Which flavor of Tesla do you prefer: sporty commuter or highway bomber?
It usually doesn’t make sense to compare a full-size luxury sedan with a compact car that sells for about half its price. But the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model 3 are unlike any other stablemates in the automotive universe. The big and brawny Tesla Model S arrived on the scene like a thunderbolt in 2012, obliterating any notion that a battery-electric vehicle had to be small and compromised. The Model S opened the eyes of the most ardent high-octane auto enthusiast to the ways of electrification. And yet, its six-figure price tag was beyond the reach of most consumers.
Enter the Tesla Model 3 in 2017. Tesla’s compact is much more than a baby version of the Model S. It was designed as the ultimate manifestation of the Muskian vision of a beautiful, capable, long-range electric vehicle that’s accessible to all. Whether or not the Model 3 has achieved that lofty goal – or if it soon will – the Tesla commuter is a gorgeous, attainable EV that out-competes similar models from BMW and Mercedes-Benz in nearly every criteria.
If you’re not yet convinced that this comparison makes sense, consider that a brand spanking new Tesla Model 3 granting 260 miles of range on a charge sells for nearly the same price as a certified pre-owned Model S with the same range but a lot more room. Hence we will stack up the Model 3 not only against the 2018 Model S but used versions from the past few years.
How Far Can You Go on Electricity?
The Tesla Model 3's range is between 220 and 310 miles.
MODEL 3: All Tesla cars come with a choice of battery size. To understand the Model 3’s range, you need to specify the size of the battery pack on the model being considered. For example, Model 3s sold to date use a ~75 kilowatt-hour battery pack to deliver an estimated range of 310 miles on a single charge. In late 2018, Tesla will offer a mid-range, 260-mile variant of the Model 3 – followed by the 220-mile, 50-kWh version in early 2019.
So the Model 3’s distance on a single charge varies between 220 and 310 miles. Let’s use the mid-range 260-mile, $46,000 mid-range model as a benchmark because it’s available to order now and represents a good comparison to many used Model Ss on the market.
MODEL S: If maximum range is your goal, there’s no way to beat the 335 miles provided by a 2018 Model S 100D. But economically, the $99,800 cash purchase price for a new 100D means you’re paying significantly more for each mile of capacity. The better comparison with a mid-range Model 3 is the Model S 75D with its 75-kWh that provides 259 miles of range. The 2018 75D at $80,300 delivers the same amount of range as the mid-range Model 3 that sells for $46,000.
The longest range Model S goes 335 miles on a single charge.
We should emphasize that the number in the Model S name corresponds to the size of the battery pack. Multiply that number of kilowatt-hours of energy storage by 3.5 miles for a quick calculation of real-world range – a Model S with “75” in the name will likely deliver about 260 miles of range.
If we were trying to match the price of a certified pre-owned Model S to a brand new mid-range Model 3, we’d need to go back to a 2016 rear-wheel-drive 70-kWh or 2015 all-wheel-drive Model S 70D.
WINNER: MODEL S The range battle between Tesla’s compact and full-size models is close. But the Model S offers bigger packs with more range.
Which Car Is More Fun on the Road?
The Model 3 has less horsepower but it's a small, zippy car.
MODEL 3: The mid-range Model 3 using a single motor on the rear axle delivers 258 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque. A sprint from a standstill to 60 miles per hour happens in 5.6 seconds. Meanwhile, the longer-range dual-motor versions up the ante to 450 horsepower and 471 pound-feet of torque. The Performance version takes things even further with 0-to-60 mph performance in a supercar-like 3.3 seconds. No matter which version, the Model 3’s acceleration, steering, and handling are on par or exceed most German luxury compacts.
For this comparison with the Model S, consider that the Model 3 is one foot smaller and 800 pounds lighter than its bigger sibling. “I would take a new Model S over a new Model 3 as a main family vehicle,” wrote a three-time Tesla owner on Reddit. “But the smaller size makes it feel very zippy around town.” On the same thread, another comment explains, “Do you want a tight street-fighter sports car feel or a large comfortable freeway bomber?”
And a user named vbpatel describes the difference after driving the two cars: “I can honestly say I prefer the 3. The S is very luxurious, but feels a bit dated,” vbpatel writes. “I would take the Model 3D over the used MS 70D.”
Repeat after me: 518 horsepower.
MODEL S: These sentiments on forums belie the reality of the Model S’s 518-horsepower drivetrain. The slowest version of the 2018 model rockets to 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds. Again, that's the slowest one. The Performance version reaches 60 mph in a mind-boggling 2.5 seconds. The adrenaline rush experienced when stepping into the Model S’s accelerator pedal pushes the boundaries of how much fun can be had in a vehicle big enough to carry five full-size adults with optional rear-facing jump seats for two children in the third row. Edmunds says, “It changes direction like a much lighter machine. It's a total blast to drive.” Car and Driver opines, “On the road, the Model S is dynamite, with colossal acceleration power, nimble handling, and standard all-wheel drive.”
