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Tesla test drive showdown: Driving a Model 3 in Detroit vs Silicon Valley was a wildly different experience

Nora Naughton,Alistair Barr   

Tesla test drive showdown: Driving a Model 3 in Detroit vs Silicon Valley was a wildly different experience
A Tesla Model 3 in Michigan (Left) and another in California (Right). Our test drive revealed regional quirks in how EV ownership differs across the country. Nora Naughton | Alistair Barr
  • Charging was where our experiences differed the most.
  • Cold weather in Detroit had a bigger impact on range.

Electric vehicles had a big year in 2023, hitting nearly 10% sales in the US, as more options and better deals convince new buyers to make the switch.

But adoption rates vary drastically by region, driven by state incentives, regional climates, culture differences, and varying levels of political support for alternatively fueled vehicles.

As plug-ins become more commonplace, I wanted to get a better idea of why these EV hotspots and deserts exist, so I asked my colleague Alistair Barr in Silicon Valley if he would do a little experiment with me: We would each drive a Tesla for a week in our respective cities and compare the experience.

The San Francisco Bay Area and Detroit make for a good comparison, given a strong EV culture in Silicon Valley and California overall, versus Detroit's ingrained car culture as the home to the Big Three automakers.

Both cities are car-infrastructure heavy, making our experiences comparable from a day-to-day perspective. After five days with our respective Model 3s (mine rented from Hertz, and Alistair's borrowed from friends) we sat down to compare our experiences:

First impressions: The Model 3 has a cool factor and it’s fun to drive

First impressions: The Model 3 has a cool factor and it’s fun to drive
Close-up of a Tesla Model 3      Alistair Barr

Nora Naughton: For me, the cool factor of driving the Model 3 around town was the most fun. I was stopped by lots of people in grocery store parking lots and by friends who wanted to know if I liked the Tesla.

Alistair Barr: I'm still jazzed by the speed and tight handling. The driving performance is so good for the price. A BMW or other luxury car with similar stats would be $60,000 or way more. And you can get one of these Model 3 cars for below $40,000 easily. Even after a decade of EVs, I'm still blown away by that.

NN: In my experience, driving an EV, Tesla or otherwise, is always more fun. That instant torque is hard to beat. And yes, the Model 3 is the best deal out there for everything you get in return. I was renting mine from Hertz, so it was especially bare bones and still one of the coolest/most fun cars I've driven.

But there were some annoying quirks

But there were some annoying quirks
Close up of a Tesla Model 3 door handle      Alistair Barr

AB: The freakin' door handles. Come on! Do you have to push them in every time to pop them out? Normal door handles, please. I was still irked by having to do this after several days of driving.

NN: That's so funny because the door handles barely phased me. My 20-month-old loved pressing the handle to make it pop out. The fit and finish on my Model 3 were the most disappointing. I dealt with very loud wind noises, especially at higher speeds. And in Detroit almost all of the driving is highway driving.

AB: The Autopilot experience was disconcerting at first. I was driving with my friend, who lent me his Model 3.

He took me on Highway 280 in Silicon Valley and showed me how to turn it on. I wanted to not touch the steering wheel, but the Tesla software alerts you soon after you let go. You must have your hands on the wheel, but not control it too much otherwise the Autopilot switches off and hands control back to you. This "in-between" mode was strange for me at first. Resting my hands on the wheel but not trying to steer. After that first try, I didn't engage Autopilot again. I'm a car buff. I'm not interested in Autopilot. I like to drive.

NN: I'm glad you got to try out Autopilot! I didn't try it with my Model 3. I don't think the Hertz models have it equipped, but even if they did I wasn't going to try it unsupervised.

Charging was where our experiences differed the most

Charging was where our experiences differed the most
My Tesla Model 3, sufficiently dirty from winter roads in Michigan, sitting at a Supercharger      Nora Naughton

NN: I had to charge my Model 3 four times in five days. One of those trips to the charger was a pointless 15 minutes where I just charged to what I had started when I left the house.

AB: I charged once in about five days of driving. I also didn't drive as far as you. And it was warmer in Silicon Valley than Detroit. Do you think that was the big decider here? Full disclosure: I borrowed two Model 3s from two friends. (Thank you Lennie and Bruce!) I had one for three days and another for two days, so I survived by giving one car back (to Lennie) with not much juice left in it. Sorry mate. Then I charged Bruce's vehicle once at a Tesla Supercharger station.

NN: I'd say the two cars probably helped you out, but overall I think I struggled more here because I drive a lot more in the Detroit area (everything in the Midwest is far apart) and we had freezing weather the whole week.

The cold weather hampered both of our charging experiences

The cold weather hampered both of our charging experiences
Tesla Model 3 rental in my driveway      Nora Naughton

AB: You had real challenges with the weather, right? Deal killers?

NN: Definitely deal killers for me. The cold weather's effect on the battery meant I was still spending a lot of my time chasing range. I never had a moment where I couldn't find a charger when I needed one, but all of the Supercharger stations here are tucked away. What about you? How was your one charging experience? How long were you there?

AB: Even in Silicon Valley, the "cold" (California cold to be clear) was a factor here. When I got into the Model 3 during the mornings, the battery had lost some power overnight. There was a "cold" icon near the battery level icon. It did make me wonder about you in Detroit in the winter.

