Tesla Model 3: One Year Review

April 2019. California.

This review of our Model 3 starts from the time we reserved it through our first year of driving the car. The review describes several aspects of life with the Model 3 and addresses the basic question: has the Model 3 met my expectations? There have been many reviews on the Model 3, but each review provides another data point for readers about driving the Model 3 in the real world. In addition these reviews may answer questions you have about how well EVs in general, and the Model 3 specifically, can meet your needs.

The review covers the following topics:

  1. Reservation
  2. Delivery
  3. Build quality
  4. Software Updates
  5. Driving the Car
  6. Places We’ve Visited
  7. Using Superchargers
  8. Basic Stats – miles driven / electricity used
  9. Where We Charge our Car
  10. Summary

1) Reservation:

Hanging out with 500 friends March 31, 2016.

The Model 3 reservation story is familiar to many, but it’s worth revisiting again briefly since so much has changed since 2016. I reserved our Model 3 on March 31 2016, like more than 100,000 others. I arrived at the local Tesla Service Center before sunrise that morning and found a long line of people, some who’d been waiting since the day before and had camped overnight in tents. For a car. When has that ever happened before?

I brought along a folding chair, coffee, and my laptop thinking I’d get some work done while waiting. Instead I talked with other folks in line. It was a long line, hundreds of people. All waiting to hand over $1000 to reserve a car nobody had ever seen. Tesla received nearly 200,000 reservations before the car was revealed later that evening. I spoke to about 100 people in line that morning and more than half, probably closer to 75% had never even driven an EV. Tesla starting taking reservations at 10AM and before 11 I’d reserved our Model 3.

Reserving the Model 3 was a leap of trust. I hadn’t seen the Model 3. But I had seen the Model S and Model X. I had driven the Model S. There were many, many reviews of these cars. There was very high customer satisfaction. There was plenty of data on quality and durability. I believed that Tesla would make a compelling car that would meet my expectations. I also expected to wait for the car.

This was a moment. General interest in EVs was increasing, interest in Tesla was increasing, and many hoped to land a 200+ mile EV, one that could tap into an extensive rapid DC charging network, for less than $40,000. Those sub-40k cars are finally being delivered now, 3 years later. All initial deliveries were $50,000+, not $35,000 (more on that in summary below).

2) Delivery:

Picking up the new EV in April 2018.

Two years later in April 2018 I drove to Tesla’s Fremont factory in our 9 year old Toyota Prius and later that day came back with a Model 3. A change for the better.

I took delivery in Fremont so I could tour the factory before picking up our car. I highly recommend this tour, it gives you a window into the complex work that goes into assembly. After the tour I drove down the street to the Fremont delivery center. It took about 90 minutes to complete the transfer of title for our old car and finish remaining paperwork to take ownership of the Model 3. FYI: nobody tried to sell me underbody coating.

While doing the paperwork there were a couple of moments where I had to wait 5 minutes for one thing or another. There was a Model 3 sitting nearby in the showroom, inviting, with the doors open. I hadn’t sat in one. Hadn’t even seen the interior in person. But you know what? I figured I’d waited 2 years for this, I could wait just a little longer. The very first Model 3 I sat in was ours. After the wait, the build up, the hopes, the expectations, it was a rush.

I’d read reviews and watched several videos so I only needed about 5 minutes with the sales rep to go over key driver controls. The user interface on the central touchscreen was intuitive, quick, and responsive. The touchscreen clear, sharp and crisp. The user interface and automated features have only gotten better over the past year through frequent over-the-air updates. I was eager to drive and got out on the highway to head home. That first drive was no different than my daily commute today: very, very good.

Our new Model 3 at home with it’s older sibling: our 2012 Toyota Rav4 EV.

3) Build Quality:

Build quality received a lot of attention as the first batch of Model 3s came off the assembly line. We got our car 6 months after the first set of cars were delivered. We did not have any issues. Build quality, fit and finish are excellent. The car is solid, the cabin is quiet, and the interior trim is very good. A piece of rubber trim on the drive stalk came loose. Tesla replaced the drive stalk under warranty at our local Service Center.

4) Software Updates:

Software update report on my phone.

The car and phone app let you know when a software update is available. I typically set my car to install the update late in the evening before going to bed and I wake up to a set of new features.

Each update brought new and useful features like additional voice commands, automated functions, an improved user interface, Sentry mode, Pet mode, Easy Entry mode, Romance mode, Navigate on Autopilot… So many improvements I can’t remember them all. The vast majority have been extremely useful. For example, two recent updates increased drive train power by 5% and added 15 miles of range. Have you ever woken up to discover that your car has more power and more range? Welcome to the future of automobiles the present.

