-equipped than a base model car with optional Premium Upgrades including nice interior materials, heated seats and tint on the glass roof ($5,000), 19-inch wheels ($1,500), Enhanced Autopilot ($5,000), the larger 310-mile range 75 kWh battery ($9,000), a Deep Blue Metallic paint ($1,000) and $1,000 in destination and document fees to ring up at $57,500 before state and federal incentives, the latter of which McLead will able to collect since he got his car in 2017. (You can see the whole breakdown of what’s involved in all those optional line-items on Tesla’s site.)

So instead of being priced comparably to a Chevrolet Bolt, which some might consider the Model 3’s main competitor, McLead basically could have had a stripper Porsche Cayman or a Ford Mustang GT350 for the price of his Tesla.

But the Model 3 is not a sports car or a muscle car. It’s actually about the size of a Honda Civic sedan: just shy of 185 inches long with 15 cubic feet of cargo space and cozy-but-viable seating for five adults.

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For a little further comparison, a BMW 3 Series sedan is just a little shorter and, in some configurations, a hair heavier. BMW says a 330e iPerformance hybrid weighs 3,900 pounds while the Model 3 tips the scales at 3,814 with the big battery option.

The brochure also claims the Model 3 will go from 0 to 60 in as little as 5.1 seconds and on to a top speed of 130 mph. Driving normally, the car’s efficiency rating is 126 mpge in combined city and highway driving, using 27 kW hours of power per 100 miles.

But today, we don’t have to rely on the car’s spec sheet to know what the car really feels like.

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Build Quality

Quality is one of the most consistent concerns I’ve seen and heard about regarding Tesla’s products. Some say parts of these cars don’t hold up well; others report that body lines don’t always match, and that initial quality could be better. And one cross-country road trip involving the Model 3, while largely positive, has documented a few notable quality issues that you may not get from a more established automaker.

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The Model 3 is said to be in a “production hell,” and Musk himself has insisted that the full rollout will happen gradually, over time.

I scanned McLead’s particular Model 3 for imperfections as though I’d just dropped $60,000 on it myself, and as I would any car I’m testing. I didn’t see a thing that would have had me angrily calling my sales rep for a refund.

In certain lights, I detected some wrinkling in the paint toward the bottom half of the car, which would indicate that the vehicle might have been painted too quickly. Gaps between the body and the door panels were not egregiously wide, but I do believe most currently mass-produced cars are generally closer to total-seamlessness here.

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Inside, even an aggressively critical look couldn’t turn up any faults or defects. Every panel seemed solidly affixed, lines were congruent, and none of that changed when we got underway. We encountered no issues on our afternoon of driving.

At low speeds, a faint whine from the electric motor was audible, and over about 50 mph that was masked with wind, but generally speaking the experience of riding down a decent road in this Model 3 was smooth, composed and refined.

Ergonomics And Interface

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The inside of the Model 3 is cozy, compact, but hardly claustrophobic. Even in the back seat, which is fairly upright but as livable as any other Civic or BMW 3 Series-sized car. The gigantic glass roof, which is only punctuated by a single central pillar running between the car’s front and rear seats, does a lot to make the Model 3’s cabin feel airy.

Interestingly, there’s no way to close it completely. You’ve just got to trust it to be tinted enough to keep you from getting sunburned, which, well, we’ll see.

The front seats, up-spec’d with the $5,000 Premium Upgrades option, felt comfortable and easy to get in and out of with just a faint squeeze of side bolstering. The synthetic leatheresque material they’re wrapped in felt nice, as did every other surface you might touch and some you wouldn’t.

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The wood dashboard, another part of that expensive Premium Upgrades kit, adds a warm and organic touch, offering an interesting contrast to the rest of the car which I’d describe as aggressively spartan and futuristic. The suede-seeming ceiling material also felt nice and fancy. There are no “oh-shit” handles above the windows to cling to if your driver turns out to be a maniac.

Cool air flows nicely through a long, single vent below the windshield which you aim and activate with a menu on the screen. We didn’t test the car’s supposedly “frigid” in-cabin temps in cold weather, as another independent tester suffered through this weekend. Again, a fuller review is coming. Cooling worked fine and so did the heated seats in the car I drove.

