March 25th, 2018 by Kyle Field
A Tale of Two Teslas
The Tesla Model 3 opens up the promise of a long-range, affordable electric car to millions of new potential customers around the world. As the wait for a Model 3 continues to get longer and longer, many reservation holders are starting to look towards the Tesla Model S as a potential solution that is already available as a new or used vehicle.
Having owned a Tesla Model S, and one of the lucky few to have spent time driving the Tesla Model 3, I have a unique perspective on how the two stack up in real life.
Playing in Different Market Segments
First off, it’s worth noting that the two cars are geared towards rather different audiences. The Tesla Model S is a large luxury vehicle that seats 5 with an optional 2 seat option for a total seating capacity of 7. The Model S is built to be the creme de la creme of large luxury electric vehicles, much like a BMW 7 series or the Mercedes S-Class. Interestingly, the Model S quickly took over the large luxury vehicle segment of the market, consuming market share from every other automotive manufacturer in the segment.
The Tesla Model 3 on the other hand, is geared towards a lower priced, higher volume segment of the market, competing directly with the likes of the Mercedes C-Class and the BMW 3 Series on the low end and the Mercedes E-Class and the BMW 5 Series on the higher end of its pricing spectrum.
It is the fear these potential competitors have that the Model 3 will enjoy the same market share success that the Model S enjoyed, eating into their high-volume cash cow cars, that has traditional auto manufacturers furiously at work building “Tesla killers” that never seem to make it to market … at least so far. Much like its competition, the Model 3 will not be as luxuriously equipped, as powerful, or as voluminous as its larger siblings — which is what affords it the lower price point.
Not One Size to Rule Them All
The most obvious difference between the two vehicles is their size difference. The Model S comes in at 196″ long x 77″ wide x 57″ high while the Model 3 is a bit smaller at 185″ long x 73″ wide x 57″ high. That translates into nearly a foot more room in the garage or parking space. That’s a big difference for those living in the city or in countries with smaller streets where a large car quickly becomes a liability. Model 3 is also 4 inches narrower, which tightens up the interior space in the car but wasn’t a noticeable difference to me. Height wise, the two are the same, affording essentially the same headroom and clearance getting in and out of the car. (Editor’s note: Actually, the Model 3 with a glass roof has a bit more headroom in the back, according to the official specs, but the difference is not vast.)
Functionally, the Model S is a massive vehicle and took up nearly a full side of our garage. The only plug-in vehicles I’ve driven that were larger were the Tesla Model X and Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in Hybrid, each of which were designed to carry a small army into battle with all their gear to boot. As a full-sized vehicle with a hatchback, and no bulky gas tank or internal combustion engine under the hood, the Model S can pack some serious cargo.
Technically speaking, the Model S has 31.6 cubic feet of cargo space while the Model 3 can haul less than half of the space at just 15 cubic feet of cargo space. Realistically, the Model 3 has nearly the same cargo space as a normal car and the Model S is just a really large vehicle with tons of cargo space. Having said that, for those looking to haul lots of gear around, the Model S and its hatchback would be a better option. For context, the Toyota Camry sports a whopping 14–15 cubic feet of storage space, while the smaller Toyota Corolla packs 13 cubic feet of storage space.
The Model S is a very large vehicle already and that footprint is further weighed down with its massive 70 kWh or 100 kWh battery tipping the scales at around 1,200 lbs, depending on the battery pack configuration selected. Those factors translate to a curb weight range of 4,647 lb to 4,941 lb (2,108 kg to 2,241 kg) for the two battery pack configurations.
Its smaller sibling benefits from a smaller frame that enables higher efficiencies. These have a compounding effect, as the lighter the vehicle and the more efficient the powertrain is, the smaller (and lighter) the battery can be. Ultimately, the differences shave off over 1,000 lb for the two configurations of Model 3 when compared to the two battery options on the Model S. In hard numbers, Model 3 weighs in at 3,549 to 3,838 lb (1,610 to 1,741 kg) for the standard and long-range battery configurations. That’s significant and translates into…
Driving the two vehicles side by side, the handling is the most obvious difference. Combined with its stubbier nose, the Model 3 feels like a tiny sports car. It handles curves like a champ, its low center of gravity hugs corners, and its lighter weight allows it to pin passengers to their seats as it accelerates out of corners.
