Is the Tesla Model 3 a luxury car? It’s complicated …

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In January 2019, it was breathlessly reported by the motoring and
technology press that the Tesla Model 3 was the best-selling luxury car
in America in 2018.

Taken at face value, this is a huge
accomplishment for a company that came from a standing start barely a
decade earlier, set out in a completely different direction to its
century-old rivals, and helped kickstart the switch from internal
combustion to electric. After all this, to out-sell vehicles from the
likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Lexus feels like an extraordinary
achievement.

And yet I take exception to the Model 3 being called a luxury car. At
its very cheapest, the first incarnation of the $35,000 Model 3 had
basic, manual-adjustment seats, a basic audio system, and no smartphone
holder. It was also only available in black.

To find out if the
Model 3 really is a luxury car — or perhaps merely a premium one, helped
into luxury status with the smooth silence of its electric powertrain —
I picked up a Model 3 Performance from Paris, France, and drove to
Bruges, Belgium. Partly for Easter eggs, partly for beer, but mostly to
better understand what the Model 3 is all about.

The upgrades make a difference

First up is the common problem with borrowing a car from a
manufacturer’s press department; they almost always come with every
possible optional extra. This is useful, giving journalists the ability
to try everything at once, but means the Model 3 Performance I drove
cost €64,400 locally, or $61,000 in the U.S., almost double that $35,000
target price Tesla started with when it went on sale.

Much of
the extra cost comes from a longer range, more powerful motors, and
fancy white paint. But when picking the Long Range or Performance Model 3
over the $35k car, or the Standard Range Plus variant, a big difference
is also the interior. This is where a car’s luxury status is often won
or lost; does it cosset and pamper the driver and their passengers,
making them feel like they are aboard a private jet, or does it feel
like an Uber hailed at the airport?

The extras thrown in here start to carry the Model 3 towards  “premium” status. You get front and rear heated seats, satellite-view
maps with live traffic data, music streaming from Spotify, a web
browser, and four USB ports to charge smartphones. But a lot of these
are added by Tesla via a software update, and — as good as the uprated
stereo sounds — premium systems from the likes of Bang & Olufsen are
found in Ford Fiestas these days.

The backseat doesn’t feel so luxurious …

Rear-seat passengers
climbing into the Model 3 will not feel like they are in for a luxurious
experience. The ride is smooth and the car, being electric, is of
course quiet (more obvious road and wind noise notwithstanding). But the
seats aren’t particularly comfortable, legroom is only just adequate,
there is no adjustment to the position of the seat at all, the seat-back
stowage in front of you is restrictive, and the experience of sitting
back there is all rather forgettable.

These are all traits of cars of this size, which makes me wonder if a
vehicle of this size can ever be considered luxury. That word better
suits the soft, reclining leather seats of a long-wheelbase BMW
7-series, complete with padded pillows, soothing mood lighting, TV
screens, electronic window blinds and a drinks cooler in the armrest.
Smaller cars simply can’t offer such luxuries due to their size and
price.

Perhaps the Model 3’s front seats are a more luxurious
place to be. To find out, I type Bruges into the navigation system —
which, by all accounts, is excellent — and set off to do battle with the
notorious Parisian traffic on a Friday afternoon.

… but the performance does

Here, and before I look too closely at the details, the Model 3
begins to offer elements of luxury. By this I mean it makes my life
easier and takes away much of the stresses of driving a regular car. The
accelerator pedal is beautifully judged, whereby crawling around town
is smooth and steady, but a firm prod summons up an instant dose of
supercar-matching acceleration. Zero to 60 mph takes 3.2 seconds in this
Performance version, which is truly staggering given it is otherwise a
completely sensible and rather heavy mid-size family sedan.

The
Tesla’s regenerative braking system is also perfectly progressive, in
that a small lift of the accelerator produces a small deceleration, and a
larger lift slows the car more aggressively. Once mastered (which takes
maybe an hour or two), you very rarely need to press the brake pedal,
unless in a critical situation or when coming to a complete stop.

Leaving Paris and merging onto the country’s famously quiet two-lane
autoroute, I try out Autopilot, Tesla’s driver assistance system which
can take control of the steering, accelerator and brakes. The systems
works well and generally inspires confidence in its own abilities, but a
recent software update means you need to grip the wheel unnaturally
firmly to tell the it you are paying attention. Otherwise the central
touch screen starts to flash and eventually a loud siren goes off. A
quick squeeze of the wheel restores calm and order, but constantly
administering so much pressure feels weird at best, and plain annoying
at worst.

Hopefully Tesla can adjust this again and find a balance
where it ensures drivers are paying attention, but without requiring
such a firm grip. When Autopilot works properly, it can offer a
luxurious experience — that of a system taking some of the effort out of
driving, whisking you along quietly and comfortably, even changing
lanes for you when you flick the indicator stalk (after using its
cameras to check there is space).

