Everything Tesla has done up to this point has built towards the Model 3… and it’s been worth it
Bleeding edge tech, interior space, acceleration and handling
Enormous waiting list, constant attention, superchargers no longer free
What is it?
Oh, just some sensibly priced electric BMW 3 Series rival from a little-known American start-up. Except this is the sensibly priced electric 3 Series rival that has the world’s knickers in a twist.
You’ve probably heard the headlines: the Model 3 is a smaller, half-price (or thereabouts) compliment to the Model S and Model X; there are well over 500,000 paid reservations; it’s the lynchpin of Elon Musk’s mission to rid our roads of fossil fuels (before we all move to Mars), and it’s also the thing giving Musk a significant pain in the arse as his company tries to ramp up production towards churning out 500,000 Model 3s a year. It’s no secret that he’s had a bit of trouble getting there.
Model 3s are now being delivered to US customers, and are a surprisingly frequent sight on Californian roads. Order a right-hand drive 3 in the UK now, and we don’t know when it’ll land, though you’ll be waiting at least a year.
Demand is clearly feverish, and there’s more – reports of sub-standard build quality as Tesla tries to push the cars out, are rife. It must be said, though, that the handful of Model 3s we’ve now spent some time around have felt perfectly well put together, but you’d expect no less from press demonstrators.
The Model 3 range is a little hard to keep up with, your options changing frequently. As it stands there are two options: the entry-level single-motor car, which is rear-wheel drive and offers 260 miles of range and a 5.6sec 0-60mph time. This starts at around $35,000 including government incentives.
Then there’s the dual-motor car, which is all-wheel drive and comes with a longer-range battery, allowing it to go 310 miles between plug ins. This starts at $41,200, but if you spend an extra $11,000 it comes as a Performance version, which brings a 3.3sec 0-60mph time, 155mph top speed and uprated brakes.
How the range will look when the Model 3 arrives in the UK, we don’t know. The single-motor car used to come with the longer-range battery, but has recently been scrapped. If you nipped in and bought one of those it could become a collector’s item…
What is it like on the road?
When it comes to handling, both are very adept. Tesla’s best car yet, no doubt. Despite offering rear-wheel drive or enthusiastically set-up all-wheel drive, mind, there will be no skids. In fact the only manual adjustment to the traction control you can make is a ‘slip start’ – designed to get you moving from a standstill on low-friction surfaces, though a Track Mode has been teased that allows a bit more fun in the right circumstances.
Beyond that you can choose three weights for the steering (we tried all three in the first five minutes, then left in in the middle setting for the rest of the day) and that’s your lot. Turn it on by waving the key card somewhere near the cupholders, pull the column shifter down, push the right pedal to move, the left pedal to stop, twirl the steering wheel to turn. Simple.
Unsurprisingly, that steering wheel doesn’t offer the last word in feedback, but like so many modern racks it counters with a quick ratio and zero slack, so the whole car feels tight, alert and moves as one solid unit. Add to this the fact the battery pack is in the floor pan, which gives the 3 an unusually low centre of gravity, and there’s (whisper it) actual fun to be had here. Much more so if you take your Model 3 elsewhere for some suspension, tyre and wheel mods…
The Model S has long been criticised for having a vomit-inducing turn of speed in a straight line, but lacking any real emotion. The 3 moves things on. Push it too hard and physics will take over – this is still a heavy car and the tyres can only take so much – but it’s a whole league nimbler than the Model S. On fast, sweeping corners keep your inputs smooth, your foot away from the brake pedal and you can hustle it at quite hilarious speeds. Alternatively simply enjoy its 0-30mph point and squirt potential around town and lifting-off to slow down, using the brake energy regeneration to stop rather than an old-fashioned pedal.
The ride is firmer than a Model S, but rarely crashy – and this is on the crumbling, weather-beaten tarmac in and around Manhattan, chances are it’ll cope well in the UK, too. The sensation is firmness, but well damped firmness, much like the sporty German saloons it’s looking to eradicate, but there’s purpose to its tautness – the chassis feels properly developed.
Thing is, the Model 3’s appeal is as much about the self-driving tech and connectivity as the nuggety ride quality and granular steering feel. Probably more so. The 3 already comes equipped with all the sensors and cameras it’ll need for autonomous functionality, and the (slightly notorious) Autopilot system is a $5,000 software option. The interface is different to the Model S in that you have to wait for a small grey steering wheel to appear on the top left hand corner of the screen. One tap down on the gear selector activates the active cruise control, a second tap lets the car steer for you between a set of defined white lines.
