My one week with a Tesla
Early 2023 I bought myself a hybrid car: a Volkswagen Golf GTE, which has a tiny battery that’s good for about 40 kilometers of range. Plenty for most of the trips I take, and on longer trips I don’t have any range anxiety because then it’s just a normal gasoline-powered car. But on those longer trips where the battery runs out after 40 kilometers and the car switches to the regular engine, I miss the silence and the instant power. After a few months I started to wonder if I made a mistake, if I shouldn’t have bought a fully electric car instead. And I was sure that my next car would definitely be fully electric.
In December of 2023 my girlfriend and I went on an eight day vacation to Iceland, where we wanted to rent a car and travel the south coast. This seemed like the perfect chance to try out living with an electric car, since the charging infrastructure in Iceland is very good, and their electricity very cheap – as opposed to their gasoline prices. So we rented a Tesla model 3 and let’s just say I have some opinions.
Basically the first thing I had to get used to when I stepped into the Tesla was the lack of buttons. I wanted to open the glove compartment and was surprised that there was no normal handle or button – instead I had to search through the huge screen’s interface for a way to open the thing.
Then I wanted to change the mirrors, and again no buttons for this and I had to search through the software UI again. And then I wanted to turn on the windscreen wipers and was surprised that the right stalk isn’t for the wipers. Instead, I had to dig into yet another menu in the software.
My first impression wasn’t great to be honest. The lack of buttons seems gimmicky to me. Like, why is opening the glove compartment so hard? The huge screen is undeniably cool, it really is. But it’s also not very usable while driving and the thing is, you need to use it for almost anything. We’re not supposed to use a mobile phone in the car, but somehow controlling the car via a giant iPad is fine?
Want to change the windscreen wiper speed? Use the screen.
Want to turn on the front screen defroster? Use the screen.
Want to change the temperature? Use the screen.
Want to use the heated seats? Use the screen.
The windscreen wiper needed to be adjusted constantly, so it had me use the screen constantly, because its “auto” setting was useless. It either did nothing or it went absolutely crazy fast, but never the speed I actually needed. So instead I had to choose the right speed myself, and change it when the weather changed. Normally this is an easy click up or down on the right stalk but with the Tesla it meant using the screen all the time. And it’s not like the windscreen wiper settings were easily accessible either - it needed multiple taps and swipes through multiple menus which you then need to close again or you can’t see the navigation any more. This car needs a copilot - I quickly resorted to asking my girlfriend to make these kind of changes for me.
Even if the “auto” setting for the windscreen wiper would work perfectly, I really think the right stalk should just be for the wipers. And since the “auto” was definitely not perfect the right stalk did become a dealbreaker for me.
The model 3 doesn’t have a traditional gauge cluster behind the steering wheel, there’s only the big center tablet. This means you always have to look to the right to see your current speed, which doesn’t seem like such a good idea to me either. I got used to it, but I’m pretty sure it’s safer to have a speedometer in your direct line of sight.
No CarPlay also means no Google Maps or Waze for navigation. You’re stuck with Tesla’s navigation and it’s not good. At least not in Iceland it’s not. We’ve had wrong directions from the GPS on multiple occasions, the maps were not up to date, speed limits were very often not correct, search results didn’t always make sense. I started to mistrust the maps so much that I started to double check everything using Google Maps on my phone. Tesla, just add CarPlay. For me this would be a dealbreaker.
Playing music from the phone via Bluetooth worked fine though, even things like playlists and seeing upcoming tracks worked as expected. Better than I expected in fact.
The biggest problem when it came to build quality was wind noise coming from the passenger window. Whenever it was windy (which it is all the time in Iceland) the passenger window would make a constant whistling sound, slowly driving us quite mad. Especially on higher speeds it got really bad. I wonder if those widespread stories about panel gaps have anything to do with this problem, or if there was something else going on.
The interior of the car is quite minimalist and while everything felt sturdy enough, it definitely didn’t feel like a $45,000 car. Neither of us found the seats to be comfortable and absolutely not in the same class as my much cheaper Golf.
I did like the “easy entry” feature where the seat would move back and the steering wheel would move up to make getting out of the car easier, but still I found it surprisingly difficult to get out of the car. Meanwhile my girlfriend had problems getting into the car. Neither of us ever experienced something like this in any other car before.
