90-Day Test Drive
2020 Tesla Model 3 SR Plus Review: 90-day, 6,000-mile test drive reveals the car's true character
There is a lot that can be said of Tesla, and the company's CEO Elon Musk. Many of the criticisms lodged at the leader of the company are not only valid, but alarming. Remember, he did call a Thai cave rescuer a pedophile and claimed he had funding to take the company private when he didn't.
But that's the leader and not the product. Tesla sales have been strong and with the Model Y just now hitting dealerships, it's time to ask: Are their newer product offerings any good?
To find out, I spent three months in the 2020 Model 3 Standard Range Plus, driving over 6,000 miles to find out.
Ordering a Tesla couldn't be simpler. There's a custom order option right on Tesla's website, and after configuring a few options (color, interior color, wheel type and whether you want "Full Self Driving") you are asked to make a $100 non-refundable payment.
Tesla even accepts Apple Pay, so with literally just two clicks of my Apple Watch, the money is was on its way.
Shortly after ordering, Tesla sends you digital paperwork to sign. This is where you decide whether you are going to buy, lease, or get a bank loan. Should you be interested in financing, you can view Tesla's own financing offers or a sales representative can search other lenders. You can also make a cash purchase or use a check from another lender.
All of this is done before the car arrives, so you can spend as little time possible at the delivery center.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
This car was delivered to a local delivery center four weeks after order and I picked it up there. Since then, and due to the spread of COVID-19, all deliveries are now touchless. Tesla can also deliver the vehicle to you depending on your location.
When I arrived, I was whisked away to where my car was waiting. A few more forms need to be filled out allowing Tesla to register the car on your behalf and confirm payment has been made.
By this point, you'll need to have the Tesla app is installed on your phone. The car is added automatically to the app and then you use your phone as the key to the vehicle. Owners get two cards that can be also used as keys, in the event that your smartphone fails.
A friendly sales associate walked me through some of the features and gave me tips, but buyers have the option of just driving away from the boutique once the vehicle is loaded onto the app, if they feel comfortable doing so.
Photo by Chad Kirchner
The Tesla Model 3 comes with a portable charger that can use a variety of different adapters. It comes with a 110-volt receptacle that can plug in at home. A 110-volt plug delivers a Level 1 charge, dispensing power to the car at the same rate it would to, say, your bead maker via a traditional outlet in your home. When charging this way, you can expect just a few miles per hour of charging range to accumulate.
If you have a NEMA 14-50 plug, which is traditionally used to for a washing machine and dryer, you can score an adapter for the portable charger for about $35 via Tesla's website that lets you charge the car at nearly 8 kilowatts and adds approximately 35 miles per hour of range. This NEMA 14-50 plug is a 220-volt socket and ideally would be attached to a 40amp breaker. You will commonly hear this type of charging referred to as "Level 2".
If you prefer to have a quicker charge than what the typical Level 1 charger offers, an electrician can add a Level 2 plug to your home, and you can use the portable charger to connect the Model 3 there.
You can also purchase a third-party 240-volt home charger. It can either be plugged into a NEMA 14-50 outlet or hard wired to your electrical system.
These home chargers use a non-Tesla connector (SAE J1772 style), so you'll need to use a little adapter that came with your car to convert the plug to fit into your Tesla. In most cases, this is a 32 amp connection and adds 35 miles of range per hour of charge to your vehicle, like the Tesla portable adapter.
Another option is a Tesla wall charger, which is hardwired into your home. It can support up to 48 amps of charging and charge some Teslas at 44 miles of range per hour. The Tesla Model 3 Long Range and Performance support this faster charging speed, but the Standard Range and Standard Range Plus max out 32 amps. That means that the fastest the Model 3 I tested will charge at is 35 miles of range per hour.
We still opted for the Tesla wall connector, since it is a workplace install. This allows others who need to charge to use it at the 48 amp max. Plus, our electricity is included with our rent so there's no additional cost out of pocket for the electricity.
The building is older, and the current commercial building code states that 208 volts is the max from the electrical system. When we first installed the wall charger, that meant we could only get 29 miles compared to 35 miles per hour that the charger is capable of handling. Our landlord then provided the electrician with a transformer that could make it a solid 240-volt setup.
Out situation was surely unique, and a competent home installer will know exactly what to do to get you the max power safely. The wall charger itself was $499, but with the special work we needed done we spent over $3,000 in labor. Many home installs come in around $1,500, but it's based on many factors.
