Sure, we know that Tesla brought sexy back – its lineup is literally S, 3, X, Y.
What is actually "sexy" to me is this car being in reach for more than just the super wealthy with more tens of thousands to spare than I could dream of. I've been more the target for cars like the Honda CR-V and Toyota Corolla.
Still, I've long admired Teslas' sleek look, innovation and the complete detachment from L.A.'s $4 gas. But that was definitely from a very disengaged distance, not really daring to aspire to drive let alone own one myself.
That changed in December.
At the end of 2018, my husband and I got our his-and-hers Model 3s for Christmas, fulfilling his dream to prove me wrong. (When he pitched the idea when the Model 3 was first announced, I told him he was kidding. It wasn't a question.)
Initially an experience reserved for the luxury buyer, owning a Tesla is now comparable to a higher-end Honda Civic. At least for when it comes to the Model 3.
Nearly three years ago, Tesla CEO and evangelist Elon Musk unveiled the long-awaited “affordable” Tesla, the Model 3, promising a base price of $35,000. Hundreds of thousands rushed to pay $1,000 deposits.
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Last year, the Model 3 arrived, but at prices far from that more affordable range. Fans who had waited so long felt this was a bait-and-switch. But the promise is finally being fulfilled, with Tesla announcing at the end of February it finally is selling a standard model with slightly less range (220 miles) and fewer frills for $35,000, with deliveries starting soon.
We were totally the target market for this car, but we didn't wait for it. We couldn't.
With tax incentives expiring at the end of 2018 and still no entry-level Model 3, we replaced my leased Hyundai Sonata and his 14-year-old Acura TL with Mid-Range Model 3s that can travel up to 260 miles on a full charge. (We did keep the gas-powered 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan we had just finished paying off.)
My husband did have to literally pull me into the storefront at the mall, as I babbled about how we were being irresponsible parents about to borrow $48,000 – times two – even if we were getting $10,000 in tax incentives back, times two.
Buying a Tesla
My initial hyperventilation aside, buying a Tesla was unlike any other car-buying experience I’ve ever had.
The showroom was barely a storefront. People were milling about, climbing in and out of the cars. There were three different models on display, minimalist decor and maybe three computers in the back. No salespeople – the representatives were there to offer a test drive, answer questions or help walk us through the online purchase process. Since then the company has said that it’s going to scale back its physical stores and put more emphasis on online sales.
Instead of just designing your dream car online as you can with most car makers – selecting the model, trim, wheels and interior – you can actually order and apply for a loan without ever setting foot in a dealership.
That’s what was really notable. No one was trying to sell or upsell us – at all. No push for extended warranty or paint protection, no VIN etching or maintenance plan. Instead, we stood at a computer and it was just pick a model and color, and we’ll deliver it to your home when it’s ready.
Not once did anyone say "Let me talk to my manager."
It was almost too easy.
This was a marked difference from the experience we had a few years ago leasing a Nissan Leaf, also a fully electric vehicle. The paperwork alone took hours. Paperwork for Tesla was emailed before delivery. Still, we had a long wait for our vehicles.
Since we ordered our cars in October and had to wait seven weeks to even hear from Tesla about them, much has changed. Buyers now report a much shorter turnaround time. And there’s Tesla’s new longer buy-and-try offer, where you can return the car within seven days if it’s not all you dreamed of.
In Los Angeles where we live, Model 3s are everywhere like Toyota Priuses were in their earlier days. I almost imagine the Model S and Xs thinking, there goes the neighborhood with all the newer, cheaper models now flooding the streets.
And yes, every Tesla, it appears, comes with a big pitcher of Kool-Aid most owners very happily guzzle. At least that's the sense you could get from the various Facebook and Reddit groups dedicated to Teslas and even just to Model 3s, with owners happy to chat and evangelize about these cars they love.
My car is like an 'iPhone'
Like the very first iPhone forever changed what I knew as a phone, this car I’ve been driving for more than a couple of months now has changed my experience with and expectations for something I've known my entire life – driving a car.
For instance, my car drives me. Yup, it can essentially drive itself, with minimal input from me. More on that later.
The Model 3, like its higher-priced siblings, is slick and intuitive. Driving is customizable, from how the car brakes and accelerates to how it maneuvers the roads. Operating the vehicle is as easy as tapping a screen, literally. And from my phone, I can lock and unlock the doors, open the trunks, can set speed limits and control the temperature in the car, among other things.
We’ve become a society that taps and swipes their way through communication and activities. Why shouldn’t driving a car mirror that?
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If you haven’t seen the inside of a Tesla Model 3, it’s super minimalist. There are no gauges or dials. There’s a massive iPad-looking screen and a steering wheel. No buttons for the stereo, the A/C, the mirrors, anything. No glovebox latch. No car door handle. Not even a “Start” button, like on so many new luxury competitors.
To drive off, you just get in and put the car in gear. The car knows to activate the motor, and release the parking brake, which it sets automatically when you shift it into park. To control or adjust settings, you tap the screen.
I will admit the car is a bit of a bother at carpool when dropping the kids off at school. With the door handles flush with the car door, opening the door from the outside is completely perplexing – until you know how.