The only potential downside to software updates that I’ve noticed is minor: on one or two occasions the menu or location of a setting changed and I had to relearn access to those controls. But the upsides are huge, the improvements to the UI and added features keep making a very good car even better.

5) Driving the Car:  

We drive about 50 miles on weekdays, a bit less on weekends. The Model 3 is very comfortable to drive. The drive train is smooth, powerful and quiet, road noise is low.

Seats: The driver’s seat is very comfortable. The 12-way adjustable seats and lumbar support should provide enough options for just about anyone to find a comfortable position. The UI can store many profiles for different drivers… I think it’s more than 15. I like the “Easy Entry” feature. With Easy Entry activated the driver seat moves to a position that you select when you put the car in park – in my case I chose a position that raises the seat all the way up and moves the steering wheel back so getting in and out is easier on the knees. The seat and steering wheel stay in that position until the next time I get in the driver’s seat and touch the brake pedal: then the seat, steering wheel, and side mirrors move to the positions I’ve selected for my driving profile. Each driver can choose whether or not to activate the Easy Entry feature.

Driver controls: Access to controls on the center screen is very good. Key menu items are easy to reach without having to lean forward. In addition, some basic adjustments can be made with the scroll wheels: adjust volume up or down by rolling the left scroll wheel; skip back or forward on the playlist by clicking the wheel left or right; adjust speed on cruise control by rolling the right scroll wheel up or down; adjust follow distance by clicking the wheel to the left or right. The functions of the scroll wheels change depending on which setting you are adjusting (eg: steering wheel or side mirror position).

Central touchscreen: I quickly adjusted to having info and controls on the center screen and now prefer it this way. The left one third of the screen shows essential info, like speed, detected speed limit, lane markers, nearby cars, windshield wipers. The right 2/3 of the screen shows a map or satellite view of your location, the navigation route and navigation details. The menu along the bottom of the screen gives you access to principal car settings, music, climate controls, defrosters, telephone, calendar, etc. Touch an icon once to bring up a set of controls, touch the icon again to close that menu.

Having controls on the central screen does not take my attention away from driving. I now prefer the unimpeded view of the road straight in front of me.

The driver has a clear view of the road ahead in the Model 3. Speed is clearly visible on the upper left of the central touchscreen. Photo credit: Maria.

Useful features: There are many. To highlight one: The car can import items from the calendar on your phone. When I get in the car each morning calendar appointments show up on the screen. If I have included an address for a scheduled event on my calendar, I just have to touch that event on the touchscreen and navigation to that location is set up immediately.

Automated features: Lights and wipers are automatic. Headlights and highbeams turn on automatically and work very well. Wipers are driven by rain sensors and generally work. Any time you want the wipers to be faster or slower you can always press the button on the end of the left stalk to perform a single wipe. That brings up the wiper settings on the bottom left of the central touchscreen where you can adjust speed. I find this easy to control during heavy rain.

Climate control – Summer: It gets very hot in California’s Central Valley, so we’ve properly tested the air conditioning during the past year. The AC works very well and keeps us all comfortable front and back during very hot weather. The vents for the rear seats are only activated when sensors detect a passenger in the back seat. Using AC does not draw that much energy and does not impact range much at all. I bought the front glass roof sunshade, but ended up taking it off because my kids preferred the open view, and because the glass coating blocks much of the heat from coming in. I’ve been comfortable driving in hot, sunny weather.

Climate controls are easily accessed from the menu, and keep the cabin comfortable.

Climate control – Winter: We have mild winters in our region, so the heated seats usually provide all the heat we need for day to day driving. We have ventured into wintry conditions in the Sierra Nevadas, and the cabin heater worked well. We drove through heavy snowfall on that trip and I had to keep heat on the front windshield defroster to prevent snow from freezing on the wipers. Be aware that the cabin heater does take a bite out of range. Those driving a Model 3 in northern states and in Canada will be able to tell you about realistic range of the Model 3 in truly cold regions.

Music: I listen to FM radio, music from the onboard Slacker app, or music on my phone through Bluetooth. Song choice through the Slacker account that comes with the car is not the best, so I use my phone when I want to listen to something specific. I can also choose from live-streaming AM radio stations and a decent list of archived podcasts. The sound system included with the premium upgrade is very good.

Center Console: There is plenty of storage space in the center console and door pockets for the various things you bring on a trip. The phone charging dock works well. Some have reported that their iPhone won’t click into the charging dock if the phone has a case. But my iPhone X with an Apple leather case clicks into place every time. I found that the high-gloss finish of the center console was a dust magnet so I bought a brushed black metal vinyl wrap. It was easy to install and looks better in my opinion. The dust is still there, just not as visible.