The car drives beautifully. The steering is light, the power is addictive and the one-pedal driving is awesome (and now I want it in my Golf as well). When it worked. Which seemed pretty random. I got so used to the one-pedal driving that when it suddenly didn’t work any more and I had to apply the brakes myself, it really threw me off. Seems dangerous to me, why doesn’t that feature just always work? Like, when the battery is too full or too cold or whatever for regen braking to work, then just apply the normal brakes! Lifting off from the gas should always have the same result. If my reaction time would’ve been slower we could have easily crashed into another car when I expected the car to brake but it didn’t.
I didn’t use the Autopilot feature (because I don’t trust that at all), but I did use the adaptive cruise control a lot. I actually loved one feature of the cruise control: when you press the cruise control button it can set its speed to the road’s speed limit but with a fixed (or relative) offset. This is exactly the feature I wanted in my Golf: when the limit is 100, I always adjust the cruise control speed to 105, and with the Tesla you can tell the car to just always do this. Great! But because the car’s idea of the speed limit was usually wrong I had to turn this feature off and instead have cruise control turn on with the current speed, and then manually adjust the speed when the speed limit changed. Which by the way is a breeze with the left scroll wheel on the the steering wheel, much better than the touch-sensitive buttons in my Golf.
It’s weird that there’s no button to resume the previously set cruise control speed. Normally when cruise control turns off because you use the brakes, you can then resume your speed with one button press. Not with the Tesla, which doesn’t have enough buttons. I either had to get up to speed myself and then engage cruise control again, or turn on cruise control immediately and use the scroll wheel to adjust the speed back to where it was before. Just add more buttons Tesla.
Sadly it happened quite often that the cruise control function would suddenly stop working because the cameras would be covered by snow, and a few times it actively slammed on the brakes - quite terrifying and dangerous. We also got near constant error messages on the screen about lane departure not working even though I didn’t use that feature, and more errors about Autopilot which I also never used. So many beeps and errors. I really think Tesla made a huge mistake with relying purely on cameras - not everyone lives in always-sunny California! That’s probably also why the mirrors aren’t heated? Which caused them to ice over or get covered in snow multiple times while driving. We then had to get to the side of the road just to clean the mirrors.
Visibility to the front and sides was good, but I found that the slope of the parcel shelf and the shape of the back window meant that I never had a great view from the back mirror, no matter how much I adjusted it. I mostly saw parcel shelf.
Driving at night was surprisingly good, the lights worked really well and we could see pretty far ahead. Actually, we soon discovered that the headlights were angled way too high, because we had many cars blink their lights at us even though we didn’t use our big lights. And whereas in a normal car you can usually change the angle of the headlights with a simple adjustment wheel, with the Tesla it’s of course done on the screen… locked behind a maintenance setting which we didn’t have access to. So we couldn’t change the angle of the lights and kept blinding oncoming traffic, which made us feel uneasy as well.
We got to use Tesla’s supercharger a few times and it’s really really good. No apps to install or anything, just plug in and it works and it’s very fast. What a breath of fresh air compared to the other chargers we used in Iceland, from three different companies. You always have to download their app, create an account, fill in your credit card info, just to charge the car. Why can’t I just use Apple Pay or my contact-less credit card to start and stop a charging session? Anyway, that’s of course unrelated to the Tesla.
Living with a fully electric car really was quite easy. I think in our eight days we only had two 20 minute charging sessions where we sat in the car and waited, all other charging was done while we were out and about, or overnight. It wasn’t more annoying than living with a normal gasoline powered car. And if you do have to wait for a charge then the Tesla has some nice features to make the time fly by, like games and YouTube on the giant screen. There was even a racing game you could play with the actual car’s steering wheel.
We did find that the car was always overestimating its range, it really just lies about how far it can go. Still, driving 400 actual kilometers on one full charge is very good. And 20 minutes of charging adds quite a lot of range, we never had range anxiety.
No, I would not buy a Tesla because there are too many problems and even dealbreakers for me. I do think the screen is really cool and most of the software very good, but too much is controlled by the screen. The lack of a gauge cluster behind the steering wheel didn’t help. The build quality is a major concern, comfort wasn’t good enough, and we got a lot of errors due to obscured cameras. We had the car step on the brakes by itself while driving 100 km/h, or the one-pedal driving suddenly didn’t work anymore. I wouldn’t spend $45,000 on this.
And then there’s the problem with Elon Musk and not wanting to financially support his company. But would I buy a fully electric car? Heck yes! I call that a successful experiment.