► New Tesla Model 3 EV review
► UK sales June 2019 from £39k
► We test cheapest Tesla in the UK
The Model 3 feels like a breakthrough car. After all the buzz, the interminable delays, the theatrics of Tesla's erratic leadership... the cheaper premium electric car is finally here in the UK - and we've driven it on British roads, as well as on track at Paul Ricard in the south of France.
We tested a Model 3 Performance, the £48,590 range-topper which is the first road-registered model in the UK. Tesla announced the starting price of the range at £38,050 for the regular Standard Range model, but we have yet to get into this cheapest Tesla which is expected to be the most popular. We will in due course.
Best electric cars: the CAR guide
The Performance model is quite a thing: you'll notice its more compact dimensions the moment you clap eyes on the Model 3 (at 4694mm long and 2088mm wide, including mirrors, it's bang-on compact executive money) but it's recognisably a Tesla. It might share the Model S's rump, but this is a more conventional saloon rear end, albeit one whose boot is cleverly hinged to allow a deep opening. Note also the full-length glass roof on all models, that cleverly swoops down uninterrupted to the boot.
CAR magazine lives with a Tesla Model S: check out our long-term test
Interior: a minimalist cabin
Even as you approach the Model 3, it's apparent this car does things differently. There is no key, rather you use an RFID card (see below) or you can access the car via your smartphone. In our brief acquaintance, we ended up wafting the card up and down the B-pillar to find the secret spot rather too often - and then had to repeat the process inside before the car would set off. This seems a backward step from the keyless Model S (but may be circumnavigated if you place your pre-configured phone in the correct cradle).
Note also the unusual, thin chromed door handles. No auto-pop-out theatrics here: you tap one end, nudging the rest of the handle out to open it manually. They open from the inside differently, too - with a simple door switch that looks just like an electric window button.
This is a roomy and minimalist cabin. The windscreen is panoramic, and the scuttle is low, meaning that the view forwards is clear and commanding, even if you don’t sit with seat in a high position. That full-length glass sunroof makes it bright and airy, and the floor is mercifully flat.
There are no buttons on the centre console, just a pair of roller-knobs on the steering wheel, four window switches on the door and (buried on the seat) the usual electric backrest and squab adjusters. It's uncluttered and lovely - if you like controlling everything from a touchscreen. Happily, the Tesla Model 3's 15-inch screen is pin-sharp, high-res and unerringly logical, even if you must learn the intricacies first (we stumbled with the door mirror adjustment for a good five minutes...).
This is especially impressive in the rear passenger compartment, where a tall adult can fit comfortably in the middle seat, thanks to a cleverly sculpted centre console armrest with space for a fifth person's feet. Those in the rear will find their heads close to the panoramic screen, and if the driver gets enthusiastic in corners, there’s a real risk of banged heads on the bulky cant rail above the window.
How does the 2019 UK Tesla Model 3 drive?
The acid test. Much of the experience will be familiar to anyone who's driven a Tesla Model S (or, indeed, any electric car). Niceties such as the Merc-style push-to-hold parking brake remain, but any remaining vestiges of Daimler switchgear have been eliminated.
Quality is decent enough in here. It's a step-change over the ageing Model S and we'd judge that users in this price bracket will be quite comfortable with the trim and materials used, with slush-moulded, soft-feel materials used throughout.
Clearly, body rigidity is good, and the cabin is creak-free on the roughest of B-roads. But standards are high in this sector and it can't quite live with the exquisitely built cabins of the Audi A4 or BMW 3-series. It's well built, but lacks that last 10% of heft and precision – and it’s more than enough to live with the market sector left-fielders such as the Volvo S60 and Alfa Romeo Giulia.
We noted a few ergonomic inconveniences, too. The windscreen A-pillars are noticeably thick and the rather ugly steering wheel is thick, chunky to hold. One quirky detail which grated was the shroud around the forward-facing camera, which kept masking the view ahead every time we looked at the rear-view mirror.
This is an extremely slippery shape; Tesla quotes a drag coefficient of just 0.23, and the car does indeed cleave through the air quietly and with minimal fuss. There is some thumping from the large 20-inch alloy wheels standard on the Performance model, but it's a refined, quiet place to be on our initial assessment on a variety of UK roads. (We found the same driving on French back routes too).
