Gearheads can still enjoy the Tesla Model 3

Three thousand miles ago, my wife and I purchased a Dual Motor Long Range Tesla Model 3. It is the best vehicle I’ve ever owned. Now listen, I’m not some millennial who upgraded from a Prius, but a lifelong, consummate gearhead. My last five daily drivers consisted of two John Cooper Works Minis and every modern iteration of Z06 Corvette. All manual. All modified. My father had a 71 Vega that ran a blown 454 40 over pushing about a thousand horsepower. Legal risk aside I prowled the streets with it, drag slicks screeching, parachute ready.

A car guy at heart, I initially laughed at Tesla. Yet somewhere along the line, I became intrigued by electric cars. I test drove a Model S P100D that does 0-60 mph in 2.4 seconds, and it left me cold. It did everything perfectly—and quickly—but it felt like an appliance. There was no feel, no fun, and I even got a headache from repeated bouts of acceleration. The Model S is the perfect car for people who don’t like cars. I assumed the Model 3 would simply be a cheaper and slower version of that lifeless speed demon.

On a whim, I stopped by a Tesla showroom for a test drive. Six days later, a Model 3 arrived at our home. It is a joy to drive. The steering, while lacking the feedback of a hydraulic rack, is the best electric-assisted steering wheel I’ve ever turned. What it misses in feel it makes up for in quickness, off-center effort, and precision. The wheel itself, small and thick, combined with plentiful forward visibility makes for a go-kart-like sensation. The suspension is comfortable but communicative.

Tesla Model 3 AWD snow mountain
Tesla Model 3 AWD Gene Leeds
Tesla Model 3 AWD 3/4 rear roof high
Tesla Model 3 AWD Gene Leeds

Above all, the regenerative braking combined with Tesla’s dual electric motors is magic. Every millimeter of pedal travel provides increasing instantaneous torque while every millimeter off the pedal provides increased braking from the regen. The braking power of the motors is enough that I hardly use the brake pedal in day-to-day driving. Tesla claims the brake pads can last more than 100,000 miles, and I don’t doubt it. Beyond increased range, due to rarely scrubbing speed with the brakes, one-pedal driving lets you instantly set the car up for a turn. Come to the end of a quick straight, pull your foot back an inch to load weight onto the front wheels, turn, and blast off at the apex all with little flex of the ankle. For enthusiastic driving around winding roads, it’s completely novel experience for me that’s hard to beat.

The exacting nature of that single pedal combined with that razor-sharp steering, and mountains of torque, make the Model 3 one of the most fun cars I’ve ever owned. Every new car I’ve driven over the past two decades has been faster, safer, better, more efficient, and less fun to drive than its predecessor. Like many, I yearn for cars of the past, and not necessarily that long ago. A time when it was more about fun than fast, when Ferraris had gated shifters, when cars rewarded drivers setting up a turn properly. The Model 3 is the antidote to increasingly boring cars of boring automotive companies who do their best to make sure we want to jump into a new lease in three years.

Do I miss the sound of a combustion engine? Yes and no. Engine sound (the real kind, not the fake synthesized stuff) is more and more rare in modern cars. The proliferation of turbocharging means even less symphonic exhaust noise. Turbos are a great way to make power—and to kill an exhaust note. There are still some wonderful symphonic engines out there, but they are going the way of the manual transmission. The instant torque and complete silence in the Model 3 provide feels, and sounds, like the future. When you floor it, the motors give a delicious whir while your brain rushes back in your skull. I will always love the scream of a good motor, but daily driving in the Model 3, I don’t miss it.

Tesla Model 3 AWD 3/4 rear painted wheels
Tesla Model 3 AWD Gene Leeds

What about the weird interior you ask? That was my main hesitation before buying. The stereo, consisting of a soundbar running along the base of the windshield plus fourteen speakers and a subwoofer, is the best I’ve ever experienced. Load up some lossless music to a USB stick and it’s an aural experience second to none. (Considering there’s no exhaust note, it had better be.) I was initially concerned about the center screen as well but now I love it. When I used to drive the C7 Z06 at night I’d shut off all the lights on the dash and rely only on the head-up display. The single screen in the Model 3 similarly reduces visual clutter, leaving me with the wheel, the pedal, and the road for the purest of driving experiences. When I need any data it’s available with barely a glance to the side. My wife—a luddite who wouldn’t notice if an EMP blast went off in our neighborhood—loves the display and control aspects of the screen. The storage space is massive, and the seats are excellent. In fact, they’re so comfortable that I’m sitting in the car, in my garage, as I write.