Trunk Storage: The combined storage space in the front and rear trunk is 15 ft3. The rear trunk alone is similar in size to that of many other mid-size 4-door sedans, and has an extra compartment under the floor where many cars would have a gas tank. We’ve taken our car on weekend camping trips and made do with available space: Necessity is the mother of invention.

6) Places we’ve visited:

Like many people our daily drive involves ping-ponging back and forth between home and work (those yellow markers on the map below). But we’ve taken advantage of the Supercharger network to visit some out of the way places we’ve always wanted to go…. Bodie State Historic Park for example.

First year travels in our Model 3: Most of our driving was back and forth to work, but we also used Superchargers in California and Nevada to visit a number of destinations.

The map above shows some of the places we visited in our Model 3 in the first year we owned the car. We used the car for many work and family trips to the Bay Area, for camping trips, weekend day tripping, and visits to national parks. Red markers are superchargers we used; blue markers are places we visited thanks to Tesla’s Supercharger network; and grey markers are there and back trips that did not require charging. A cross country trip is high on my bucket list, but our longest trip so far was a ~1400 mile trip to San Diego.

Some highlights from the first year of driving our Model 3.

7) Using Superchargers:

The 3 top reasons I wanted to buy a Tesla were: Superchargers, Superchargers, and Superchargers. Seriously. The ability to travel long distances in an EV is essential for adoption of electric cars. Making an EV without a supporting rapid DC charging network is like selling gas-powered cars that can only be filled through a straw. So far Tesla is the only company that takes this seriously. They’ve built out an international network of rapid DC charging stations, and many owners have used the network for extended trips across the country east, west, north and south. The number of CHAdeMO and CCS charging stations for non-Tesla EVs is increasing thanks to various initiatives. But at this time those networks are still regional rather than nationwide in the United States.

Supercharging next to a gas station in Bakersfield. Over $4 for gas in some parts of California. Fueling the Model 3 with electricity is cheaper.

Using a Supercharger is simple. You park, and plug in. The charger identifies your car and depending on which model you drive, your account is automatically charged and that amount is shown on the central screen. Prices vary from state to state. On longer trips, we drive 2½ – 3 hours between superchargers and take a 30 to 40 minute break. The superchargers we’ve used were located near shops and restaurants. This mode of driving allow you to stretch your legs, and get a bite to eat if needed. I feel this way of driving keeps me more alert while on the road.

8) Basic Stats:

We drove 17,600 miles (28,000 km) in the first year, a little more than the average driver in the United States. The car used just under 3500 kWh – from the pack – while driving. The current version of Model 3 UI reports energy used while driving, but not while parked.

Note: We live in California's Central Valley where the terrain is flat, winters are mild, and summers hot - ideal driving conditions for electric car efficiency. On top of that I'm content to drive in the slower lanes. As a result our energy consumption is lower than EPA rating. But if you are thinking of getting one of these cars it's probably safe to assume 250 Wh/mile or more. Your efficiency in an EV will be affected by the same factors that affect any car: temperature, weather, terrain, your driving style, traffic conditions, and so on. Remember,YMMV.

Tesla automobiles use energy while parked for several reasons: The most important reason is to maintain the battery pack within the optimum temperature range. The car will use a bit of energy so the battery pack doesn’t get too hot or too cold. The car will also use extra energy if you enable features like “Cabin Overheat Protection” or “Sentry Mode”. The advantages include a battery pack that lasts longer, and a car that is comfortable and secure. I guesstimate that, on average, the car used about 1 kWh per day to carry out functions like these. The car reported using 3496 kWh while driving, and I added another 1 kWh per day, rounding up to a total of ~3900 kWh.

3900 kWh from the pack to drive 17,600 miles. To put this in context: 1 gallon of gasoline contains the same amount of energy as 33.7 kWh of electricity. So 3900 kWh has the same amount of energy as 115 gallons of gas. 17,600 miles / 115 gallons = 150+ eMPG. It is amazing how efficient electric motors are, and stunning how inefficient and wasteful gas powered engines are.

9) Where we charge our Model 3:

Nightly charging at home in our garage.

We got about 70% of our charging at home, about 15% at public L2 stations and another 15% from Superchargers. At home I’ve been using the 32 amp Mobil Charging cord that came with our Model 3. I plug into the 240 volt 30 amp clothes dryer circuit in my garage and scheduled charging to start at 3AM. It usually takes just 2 hours. More on daily charging here.

The table below summarizes energy use and source for one year of driving. The data was derived from mileage and energy use reported by the car, data on Supercharging from my Tesla account, public charging data from my ChargePoint account, and home energy use from my utility.

