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  • Newsletter Issue #1034

    May 29th, 2022

    RIDING IN A TESLA MODEL 3: ARE THEY SERIOUS?

    It’s fair to say that Tesla has continued to confound expectations. Few new car makers survive, and a number of older brands have faded. Try, for example, to find a new Plymouth, Pontiac or Oldsmobile, for example. When I was young, there were also such nameplates as Rambler and Studebaker. In fact, my dream car as a teen was the Avanti sports sedan, which actually continued in production for a number of years after Studebaker faded.

    When Tesla introduced the Model 3 with a, then, starting price of $35,000 plus shipping, it seemed tempting. After all, charging an EV’s engine is far cheaper than a tank of gas, even when gas was reasonably affordable. Oil changes and other routine maintenance that is required for internal combustion engines were history. It was mostly about brakes and tires.

    Indeed, if you drive a lot, what you save on gas might indeed cover the added cost of an EV.

    Despite stellar sales, Tesla has continued to boost prices on the Model 3. Maybe this is a supply chain issue or abject greed, but you’re lucky to find a new one even for $46,990 for the entry-level model, plus a $1,200 destination charge. Indeed the Tesla used to be priced in the same range as the BMW Model 3 Series, but now the latter starts at $41,450 plus a $995 destination drive. As with the Bimmer, the Tesla is considered a compact car with its 185 inch length. It’s curb weight of 3,895 pounds seems heavy, but much of the heft is due to its battery.

    Either way, it’s not something that’ll fit my  budget anytime soon.

    So why do I even care?

    Well the other day, I had to take an Uber for a medical procedure at a local surgical center. The nearest vehicle was a black 2022 Tesla Model 3. I welcomed the opportunity to ride in the most popular EV on the planet.

    What I encountered during that ride was very much what Consumer Reports has published, although I think their rating is too high if you intend to consider the Tesla a family vehicle. Otherwise, I largely agree with their conclusions about this vehicle despite the fact that I normally disagree with the magazine’s ratings, but that’s mostly about tech gear.

    My initial disappointment was with the rear seats. There was plenty of headroom for a six-footer, but you sit low, knees high. Says CR: “The rear seat is positioned very low to the floor, and that results in an uncomfortable seating position that completely lacks thigh support.”

    Try as I might, I could never find a comfortable position even for a 15-minute ride. As a result, getting out was difficult, but that was also due to the flaky door handle system which the magazine rates as “unnatural and awkward.”

    Before I suggest that Tesla’s design engineers need to rethink the design of the Model 3’s rear seats and the door handles, there’s more, and that’s the ride.

    Tesla has been widely praised for its sports car ride and handling. It turns on a dime, but its ride is stiff, almost punishing. I cold feel my teeth rattle as the vehicle passed over a rough patch of road along the city streets near Phoenix.

    From a driver’s standpoint, absent the rough ride, the Model 3 might actually be a terrific vehicle. Front seats are reported as very comfortable. To add to its futuristic feel, the instrumentation consists of a single large tablet in the center of the dashboard, almost as if you put an iPad in that location. The vehicles around you are shown on the display as almost 3D images, and there’s a ready display of the number of miles remaining on the charge.

    The entry-level Model 3 is rated for a range of 267 miles. The driver said he was getting around 270, but with 90 miles remaining, according to the display, he was already evincing “range anxiety.” I suppose it’s because the vehicle was new and, being forced into unexpected locations as a ride sharing driver, he had to constantly check for available charging stations. But that will soon pass, as more and more EVs are sold, and more charging facilities are constructed.

    Now as a practical matter, the driver probably made a good decision, especially in an environment where gas prices now exceed $5.00. When I drive for Uber, it cost less than $3.00 a gallon. This was before the pandemic hit, and the price was manageable. Not so with the increased maintenance charges as the result of driving on all sorts of streets with potholes. I had to pay a bundle to replace front suspension components, such as the control arms, as the result. For a VW Jetta, figure $700 a shot.

    But if a Tesla’s suspension holds up under such a burden, the money saved on fuel and maintenance could well cover the increased price of admission. I suppose, if you can accept the fact that your passengers might not have so comfortable an experience.

    I wonder, though, about Tesla’s design decisions. It’s not that they cannot design cars with more agreeable ride quality. The Model S, which starts at $69,420 plus destination, has a ride CR describes as “firm yet fairly comfortable.” That’s somewhat encouraging. Not so for its rear seats, which CR reports this way: “In spite of the Model S’s relatively large size, the rear seat isn’t very comfortable. Headroom is decent but foot space under the front seats is quite tight, and the seat’s low position to the floor results in a huge knee bend and a complete lack of thigh support.”

    So I guess uncomfortable rear seats are a Tesla trademark.

    There is no reason for things to be this way. Other than the battery-powered engine, an EV ought to be as comfortable as any regular vehicle. Softer riding suspension, comfortable rear seats, are not any more difficult to design. Perhaps Tesla is so enamored with its sports car image that it hasn’t considered the practical aspects of driving and riding in their vehicles.

    So long as they can sell as many cars as they can build, I suppose there’s little incentive for Elon Musk and crew to change any of these design aspects.

    Then again, my judgment is based on a short ride. I would still like to drive one, although a Tesla is not on my potential wish list, even for a used model. But I can see where their competitors can advertise superior ride and rear seat comfort as positives. Oh, and I didn’t mention the yoke steering wheel on the Model S. Now really! It reminds me of the “Johnny Cab” in the 1990 sci-fi movie, “Total Recall” with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

    Still, traditional cars are on the chopping block long term. By the next decade, a number of auto makers will have abandoned the internal combustion engine. New battery systems will mean more miles between charges, and power facilities will be as ubiquitous as a gas station. Many of these EVs will even be comfortable to ride in. Maybe even Tesla will get the point as more and more of them are built.

    THE FINAL WORD

    Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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