Tesla Model 3 Performance UK review
Performance is aptly ludicrous: the 'L' word isn't used on the Model 3, but this model feels every bit as fast as the 3.2sec 0-60mph claim. It is monumentally, addictively rapid, the horizon reeling in at warp-speed on full throttle, with a silent, whirry accelerative thrust. Looking at the specs below, even the regular Teslas will be pretty quick. The range-topping one is insanely so.
Steering is sublime - beautifully weighted and superbly accurate. In addition, this is one of the quickest steering racks we've experienced on a mainstream saloon since the original Alfa Romeo 156; it lends a pointy agility to the way the Model 3 drives. You can tailor the steering weight to personal preference, but European tastes are probably most closely tuned to the firmest setting in Track Mode (more of which later).
Equally impressive is the handling. You think it into a corner and it darts into the apex with all the alacrity of a Ferrari V8. It's seriously fast to react, yet it doesn't feel nervous or on edge at a motorway cruise. It feels right-sized for the UK - a good compact shape that's not too bulky for Britain's busy roads. Despite its unerring agility (impressive for an 1800kg saloon), the ride quality is on the right side of acceptable, with decent damping, and enough compliance, even on 20-inch wheels.
What about the Performance model’s Track Mode?
We were given the opportunity to spend the day at Paul Ricard exploring the Model 3’s limits, both on track and at the skid pan. The system uses a combination of distributing the the dual motors’ torque split, adaptive thermal controls for them, a low centre-of-gravity, and using brake force – via its own in-house developed system. Tesla is very proud of what it’s achieved, building on what it says is a very effective package - a 48:52 weight distribution, Brembo performance brakes and bespoke Michelin P44S tyres.
Tesla says in Track Mode, it maximises the motors to turn the car, the brakes to make it faster in corners, the battery to store more electricity, and radiators to decelerate the car. And the net result is that they say it makes an average driver go faster and more confidently on track – and that in ultimate terms, it’s 5% per lap faster at any given race circuit.
That’s all well and good, but how does engaging Track Mode make the Model 3 better? In standard mode, it handles faithfully and responsively, and balances speed and low drama eerily well. Stick it in Track Mode and the steering sharpens up, turn-in gets even more aggressive, and butchering the throttle on a constant steering axis will have you drifting like a pro. But for those who don’t need to showboat, rest assured that it becomes a whole lot more biddable and can literally point, shoot and go like hell.
It won’t defy the laws of physics, though. You’re always aware of its 1800kg kerbweight, and although it turns and steers crisply, the Tesla Model 3 will still understeer if you’re timid with the throttle or carry too much entry speed, and there’s still a fair bit of body roll to contend with.
But the brakes are strong and progressive, the body control is good, and the inherent speed is undoubtedly there, even if the drama (and ultimately excitement) isn’t. Still, it’s an impressive effort.
Tesla Model 3 prices and specs in the UK
Tesla has announced it's streamlining the UK range and dropping one of the models it had already committed to.
The £47,900 Long Range AWD model has been axed and the price of the range-topping Tesla Model 3 Performance has been cut from £56,900 to £52,290, effectively replacing it. It leaves British Tesla buyers with a straightforward choice between the £38,050 Standard Range Plus model and the M3-chasing Performance.
Tesla will refund the difference, a spokeswoman confirmed to CAR magazine, so nobody should pay the original higher price.
It's worth pointing out that the battery capacities above are not actually confirmed by Tesla any more. Perhaps anxious not to be pumping out cells that will be superseded each year, the company merely quotes the new, numberless model names instead. The electric car range quoted above is the official WLTP range, stretching from 258 miles in the Standard Range Plus model to a long-legged 348 miles in the Long Range AWD spec. The entry-level model is rear-wheel drive only; the top two have dual motors and all-wheel drive (the AWD models have impeccable traction we found, although we haven't yet driven it in the wet).
The UK Tesla Supercharger network now stretches to 50 locations (each typically has six to a dozen charging points in), plus around 500 destination chargers at hotels, clubs and other private venues. Tesla quotes 150 miles of range in half an hour if you're on a Supercharger; or 37 miles an hour of recharging at home.