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As for controls, the only things you don’t do with the 15-inch desktop computer-sized screen in the center of the car are:

  • Windows
  • Turn signals
  • Windshield washer spray
  • Steering, accelerating and braking
  • Honking the horn

There are also two thumb-rollers on the steering wheel, one of which controls audio volume and the other which controls the main screen in certain menu settings.

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Literally everything else is accessed through the car’s command center menus, which will feel very familiar if you’ve spent any time with a smartphone or a tablet.

A line of digital hard keys, similar to the Apple dock or a Windows Start Menu, are lined up the bottom of the screen to provide immediate access to things like climate control, seat heat, music volume.

If you learned to use a modern phone before you learned to drive, using this car would feel like second nature. For the rest of us, just getting into a car without a gauge cluster feels weird enough. Looking down-and-right for a speedometer is odd too, and in our short test drive I wasn’t able to get used to quick-glancing at the screen to see info like current speed and battery level, which I can sweep off an old car’s controls almost absent-mindedly.

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Whether you’d call the interior design “futuristic” or “lazy” depends on how you feel about modern architecture. If a glass-and-concrete house made entirely of right angles appeals to you, you’ll be right at home in the Model 3. But the car would look pretty bland parked next to a medieval castle or a country cottage.

Cargo And Comfort

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The Model 3’s trunk is deep and would easily swallow two roll-aboard bags and two medium-sized backpacks with room to spare. The rear seats fold down 60/40 style so you can retain one or two rear seats while opening the trunk to carry longer things like skis. And the action on all these moving parts feels smooth and sturdy.

The front storage area, better called a “frunk,” can fit another two backpacks. In the cabin, there are three big console storage areas that hide away below sleek piano-blank pieces of plastic that would look just right on the command deck of an Imperial Star Destroyer.

The glovebox can only be opened within a menu on the screen, which I found annoying. But otherwise the storage situation in this car is pretty comprehensive.

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Driving Impressions

As soon as I climbed behind the wheel, I felt strange looking across a flat piece of wood rather than a set of gauges. The information screen in the center of the car isn’t distracting, but it’s not easy to see, either.

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Personally, I find the elimination of distractions liberating. In fact the Model 3’s exceptional visibility in every direction would make for a uniquely immersive driving experience, if the driving experience itself weren’t so distinctively unremarkable.

The car accelerates competently, and a 30 mph to 50 mph passing-sprint feels downright rapid, but there’s almost no sensation of speed or drama of any kind. This nearly goes without saying, but while quick, you get none of the crushing acceleration you’d find on, say, a P100D Model S. But as I mentioned, the quoted zero to 60 mph time is still around five seconds flat, so nobody’s gonna call it slow.

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Going back to zero was a relatively mild experience also. The Model 3’s regenerative braking produced an apparent but gentle drag on the vehicle as I released the accelerator, and I had to put the brake pedal down to slow the vehicle sufficiently to take turns. I remember the Model X pulling me back much more aggressively when I let off the juice. And the Chevy Bolt, in “L” mode, had a nearly linear relationship between the pedal position and the car’s speed.

That didn’t seem to be the case with this Model 3, though it’s possible there are stronger settings for the regenerative braking system.

The steering, which is artificially adjustable between “comfort” (very light sensation in the wheel) to “sport” (much more resistance) feels direct and consistent, but the car does not really feel alive, so to speak.

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The owner described it as “darty,” by which he meant there was a strong sensation of lightness as he made turns. I concurred that the car seemed responsive to steering inputs, but I didn’t get much feedback from the road as I worked the wheel. I might even say it felt more like controlling a video game than driving a performance car.

The car’s stability seemed impressive too though, likely due in part to the mass of the vehicle’s weight being so close to the ground. With the 310-mile battery, Tesla claims the Model 3 has 48 percent of its weight in front with 52 in the back, good for getting more traction to the driven rear wheels.

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The Model 3 is calm and composed, and exceedingly predictable. Those are all great qualities in a daily driver, which is of course this vehicle’s primary mission designation. It felt faster than a Chevy Bolt, but I didn’t find the Model 3 to be significantly sharper or fiercer through turns. Tesla’s five-seater certainly looks like it could rip a slalom more aggressively than Chevy’s hatchback, but the Bolt is almost 400 pounds lighter at 3,580.

