The first Tesla Model 3 reviews are coming in - and there's one thing everyone is talking about

The first Tesla Model 3 reviews are coming in - and there's one thing everyone is talking about

Tesla Model 3

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

  • "Build quality" is a term that is often used in the auto industry when assessing manufacturing capability.
  • Some observers have criticized the build quality of Tesla vehicles, most recently the Model 3.
  • Tesla has at times struggled with manufacturing as the same level of the rest of the industry, but it usually improves its processes.

Ever since the Tesla Model 3 launched last July and started to endure its uneasy birth as a mass-market vehicle, Tesla-watchers have been carefully scrutinizing the vehicle's quality.

Tesla took a big risk by skipping the manufacturing-prototyping stage before commencing deliveries, and the risk has paid off. Holdups have kept Model 3 production well below its expected levels, with less than 3,000 cars officially delivered.

CEO Elon Musk has called this "production hell" and reminded everybody that no Tesla vehicle has enjoyed a smooth roll-out. And naturally, all over the internet, there have been deep dives into how well the Model 3 is bolted together. Tesla let us borrow a Model 3 for a few hours, and we gave it good once-over ourselves. While there were some glitches here and there, so-called "build quality" on our top-of-the-line vehicle, a press car, was good.

But what is build quality, exactly? And why does it matter?


For many years, it wasn't the forte of US automakers. American cars might have looked cool, but when Japanese and European vehicles began to show up in real numbers in the US in the 1970s and '80s, US manufacturing started to look sloppy by comparison.

These days, build quality of American cars and trucks is generally excellent.

Tesla has been an exception, but the company is still relatively young. Ford and General Motors are each over 100 years old; Tesla has been around for just 14.

Build quality is both general and specific. If you look at Tesla vehicle, the overall impression is usually pretty good. They're beautifully designed and have a vibe that's both classic and futuristic.

But if you focus in, you might notice body panels that don't have consistent spacing between them - "panel gaps." Or door handles that are misaligned. Or interior plastic components that look really plasticky. Or upholstery that's crinkled. Or various minor components that are up to snuff for a vehicle that can sell for $100,000.


On our Model 3 tester, for example, I was bothered by some steering-wheel stitching that was too far toward the back of the wheel.

Build quality tends to improve over time, as a carmaker gets better at building its vehicles and learns from customer feedback.

Interestingly, Tesla has been somewhat immune from being criticized for build quality because owners think of its vehicles as rolling technology, completely different from gas-powered cars, regardless of how well those machines are made.

We're under no illusions about Tesla's build quality - it's better than it once was, but it could be improved. A comparable German or Japanese car creates a superior impression, and for some buyers, that will matter. But Tesla sold 100,000 vehicles last year and has a tremendous level of customers satisfaction. So while the auto industry has across the board learned to respect build quality, Tesla has proven that it isn't the only thing that matters.

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