With Autopilot enabled — and a
vice-like grip on the wheel — I glance around the cabin. Luxury in cars
used to mean lashings of wood and leather, and the Model 3 continues
that theme but in a super-minimalist way, offering just a strip of wood
along the dashboard, running behind the large central touch screen.

Tesla at its best

This, the touch screen, is Tesla at its very best. The display has a high resolution and responds with iPad Pro
levels of performance; using it is a joy and by far the most premium
part of the Model 3. But it isn’t perfect, as Tesla’s pursuit of
minimalism (and cutting production costs) means the windshield wipers
are controlled via the touchscreen. There is an automatic option, but
this is currently in beta and doesn’t always work properly; I found they
would also come on when exiting a tunnel, for some reason, with no rain
in the air.

I’m not sure what the safer option is here: Trusting the beta
automated system to work properly, speeding up the wipers when passing a
truck on a rain-soaked freeway, or looking away from the road and
prodding at the touchscreen. Both feel dangerous to me, and I have to
ask, were Tesla’s cost-saving measures so drastic that a conventional
wiper stalk couldn’t be fitted to the steering column? Cost-saving to
this extreme sure doesn’t feel like luxury, but thankfully the
windshield can be washed with the press of a button on the indicator
stalk.

Impressive cabin, but is it luxury?

Stopping at the Supercharger in Lille gives me a chance
to check out the rest of the Model 3’s cabin. There is a good size
stowage bin under the central front armrest, and ahead of this there are
two cup/bottle holders, then a second stowage bin, and finally a
reclined shelf to rest a pair of smartphones against, complete with USB
and Lightning cables ready to dock into and charge.

This is all perfectly functional, but doesn’t feel luxurious or
particularly premium. The plastic finish of several panels feels cheap
and had already attracted many scratches on this low-milage example.

Other
touch points, like the steering wheel, stalks and door handles are
better, but lack anything that could be considered premium or luxurious.
The wheel in particular, while perfectly pleasant to hold, lacks the
contouring and quality stitching of something from an Audi, BMW, Jaguar
or Mercedes. It, along with much of the interior, lacks any wow-factor.
Neat and functional, yes, but not luxury in the sense of a Rolex watch,
Ted Baker jacket, or pair of Louboutins.

The Model 3 wins plenty of convenience point with its keyless system.
There is no key fob at all; instead, the Model 3 comes with a card you
can slip in your wallet then tap on the B-pillar behind the door to
unlock it. Or you can pair the car with the Tesla smartphone app, and it
will automatically unlock as you approach it with your phone, then lock
again when you walk away. It’s a smart feature which takes mere seconds
to setup and works flawlessly. A little luxury, you might say.

As
I head into Bruges I’m treated to a drive through the city center,
navigating ancient cobbled roads which are spookily devoid of traffic
for a Friday evening. I cross small bridges over canals and lap around
pretty market squares in complete silence. At this point the car, and
almost all effort required to drive it, get out of the way, allowing me
to concentrate on finding my hotel and the parking lot.

Being so
simple to drive that doing so borders on the subconscious is certainly a
valued slice of luxury when navigating an unfamiliar city after a long
day. Plugging into the hotel’s charger for the night (for free) also
felt good, removing the need to even think about where the nearest
public charger or Tesla Supercharger might be.

These are luxuries
no driver of an internal combustion BMW has experienced before, and they
certainly do add up. Owning and driving a Tesla is remarkably simple
and stress-free — something which feels like a luxury if you’re not used
to it.

But I don’t want to mistake the commonplace quietness and smoothness
of electric cars for a truly luxurious motoring experience. You wouldn’t
call an electric golf cart luxurious because it’s quiet, smooth and
easy to drive, so the Model 3 has to earn that ‘luxury’ tag in other
ways. And I’m struggling to find them.

The base-level Model 3
is certainly not a luxury car. Its software is deliberately curtailed,
limiting the navigation maps and hiding the web browser in the same way
other car makers fit the dashboard with blank buttons, filling the holes
reserved for the features you can’t afford.

Adding extreme performance is certainly exciting, and part of the
Concorde’s luxury was in its speed. But a hot 0-60 time isn’t enough on
its own. Luxury comes via the invisible and often intangible
collaboration of parts, and of feelings. They join together and, aided
by decades of brand-building, create an air of luxury which the back
seat of a Range Rover or a Mercedes exudes in a way no Tesla — no
version of S, X or 3 — can match today.

Owning a Tesla may feel like a luxury for now, and they will
certainly retain a premium feel while smooth, silent battery power
remains a niche. But once the majority of new cars are electric, and
available across all price ranges, Teslas in their current guise will
feel decidedly middle-of-the-road.

Ultimately, luxury is in
the eye of the beholder. Some will consider the quietness and zero
tailpipe emissions of Teslas to be a luxury which improves their life.
Others, perhaps switching from a German rival, may question where the
luxuries they are used to have gone.

This article originally appeared on GearBrain.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

Featured Image Credit: GearBrain.

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