What Ordinary Cars Should Be
July 29, 2018
“I borrowed a new 2018 Tesla Model 3 Performance ($78,000, as tested) from the factory in Fremont, Calif., and I’m now quietly tearing the hide off this switchback road in the grass-gold hills near Silicon Valley. This is the first test drive of the hotrod Tesla. In the Performance version, two motors north and south equal 335 kW (450 hp) and digitally mastered all-wheel drive, with corner-exiting acceleration that will leave average BMW M4s with a soft auf Wiedersehen.
The Model 3’s uncanny stability while cornering is mostly the product of its lithium-battery keel; but Tesla didn’t skimp on the suspension bits: upper and lower A arms (aluminum and steel) with virtual steer axis geometry, twin-tube coilovers and anti-roll bar in front; in the rear, a multi-link geometry, also with twin-tube shocks and anti-roll bar. For now the hottest tires available are the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S, which are nice all-rounders but not particularly grippy. My message to the engineers: more tire.
I’m no financial analyst, but I do know cars. If you were hoping Tesla would fail on account of the Model 3 I’ve got bad news: This thing is magnificent, a little rainbow-farting space ship, so obviously representative of the next step in the history of autos. I know there are a lot of Tesla bears, haters and cynics out there. Tesla boss Elon Musk makes it easy. But in the spirit of charity I think we can all agree many brilliant people are putzes.
Sure, Tesla has issues. I say this as a veteran of many plant tours: The factory in Fremont is a dimly lit, vertically integrated madhouse. The place is the Kobe beef of lean production, with subassemblies and panels stacked to the rafters. About 30 percent of the Model 3’s robotic assemblers are hanging from above, to increase what one engineer called “manufacturing density.” Jeez. Keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times.
But the car is a star. Doubters will have to bring it. Show me another car with an all-glass roof and five-star rollover crash rating. Point out another $80,000 sedan that out-clouds a Rolls-Royce, out-punches a Porsche Boxster and gets an electric equivalent of 116 mpg. You can’t, unless you’re building something in your garage we don’t know about.
So now you are sitting in a tester with all the trimmings, including the ermine-white leather-like upholstery ($1,500) that is apparently in limited supply. The Model 3’s dash incorporates a blade-like vent across its width, sandwiched between layers of stitched upholstery and laminated wood. Occupants can move focused airflow up, down and around, using the graphical compass available on the 15-inch high-resolution touch screen. When was the last time a car blew your mind with its climate vents?
Alas, the Model 3’s minimalist interior is rudely interrupted by the aforementioned touch screen, a big tablet suspended on a pylon in the middle of the dash. This is the broken flower pot on Mona Lisa’s head. Also, the Model 3’s A pillars are too thick, blocking the very best views of my next overcooked hairpin.
The center tablet hosts the car’s navigation, audio, connectivity and Autopilot avionics, including graphical readouts from complex sensor array. Autopilot functions like distance-keeping are accessed with the unmarked compass selectors in the steering wheel. But I am having way too much fun to use Autopilot.
Build quality: Beta-phase Model 3s had pretty awful panel-gap tolerances—even the show car at the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show. Why? The stampings of the deep-draft aluminum body panels were “moving” after they were stamped, explained a production engineer. That’s not unusual. Such tool-fettling occurs with almost any aluminum-paneled car project; the difference is, Tesla made all these adjustments under the blazing lights of investors and speculators.
But the cars I’ve driven are very straight, with uniform panel gaps. The wind noise around the windows that some early testers had noted was nowhere to be heard. Looks like the robots got the memo.
The Model 3 also debuts Tesla’s more powerful battery packs, produced in its vast battery-making automaton outside of Reno, Nev., known as the Gigafactory. Inside these packs, the new 2170 cells are roughly 50% larger by volume than Tesla’s earlier cells and more energy rich. Mr. Musk has called the new cell “the highest energy density cell in the world.”
Tesla doesn’t provide battery capacity figures but the Model 3 Performance pack is estimated to be worth about 75 kWh, good for an EPA-estimated 310 miles of range.
The battery pack sort of resembles a watch battery: wafer thin, with minimal intrusion into interior cabin space above. Lower floor, lower roof. The Model 3 also sports a minimal front overhang, low hood, cab-rearward proportions and a luxurious axle-to-dash ratio. Like the Model S, the Model 3 provides a trunk and a generous frunk.
The Model 3 is more than futuristic. It’s optimistic. This is what ordinary cars should be, which is to say, better than they are.