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Tearing into the tearing of the Tesla Model 3

An automotive expert says the Tesla Model 3 ‘has panel gaps you can see from Mars’ and various safety issues. We take a look at whether there is any truth to the claims and find out what Tesla itself has to say on the matter.

Times are tough times for Tesla. Despite enviable brand appeal, considerable pre-order figures for its latest all-electric car and an impressive share price history, there have been some noticeable hiccups along the way. Difficulty in meeting Model 3 (US$35,000) demand being an obvious example ─ and now an automotive expert is alleging there are quality issues with the car, too.

In the run up to Tesla’s latest financial report, a video surfaced from Autoline that shows a veteran automotive expert highlighting build quality issues. It has since gained more than 350,000 views and news coverage around the world.

We decided to look into the claims made about Tesla’s most affordable car to date to see whether Sandy Munro, CEO of Munro & Associates (a Detroit-based automotive company that specialises in taking cars apart), has any valid points. Watch the interview by auto industry publication Autoline’s John McElroy to see what we are on about before scrolling any further.

Video: Tearing into Tesla’s Model 3

What are the facts?

Munro has been taking cars apart for years, but usually those of diesel and petrol persuasions. He did, however, report on the BMW i3 – and issues shared with the Tesla Model 3 never get a mention for some reason.

As experts go, Munro is no rookie. He’s dealt with numerous car manufacturers over a lengthy career. His teardowns, meanwhile, are said to be very thorough.

According to the Autoline article, Munro has been paid by a Chinese electric car company to perform the teardown, as opposed to one of the ‘big three’ manufacturers still heavily invested in the combustion engine. The full report will be private, no doubt, but a follow-up video is expected.

Safety concerns

The first point of call for the video is the difficulty in opening the front trunk area [0:18]. His argument is that the lack of a mechanical system could be an issue when speed is of the essence during an emergency.

This is a valid point, but only to an extent. The need to pull out two wires and put them together to initiate the opening mechanism is slow, and reaching the touchscreen button inside the car could be impossible. But if the situation is that dire and a fire department needs to be fast, there are brute force alternatives. Think big mechanical scissors that make light work of tough metals.

Munro’s later point about being it being unclear where to cut into a Tesla Model 3 [5:39] is easier to disregard. For starters, firefighters will undoubtedly know how to do the job safely because there are safety manuals for cars that highlight where the dangerous power cables live. A car with the potential to be immensely popular (if the pre-order figures are anything to go by) is unlikely to be forgotten about.

That is, of course, assuming they ignore the giant bright sticker, as Munro does, that shows where it is safe to cut.

Cutting someone out of an electric vehicle could take longer than it would in a petrol or diesel alternative, but then all electric cars need their power cut first for safety reasons so it is unfair to single out Tesla. This is especially true when you consider the BMW i3 also lacks a mechanical mechanism for the front trunk.

Dislike for the door handles

Munro’s dislike for the door handles of the Model 3 is bizarre [2:34]. Admittedly, the method of operation ─ using a backwards facing handle that either pops out automatically or you have to press the right side in ─ is unusual. Not as unusual as the methods used by, say, Audi in the R8 or McLaren in the 720S, though.

But he complains about the fact it should be a one-handed operation, just before the handle automatically pops out and he opens it using one hand. His mention of an injury from an ATV accident may have a bearing on the difficulty, but then a hand injury could make any door handle more difficult to use.

You could argue the Model S and Model X handle method is easier and that would be true. But the Tesla Model 3 method is similar to that of the Jaguar F-Type ─ and nobody ever complains about that.

Rubber bodge job

Tesla sticking extra rubber to its cars in such a crude fashion [3:17] does seem ridiculous and it reminds us of the fact that the Model X had a number of quality issues, including the use of some cheaper materials.

But a number of supposed owners (one of which filmed a walk-around of his car) failed to mention this issue at all, suggesting it has either been sorted out or that it is not glaringly obvious. Either way, the fact it only occurs in the one window suggests it could be an anomaly.

Bearing in mind the early production process of the Model 3 is said to have been more hands-on, with a supposed switch to machines being phased in, some quality issues are to be expected.

Gaining access to the rear seats

The lack of a mechanical opening mechanism for the rear doors is somewhat odd, given that Munro demonstrates the front two doors get a proper handle in addition to a button [3:52]. What this means is that rear passengers could be stuck if power is lost, potentially adding time to the rescue process.

But what do firefighters do if a car has child locks (the system that locks the rear doors to keep younger passengers from opening the door and jumping out)? Or if damage to a car is done that means the mechanical system is inoperable anyway?

This is the most worrying detail mentioned in the video because there is no way a toddler, for instance, would be able to break a window in the event of a fire. Or have time to fold the rear seats down, clamber into the boot and press the child release button.

Panel gaps ‘you can see from Mars’

From the looks of the video [6:32], there does seem to be inconsistency in the panel gaps from one side of the boot opening to the other. No arguments here. But saying this is something has not seen since the 1970s is hyperbolic.

The fact is that a lot of modern-day cars can be as bad in this department (just look at the new Jaguar E-Pace), which suggests he has either managed to avoid working on a lot of modern-day vehicles or is being deliberately biased.

Difficult to close the boot

We have never opened the boot of a Tesla Model 3, so maybe the effort needed is akin to pushing a freight train. Maybe it is the heaviest boot closure since the 90s, as Munro claims [5:11].

The simple fact is that opening the boot, which is done by pressing on the key fob boot opening button or using a touchscreen button inside the car, usually always takes less effort than closing it. But many consumers have older and/or cheaper cars that use an old-fashioned system, so would it be that much of an adjustment?

In theory, no, but then we cannot speak for the elderly or physically impaired who may wish there was some sort of automatic tailgate system seen in the pricier Model S and Model X.

What does Tesla think?

Tesla declined to give an official comment, but a spokesperson from the UK said that, “both press and customer feedback show the average build quality of Model 3s delivered meets the high standards that customers expect”.

“[Tesla] continues to focus on quality and manufacturing efficiency rather than pushing for the highest possible volume for Model 3, and we are committed to improving the overall build quality through the ramp-up in production,” the representative added.

So what should we take away from this?

That electric cars need their power to be turned off in an emergency situation, which we already knew, and that cars have teething problems in their earlier days of production, which is also a given. This is the case for most, if not all manufacturers. Some you would never expect.

We also learned that, on this particular Model 3 at least, there are some quality issues, and that the lack of a mechanical door opening mechanism seems like a design oversight (or a cost-cutting measure).

The fact Munro took the time to pick apart the Tesla Model 3 – in a way that, in our humble opinion, appears overly harsh and largely driven by opinion – probably has nothing to do with any conspiracy theory. If anything, it highlights the fact electric cars are a threat to the current equilibrium and that the Model 3 appears to strike the best balance of desirability, range, price and performance.

Whatever the truth is, we can only hope all major Model 3 creases are ironed over fast because this is an important car ─ and not just for Tesla.