► New Tesla Model 3 EV review
► Coming to the UK next year
► Priced from £30k – options add up though
Never mind the slow ramp-up, Tesla’s persistent financial squeeze, the inflated stock market valuation and Elon Musk’s Twitter activity. What really matters right now is the new Tesla Model 3 - the car Tesla is calling its very own Model T.
But get past the hype; how does it ride and handle? Are its batteries and motor up to scratch? Is the digital content of the trend-setting kind like the Model S before it, or have we seen it all before?
Finding out and actually reviewing it was difficult, because Tesla does not yet easily provide test cars – but thankfully a certain private individual did. Having spent an afternoon and an evening in the top-of-the-line 75kWh version, we give the zero-emissions newcomer a firm thumbs-up: the Model 3 impresses with grace, pace and clever engineering. But a car without flaws it is not. Read the fully updated CAR review below to find out why.
Tesla Model 3 review
There it is at long last, live and in 3D, black-on-black with black wheels and a black glass roof, dappled with salt the colour of cocaine way past its sell-by date, almost fully charged and ready to waft.
Everything you need to know about the Model 3
The only bright accents on this dark, mean-looking piece of very cool street furniture are the chromed daylight opening (DLO) side window surrounds and the flush-fitting door handles.
The first two attempts to unlock the cabin lead exactly nowhere - a frustrating start on a freezing morning. While the chip card won’t connect at all, the app on the iPhone at least keeps trying. Move closer, Georg, and do a bit of gesture animation. There you go - we’re in! The slim handle is a bit of a finger-wrestler, but the seat whirs in the position set by the owner of the car, and the door shuts with a reassuring clonk that is half Mercedes G-class, half Hyundai i10. An interesting combo, it has to be said.
But first, the interior
The Tesla Model 3 cockpit celebrates the fine art of a glamorous void. We're testing a left-hand drive car, but the clean design will be universal. There is no instrument cluster and thus no gauges or dials, the eye registers no switches and levers bar the quartet operating the electric windows, and while the right hand is groping in vain for a starter button and the handbrake release, the left hand is chasing, also to no avail, the mirror adjustment and the air vent setting.
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What would improve the orientation tremendously is a head-up display, but since the Tesla is a firm believer in the one-panel-does-it-all approach, the windscreen remains blank. Instead, it’s all happening on the familiar 15in high-density centre monitor which keeps its position no matter whether the vehicle is LHD or RHD. This massive touchscreen, flipped into horizontal orientation from the Model S and Model X’s upright position, is the key interface between car and driver - fine for digital pros, a challenge for long-sighted analogue users with shaky index fingers. That's me, by the way.
The preparation for launch could not be more straightforward. The power-operated seat is easy to befriend, the steering wheel adjusts in casual synchronicity, the mirrors… yes, what about the mirrors? The one on the passenger side points at a couple of squashed soda cans hugging the kerb, the one on my side shows a bulk of dark clouds.
Fiddly mirror adjustment: a very digital, first-world problem…
The only way out of this rear-view dilemma is to open the virtual owner’s manual which suggests a quick dive into the quick controls menu, followed by fiddling with the little toggle tilts in the steering-wheel spokes… Scroll, push and confirm aligns the door mirrors to the main rear-view one I can still adjust by hand (hurrah!). All it takes to start the motor is a tap on the gear selector stalk, which also determines the direction of travel. The single-speed transmission grabs the driveshaft with a fist of steel, heaving up to 387lb ft from out of nowhere to the rear axle where a pair of 18-inchers shift guard.
While Tesla states a peak power output of 192kW (equivalent to 257bhp), three major car manufacturers recently bench-tested the Model 3 electric car at between 200 and 220kW (268-295bhp). As you would expect, European Auto Consolidated couldn’t wait to lay their hands on the Model 3. Since Tesla did not oblige, they bought cars from disgruntled employees and early customers at inflated prices of up to €185,000 (£162,000!) apiece.
After one or two weeks of hard driving, the vehicles were dismantled, gutted, taken apart to the very last nut and bolt, measured, weighed and analysed. While the basic 50kWh power kit is said to be good for about 220 miles of range, the 75kWh battery extends the range to a claimed 300 miles. Soon a 90kWh version with two motors and AWD will follow.
The performance specs: top speed and 0-60mph times
According to the official spec sheet, the 1730kg flagship model can accelerate in 5.1sec from 0-60mph. With AWD, extra poke and all floodgates open, the target for the 90kWh crackerjack is an even brisker 4.1sec. Even though BEVs hate flat-out stints like mice hate cats, this one reaches a top speed of 141mph - but only if it must. Because beyond 100mph, you can literally watch the draining process of the lithium-ion energy cells on the big in-dash screen in full colour.
Fast discharging does not only curb the driving range, it also has a bad effect on battery life. In the course of a 20-mile pedal-to-the metal run on a fuzz-free dual carriageway, the state of charge plummeted from 65% to 45%. On the autobahn, you’d better switch on cruise control and relish either the relative silence or the excellent sound system.
Like every decent battery electric vehicle (BEV), the Tesla Model 3 takes off with a vengeance, harbours oodles of on-demand torque and zooms forward as if attracted by a huge magnet anchored at the horizon. Even when pushed hard, the plug-in saloon deserves full marks for strong directional stability, flat cornering and tenacious grip.
Ride and handling
On the debit side, the Model 3 is not exactly bedded on eiderdowns. In Michigan, where winters eat cancerous cavities into the slabs of concrete called interstate, the Tesla’s main dynamic vice is all too obvious. The poor ride comfort is first registered by your palms, then your butt, finally your spine. How come? Well, for a start adjustable dampers or an air suspension are conspicuous by their absence. Next, the low ride ride height and the amazing drag coefficient of only 0.23 result in a distinct lack of spring travel.