Each successive year has brought upgrades to the Model S powertrain, battery, software, and safety systems. So the further you go back in time, the worse the build quality may be – with owners reporting more squeaks and rattles. And if you’re considering a certified pre-owned Model S, know that non-performance versions before 2015 granted just 382 horsepower.
WINNER: MODEL 3 Both cars are thrilling to drive. The affordability and toss-ability of the Model 3, and the assurance provided by a new-car warranty and the latest Tesla technology, give the compact model an ever-so-slight advantage.
Charging Times for the Model 3 and Model S
All Tesla vehicles have access to the expansive Tesla Supercharger network.
MODEL 3: The long-range Tesla Model 3’s 48-amp onboard charger provides an 11.5-kilowatt flow of electrons. That adds up to about 40 miles of range per hour when charging via a 240-volt source. To fully recharge the long-range Model 3, you’ll need about eight hours. The 260-mile mid-range version, with its smaller battery, can be recharged in about six hours. When the most affordable 220-mile Model 3 arrives next year, it will be equipped with a 32-amp (or 7.7-kilowatt) onboard charger that still manages a full overnight charge in about seven hours.
No matter which version of the Model 3 you buy, it will have access to Tesla’s nationwide network of 120-kW Superchargers. The Superchargers can add as many as 150 to 170 miles of range in about 30 minutes, turning long-distance EV road trips into a reality. Model 3 drivers don’t have free access to Superchargers, but the cost is modest. The fee slightly varies depending on your location but is usually around $0.25 per kWh. That equates to about $0.07 per mile. For reference, a 50-mpg gas-powered hybrid paying $3 a gallon for gas is about the same cost for fuel. Of course, that cost is only while Supercharging on the highway. Home-based charging is less than half that price on a per-mile basis. And Performance versions of the Model 3 get free Supercharger access for life.
MODEL S: The longest range Model S 100D uses a 17.3-kW onboard charger while plugging in at home. For Model S cars with a whopping 100-kWh battery pack, it’s useful to utilize the 17.3-kW rate, which adds about 50 miles of range per hour of charging. The 2018 Model S 75D, meanwhile, uses the same 11.5-kW onboard charger found in the Model 3.
With a 17.3-kW home charger, the Tesla Model S can add more than 50 miles of range in an hour.
So the recharging rate, the size of the battery pack, and the estimates range are exactly the same for the long-range Model 3 and the Model S 75D. A charge from empty to full takes about six hours. The amperage of chargers in older Model S variants has changed over the years, most commonly providing 11.5-kW service. However, through 2016, Tesla offered the option of a 22-kW dual charger (for about $1,500). It was discontinued partly because the dual charger offered little practical advantage over the current 17.3-kW charger.
Like Model 3 owners, today’s buyers of a new Model S pay a fee to use a Tesla Supercharger. An 80-percent charge of a Model S with a 75-kWh battery pack – enough to go nearly 200 miles – costs about $15. These kinds of top-ups on long-distance road trips are not common. But that doesn’t reduce the benefit and joy of free, lifetime usage of Superchargers granted to those who purchased a Model S (or Model X) before Dec. 31, 2017. The lifetime privilege could transfer to you as the next owner of a used Model S.
WINNER: MODEL S In many cases, the Model 3 and Model S use an identical charging system. The Model S gets the win because owners of pre-2018 used Model Ss continue to benefit from free Supercharging.
Comparing Dashboards and Cargo Space
How will cars look in the future? That's how the Model 3 feels today.
MODEL 3: The Tesla Model 3 is a compact commuter with a trunk, compared to the Model S, which is a luxury family sedan with a hatchback. The Model 3 is one foot shorter and four inches narrow than its bigger sibling. The two vehicles are, however, the same height. While the Model 3 strictly seats five passengers, its leg- and head-room are nearly identical to the Model S. It’s surprising to learn that the 3’s official spec for passenger volume is 97 cubic feet, three more cubes than what you get with the Model S.
Where the two vehicles dramatically depart is their interior design. While the Model S provides a traditional instrumental cluster behind the steering wheel and a larger 17-inch touchscreen for auxiliary functions, the Model 3 removes nearly every physical control and gauge from its dashboard. Its center-mounted 15-inch, horizontally oriented touch screen handles almost all of the car’s functions. It’s this minimalistic, high-tech design that gives the Model 3 its futuristic vibe, making the Model S feel much more like a traditional automobile.
The Model S comfortably seats three adults in the second row.
MODEL S: There’s no doubt that the Model S is more spacious than the Model 3. It offers about a foot more shoulder and hip space, key metrics for side-by-side comfort in the front and back seats. The S can also expand to a seven-seater with the optional two rear-facing jump seats suitable to children. More dramatically, the hatchback Model S’s power liftgate and frunk provide 30 cubic feet of cargo space – twice the space of what the Model 3 provides. If you like to haul around a lot of gear, the Model S is a better choice. With the Model S’s 60/40 folding rear seat put down, the hatch’s cargo capacity rises to 58.1 cubic feet – more than many SUVs provide.