But then there's also the humor and the fun. My husband and I stole a quiet moment together with the car's "Romance Mode," its heat gently blowing and crackling fire video, while we parked at the beach. We did it in "parent mode" – aka kids asleep in the back.
The whole experience reminds me of Apple iPhone's early days – all the way from the paradigm-shifting form and function of technology to geeking out with other Tesla fans and owners to the recent price drops and high-excitement unveilings. Now, though, frustration and resentment are rising themes expressed in several posts in Facebook groups and on Reddit. The primary complaint: owners are less than thrilled about dramatic price drops on cars they ecstatically dropped $10,000 more on only a few months earlier.
But back to the car. There are challenges, some we hadn’t thought of. The compact legroom in the backseat means I will always be a driver or riding shotgun. There is also the minor inconvenience of, say, the seatbelt latch in the back being difficult to reach from a child's booster seat.
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Then there was the time I didn't remember that I needed to leave my Tesla keycard or my mobile phone with my husband when he dropped me off with the kids and drove away. We learned the hard way when the kids and I went to the YMCA while my husband drove off to a nearby Wendy's.
The car continued to drive without issue. But once he put it in park and hopped out, he was stuck with a car he couldn't figure out how to operate without either the keycard or my phone.
An $8 Uber ride later, we figured out that I could have started the car remotely from the Tesla app on my phone. Lesson learned.
Yes, the over-the-air updates to the car's software are incredibly convenient and exciting. I do love that, overnight, my car got a brand new security feature called Sentry Mode, capitalizing on the cameras all over the car and the ability to record to USB drive.
And some of the other improvements have been amazing to me. I mean, I went to sleep with a car outside that does 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds. In the morning, I walked out to one that does 0 to 60 in 5.2 seconds and now has a range of 264 miles instead of 260. All with an over-the-air update, just like my smartphone.
Still, as with any computer, sometimes there are glitches. On the rare occasions the screens have gone black while driving, sure, that’s startling. But the car kept moving, thankfully.
Steering toward the future
I mentioned earlier that the car can drive itself. This isn't news to most, but it’s really quite stunning experiencing it in action.
My husband called me on his way to work, mind blown. "Wait, what year is this? It's almost like waking up to find you've been in a coma and now it's 2033 and you're in a car that's driving itself,” he said, referring to the autopilot software steering and braking in traffic on the freeway.
What Tesla now calls Full Self-Driving Capabilities on its site was previously known as Enhanced Autopilot, or EAP, and the company has separated the feature into two tiers with different pricing. We're talking about being able to let the software take the wheel, so to speak, to being able to summon your car, or inch it out of a parking space, with a finger on the screen of your smartphone.
Now, Tesla officials would hold up a stop sign here and insistently assert that these autopiloting features really are "driver assistive technology." Yes, you really should always pay attention while operating the vehicle. And yes, the autopilot/self-driving features require your hands to be on the wheel to even function.
But looking at it the way it feels to anyone driving the car, the daggone car drives itself! That’s not to say it’s perfect. But the people who use it regularly do tend to gush.
I took advantage of the 30-day trial that was offered with my car. On a long road trip from L.A. to Las Vegas, with hands on the wheel ready to take over as the feature requires, I let my car drive me.
While it was incredibly smooth and generally reliable even for car-initiated lane changes in freeway traffic, there were disturbing moments. One was when the car needed to make a pit stop to recharge vacillated twice between making a move to exit and staying in the lane. The other was when the car straddled lanes as it guided itself from one freeway to the next. Thankfully, no one else was on the onramp at the time.
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Autopilot also couldn't yet recognize stop lights and occasionally got confused by poorly marked lanes. FSD didn’t always feel ready for prime time, or for me to drop up to $7,000 for the upgrade. (Tesla dropped the price to $5,000. But, amid vocal frustration from owners who paid more for the feature, the company raised it back again March 18.)
Unlike when another person is driving you, you can’t look software in its eyes or ask what it’s thinking. You have to take on faith it is functioning as it should be. That’s a lot of faith.
With the lower-tier Autopilot feature – with auto steering, accelerating and braking – going for $2,000 until mid-March, we actually did end up springing for that.
Just ahead of first quarter earnings, Musk laid out the company's aggressive roadmap for an autonomous future to investors, promising self-driving Teslas later this year.
That's in line with his prediction voiced in an earlier podcast: “I think we will be feature complete – full self-driving – this year… meaning the car will be able to find you in a parking lot, pick you up, and take you all the way to your destination without an intervention, this year. I would say I am certain of that.”
But he also took it up a notch, promising the possibility of adding $60,000 to my family's income. His goal is to have 1 million vehicles, both those in the driveways of owners and the company's own, that could be placed into a self-driving summoned-car service by the end of next year.
"I feel very confident predicting autonomous robotaxis for Tesla next year," Musk said, telling investors he envisions owners pulling in about $30,000 a year for lending their cars to the Uber-like fleet.
That has me thinking of possibilities for my husband's car. (I'm not sure he'd be on board, though.)
While it's probably a wildly ambitious prediction, it does make the future feel a bit, well, electric.
Follow Michelle Maltais on Twitter: @mmaltaisla
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New Tesla driver experience: From an unattainable dream to $30,000 moneymaker?