That’s not to say that the Model S is a slouch, as it packs even more power under the … hood? But that power is tasked with lugging around its larger frame. Ultimately, the Model S is faster off the line but has a heftier feel to it coming around corners, where its extra weight becomes more of a factor.
Hatchback vs Sedan
Building on the size comparison, there is a clear functionality difference between the hatchback form factor of the Model S and the more traditional 4 doors and a trunk sedan setup of the Model 3. The difference can be “make or break” for those looking for the extra functionality that comes with the massive Tesla Model S hatchback.
I’m personally a fan of hatchbacks, as they enabled our family to buy a couch spur of the moment and pack the entire thing into the Tesla Model S (I don’t recommend doing this) without having to pay any exorbitant shipping fees. I’ve also been known to haul large quantities of mulch in the back of the Model S with the help of a carefully placed tarp (I similarly don’t recommend this).
Sedans, on the other hand, have the benefit of a fully sectioned off trunk that many owners prefer for security and, in this case, its smaller form factor. The smaller frunk up front allows for a stubbier nose and improved visibility as compared to the expansive hood and frunk of the Model S.
Dollars & Sense
For many, the question about which vehicle to buy has already been decided based on the price delta between the two Teslas. The Tesla Model S starts at nearly $70,000 (new) while the Tesla Model 3 should eventually be available for a base price of $35,000. The Model 3 is currently only available to those willing to pay up for the Long Range Battery (+$9,000) and the Premium package (+$5,000) for a total base price of $49,000.
The difference in base price is what has so many hundreds of thousands of Model 3 reservation holders excited about the prospect of Tesla ownership at half the price of a base Model S.
On the flipside, many Tesla Model S vehicles are still available with free lifetime Supercharging, while the Model 3 does not include any free Supercharging. This may or may not be a factor for buyers depending on proximity to the Superchargers and need/usefulness, but it is worth considering when comparing the two vehicles.
At the moment, based on our short investigation, we’ve found that you can get a used Tesla Model S for as low as $55,100.
Timing is Everything
Clearly, timing is a massive factor when deciding between a Model 3 and a Model S. The Model 3 has a lengthy reservation list of somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 reservations, with the first production of the standard battery version on hold until late 2018. The prospect of waiting a minimum of 12 months for new reservation holders, with longer waits for the first shipments to many nations, is a non-starter for many prospective EV buyers who will put the Model 3 out of the running.
The Model S is available today in both new and used offerings, but pricing in the used market has actually gone up markedly over the last 2 years. Get that — a used vehicle that increases in price over time. When we bought our used Tesla Model S at the very, very end of 2015, we paid just over $50,000 for an 85 with 30,000 miles on it. Looking for a similar vehicle today returns a selection of much fewer vehicles with a starting price around $56,000. (This will vary depending on geography, instantaneous demand, and whether the vehicle is purchased through Tesla, a traditional dealer, or a private party — and the inventory is always shifting.)
For those looking to jump into a Tesla today, the Model S is available while availability of the Model 3 isn’t clear. Ideally, Tesla will get its production lines dialed in and ramped up sooner rather than later and this barrier will go away, but we will have to wait to see what the actual timeline looks like as Tesla shares its progress over the coming months.
The Elon Factor
Looking outside Tesla for a plug-in vehicle is a harsh reminder that Tesla has created a product universe much like Apple’s Jobsian walled garden, with beautiful products that, when put together, sing in a harmony from the heavens. At least, that’s the way it looks in the commercials. Tesla has gone down a parallel path with a beautiful ecosystem of products that synergize and build on each other, enabling the sum to be greater than the parts.
Tesla’s vehicles are safer, faster, higher tech, quieter, faster charging, with better service than the competition, so it is hard to consider purchasing a plug-in vehicle from any other manufacturer after driving a Tesla. Having said that, the blueprint for a Tesla is no secret … all it takes is the willpower and a company willing to throw a few billion dollars at the problem.
Volkswagen has stepped up with announcements in the tens of billions, but the world is still waiting to see if the move into electric vehicles is honest or just a marketing ploy to rebrand the company coming out of the global dieselgate scandal that has VW Group paying billions in fines to countries around the world. As with Tesla’s challenges with Model 3 production, we will have to wait to see which companies step up to the challenge of electric mobility and which will be covered over by the sands of time, with their cold, dead hand still gripping onto an internal combustion engine.
Images by Kyle Field | CleanTechnica