What’s it like to drive a Tesla, and even more important, to have the luxury electric vehicle be your primary mode of transportation?
To find out, I took a Tesla on that most American of excursions: A summer road trip and vacation, in my case from New York City to the great state of Maine.
The folks at Tesla said this would be no problem, but I had a million questions: Do I have to learn how to drive a Tesla? Where do I charge the car on the drive up? Once I’m in Maine, how do I charge the car? And is there enough room in the trunk for me to bring home some lobsters?
Not just any car
To be clear — especially to you Tesla owners — I’m hardly the first person to go on a Tesla road trip. There are more than 600,000 and counting Teslas out there. But if you’re one of the 200 million adults in the U.S. who doesn’t have a Tesla, read on. (Tesla owners might want to peruse this too, if only to keep me honest.)
A Tesla isn’t just any car. Sure, it’s electric and I’ll get into that. But you also discover that you’re part of an ecosystem — as they say — connected to a network by an app that controls the car, plots your routes, and maps your charging needs.
As I climb into the Model 3, the first thing I notice is there’s no dashboard, only a computer monitor. It only takes a few minutes to acclimate yourself to the touchscreen interface, which is highly intuitive (lights, windshield wipers, climate, entertainment). I was never vexed for more than a few seconds.
To start up, you unlock the car with the app, put your foot on the brake, hit gear selector stalk on the right side of the steering column — down for forward, up for reverse — and you’re off!
What does it feel like to drive a Tesla? Different and the same. Of course there is no engine sound at all. Super smooth and super quiet. And the acceleration is insane, like nothing you’ve ever experienced. But there’s nothing to be scared of. In fact, once you get used to the power, the acceleration is game-changing. You see a spot a hundred yards ahead, and you just ... go there! (Ok, be careful.)
One difference is when you take your foot off the gas, (err accelerator), you don’t coast, you really slow down. That’s because the Tesla uses something called regenerative braking — friction if you will — to charge the battery. (Why let the energy of slowing down go to waste?)
I would say it only takes about 10 minutes behind the wheel to become comfortable with the basics. (There are advanced functions like Autopilot, which take a bit longer to get the hang of.)
As for the whole range issue, the Model 3 goes 300 plus miles on a charge and where we’re going in Maine is some 350 miles away, so we will need to recharge on the way. Plus, we don’t want to arrive with an uncharged battery, all of which the software gets. Still, like most, I had range-anxiety. And like most people, my anxiety dissipated over the course of the trip.
How my journey went down
First, we drove north from NYC through Westchester to pick up our niece. The mapping (Tesla uses Google maps for display) then directs us north on route 684 to route 84 east through Hartford and up the Mass Pike on route 91. Most Tesla owners charge up at home, but on a road trip like this, you will need to charge on the road, of course.
The software suggests recharging at a supercharging station in Auburn, Massachusetts, about halfway through the trip. (Interesting because this about where we usually gas up.) Supercharging stations — there are over 700 in the U.S., each with multiple charging docks — are preferable as they are Tesla-owned, which means they are faster and more efficient. You don’t need any expertise to charge, just pull up and plug in. The app can tell you how many charging docks are free. (I never had to wait on this trip.)
One big difference from gassing up — it takes about 30 minutes to charge a Tesla battery 90%. Because of that 30-minute wait, Tesla tries to put superchargers near things of interest, in this case, next to the Auburn Mall. And so while the car is charging we grab a sandwich. I also see a Sears and buy a cable I’ve been needing. By then the app is warning me I need to retrieve my car or I might incur fees for staying too long after the car is charged.
How much does it run you to charge on the road? Tesla says on average supercharging costs approximately $0.28 per kilowatt hour, meaning that over the course of 1,500 miles for the Model 3, an average cost of $100 compared to $153 for gasoline (Gasoline cost assumes 28 MPG for Model 3 at $2.85 per gallon.) Also, Tesla recently announced that new Model X and Model S vehicles come with free supercharging.
You can also charge up at non-Tesla run charging stations, (there are tens of thousands in the U.S.) which show up on Tesla’s maps (or Google’s for that matter), but they’ll cost you more.
We buzz up route 495 through Massachusetts and then over to route 95 into New Hampshire and across the Piscataqua River Bridge at Portsmouth into Kittery, Maine. Pro Tesla tip: You have to pay attention because the ride is so smooth, otherwise you’ll find yourself doing 95 mph.
