Apropos of Nothing: 24 Hours of Tesla

Happy Birthday

So, my wife is pretty cool. When I turned 40, she suggested that my relatives get me a unique gift. That gift was a one-hour lesson in how to fly an actual helicopter, which ended with me piloting a Robinson R22 after a brief introduction to the theory of rotary-wing flight. It was amazing.

Well, last week was my birthday (47 this time) and this time, after a week of cryptic hints that ranged from casual fun to 1970s naughty bacchanalia. One never knows with a redhead. But we started out on Sunday, having been only told “block out the afternoon” and made our way to Mall of America, where much to my surprise, she informed me that she’d rented a Tesla Model 3 for us for a day, and soon thereafter, we left to tool around the western edge of the Twin Cities (mostly around Lake Minnetonka) for the afternoon and evening. I had the car from 3pm Sunday to 3pm Monday, which let me drive it in various conditions.

My Other Car is A . . .

In terms of prior experience, I’ve driven a lot of cars. I’m a big fan of a manual transmission, too. I like driving my cars, and working through the gears is fun. My personal vehicles over the years have been a loaner Nissan Stanza, my own Honda CRX Si, then an Acura Integra (stolen! twice!), then a loaner Saturn SL1, and we’ve owned as a family an ’03 Forrester, ’05 WRX, ’12 Outback, and ’15 WRX.

Yeah, we like Subarus. The AWD here in the Twin Cities, paired with Real Snow Tires, makes for a solid ride. The ‘Rex is a fun car, too. The ’15 has about 200-230 hp to the wheels, with a listed power of 268. The torque comes in the 240 ft-lbs range on the Road and Track dynometer. I’m not a car guy, but I’ll quote those numbers and see.

The WRX is a fun car to drive, and with good summer or winter tires on is a beast for road handling. It’s pretty hard to break loose from the road, even when I try. And I have. Though my children keep asking me to drive sideways on I-35, a request which is typically politely but firmly denied.

I’ve also experienced an electric hybrid before, in the form of a 2009 Prius. We rented that one and drove it all over Yosemite national park, up and down mountains and switchbacks, and other terrain. It puts down about 100 hp effective on a dyno test I saw, and about 80-85 ft-lbs of torque claimed. Nonetheless, it was a fine car that got 50+ mph, which is its design point. What did impress was that while the acceleration was not spectacular, it did quite well from a standing stop, since the electric motors have max torque at 0 speed, whereas gas engines tend to require some revvin’.

It also have me some prior feel for the “Stealth Car” aspect of an electric vehicle.

But THIS Car is A  BEAST

The Model 3 I got to drive had the Big Battery but was rear wheel drive. Nearly 100% of my driving experience, straight line or off-road or driving sideways or winter, was front- or all-wheel drive. So that made me a bit nervous about recovery from anything, um, dynamic (read: stupid) I might do. It’s a bit tricky to find the data, as Tesla has apparently been playing with software algorithms, but I found one source that showed an “at the wheels” horsepower and torque for the RWD Model 3 of about 325 HP and 325 ft-lbs of torque on the dynometer. Short version, this thing has 50% more horsepower and 35% more torque, and that power is available right the heck now.

The WRX hits 0-60 in about 5.5 seconds. I’ve seen Tesla Model 3 quoted as anywhere from 3.5 to 4.5s, depending on lots of things. So I expected to be impressed with the car’s performance. In fact, based on a price tag of $55,000 for the car I drove, I expected to be impressed.

I was not disappointed.

Sit Down, Feel the . . . What?

Teasing aside, two things about the seats. First, while I did not sit in the back seat, both front and passenger seats are really, really comfortable. I would be happy to sit in these while driving the car hard or in stop and go traffic, and over the last 24 hours I did both. Really, really comfortable.

The “leather” seats are actually a soy-based product. “Vegan leather,” so I’m told. Clever. I’m OK either way: the darn things are comfy to sit in.

In terms of adjustments and other comfort, the throttle had a very long stroke (not a complaint; you need that range to control the vehicle), and the steering wheel had a solid and somewhat . . . beefy is the wrong word. It was just the right size and shape to control the vehicle, and like the seats was a tactile pleasure to use. I’m very happy with my WRX steering wheel, but the Tesla’s is better.

Oh, also: four adults, several of them over six feet tall, had no issues with legroom and size. This is a spacious car.

Welcome to the New Enterprise

The interior is basically controlled by a giant iPad. It’s maybe a 15″ touchscreen display, and everything is on it. Everything. Map and navigation? Of course they’re on the screen. Music? Same. Driver adjustment, trunk release, front/rear hood, and basically preferences screens for the car’s performance are all toggled from an interface that will cause no stress to any mobile phone user.

What was not so awesome? The speedometer was in the top left corner of the display, as was the remaining charge in miles (not that bad). The weather was rainy for the entire time I had the car (mist, light rain, drizzle mostly) and so I was constantly using the wipers. That is also done on the screen.

That means I had to look down at the display while driving for both speed information (critical to not getting ticketed, which I did not do), as well as adjusting the wipers.