WINNER: MODEL S In the battle of the tape measure, the larger Model S comes out ahead. Also, the friendlier dashboard is preferred by many (although not all) drivers.
The Price for Model 3 Versus Model S
The Model 3 can be had for as little as $46,000 today. And for close to $30,000 in 2019.
MODEL 3: Tesla garnered a lot of buzz when it first announced that the Model 3 will sell for below $30,000 after incentives. However, the most affordable version with a shorter 220-mile range is not expected to go on sale until spring 2019. So far in 2018, the only available Model 3 sells closer to $60,000. That’s the long-range 310-mile version, which has a base sticker price of $49,000 – with the price growing by $10,000 or more based on a $5,000 Premium upgrade, a $5,000 Enhanced Autopilot package, and special $1,000 paint colors. Dual motor and performance configurations are even richer, and all Tesla vehicles carry a destination fee of $1,200.
In a stepping stone toward mass affordability, a mid-range, rear-wheel Model 3 with about 259 miles of range can be ordered now with a starting price of $46,000.
In January 2019, federal tax credits for Tesla vehicles will start to diminish because the company has hit the cut-off threshold of 200,000 total EV sales. The credit for all Tesla vehicles, including the Model 3, gets cut in half to $3,750 starting in January 2019, and will be further reduced to $1,875 beginning on July 1. The credit goes completely away by the end of next year.
The argument to buy a 2018 or 2019 Model 3 (regardless of the credit amount) is that you’re buying Tesla’s latest and greatest technology with the best build quality and the quietest cabin ever offered by the company. The counter-argument for the Model 3 is that you’re spending a lot of money for a smaller ride.
The Model S's starting price is $74,500 but commonly sells for six figures.
MODEL S: The 2018 Tesla Model S 75D, the base model, offers 239 miles of range for a starting price of $74,500. The sticker climbs to $94,000 for the long-range 335-mile 100D. The performance version of the Model S, which reduces the sprint to 60 mph to 2.5 seconds and the range to 315 miles, will set you back $135,000. As with the Model 3, there is a wide selection of options and trim enhancements, such as the Enhanced Autopilot and Premium Upgrade for $5,000 each.
The comparison with the Model 3 gets more interesting when you consider used Model Ss. Pricing parity begins when you stack up a Model 3 with a Model S dating back to 2015 or 2016. Models with fewer than 20,000 miles are commonly offered at prices above $50,000. Then there are added premiums for dual-motor and all-wheel-drive variants.
As of this writing, 2014 models, especially those with extra miles of use and cars with 60-kWh battery packs, drop to the low $40,000s. Most observers say the level of reliability of the Model S greatly improved with the 2015 model so you’re taking more risks with 2014 model-year cars or earlier. In addition, it’s smart to buy a Model S with fewer than 50,000 miles of use, which qualifies for a four-year warranty in Tesla’s certified pre-owned (CPO) program. This warranty covers 50,000 miles of driving after your purchase. If you buy a Model S with more than 50,000 miles on the odometer, then the warranty will only cover two years of driving with a hard stop on the warranty when the odometer reaches 100,000 miles.
For used Teslas, the devil is in the details because the company has continually upgraded and modified features and battery sizes over the years. Pay attention to the model number in the name, which corresponds to the battery size. The letter P designates performance while D denotes all-wheel-drive. Autopilot, meanwhile, arrived in 2014. Another option to consider is the panoramic roof, which some people love and others believe adds glare to the interior. With a private sale, as opposed to a certified pre-owned car, there’s no warranty, and used electric vehicles do not qualify for a tax credit.
WINNER: MODEL 3 The Model 3 is more affordable. That's the bottom line.
*Note: Ignore the red font in the table below. We're experiencing technical issues with TablePress
|Tesla Model 3||Tesla Model S|
|Driving range||220 – 310 miles||259 – 335 miles|
|Battery Size||50 – 75 kWh||60 – 100 kWh|
|Onboard Charger||7.7 – 11.5 kW||11.5 0 – 17.2 kW|
|Passenger Cargo Space||5-passenger limit and 15 cubic feet||5 to 7 passengers and 30 cubic feet (expandable to 58.1 cu-ft)|
|Start Price||$46,000 (mid-range version)||$74,500 (new) or Mid-$40,000 (for some 2015/16 cars)|
All things considered, the Tesla Model 3 is the company's best vehicle so far.
BEST OVERALL: TESLA MODEL 3
Given its lower cost, higher efficiency, spacious passenger volume, and the best build quality ever offered by Tesla, the Model 3 is the better overall vehicle. Of course, the Model S continues to be championed by its well-heeled owners, as well as serious auto enthusiasts with a need for speed. After all, the Model S was arguably the start of the EV revolution. But the more affordable and accessible Model 3, especially when the 220-mile version arrives in 2019, will bring the movement to the masses as promised. If maximum space is a must, then a used Model S could be the way to go – although you will likely be driving a car with some wear and tear. Also, older models are not known for perfect reliability.
BEST FOR COMMUTERS: TESLA MODEL 3
BEST FOR FAMILIES: TESLA MODEL S