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The 10 Hardest Things To Get Used to on the Tesla Model 3

Popular Mechanics logo Popular Mechanics 10/10/2018 Andrew Moseman

a car parked in a parking lot: Because sometimes the future is hard to get used to.

Because sometimes the future is hard to get used to.
© Andrew Moseman

Driving any new car brings a few surprises. Driving an electric car when you're accustomed to internal combustion requires a mental reset. And driving a vehicle as intentionally futuristic as the Tesla Model 3 takes a whole lot of getting used to.

After a weekend spent motoring around the San Francisco Bay Area in the Model 3 Performance Edition, here are the 10 features that required the largest mental adjustment.

How the Heck You Get In

Let's start at the beginning-getting into the car itself. 

Tesla's quirky door handles vary by model. In the Model S, door handles sit flush against the door and then pop out when you're ready to get in, giving riders something to pull on. The Model 3 does not. Instead, its door handles stay flush against the bod. You push against the fattest part of the handle with your thumb to produce the graspable part. Like so:

The motion becomes intuitive after three or four tries, yes. But I spent a weekend carting around friends and family members and not one could open the door on the first try. The same held true for getting out: The 3 has no lever to open its doors from the inside, only a subtle button on the arm rest that nobody notices until you point it out to them.

The Weird Front

When the Model 3 debuted in 2016, many people figured its Neo-from-The-Matrix front end was a placeholder. After all, Tesla had embraced skeuomorphic phony grilles on the models S and X since those larger rides would've looked too bizarre without them. Instead, Tesla stuck to its guns and kept a closed-off front end as if to tell the world, This is what's normal now, and you shall accept it.

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I can feel it beginning. The freeways around San Francisco are filling up with just-bought model 3s carrying the dealership's "Zero Emissions" tags. Once you see your tenth and twentieth and thirtieth car with no grille, the strangeness slips away.

The Front Trunk

With no front-mounted engine, the 3 has room to supplement its rear cargo space with a mini storage nook under the front hood, just large enough to stuff a jacket. Call it the ghost of the VW Beetle. I love it.

There's No Key Fob

During my weekend with the Model 3, I used Tesla's iPhone app and a credit card-sized wallet key as a backup. That's it. The car senses you approach and unlocks itself. When I parked and hopped out, I tapped an icon in the phone app to lock the car. The app swallows up other features from key fobs, including the buttons to pop the front and rear trunks, and it displays the range left on the car's battery just in case you forget.

There's No Stop/Start Button, Either

Remember the first time you drove a car with push-button start, and the sheer weirdness of not turning a key? The Model 3 takes the next step in strange by disregarding the button in its entirety. Once you're in the driver's seat, the car has already sensed from the phone app or key card that it's you. A tap of the brake turns on the Tesla. Locking the car shuts it down.

There Are Almost No Buttons

You may be sensing a theme here. In Tesla's telling, the Model 3's huge center screen is more than just Silicon Valley's minimalist beauty standards. Routing everything-climate control, music, heated seats, the works-through an oversized tablet eliminates the need for fixed buttons that cannot be changed after the fact (whereas a software update is all it would take to overhaul the Tesla interface). 

About the only actual buttons you'll encounter on a 3 are the hazard lights, which are required by law to have a discrete button, and two dials on the steering wheel whose purpose changes depending upon which menu is on the screen. The hardest things is just remembering what the buttons do when you're engaged in Autopilot or scanning through the songs on your playlist versus some other situation. 

Let Go and Let Elon

All of today's most advanced driver assists-Nissan ProPilot, Cadillac Super Cruise, Tesla Autopilot-are a mind-bending experience for a newbie. Not much can prepare you to unlearn years of responsible driving and suddenly trust the machine to keep itself in its lane and keep its distance from the car in front.

The trouble with Autopilot is that the Model 3 is too good. Take Nissan's version for comparison. On I-95 south of New York with ProPilot Assist engaged, I could feel my Nissan Rogue turning itself as if a ghost pair of hands overlapped my own. That simple sensation was enough to inspire confidence that the car was fulfilling all the basic elements of driving on its own. The Model 3's supple steering doesn't require much wheel turning to keep the Tesla within a freeway lane. As such, it's much more of an exercise in trust. And when I couldn't trust the tech, I'd nudge the wheel to make sure we kept clear off the gravel-laden semi a lane over, which was enough to disengage Autopilot. 

The Regenerative Braking

Lots of cars use regenerative braking, but few so aggressively. In standard mode, the Model 3's regenerative capabilities recede into the background, unnoticed save for a little bit of green that appears on the colossal center touchscreen to inform you the car is feeding energy into the battery rather than withdrawing it. However, the 3 also includes a fiercer setting in which the vehicles slows drastically the moment you take your foot off the accelerators, effectively using the regen tech to do stopping work the brakes would have done.

It's a clever way to save wear on the brakes while also feeding juice into the battery and extending the electric range. But I'll be damned if it isn't hard to get used to. In gas-powered vehicles, I tend to let the car coast in situations such a red light or a slowdown in the distance so the car slows down gradually without wearing the brakes. That muscle memory kicked in during my first day in the Model 3 on a drive down to Monterey, at which point I was surprised by the jerk of the car.

I turned it off for the remainder of the weekend. A few extra miles of juice wasn't worth making my wife carsick.

I'll Only Eat Where There's a Supercharger

San Francisco may be the electric car capital of America and closest metro to Tesla HQ, but that doesn't mean the City by the Bay has cracked the EV infrastructure problem. The automaker has superchargers around the Bay Area, but its first in SF proper won't open until later in 2018. San Francisco Tesla drivers who may not have charging capabilities at home face the choice of trying to work a visit to suburbia into their schedules or hitting up one of the generic charging stations around town, which are abundant but time-consuming since they run a less powerful standard. I stashed our 3 in the Marriott garage just because it had a charger listed on Plugshare and only 100 miles of additional range trickled onto the battery over the course of four hours.

In just four days with the 3 I could envision the first machination of changing my entire lifestyle to suit the Tesla. Would I start eating at the California Pizza Kitchen at the mall just so the car could supercharge in the parking lot? I might!

Enjoy the Silence

There'll be a day when it's not weird to dig your foot into the pedal on the right and get seat-pinning acceleration with no sound, but we're not there yet. More than once, SF pedestrians clearly didn't turn to acknowledge I was near them because they couldn't hear the Tesla coming. Whether you're driving or walking, be careful out there.

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