New Tesla Model 3 vs Tesla Model S: which electric car is best?

Tesla's new Model 3 is the cheapest model the firm has yet made, but how does it compare with its larger sibling, the Model S? Our guide reveals all...

Tesla Model 3 and Tesla Model S interior

Tesla Model 3 vs Tesla Model S  – interior

As soon as you get behind the wheel of any Tesla, you'll notice two things: the apparent lack of buttons and the giant infotainment touchscreen. This has been a hallmark of Tesla cars since the introduction of the Model S, and in that car, the display measures 17.0in and is portrait-orientated. In the Model 3, the display is 15.0in across and in landscape format. There are plenty of features to discuss here, but we'll save those for our infotainment and equipment section below.

Elsewhere, Teslas feature very few physical buttons. Indeed, the button for activating the hazard lights (next to the touchscreen in the Model S and on the roof in the Model 3) is about the only one you'll find outside of the steering wheel, which hosts rotary dials. 

The build quality of the Model 3 is the best we've yet seen from Tesla, but it's still not up to the same standards as the likes of Audi and BMW. Things aren't so good in the Model S; you won't have to search hard to find some flimsy plastics, particularly around the centre console.

Forward visibility is good in both cars, but the view over your shoulder in the Model S is hampered by a slim rear screen and thick window pillars.

In terms of finding a comfortable driving position, the Model S gets things pretty much spot on. We like the range of adjustments you can make to the seat and steering wheel, while the pedals are well placed and the seat is generally supportive. In the Model 3, we found mostly the same again, but also that the seats offer more lower back support, even with the adjustable lumbar support in its most extreme setting.

Tesla Model 3 and Tesla Model S interior

Tesla Model 3 vs Tesla Model S  – infotainment and equipment

The huge touchscreens inside Tesla's cars impart plenty of wow factor and are packed with features. They control almost every function, ranging from music and sat-nav to connected services and charging and trip information. One big difference is that while the Model S has a second digital screen in place of its instrument cluster (which includes things such as speed), the Model 3 shows this information in the top corner of its infotainment screen. Our experience shows that you'll only have to turn your head slightly to see your speed and other driving data.

In general, Tesla's infotainment system is easy to get along with, but there are some smaller icons, particularly on the lower edges of the screen, that can be difficult to hit while you're driving. And in some cases, the fact that you have to use the screen to do just about anything (such as opening and closing the sunroof on the Model S) means we would prefer the simpler dial-controlled interface of BMW's iDrive system.

Tesla also hides nifty features in its cars, known as Easter Eggs, that can be fun to see in action. For example, in the Model S, you can turn the touchscreen into a sketchpad or change the sat-nav map to the surface of Mars, while in the Model 3 you can set off a whoopee cushion sound for any of your passengers.

Because all Tesla models get wireless software updates (which sometimes even extend to improving the car's range or efficiency), new features are regularly added to both the Model S and Model 3.

That's of particular use to Tesla's Autopilot self-driving system. This is Tesla's crown jewel – a suite of technologies including adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, lane-changing assistance and blindspot monitoring that allows the car to control its own movements in certain scenarios (for example, on the motorway). The system doesn't allow either the Model S or Model 3 to drive itself fully, though, so the driver's full attention is still required.

Standard equipment on both cars includes power-folding door mirrors, electrically adjustable front seats, dual-zone climate control, leather upholstery, a rear-view camera and keyless entry. Plus, there’s internet connectivity with access to Google Maps and internet radio.

The Model S was safety tested by Euro NCAP in 2014, scoring the full five stars. The Model 3 hasn't been tested by Euro NCAP yet, but both cars received the full five stars from the US's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).