The speed and charge thing would need to be a hardware fix. My preference would be an awesome heads-up display that tucked that information into a small strip down near the base of the window. Color display, of course, because Tesla. Change the color based on lighting conditions or even contrast, because there are movie studios with fewer cameras on them than the Model 3 uses for its traffic and cruise control and lane-sensing suite. But being able to not take one’s eyes off the road to ensure that two or three pieces of key info are there would be nice. Speed is key. Battery charge optional. Speed limit, which is niftily available via the Tesla map, would be handy. Some of the lane-sensing information is only available if you’re effectively staring down at the LCD while driving, and sometimes (in the rain/mist) that jumped around on me – one car suddenly seemed (on screen) to swerve at me; in reality it did no such thing, and I did not over-react (or react at all), but it was very much a lesson in “eyes on the road, dummy.”

Nifty visual interface thing: as the car gets better and better information about “where are the lanes,” the lane-centering graphics become darker and more defined. It’s a certainty-o-meter that’s subtle and effective.

The wiper thing is a software fix. Push the button and the wipers go once, but the cursors on the steering wheel can be used to increase the blade rate, from 1 to 4 to Auto.

The Auto wipe had issues detecting misty rain, and I used manual for that. But when it was actually raining, it did a nice job and while I might have wished for a slightly faster blade rate, it worked well.

The key entry was a pain, until I realized the sensor was lower in the B-pillar than I was placing the key card. But owners, not rentals, get to use a phone app

We Have Regenerated!

One of the nifty things that takes getting used to is the regenerative braking. Take your foot off the throttle (not the gas; where we’re driving we don’t need gas), and the regenerative braking takes power from the motion of the wheels to recharge the battery. It’s about the same feel as a mild but committed easing of the brakes on a regular car. It’s disconcerting at first . . . until you realize that other than a quick-stop or a definitive halt, it means that a rush-hour commute is an exercise in never having to touch the brake in slow-and-go traffic. Your either going, or regenerating the battery. Rarely actually stopping. You can “coast” but you have to maintain positive and light pressure on the throttle to do it. This is merely a matter of getting use to it, and took less than the day I had to play with the car. By the time I (sigh) returned it, I didn’t have the “oops, sorry about that” thing going on with the regeneration.

Bless You, Scotty . . . Go, Sulu!

So, like Vizzini said in The Princess Bride, “you must go back to the beginning.”

The controls are anywhere between great and adequate. The visuals and fit and finish of the car are what a car costing $55,000 should be.

But holy crap this thing goes like a bat out of hell.

All day today I basically got no work done, as a procession of friends and co-workers showed up or were invited for a ride. Some singly, sometimes in groups of three.

My very staid, imperturbable (Vulcan-esque, to continue the Trek metaphors) manager? Giggled uncontrollably after I stopped at the exit to out factory and pushed the pedal to the floor. Mildly uphill, then a right-left fade around the corner, then a bit of straight followed by a wide right turn, ending at a stop sign and T-intersection. And remember: wet road. Pretty much no one was prepared for the off-the-line acceleration, which was even impressive with three passengers in the car. Despite my best efforts, in maybe 10 trips around a 2-mile stretch of road, I was only able to make the car let go of the road at all twice. And I tried. Recovery was smooth and easy with applied power and without.

Model 3 Battery Pack Covers the Floor

Guess that’s what happens when you put 1,000 lbs of battery (about 28% of the total weight of the car) spread over the vehicle’s entire floor. Really stable. I’d be interested in objective data on roll-over g-forces required for the WRX vs the Model 3, but wow, I was expecting a lot more slip-and-slide out of the car, especially on wet pavement.

Parting Shot

Every single passenger was impressed by the vehicle’s performance. Including me. And my wife.

Given that I already have two gas vehicles, replacing one of them with a Model 3 would be a luxury upgrade but a worthy one. I tend to the frugal and practical when it comes to my big purchases, but darn, this is a nifty car. And I thought that before I knew that there is an AWD version (and a Performance AWD version at that!) available, because Minnesota and All-Wheel Drive go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The Twin Cities is not Houston. From top to bottom it’s not that many miles, and my WRX with a 300-mile range lasts for about a week or so on a tank of gas. With my usual driving pattern and an in-garage charger (6 hours to a full charge), I would effectively never have to worry about stopping for a recharge around Minneapolis. Ever. I could basically go back and forth to Duluth if I wanted to, and since when I visit friends there I stay the night, a one-hour stop at the super-charger there for dinner would allow much tooling about town should it be needed.

It’s a big purchase. Effectively $1,000 per month for five years or so. But in terms of driving pleasure, it’s an amazing car, and I’m saying this as a guy who loves his 6-speed. Whether screaming around corners or in stop and go traffic it’s equally comfortable, which is a neat trick.

Wishful Thinking in this Garage

The AWD fixes the biggest worry I have about a car like this (winter/ice driving); a software patch would fix the wiper thing and bring a bit more HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick, from jet fighter game days) to the car and not have you take your eyes from the road for that mundane task. A wished-for HUD (and it wasn’t just me; most of my passengers made the same comment) would fix the last niggling issue.

My wife gave me an inspired gift for my birthday, and while she gets to pick the next car, I suspect that the Model 3 might be on the list. If so, we’ll have to discuss actively who gets to drive it each day.

That’ll be fun too.

If I lick it, its mine, right?


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