On the right road, it works fine, letting you take your hands off the wheel for much longer than the equivalent BMW or Audi systems. On American highways it’ll happily drive itself for a startlingly long time. However, apply too much pressure to the steering wheel with your finger and it’ll deactivate the auto steering function, possibly mid corner. Not ideal. Some of this is perhaps down to our own distrust of such tech – the human brain slowly getting its head around the robot tech. But there’s probably a reason all of Teslas rivals haven’t yet allowed these systems to take the reins for more than a few moments.
On the inside
Layout, finish and space
The seats are comfortable, electrically adjustable (if you go for the $5,000 Premium Pack that is, that adds heated seats all-round, that wood trim mentioned earlier, an upgraded stereo, tinted sunroof and folding wing mirrors) but could do with better lateral support. Oh, those seats are, according to Tesla, vegan friendly – they’re made from polyurethane.
On the subject of equipment, here’s what you get as standard on the Tesco Basics $35,000 model: 18-inch alloys, 15-inch screen, on-board wifi, sat nav, 60/40 split folding rear seats, LED headlights and taillights and a reversing camera. Not bad, but you’ll have to be a staunch penny-pincher to resist the allure of that $5,000 premium bundle.
Space in the back seats is fine for anyone up to six-foot tall, a bit cramped beyond that, but it’s worth it for the endless view out through the full-length sunroof that wraps right around and behind your head. It’s because of that infinity roof that the 3 isn’t a hatchback, so you have to make do with a notchback boot, although split folding rear seats mean you can fit longer objects in, too. Fallen on hard times? Drop the back seats and a double blow up mattress slots in perfectly – some companies make bespoke ones that pack up neatly in the boot.
Overall, the build quality and materials are a step behind the established premium European players, but by keeping things super-simple, it’s never really an issue. Acres of plastic switchgear and multiple screens and sockets would have only highlighted Tesla shortcomings. As it is, everything is dominated by that central screen.
The general idea is that the quarter closest to the driver is dedicated to information and controls you might need while driving. These include a visual representation of your autopilot situation and shortcuts to the trip computer, charge status etc. The rest is dominated by a map or whatever you want to overlay, such as your radio or music streaming, climate control settings and phone status. Alternatively, you can dive into the settings menu (best to do this when stationary) and have fun adjusting the wheel for reach and rake with the scroll wheels by your thumbs, or tweaking your steering weight, or… honestly, the list goes on.
Although the basic driving controls couldn’t be simpler, this isn’t a car you fully understand in the first five minutes. Like a new smart phone, you need to commit some time to learning the shortcuts, locating the settings you might need and engraining them in your brain.
Once that’s done, you can have fun exploring some of Tesla’s ‘easter eggs’ – modes that are there for no reason other than to make you and your passengers laugh. Modes like the Mars button that turns the map into the surface of the Red Planet, or the Santa setting (only available with Autopilot engaged) which turns your car into a sleigh, the road into a rainbow and other road users into reindeer, or the vast array of old arcade games you can play with the steering wheel scroll buttons in gridlock. You will either find this stuff fun or excruciatingly annoying.
Running costs and reliability
A word on range. Tesla clams 310 miles per charge for long-range models, and our test car was displaying 90 per cent charge and circa 280-miles remaining range when we picked it up. We spent the day crawling around Manhattan, cruising on the freeway to somewhere called Bear Mountain 45 miles away, having ‘some fun’ once there, then heading back into the city.
A total of 140 miles of very mixed driving once we handed back the car – as much driving as we would typically choose to do in a day – and there was still 100 miles in the tank. At no point did the range sweats kick in and at any given point we knew where the nearest supercharger was. Without getting too carried away… it works.
A few more superchargers (there are now 10,000 in 1,100 locations globally) and it could realistically be your only car. Though whereas superchargers used to be free with the Model S and Model X, you have to pay as you go with the 3, although there’s an allowance of around five to six free supercharges per year.
Plug the car into your three-pin wall socket at home and the juice crawls along, adding about five miles of range for every hour. Get a home wall box and you could charge at up to 16.5kW depending on your home connection – that’s 51 miles for every hour plugged in. More realistic for most UK homes is around 7kW, or 22 miles per hour of charging.
Final thoughts and pick of the range
Having said that, it’s not perfect. Tesla’s production woes are well documented, the waiting list is daunting, the Autopilot function is a work in progress and while it looks slick, the decision to put everything on one touch screen can be distracting when you’re on the move. We admit, coverage of Tesla can get a bit frenzied, and at times it’s more like a cult than a car company. But credit where it’s due, the Model 3 is a convincing product. Let’s hope Tesla can build enough of them to make it stick.