Neither of us had to wait to charge

Neither of us had to wait to charge
Teslas parked at Supercharger stations in San Francisco      Alistair Barr

AB: This might be one part of American society where the roles have flipped. Californians are pretty sunny friendly people, compared to gruff New Yorkers. But at Supercharger stations, it's down to business.

My Tesla Supercharger trip involved no nice interactions with other humans. They were all sitting in their cars staring at their phones.

There were about 9 cars getting charged and about 6 or 7 spots open when I got there, so I did not have to wait. A couple of the charging stations had big crosses on them, which I assume meant that they were not working.

I was at about 55 miles left, and after about 10 minutes I was up to 115 miles charge. The session cost about $7.50 which was charged automatically to my friend's account at Tesla (I repaid him).

NN: I've heard those California stations can get busy so I'm glad you didn't have to wait. The Supercharger I went to in Detroit was the busiest, and I nabbed the last spot at 10:30 pm, but it's rare to ever see any EVs lined up at chargers here. I also didn't have to pay for charging. It was free with my Tesla rental, which saved me money given how much I had to charge!

We had different experiences with range anxiety

We had different experiences with range anxiety
Close-up of Tesla Model 3 charging at a Tesla Supercharger      Alistair Barr

AB: I think you had range on the brain more than me? Why?

NN: Some of it might be my previous EV experiences. When I had a Chevy Bolt for 2 weeks in 2019, I had a few moments on a road trip where I really was almost stranded without power. That past range anxiety loomed large, and I was constantly trying to avoid a repeat. I also just watched my battery drain every day due to the cold, and that was really disheartening.

(Programming note: Tesla just lowered the estimated ranges for most of its vehicles recently.)

AB: I noticed the lower battery charge on those cold mornings. I think that would have weighed more on my mind had I been commuting regularly and absolutely had to be somewhere else far away.

NN: I work from home, but I have a lot of extracurricular activities (I'm downtown at least two nights a week) and I pick up my kid from daycare every day, which is a 7-mile round trip. I was constantly doing mileage math.

Our access to Superchargers was about the same

Our access to Superchargers was about the same
One of my many stops at Tesla Superchargers during my five-day rental      Nora Naughton

AB: The bar is gas stations, right? I have two or three gas stations within about a five-minute drive from my home. Always open, always takes five minutes to fill up. Compared with that, finding an EV charging station is still a relative pain in the butt — even in Silicon Valley, which is supposed to be ahead.

NN: Yeah if we're using gas stations as the bar, I live close to a big highway exit with four or five big gas stations. I can throw a stone and hit a pump from my driveway. Conversely, the only Supercharger in (reasonable) driving distance from my house was a town over, about a 15 minute drive. Interesting that you had basically the same experience with your closest Supercharger station.

The Model 3 turned more heads in Detroit

The Model 3 turned more heads in Detroit
Tesla Model 3 Hertz rental      Nora Naughton

AB: I didn't get anyone stopping to ask me about the Model 3s I drove. In Silicon Valley, the EV driving experience felt oddly unspecial. In a 15-minute drive back from Bruce's house to mine, I passed more than 20, most of which were Teslas.

On one street in my town, which was two blocks long, I drove by nine EVs parked in driveways — three of those homes had solar panels on the roof. It did not feel special or ground-breaking to be driving an EV around.

NN: Even though Teslas have definitely become more commonplace here in the last few years, I still got stopped plenty of times by strangers who wanted to know what a Tesla was like. It was a big conversation piece among friends, too, most of whom have never been in an electric car, let alone driven one.

AB: I have to ask this, given Elon Musk's behavior. Was anyone not into Teslas specifically due to Musk's rep?

NN: Yes, Musk definitely came up as a reason to dislike Tesla, and some of the people who would stop me actually would ask what I thought of Elon Musk rather than what I thought of the car. I always tell them he's an interesting character to follow!

It's still a tricky equation when deciding if we could own one full-time

Tesla Model 3 outside a house in San Francisco      Alistair Barr

AB: I have a $100 deposit on a Cybertruck. I'm thinking about getting that, but I'm low on the list so I have along time to think about it. With my solar panels and the way I live and work – from home a lot – it would make financial sense to have one of our family cars be an EV. I am wasting the opportunity to save money with my solar panels right now.

NN: In general I would love to have an EV if I could justify one. They're fun to drive, cheaper to maintain, and let's face it, a status symbol. Consider as well the environmental benefits and it all adds up for me – until I look at the miles I drive a week and the temps I deal with from November to April.

AB: Yeah, that's a huge obstacle. So, I have my Subaru back now, and I have to fill up with gas again. That's a more expensive proposition in California compared to Detroit. According to AAA, the average price of regular gas in California was $4.63 in early December during my test drives. The average in Michigan was $2.99 at that time. With an 18.5 gallon gas tank on my Outback, that's $87 to fill up. The same fillup in Michigan would cost $55.

NN: I have to admit when I pulled my Subaru Crosstrek back on the road for the first time, I relished that smoother ride after five days of one-pedal driving.

AB: That's funny because I felt differently getting back into my Subaru. (We're both huge Subaru fans. I love my Outback so much.) But I was struck by the noise after getting back in the car. In comparison, the Model 3 is a lot smoother and quieter. After a week of driving this EV, I feel like this is now the way cars should be.

NN: That's such an interesting takeaway. I think the wind noise in my Model 3 prevented me from having that experience. My Crosstrek was decidedly quieter since there wasn't wind flapping in my ear at all moments. But I did miss that lurch forward on the highway on-ramp. Ah, instant torque.

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