Well I’ve deliberately slept on my thoughts of the Tesla Model 3. This is the most anticipated vehicle of not just 2019, but possibly the last 10 years at least. Tesla is a remarkable story; it has fast-tracked the progress of EV cars. It truly is a pioneer and has left an indelible mark in motoring history. Prior to now it’s fair to say the Tesla Model S and Model X variants have been cost prohibitive, for just about everyone. Cue the Model 3, every bit a Tesla but with a starting price of $66,000.
What is it?
The Tesla Model 3 is the brand’s first foray into the lucrative mid-sized luxury sedan class. Direct rivals include historic marquees such as the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C Class and the Audi A4. This is not simply a smaller Model S, in fact very few components are carried over, with the side blinkers being the most obvious.
The enigma that is Elon Musk simply set a benchmark price of $35,000 USD and told designers to make it. The Model 3 is the sparsest car cabin I’ve ever seen, that’s not a criticism either.
Front and centre is a floating 15-inch tablet screen, behind the smallish steering wheel is nothing. There’s no instrument cluster, all data, content and functions required by the driver are in the dominant screen. The dash is separated by a simple, horizontal vent. There’s no physical way to adjust the airflow, once again that’s a task handled by the screen.
The only buttons are the twin four-way scroll wheels found on the steering wheel. There’s an indicator stalk and another dedicated to park, drive and reverse. The roof is entirely glass, originally base models were to have this covered by headlining but now all variants score the tinted greenhouse.
The idea was to include plenty of Tesla DNA, which does mean there are bound to be some influences from the Model S. But a lot of that simply means this, performance, technology and classic Tesla novelties. The Model 3 does not disappoint.
Behind the wheel
My time was limited to a frantic four laps around a secure road circuit followed by a cool down lap. I also only drove the $91,200 before on-roads Performance model. Basically, I thrashed a Model 3, there’s no getting around that fact.
But in doing so I can say this. At this rather secretive location I’ve done the same in a BMW i8, Nissan GT-R and a Volvo Polestar S60. I’ve also driven plenty of other cars at manic levels on racetracks here and internationally.
None of those cars delivered the same thrills the Model 3 Performance delivered. I’m not saying it’s a world beater, but in terms of wow factor it’s off the charts. This dual-motor all-wheel drive 335kW/640Nm electric wonder is frankly unbelievable. It has range of 560km on the New European Driving Scale (NEDC), a top speed of 261km/h and a 0-100km/h figure of 3.4 seconds.
The suspension is lowered, the 20-inch rims are wrapped in Michelin Pilot 4S rubber and the brakes are upgraded.
What is so spine chilling is this. Given its rather basic looks, none of what it does makes sense when driven like it’s on fire. We were told to leave Track Mode off, which I was more than happy to do. The location allows for very little sympathy if you get it wrong. In fact, when I started drifting like a pro even though I’m not I was glad the good people at Tesla didn’t allow for any extra play from the traction control or VDC system.
Just on the VDC, Tesla has completely developed this system internally. Most use a well-known German brand to supply the hardware and software, as Tesla has in the past. But not for the Model 3. This makes updating the system over-the-air a much quicker process.
When driven like this the Model 3 Performance is freakish, the steering rack is very quick and darty, the grip levels are high, the body balance seems spot on and all of this chaos happens in complete silence, barring the screeching of wheels and brake pads that have just about had enough.
Just on the braking, I was placed in a car that had already had its wheels driven off. There’s a good straight that on my last lap left me concerned if I would pull up. The brake fade was significant as was the amount of brake dust generated. But I expected that.
There are times when the Model 3 safety systems produce an unusual sensation that takes you by surprise. The brake pedal under heavy use will go straight to the floor, but then as extra stopping power is generated will poke you back. The VDC is doing things that at these kinds of speeds are happening too quickly, there’s a sense that a nanny is looking after you. Which frankly is a good thing right?
As mentioned, the dual-motor Performance model can generate 335kW/640Nm. The top speed is 261km/h and you will hit motorway speeds in 3.4 seconds. The claimed range is 560km (NEDC).
On this variant you score a carbon fibre spoiler, alloy performance pedals, performance brakes plus Track Mode.
The Silicon Valley based company obviously loads each car up with more tech than any other, so much so that full-autonomous driving can’t be activated because it’s ahead of local safety regulations.
The $8,500 option does allow for auto lane change on motorways plus autopark.
Later this year updates will include traffic light and stop sign recognition, automatic driving on city streets, a summon feature that is said to see the car come and find you. But as I said when local laws catch up and trust these systems is another story. So, you buy the software and simply wait for it to be switched on.
The audio system is simply epic via 14-sepakers, one subwoofer and two amps. If you compare it to a Bang & Olufsen system you’d be spot on. Tesla poached some key talent from the brand to develop the system in house. There are no crazy fees just to have the rights for a famous name on the speakers.
The radio is unlike any other, relying on in-car music steaming and apps such as TuneIn radio. There’s no DAB+ for example.
The centre console scores four USB ports and docking for a couple of phones.
There’s no key, you’re given cards with NFC capability and most of the time you will use your smartphone to open the car. If you must have a key fob you can option one.
Why would you buy one?
Because it’s the best EV car in this category, without a doubt.
This is where the haters start to come out. On five or so press cars at this event there were issues with external build quality. I’m talking panel gaps and they were the subject of plenty of conversation.
Each car varied with various misalignments, mainly around the doors and the frunk. They are visible without being a complete nark, it’s true and I’m not going to back away from this observation. I will say this however; it has made me far more acutely aware of gaps on all cars over the last 24 hours. But for a brand-new vehicle at this price point, personally I’d be dirty.
The Tesla Model 3 is brilliant. It’s remarkable what this company is doing, who knows what the future holds. But the Model 3 is here and it’s an extraordinary ride that is another revolution from a brand that’s way too easy to bag. It’s an 8.6 out of 10 from me, fix those gaps and it’s closer to 10.