Photo by Chad Kirchner
Some would describe the Model 3 (and the new brand-new Model Y) as looking like an egg. When the grille-less design first came out, it looked weird. But there's no need to have a grille, which traditionally functions as a way to enable cool air to flow around the car's guts, for a car that doesn't have an engine. It's more aerodynamic to design without it.
I think the car looks handsome, even if the wind tunnel dictated how the car looks. There are no jagged edges in the design, and everything seems to flow pretty well. It's not ugly, but if there was a criticism for a car that is as technologically advanced as it is, is that it doesn't look special either.
Tesla has been criticized in the past for poor build quality, but their cars seem to be getting better. Upon close inspection of the tester, most of the panels lined up well, with the chrome strips along the bottom of the side windows being the most obvious failure.
Tesla doesn't charge for the white paint job like it does other colors, which is why you see many white Teslas. The tester car will eventually be wrapped with a company logo, so we chose white. The other colors, aside from red, add $1,000 to the total cost of the vehicle. The red tri-coat paint adds $2,000.
The stock 18-inch wheels are lightweight and have plastic hubcaps on them designed to channel the air around the wheels. Some owners remove them, but there is an efficiency penalty doing so. I'm so-so on the looks of the wheels but won't sacrifice range to pop them off.
Photo by Chad Kirchner
Volvo describes their minimalistic interior as a "Scandinavian Sanctuary". Tesla takes that approach even further by removing nearly every single button in the cabin. There isn't even a physical button to open the glovebox. The only physical button I can find is the government-mandated hazard indicator button up by the mirrors.
The base interior is black "vegan leather", including the steering wheel, but there is some soft-touch Alcantara-like material on the door panels. Gloss black lines feature on the center console and storage area. There is a fake wood trim piece that lines the dash. It looks nice, but it's not convincing anyone that it's not real wood.
The storage area has two USB ports. Wireless phone charging isn't standard on the Model 3 but can be added by either Tesla or can be implemented using a third-party charging mat.
On our particular Model 3, the interior and exterior mirrors automatically dim at night, but the exterior dimming mirrors were removed on cars built after January.
The seats are powered and heated in the front, and on models like ours, for a $300 surcharge, the rear three seats can have heating enabled. Rear seat heating is standard on higher-spec models.
Visibility is great out all the windows, though I'd like to see the blind spot monitoring indicators built into the mirrors instead of flashing red on the infotainment display.
Photo by Chad Kirchner
It's not an overstatement to say that nearly everything is controlled through the centrally located 15-inch touch screen display. It houses the speedometer, driver information displays, as well as all the infotainment functionality.
It's powered by an Intel Atom processor and is as quick, or quicker, than many tablets and smartphones when it comes to responsiveness.
The navigation system uses Google Maps and features real-time traffic information. The car also has Bluetooth connectivity for your phone (it's also required for the phone-as-a-key functionality) but doesn't feature Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.
Base models have a base stereo with no subwoofer, and it sounds okay but is nothing great. A nicer stereo is one reason to consider the higher-spec models. Podcasts and spoken word sound great, but music leaves a lot to be desired.
Driver assistance technology
Autopilot comes standard on every Tesla (except the off-menu base special). It includes automatic adaptive cruise control, lane centering, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind spot monitoring and accident avoidance steering.
Don't let its product name deceive you. None of the features in the base Autopilot suite are anything more special than what some other automakers offer as advanced safety and driver assistance technology, but the integration with the vehicle is better than what others are doing.
For $7,000 in extras, buyers can opt for the "Full Self Driving" suite. It is not worth the money at this point, because it only adds automatic parallel and perpendicular parking, automatic lane changes on the highway, automatic stopping for red lights and stop signs, and parking lot summon.
While many of the features are intriguing, having demoed them in various cars, I'd call it an early beta product and something I wouldn't trust in any capacity at this point.
The Model 3 drives like a normal car. But a normal, fast car. Since there's no transmission, there's no kickdown and power is instantaneous the moment your foot presses on the accelerator. There is seemingly no gap in traffic you cannot exploit.
Even the base Model 3 does a Tesla-claimed 0-60 mph in 5.2 seconds. Tesla doesn't rate their cars for horsepower and torque, but reports put the numbers around 201 hp and 258 pound-feet, respectively.
Under normal driving, the Model 3 is quick and comfortable. The ride is a bit harsher than I'd like, thanks to tires that require 45 psi of pressure and a suspension that needs to support the weight of the 3,627-pound automobile. Think of it as being similar to the current-generation Ford Mustang, sans MagneRide.