Maine, with a population of 1.3 million, doesn’t have many superchargers. There’s one in Kennebunkport (home of the Bush family summer compound), another at L.L Bean in Freeport, and a handful of others. We decide to recharge at L.L. Bean and shop a bit, where I discover a 20% off $19.99 flannel shirts sale. Nice!
We’re going to the Mid-Coast region of Maine, and before we go down to the house, I want to check out the nearest non-Tesla charging station. There’s one at the Maine Mall in Topsham. And another next to Flight Deck Brewing in the decommissioned Naval Air Station in Brunswick. (Have-a-beer-charge-your-Tesla, kind of thing.) But the one that’s supposed to be at Lowe’s (LOW) turns out to be non-existent. It pays to check.
Speaking of big-box stores, we pop into Walmart (WMT) to buy a 100 foot heavy-duty extension cord so we can charge the Tesla from our house from an outdoor outlet. Understand that this is snail-slow way to charge a Tesla. You only get about three miles per hour of charging, so overnight you get 30 to 40 miles. Tesla has a fast home charger — costs $500 — which will charge your car 80% in eight hours, but I don’t have that.
How much does it cost to charge at home? Basically half of what it costs at a supercharger, or 13 per kilowatt hour (a rough national average). If you do the math, it can work out to be as much as 50% of what it costs to gas up your car. Some utilities offer discounts for off-peak charging. And if you have solar panels and a battery system, you can save even more.
‘You’re just going to have to enjoy our parade’
Turns out the slow charge — 30-40 miles overnight — is fine though because once we’re down at the house, we aren’t driving that much anyway. In the middle of the week, we do go over to the brew pub at the air base and while we’re charging, check out the vintage P-3s that use to patrol the North Atlantic looking for Russian subs. (See pic.)
Later in the week, we drive down to the airport in Portland to pick up our daughter and decide to juice up in Freeport again. On the way into town I notice a parade seems to be starting up on Main Street. I try to hustle us out of there, but too late! We are blocked. I ask a police officer if there’s any other way out of town. She takes a quick look at me and the Tesla and says, “Nope. You’re just going to have to enjoy our parade.”
And so, because of the Tesla, we sit back, relax and watch an old-school, small town New England parade, replete with Shriners and their mini cars, serendipity that never would have happened if we had been driving an internal combustion vehicle.
Too soon, it’s time for us to head back home to NYC. There’s plenty of room for the new shirts we bought at L.L. Bean. Teslas have all kinds of trunk space, including what they call a “frunk,” or front trunk (no engine remember?), where we could have packed some lobsters on ice.
We plot our drive back, this time stopping for a charge in Kennebunkport, where we hit the Starbucks (SBUX), and then onto a supercharger in Waterbury, Connecticut. I’m a little bummed because we usually gas up outside of Hartford where we also stop for a Frank Pepe pizza — amazingly epic New Haven style. But wait, this is amazing. The Waterbury charging station is next to another Frank Pepe, making it even more convenient than a regular trip!
After that, we make it back safe and sound — and with no range anxiety.
Tesla passes the test
Net, net, it was a great trip. Was it less convenient than having a regular car? Not really. Charging at home is something you can’t do with a regular car, right? (If I had the fast home charger, it would have been that much better.) And I ended up enjoying the stops for charging; L.L. Bean, the air base, the parade, the pizza — even Sears. As for the driving part, I loved it. Super smooth, crazy fast, quiet and with insane acceleration. What’s not to like?
I would say the Model 3 isn’t the most rugged vehicle you’ll ever drive. It’s easy to scratch the hubs when you park and I just kissed a rock at one point, and the bumper dented more than I thought — but hey, no one said this is Ford F-150. I wonder about owning a Tesla in New York City and charging it there, but there are more and more charging stations all the time.
And here’s the thing. Ask yourself, are cars five or 10 years from now going to be more like a Tesla, or more like a Buick Lacrosse? (Duh.) And of course Tesla isn’t standing still. It’s adding more charging stations that charge faster — the new superchargers introduced in March can go up to 1,000 miles in an hour or more than 75 miles in five minutes — all the time, as well as working on longer battery life.
I have no idea what’s going to happen to Tesla as a company, or Tesla’s stock for that matter. All I know is that driving one — for 10 minutes or a week — is pretty dang cool.
And more than that, the Tesla passed the test. It took me on a fantastic summer road trip and vacation. No small thing there.
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer