The Industry

Tesla’s Model 3 Might Not Be the Perfect, Affordable Electric Car After All

A Model 3 sits on the showroom floor at a Tesla dealership.
Tesla’s Model 3 did not get the coveted Consumer Reports recommendation due to its inconsistent braking. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Tesla’s Model S luxury sedan was an instant legend—the car that almost singlehandedly revived the electric vehicle industry. Among a slew of other accolades, it was Consumer Reports’ pick for the car of the year in 2014. And in 2017, the Model S P85D broke the magazine’s 100-point scoring system, scoring a record 103 that the magazine revised down to a 100 by altering its formula.

Now Tesla is finally delivering its long-awaited successor to the Model S. With more than 400,000 preorders, the Model 3 just might be the most anticipated mass-production vehicle in modern history. It’s supposed to come with a base price of $35,000, making it accessible to people who could only dream of owning a $75,000 Model S. It’s been a bumpy road to producing the vehicle, but it’s finally here.

One problem: Consumer Reports isn’t recommending it. Meanwhile, the $35,000 price tag looks like it may be harder to come by than buyers had anticipated.

The respected review outlet on Monday said its testers had found “big flaws” in the Model 3 that make it unworthy of Consumer Reports’ full endorsement, despite some amazing features.  The most concerning of those flaws: a worryingly inconsistent ability to stop quickly when the brakes are slammed.

Consumer Reports also dinged the Model 3 for its cumbersome touchscreen controls, “stiff ride, unsupportive rear seat and excessive wind noise at highway speeds.” Otherwise, it called the vehicle “an impressive performance sedan,” calling it “thrilling to drive” and comparing its handling to that of a Porsche 917. The Model 3 also set a record for electric-battery range, driving 350 miles on a single charge.

But the braking was Consumer Reports’ biggest worry. It said the Model 3 required an average of 152 feet to brake to a stop from 60 mph. That’s “far worse than any contemporary car we’ve tested and about 7 feet longer than the stopping distance of a Ford F-150 full-sized pickup,” the magazine reported. It’s also about 21 feet longer than the average for cars in the Model 3’s class, and 25 feet longer than Tesla’s much larger Model X SUV. Consumer Reports noticed that the Model 3 stopped much more quickly than that in its first test, but in subsequent tests the braking performance degraded severely. It tried two different vehicles with the same results.

Consumer Reports isn’t the first to flag the Model 3’s worryingly inconsistent emergency braking. Car and Driver in its review last month noted “a bizarre amount of variation” in the vehicle’s emergency stopping distance. (Car and Driver gave the Model 3 four stars out of five overall.)

Tesla says its brakes have performed much better in the company’s own tests. However, it did not directly dispute Consumer Reports’ findings. The company provided Slate this statement in response:

Tesla’s own testing has found braking distances with an average of 133 feet when conducting the 60-0 mph stops using the 18” Michelin all season tire and as low as 126 feet with all tires currently available. Stopping distance results are affected by variables such as road surface, weather conditions, tire temperature, brake conditioning, outside temperature, and past driving behavior that may have affected the brake system. Unlike other vehicles, Tesla is uniquely positioned to address more corner cases over time through over-the-air software updates, and it continually does so to improve factors such as stopping distance.

It’s fair to note that the Model 3 also received a “superior” rating for frontal crash avoidance from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, thanks in part to its automatic emergency braking system, which can stop the car in an emergency before the driver has a chance to react.

It shouldn’t be shocking that the Model 3 has some kinks to work out, given all the production problems the company has encountered as it tries to build its first “electric car for the masses.” Maybe Tesla will fix the braking issues in short order. But it still must be disappointing for customers who have waited years for their Model 3 to see that Consumer Reports isn’t even recommending it.

The hesitant review affected Tesla’s stock Monday, as it retreated from a sharp early gain. The stock had been on the rise after CEO Elon Musk announced details over the weekend of a much pricier, $78,000 “performance” version of the Model 3. Investors reckon that version will help the company to pad its profit margins on a vehicle whose base model will be cutting those margins very thin.

Still, there was some media blowback to that news. The Model 3 has long been billed as an “affordable” electric car, thanks to its supposed sticker price of $35,000. But Tesla appears to be focusing on more expensive versions, and a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst said on Sunday that he expects relatively few Model 3s to actually cost $35,000.

The ultimate dream of both Tesla and its ardent fans has always been that the company would deliver a high-performing, high-quality electric car, with a great range, at a price normal people could afford. The Model 3 looks like it will check the “performance” and “range” boxes with ease. The $35,000 version will require a longer wait than anticipated, but Tesla insists it’s still coming. It’s the “high-quality” part that appears to be somewhat in doubt at the moment. Let’s hope the braking problem turns out to be a fixable glitch, rather than a harbinger of further build problems resulting from the company’s frantic race to meet its production timelines.