The brakes are an on/off switch and do not inspire a lot of confidence during a spirited drive down a twisty road. The rear-drive setup is nice, but the steering feel, brakes and suspension setup don't add to the car's sportiness. You'll want to keep your sports car for weekend fun.
As a daily driver, though, the Model 3 is hard to beat. You don't have to stop at gas stations and the car is super quiet because there's no gas motor. Plus, the Supercharger network makes road trips a breeze.
Photo by Chad Kirchner
If you're out and about and need to charge the Model 3 (or any other Tesla model), Tesla has a network of over 3000 Superchargers in the United States you can use. These chargers are DC Fast Chargers that rapidly charge the car. Charge rates can vary by a lot depending on circumstances, but most chargers peak at 150 kilowatts and there are 250-kilowatt chargers being installed regularly.
At a 150-kilowatt peak charge rate, that's adding over 600 miles per hour of range to the car.
Supercharging couldn't be any simpler. As long as there is a credit card linked to your Tesla account, you simply plug your car in, and it takes care of the rest. There are no codes to enter or accounts to have. Just plug in and go.
If you're planning a road trip, simply put the destination in the car's navigation system, and it'll route you there using as many charging stations as it needs to get there. The trip planner will show you where you'll charge and how long you'll be there charging. The arrival time indicated includes the amount of time spent charging. It's a no-brainer and makes road trips second nature. No other electric car maker is integrating at this level yet, though Audi and Ford are close.
While most of the fit and finish issues are mostly cosmetic, I experienced a major issue with the trunk. Recently, during a freak snowstorm, snow managed to get into the closed truck and turned to liquid, dripping onto the items in the trunk. While the lack of a rain channel from the rear window is annoying, wet snow sitting in the trunk for an extended period of time is a problem. If it happens again, a service appointment will need to be scheduled.
I am not alone. A quick browse of Tesla forms shows that this trunk issue is a frequent problem for owners.
Having tested the car in winter and springtime conditions, I also noticed that it is below freezing, the car sometimes doesn't close the windows all the way when the door is shut. Since the doors are frameless around the window, the windows drop a bit when you open and close them to protect the weather stripping- this is common in many modern cars, especially luxury models. When the windows don't close completely, though they look closed to the naked eye, the Tesla smartphone app reports that the windows are open.
Phantom braking hasn't caused an issue yet, but I expect the time will come. Since there is only one radar system on the car, the rest of the driver assist systems rely on the cameras. Sometimes those cameras get confused. That causes the car to slam on the brakes thinking that the car is about to crash. It's not. No other cars are around.
Additionally, the car doesn't use the cameras to determine speed limits. It also slows down when cruise control is engaged for some corners. Adjusting the set speed, seemingly randomly, doesn't instill the driver with confidence and can be an issue in heavier traffic.
Speaking of those cameras, the car doesn't have a rain sensor. It uses the front camera. That means in the daytime it's okay, but at nighttime sometimes the camera doesn't see the rain and the wipers don't run. Then, when passing under a streetlight, the camera briefly sees the rain and turns on the fastest speed. Early Tesla models had a rain sensor from Bosch, but there is no such one on the Model 3.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Other automakers claim to have a competitor to the Tesla Model 3. Vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Hyundai Kona EV are fine vehicles, but they just don't have the special sauce that the Model 3 has.
That special sauce is the Supercharger network. The ability to consistently fast charge is great, but the ease in which charging happens is a step above the competition. You just plug the car in and go. Plus, each Supercharger location has multiple chargers, so outside of certain times of the year or extremely busy locations, you never have to wait.
With the ability to peak charge at 120 or 150 kilowatts (up to 250 kilowatts on some new installs), you're on your way sooner than the competition every time.
The Tesla Model 3 has flaws. It appears that with each new model the company introduces, the flaws eventually get fewer and fewer. Despite some build quality concerns and inconsistency with some of the safety tech, the Model 3 still impresses.
For the $39,990 asking price, the Model 3 Standard Range Plus is a bit more expensive than other compact sedans out there. The federal tax credit is also gone for Tesla vehicles. That being said, I'd purchase a Model 3 over a Camry or Accord every day of the week.
The interior feels more modern, even if it is minimalist. Nobody matches the screen quality and infotainment performance speed. Frequent updates add features that no other automaker has implemented yet. Additionally, the built-in trip planner and ease of Supercharger use means you never actually end up with range anxiety.
I wish it was perfect, but the Model 3 is good enough to purchase and live with everyday. Plus, it's one of the least expensive cars you can buy that will generate as much attention and recognition as some supercars.