Note: charging an EV with a Level 2 charging station is approximately 85% efficient. So putting 2779 kWh into the battery pack at home probably involved sending about 3300 kWh of electricity to the car. Adding the 3300 kWh from home charging together the energy we got from Supercharging and public L2 stations (ChargePoint reports the number of kWh sent to the car) tells us that the total energy used by the car was about 4400 kWh to drive 17,600 miles in one year. This means that our Model 3 used ~250 Wh/mile, from the wall, over the past year.

10) Summary

So, has the Model 3 met my expectations? Absolutely, this car has exceeded all of my expectations. Like other EVs on the market the Model 3 handles the daily commute perfectly. Add in the Supercharger network and this is a great car for road tripping. For the time being Tesla’s EVs are unique since they can go many, many places using the Supercharger network. Other automakers have started selling good EVs with decent range, but they need to build-out a DC charging network or join up with others to ensure that drivers have this necessary resource.

What could be improved: 3 things I’d like to see improved. Each could be addressed through software updates.

I) Blind spot warning should be improved. With all the cameras and sensors built into the car the data is already there. It’s just a matter of making it more obvious for the driver. In my opinion the red lane marker that appears when you put on the blinker and another vehicle is already in that space is not enough. A more prominent visual signal and distinct alarm sound would better alert the driver. For example, perhaps a red symbol in the upper left or right of the info panel (depending on which lane), perhaps blinking, and maybe prominent text like the mockup below could better alert the driver that a vehicle is in the blind spot when you turn on the blinker.

Improved blind spot warning would be helpful.

II) The phone app should include a list of 5-10 favorites. You can store favorite locations in the Navigator, and you can save favorite stations in streaming music services. Should be the same for the phone app. The voice commands can bring up names in your directory, but if that person has multiple numbers you have to scroll through them, and the list of number is only available for 5-10 seconds and then disappears. Favorites would be much appreciated by this driver.

III) Voice navigation directions should be given sooner, especially when driving at highway speeds. And the directions should be more noticeable, not just louder. This has improved a bit over the last several updates but there’s still room for improvement.

What took getting used to: It took me a while to adjust to using the phone as a key, specifically the part about not turning off the car or physically clicking any buttons to lock the doors, but just walking away. For a good while I found myself looking back as I walked away to make sure the mirrors folded and the lights went off. But I did get used to it. Now I have the opposite problem: I have to remember to turn off our other EV when I drive it.

What I like the most: The main reason I wanted this car was the ability to tap into a reliable, extensive, rapid DC charging network so my EV travels would not be restricted to a particular region. Tesla’s Supercharger network does the job. Having an EV with good range, performance, handling, ride, and styling was just icing on the cake.

A word on Tesla: The future of Tesla is a question I get from some folks. There is a reason why there has not been a new financially successful automobile company in the United States since Ford. It’s hard work and infinitely harder for a company designing nearly everything from scratch. But rather than talk about today’s stock price, or social media posts etc., I can talk about the reality on the ground. The Model 3 I’ve been driving for the past year speaks volumes to the quality engineering that went into the design and production of this car. It is simply phenomenal.

Another point should not be missed: Tesla has been at the forefront of making all electric cars. Not concept cars, but production cars that they are selling today – EVs with long range and a supporting rapid charging network that can take you just about anywhere. Tesla’s job continues to be extremely challenging, but their work achieves two important goals: 1) it puts very good EVs on the road today. Remember that transportation generates almost 1/3 of carbon emissions in the United States. It is on us to create and use cleaner sources of energy to meet our transportation needs to protect our planet; 2) It has forced other car makers to start making EVs so they can try to capture a slice of the growing EV market.

As of May 2019, the standard range Model 3 is currently available only by special order for $35,400 ($36,600 with destination and documents fee), and only by phone. The starting price for “Standard Range Plus” is $39,500. These cars have an EPA range of 220-240 miles and can tap into Tesla’s Supercharger network. Tesla’s major role in promoting more affordable EVs may lie in convincing other car manufacturers to step up and start selling EVs in different form factors at various price points.

Drive an EV: I like all EVs. Just about any EV currently on the market will cover daily driving for many people – as long as you can charge at home or work. In my opinion, battery electric vehicles have key advantages, including the potential to make your own power at home to use or offset the energy used to charge your car.

One of the solar panel arrays on our roof making domestic energy to power our home and electric car.

Final thought: One of the great things about electricity is that it is almost infinitely adaptable AND it can be generated from multiple sources. It is one of the currencies of the modern world. It can do just about anything. Light, heat, and cool your home; Refrigerate your favorite drinks; Cook your favorite food; Wash and dry your clothes; and power your computer, television, and mobile phones. It does all of this, quietly, in the background, almost as an afterthought. And I’m here to remind you that it can also power your car.