Build quality is a hot topic for Model 3 owners and critics. As our car was built during the end-of-the-year push, I had concerns about quality, especially on a black car. Our Model 3 isn’t perfect but I give it a passing grade. The panel gap around the right headlight is slightly different than around the left headlight, a flaw I only noticed while specifically looking for errors. On a day to day basis, I never notice any issues and I’m always looking back at it as I walk away. In short, it’s not as good as our Chevy Tahoe was, but it’s far better than our last Corvette.

Don’t believe me? Check out some Corvette online forums to learn about the paint issues, panel rub issues, and class-action lawsuits. As for the interior quality on the Model 3, I learned a lot while trying to hardwire a radar detector with a remote display. In other cars it’s easy to pull at panels and sneak wires in and around, but not with the Tesla. This interior is so tight that it required a longer cable and a drill to accomplish my goal as there was little to no play in the trim. Admittedly, the Tesla’s interior looks weird in pictures but ours is white [the only added option], well-constructed, and gorgeous.

Tesla Model 3 AWD rear 3/4 parking deck
Tesla Model 3 AWD Gene Leeds

Tesla as a company is more polarizing than a pair of overpriced Ray-Bans, but my experience with them was fantastic. With non-negotiable pricing there’s nothing to be gained by having a friend of a friend who works at the dealer (or worse, not getting that deal). On the matter of our trade-in, Tesla called and offered another $1000 over the Blue Book value, a day after we accepted a lower figure. I nearly thought it was a prank call. A couple weeks after delivery, I took the car in to take the all-season tires off and put on a set of true winter rubber. They did it for free. We chose 18-inch Aero wheels which come with what are essentially efficiency-increasing hub caps. The cost of replacement caps is $120, for a set of four. A new standard key fob is $150 and just $25 for the credit card key. While the average price of Tesla’s cars puts the brand squarely in the luxury category, they’re not taking advantage of you at the parts department. As someone who’s had to visit the Mini parts desk a time or two, this is a refreshing change.

Another thing to love is the that car improves for free. Our last update allowed us to precondition the interior temperature and turn on the heated seats from anywhere. Our garage is attached but unheated. These days, we never enter a car that isn’t toasty warm. The next update will bring an additional 20 or so horsepower and faster charging rates at new Superchargers. Are there any amongst us who haven’t spent a couple hundred bucks to maybe gain ten horsepower? I don’t want for more power, as the Model 3 can rip 0-60 mph times in the low 4 seconds, but I’ll take it. This is in stark contrast to General Motors sending us physical mail every year kindly offering to update our never-used navigation system map for the low price of $160.

Autopilot? Didn’t order it. I like to drive. They did include it free with the car for a month. Driver assistance system like this are an incredible achievement that seems to be getting better by the day (and as I said, with the Tesla you get the software improvements without even visiting a service center). While my four-year-old boy was floored at the Model 3’s semi-autonomy, it’s not for me, and I suspect it’s not for you.

Tesla Model 3 AWD interior
Tesla Model 3 AWD Gene Leeds
Tesla Model 3 AWD infotainment screen
Tesla Model 3 AWD Gene Leeds

The car has other awesome technology. My garage door automatically opens and closes as the car sends signals based on preset GPS coordinates, it waits until 11:30 at night to start charging when our dramatically discounted off-peak electricity rate starts, it projects a virtual forcefield around the car and accurately displays a world full of people, trucks, cars, lanes and lets you know to the inch exactly how far you are from everything. Its voice command abilities put Siri to shame. The navigation is so good I barely use Waze anymore, and I can listen to any music I want with a simple press of a button. Next month it will do more.

The future, whether we like it or not, is electric. Let us reward the ones that are doing it right. If we don’t, we’ll be left with nothing but boring appliance cars to shuttle us around while we daydream about how when we were young, music was good, prices were reasonable, and cars were fun. The Model 3 currently starts at $35,000 before delivery fee, and after state tax, federal tax, fuel, brakes, oil, and other savings. My car cost $48,000. Next to a Model 3 in the garage, insert your favorite manually shifted, naturally aspirated, hydraulic-steering, fire-spitting classic car and that’s as good as it gets in my book.

Enjoying the ride comes in multiple flavors. So enjoy it.

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