Tesla Fails to Reassure on Model 3 Safety and Reliability

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Tesla Model 3

Already pressured by investors, the press and hundreds of thousands of would-be buyers of its new model, Tesla has received a very untimely hit of bad news: Consumer Reports stopped far short of issuing a coveted recommendation for the new Model 3 Tesla EV.

The highly-respected bible of automotive evaluation lauded Tesla’s attempt at “a more affordable mass-market car,” with prices starting at $35,000, “including record-setting range as well as exhilarating acceleration and handling that could make it a healthy competitor to performance-oriented cars such as BMW’s 3 Series and the Audi A4,” as the publication put it.

Heady stuff indeed for a brand that’s just a few years old and whose iconoclastic CEO Elon Musk aims to turn the auto industry upside-down—first with its pricey Model S and Model X all-electric vehicles and, this year with a Model 3 nameplate for which more than 400,000 individuals have plunked down a $1,000 deposit.

But Consumer Reports didn’t stop there, unfortunately. What kept its auto editors from throwing bouquets at Model 3? “Flaws—big flaws—such as long stopping distances in our emergency braking test and difficult-to-use controls.”

In fact, the Model 3’s stopping distance of 152 feet, decelerating from 60 mph, “was far worse than any contemporary car we’ve tested,” CR commented. It took Model 3’s emergency brakes seven feet longer to stop than the stopping distance of a much larger and heavier Ford F-150 full-sized pickup.

Tesla’s spokesperson told Consumer Reports that the company’s own tests found stopping distances averaged 133 feet with the same tires.

Consumer Reports’ reservations about a simple safety device on Model 3 could serve to underscore growing concerns about the overall approach toward safety of Tesla. The Model S has suffered a number of high-profile accidents recently, including some fatalities, at the hands of drivers who may have relied to heavily on the Tesla Autopilot autonomous driving system that still has some kinks.

Musk has acknowledged that the system isn’t perfect, which is why Tesla cautions drivers to stay alert and at the wheel, but Musk still touts Autopilot as much safer than human drivers.

CR also downgraded controls and displays on the Model 3’s center touch screen, with no gauges on the dash and few buttons inside the car. “This layout forces drivers to take multiple steps to accomplish simple tasks,” Consumer Reports complained. Similar complaints about too many touch controls, and the elimination of traditional knobs and buttons, dogged Ford models a few years ago in consumer evaluations tallied by other third-party outfits, such as J.D. Power.

At the same time, of course, Tesla has faced vast other problems with Model 3, which is trying to catch up with a mainstream-priced, long-range Chevrolet Bolt EV that has been available in volume since last year, and as luxury competitors such as German brands are fielding Tesla-fighters.

Tesla keeps having production problems with Model 3, which have delayed volume sales, frustrated consumers and infuriated investors who’d rather see Tesla succeed in conventional terms rather than come through as the most-shorted stock in today’s markets. Musk keeps promising volume shipments of Model 3 in the third quarter, in the latest of several delays.

Consumer Reports helped catapult Model S to the top of luxury buyers’ lists a few years ago by giving the car its first-ever perfect score in an evaluation. When it reviewed Model S in 2015, the car scored 103 out of 100, forcing the magazine to revamp its ratings scale. The magazine knocked Model S around in 2016 over issues such as dependability, but ultimately elevated the Tesla trailblazer to the top of its class.

Still, it has its supporters on the safety front. Recently, the U.S. Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) put the Model 3 through some tests and gave the vehicle a “Superior” rating with respect to front crash avoidance. The IIHS found that the Model 3’s automatic braking worked extremely well while traveling at both 12 mph and 25 mph.

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