A taut chassis can be fun, but eventually it bugs you. As does the seating position in the back row, which is so low that it stacks the body into a Z, virtually stifling the blood circulation on long journeys. While head- and legroom are okay, the rear bench is too narrow for three grown-ups.
There are three steering calibrations to choose from: Comfort, Standard and Sport. Since the sole parameter affected is effort, not rate, standard strikes the most compelling compromise between input and feedback.
Another choice to be made by the driver concerns the brake energy regeneration mode. In the beginning, we dialled in the high setting - which grows spiderwebs over the brake pedal. That’s okay to make the most out of steep descents, but excessive resistance is actually counter-productive in normal operating conditions as you keep reinvesting the energy saved to maintain a steady forward motion.
The four disc brakes score full points for stamina and strong deceleration, but then they lose a couple of credits for the relatively high pedal pressure and the ho-hum modularity. The commendably tight turning-circle, an asset typical of electric cars, is on the other hand hard to fault.
An improvised Tesla Model 3 drag race
The longer the drive, the broader the grin. Especially since the moment the boost effect made itself known, more by accident than by intention, in the course of an impromptu Stop Sign Grand Prix against a Dodge Charger. Ten percent more twist action for one, two, three, four, five seconds is all it took for California to outsprint Michigan.
Since the Model 3 is at this point only available in RWD form, you would think that traction is a problem. And it is for the blink of the eye after flooring the throttle, but then ESP, ASR and ABS govern the battle of the friction coefficients with superior sensitivity. While the entry-level Tesla doesn’t on paper eat Porsches for breakfast and Benzes for dessert, in real life one rarely asks for more power and grunt.
How long does it take to charge the Tesla Model 3?
Although it is possible to charge the batteries via a three-point domestic plug at your home, this procedure takes forever and is not exactly energy-efficient. Most buyers will obviously install their own fast charger and that will be sufficient for most needs.
There's also Tesla's own Supercharger network, which takes about 40 minutes to replenish the muscle mass. Trouble is, the next Supercharger is rarely round the corner, it is more often than not beleaguered by two or three waiting vehicles, and tapping it is no longer free for Model 3 owners, who must now pay a subscription fee.
Before you run out of juice, the sat-nav automatically diverts the car to the nearest available charger. Travel information and advice are relayed exclusively by the big touchscreen, which I found to be something of an ergonomic disaster.
Both the digital speedometer in the top left corner and the arrow display on the right are simply too small, the slim menu bar at the bottom of the screen is a textbook example of haptic confusion, and even simple tasks like releasing the parking brake must be addressed, step-by-step via the monitor.
Tesla Autopilot: does it work?
The Beta version of the Autopilot system fitted to the car described here employs eight cameras (one pictured below in side indicator repeater blade), 12 ultrasonic sensors and an upgraded radar which allegedly reaches beneath and ahead of the vehicle in front - and it does so even in the rain, fog or when the snow falls, at speeds of up to 90mph.
The improved autosteer function can cope with tighter radii and more complex road layouts now, too. Coming at cost in the near future are a further enhanced self-driving ability, inductive automatic recharging and driverless self-parking. When we put all those bits and bytes to the test, we were smitten by the car’s self-driving talents, despite certain reservations like the habit to move into a faster lane without consulting the driver.
It is possible to go for miles without intervention, although you should always keep your hand on the wheel just in case, even when the route entails hazards like patchy road markings, on- and off-ramps or lane dividers. But since confidence and trust are capricious companions that want to be nursed over time, not only old-school drivers are struggling to relax.
Tesla Model 3 specs and range choices
No BEV celebrates simplification as resolutely as the Model 3. There is only one motor, a single-gear transmission, a solitary cooling circuit for drivetrain and batteries. The underfloor battery tray is bolted onto the body-in-white. Together, they form a rigid structure with an unusually low centre of gravity.
The energy cells are scalable in number and flexible in performance characteristics. Accessible through the lift-up seat cushion, the compact fully integrated ECU sits on top of the rear axle. One day, when recurrent over-the-air updates need even more memory space, the module can be exchanged for a bigger brain within minutes.
The chassis, steering, brakes and suspension - double wishbones in the front, a multilink arrangement in the rear - are in essence an evolution of the Model S’s architecture. Measuring 4700mm in length, the smallest Tesla has two luggage compartments with a total capacity of 525 litres.
Tesla Model 3 prices and costs
UK prices have not yet been pinned down, but in Europe the smallest Tesla yet will cost precisely €38,930 for the 50kWh Model 3 and €48,861 for the 75kWh. Tick every box (19in wheels, metallic paint, power seats, glass roof, leather, wood, state-of-the-art audio), and be prepared to pay €54,361.
Compared with the bigger Tesla Model S, which costs around €33,000 more, the Model 3 is almost a steal.
This car is something of a watershed - if only Elon Musk’s team could actually sort the manufacturing woes currently besetting the Fremont factory, which is struggling to scale up production to such an extent that many think it could be the end of Tesla.
That would be a huge shame if it happens. This electric 3-series rival goes one better than the Model S: it’s cheaper with snappier handling, has more Euro-friendly tighter dimensions, has improved fit and finish, and the driveline is very convincing.
In addition, the smaller car is easier to manouevre in traffic, easier to park, and just as easy (or difficult) to operate for the smartphone generation. So, if it is an affordable premium BEV you’re after, one that is fun to drive and no sluggard, nothing compares to the Tesla Model 3. Unless you live in a remote part of the world where the distance to the nearest Supercharger slashes the driving range in half.
Click here to see more of the full CAR magazine feature on the new Model 3