“This isn’t a twin test—it’s a celebration of two award-winning cars”
If 2019 taught us anything, it’s that the rise of the electric vehicle has created a car market that has never been more vibrant, diverse, or creative. The fact that the challenge of shifting four people around our planet can deliver such diametrically opposed creations as the Tesla Model 3 and the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 makes Planet Car a truly captivating place to be.
To be clear from the outset, this isn’t a twin test—it’s a celebration of two award-winning cars. Lazy automotive stereotypes dictate that if you like one of them, you can’t possibly admire the other, so, on behalf of the whole Top Gear team, I’d like to call bullsh*t on that feudal mentality right now. You can drive a Tesla and love muscle cars; you can have a garage full of muscle cars and use and love your Tesla on a daily basis. The two are not mutually exclusive and, might I humbly suggest for the good of the EV revolution and speed of its adoption and the future of cars as a whole, it would be great if we could all get along and celebrate the engineering and creativity of our industry at a time when it has never been more dynamic. Rant over.
In one corner, we have the GT500, Top Gear’s Muscle Car of the Year, the latest—and maybe last—pure muscle car from the Blue Oval. With a 750hp, 846Nm 5.2-liter supercharged V8 paired to a seven-speed dual-clutch box, the GT500 will hit 60mph (97kph) in 3.3sec, smash a quarter-mile in 10.61sec at 214kph, and emit a noise that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Bold, brash, designed to get your attention and be unapologetic about it, the GT500 is an assault on the senses—an addictive and welcome one in current times.
At the other end of the spectrum sits the Model 3, a car that goes about its business with a stealthy surety that forms a stark contrast to the Ford. Its whisper-quiet progress and minimalist design both inside and out (the most successful iteration of Tesla’s sparse styling to date, in my opinion) belie its capability. In place of a 5.2-liter V8, the Tesla ‘makes do’ with dual electric motors, a 75kWh battery, and AWD. At 1,847kg (69kg lighter than the GT500), the Model 3 will do the EV trick of whiplashing your occupants in a 3.2sec 0–60mph dash...and leave the GT500 trailing. Just.
We’re in LA, and the rush hour is subsiding as we head to our gritty rendezvous in the arts district, south of the LA river. The area crackles with activity: LAPD helicopters swarming from their rooftop base, while the Pacific Surfliner and double-decker Amtrak trains slither through on their way to the coast. The air is thick with a heady mixture of scents from the El Pato Tomato Sauce cannery, the stench of human byproducts and rotting garbage. Beverly Hills this is not.
The Tesla’s Silicon Valley design feels out of place here, in contrast to the GT500, which looks and sounds like it was brought up on these mean streets. However, after an hour of photography, the odor is outweighing the ‘art,’ so we head to the canyons, traveling north on the 110, toward Burbank and San Fernando. The Mustang does the freeway cruise thing with ease—just soften up the dampers and let the big V8 burble, gently consuming miles.
In the Tesla, any sniff of a freeway means activating autopilot, sitting back, and marveling as the car differentiates between cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, trucks, and traffic cones, and renders them on the central display. It’s hugely impressive, so impressive that you could almost switch off, check your e-mails, and let the car take the strain in traffic—which is huge testament to the capabilities of Tesla’s software.
Freeway dispatched, we stop for standard photo-shoot supplies: beef jerky, water, suspicious-looking corn dogs. Meanwhile, in the car park, the GT500 is drawing attention.
“Is this the GT500? Damn.”
Emilio has spotted the GT500 from across the road and come to take a closer look. “I knew it was the 500 because of those carbon wheels...sweeeeeet,” he says, sucking through his teeth. Emilio knows a lot about cars and is very enthusiastic. Emilio then tries to sell us Class A drugs. Time to make our excuses.
The Little Tujunga Canyon Road is an absolute gem, a fabulous cascade of contrasting corners that climb north for miles through truly stunning scenery with equally attention-grabbing drops. The GT500, now in Sport mode, demolishes it with staggering composure. It’s a sizeable chunk of metal to hustle down America’s equivalent of a British B-road, but the front-end grip and the balance and communication of the chassis build confidence with every turn, and the mass shrinks around you.
The noise ricocheting off the canyon walls adds to the drama as the V8 screams toward 7,500rpm. The instantaneous shifts of the dual-clutch box quickly banish any doubts we had over losing the manual. It’s a fabulous HD driving experience that deserves, and gets, your full attention—a car designed to cater to those looking for something to take them back to that sense of freedom and excitement that turned us from people who see cars as modes of transport, to those who celebrate them. It delivers all the muscle-car staples, but refined for the digital age. I reach the turnout point at the top of the hill and breathe in the experience.
As we’re resetting for the next shot, we’re joined by two guys riding ‘one wheels’ and their mate Dave (who is covered in dust and mud) riding what we later learn is a ‘Speedboard’—a project Dave has been working on, and falling off, for two years. They, too, are drawn to the GT500 and, as Dave begins to talk my companions through his latest creation and tastiest shunt, I take the opportunity to slip away in the Tesla.
While it may not be getting attention from the local drug dealer or one-wheel operatives, arguably, it’s that ubiquitity that makes it so special—an EV so capable, so in-demand, that it has fundamentally changed the conversation on EVs from early-adopter interest to genuine mass-market proposition. The Model 3 is the thing to have in ‘the valley.’
And the more time I spend in it, the more I can see why. Life with a Model 3 is simplicity personified: Everything about its operation—from the way it drives, to the purity of the interior, to the quality of its charging infrastructure (which is way ahead ahead of any other manufacturer’s)—is designed to make life easier, simpler, more zen. And it delivers. It is a laser-guided solution to transportation today. Even the interior quality (long a bugbear of early Teslas) has improved, striking a balance between purity and practicality that makes it a wonderfully calm place to be.
I appreciate that it’s unlikely many Model 3 owners will want to go supercar-worrying in the canyons, but I can confirm that its combination of instant torque, low center of gravity, and AWD will keep it in the rearview mirror of some very confused-looking drivers for quite a while before its mass (something you’re always aware of and managing in a way you’re not in the GT500) and the need to cool the batteries require you to slow down.
I arrive back with the Tesla’s fans working busily, and discover a plan has been hatched to take an action shot with ‘Team Speedboard.’ I park next to the GT500, and Dave, having managed not to fall off again, is removing his body armor (severely dented from previous events) and poring over the GT500.
And he’s right to. Developed, extruded, and finessed over five-and-a-half decades...it’s a design that has never looked better. I love it, love the fact that it exists, that in a world heading into a new era, we can still admire an automotive lineage that started with our grandfathers. An unabashed celebration of petrol performance for use on high days and holidays, on journeys you want to remember rather than just complete. They won’t be around forever, so enjoy them now.
Representing the future now, and shifting the landscape as it goes, is the equally brilliant Model 3. A car that marks a turning point in the EV story, a beautifully judged solution to modern transport needs, and one that can dispatch supercars on a damp night and deliver zen-like daily driving, or help take the edge off an LA rush hour. While the title Sedan of the Year feels relatively prosaic, it was carefully chosen. For too long, EVs have been confined to winning ‘Green,’ ‘Electric,’ or ‘Future’ categories, but the Model 3’s capabilities go beyond its propulsion and make it a worthy winner of a mainstream prize.
The future is bright—the Model 3 proves that—and the car industry has never been more creative and dynamic...something to be celebrated, rather than turned into a tribal rivalry. I take the GT500 for the drive back into LA and revel in its all-American superhero status, then hop in the Model 3 for a stop-start traffic-jam autopilot ride to the airport. God bless the USA.
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.