It’s been too long since I’ve driven a Model S to make any honest comparisons there. (We’ll add that to our to-do list as well.) And McLead had barely put any miles on his Model 3 when we got to see it, but his primary takeaway on the differences between the two was that the Model 3 felt lighter on its feet and more nimble, while the Model S had more punch. That makes sense, as the lightest Model S weighs in at more than 4,400 pounds.

Honestly, I wouldn’t see myself making up excuses to drive this car for the fun of it. For that, I think, we’ll have to wait for Tesla’s next iteration of the Roadster.

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Autopilot

While we did not try the Model 3’s semi-autonomous Autopilot feature very extensively, at all, we did get the chance to activate it on one generally-straight four lane road and one twisty hillclimb drive. Can you guess which environment it worked in?

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While McLead was at the wheel on our way down the coast, he activated the Autopilot feature with two rapid taps on the shifter. I raised an eyebrow and squeezed the door handle as he held his hands an inch off the steering wheel while the Model 3 followed our road’s lane, at the speed limit, without hitting anything. It even made it around a turn and into an intersection before McLead put his hands back down and retook control.

As we’ve already seen in other Tesla cars, these vehicles can negotiate some sections of some roadways without human inputs. But even with clearly marked road-painting lines, the system was not up to the task of very tight turns, as I quickly discovered when I activated the system myself between two hairpin corners.

Then again, “This, really isn’t the kind of place for Autopilot,” McLead laughed. “But on the 10 in traffic? Just going zero to 40 to zero to 40? Works perfectly on my [Model S].”

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Big Takeaways

We’re all still curious about the long-term durability of Tesla itself and its products. But I feel like the biggest question many of us have had about the Model 3 specifically is: does it feel like a “normal” car?

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The answer is decidedly yes, but it redefines how we look at “normal.”

Driving this car is easy and painless. An old person who’d been driving for decades or a freshly permitted 15 year old could get the hang of the pedals and wheel in a few short minutes.

The extremely old-school among us will look at the screen-based control system as novelty. But someone who was practically raised on smartphones would probably have the Model 3’s whole control system mastered before the first time they backed out of the driveway. For those of us who grew up with this technology—and I count myself among that cohort even as I wrench on an old Nissan Z and an International Scout—operating this car is second nature. A lot has been said of making cars into “smartphones on wheels,” and the Model 3 really comes close.

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I’ve had intelligent people who own regular, ordinary cars ask me why there’s “a cyclops ghost” on their dashboard when their car is trying to tell them their tire pressure is low. Others have been amazed to learn they could adjust the brightness of their speedometer. And I know plenty of people who have no idea what their tachometer is or why it exists.

The Tesla Model 3 feels made for these people. It doesn’t assume you know anything about cars. Or that you care. This vehicle just wants to provide the most seamless possible transition from one place to the next. It’s immersive driving, in the sense that you have a great view of wherever you’re rolling through. It also barely feels like driving, because it doesn’t give you any gauges to look at or significant steering feedback. Hell, the only part of the Model 3 that’s user-serviceable is the windshield washer fluid reservoir, which redefines what car ownership is really like.

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I’m not ready to say whether or not this car represents the future of personal transportation, or that it’s going to turn Tesla into a mainstay like General Motors or Volkswagen. There’s still a lot to be sorted on the production end of this car alone, let alone whatever’s coming down the pipeline.

But as it stands right now, the Tesla Model 3 has already accomplished a fascinating feat of grafting a user-experience everyone seems to love (their phones) to a tool everyone seems to need (their cars), and it’s done a damn fine job of it in the process.

It’s amazing that Tesla Motors has gone from being a novelty in 2007 to delivering what might be the most mass-appealing car on the road just 10 years later. Will people adopt the Model 3 as rabidly as we gobbled up smartphones? Will these cars and the company that makes them be robust?

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That’s what we get to ask now, and what we’ll get to find out soon.

Correction: This post originally stated that the cheapest Model 3’s $35,000 list price was “after tax incentives,” which is not the case. The MSRP is $35,000 before any incentives.

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