The future versus history: The Tesla Model 3 takes on the BMW M3

Electric vs. petrol takes an interesting turn
by Jack Rix | Jun 5, 2019


Remember his musings on Catherine the Great and a horse? A personal fave. Or his April fool’s joke claiming his (publicly listed) car company had gone totally bankrupt? Then there was the whole debacle around the rescue of that Thai football team...that was a low point. Elon Musk’s Twitter feed is wildly unpredictable at best and a catalog of PR blunders at worst. It’s also indicative of a man with a limited set of social skills. I was three-back for his keynote at the Model Y and witnessed some moves that made the Maybot look like a slickly choreographed routine.

Don’t get me wrong—Tesla’s decade-long journey he was recounting was enthralling, but the delivery was more than a bit #accidentalpartridge.

I digress. Our mission here is to salvage some sanity from his 140-character ramblings, because in May last year, he necked a whole bottle of brave pills and took aim at a pillar of the fast-car community. He bad-mouthed the BMW M3.

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This is the frontline for petrolheads’ affections. We know electric has been making a mockery of petrol in a straight line for a while, but if, for the same amount of cash, EVs can turn as well as go, complete a lap faster and be more fun while they’re at it, well, that’s a fork in the road. That’s where the excuses for not going electric start to erode, fast.

Here’s the plan. Two cars: the Tesla Model 3 Performance and the BMW M3 (the standard one, so without the £3,000 Competition Pack fitted, for price parity), and the Thunderhill raceway in northern California. Four challenges, one point for each, one winner, and a road drive for contemplation purposes at the end. Ready?

PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

ROUND 1: Drag race

A quarter-mile, head-to-head...last past the post makes the tea

This should be low-hanging fruit for the Tesla: four-wheel drive plays rear-wheel drive, 444hp takes on 425hp, 0–60mph (97kph) in 3.5sec versus 4.1sec, stomping on a pedal against actual driver skill to get the DCT-equipped BMW going. And the numbers don’t lie. As the M3 dissipates precious energy into heat, noise, and smoke off the line (trust us, we tried all day, a certain amount of slip is unavoidable), the Tesla raises its snout to the sky and romps mercilessly down the strip. No, the initial gut punch of thrust isn’t quite as vivid as in a Model S P100D, but it’s delivered with the same instant slap. Nothing… THEN EVERYTHING.

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The lead is a car length 10 meters from the start line, then, when the BMW breathes to change up a gear, the Tesla rams home its single-speed advantage, vaulting further into the distance. By halfway, it’s well and truly over, although the gap stays fairly even for the final third. At least I think it does—by that point, the BMW is a speck in my mirrors. Later consultation of the final quarter-mile speeds suggests the BMW was closing fast.

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Some housekeeping points: There is no Ludicrous mode or battery pre-warming in the 3, just gun it and go. Despite Tesla telling us it gives you no advantage off the line (its benefits come in Round 3 and Round 4), I ran the Tesla in Track Mode, because we were on a track and it made me feel invincible—a digital placebo, if you will. With every run and subsequent cruise back to the start line, the Tesla was using around 2% of its battery. Not important, you might think—we were hardly about to ask 50 races in a row of it—but know that as the charge level decreases, your acceleration will tail off slightly. If you want to really impress/destroy your friends at the drag strip, make sure you’re fully charged.

TESLA : 1 – 0 : BMW

PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

ROUND TWO: 0–100–0mph

A test of acceleration, braking, and GCSE maths

A straightforward 100–0mph (roughly 160kph to zero) brake test was mooted, but that would have been a fairly one-sided affair, given the BMW weighs a whole Californian Sea Lion less than the Tesla (1,560kg versus 1,850kg). The genius of a 0–100–0mph run is it levels the petrol-electric playing field, for what zaps silently to 100mph must shed that momentum, too. As we saw in the drag race, the Tesla is in a different league from 0–60mph, but above that, it’s the BMW that builds speed more quickly. So, assuming the Tesla can still get to 100mph first, its brakes then have the unenviable job of hauling many extra kilograms of lithium-ion to a standstill.

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I get the same storming start in the Tesla and murder the brakes the moment our GPS-fed VBOX hits 100mph (indicated 105mph), expecting to see a BMW fly past my right flank. A glance in the mirrors during the final few feet and I see a BMW standing on its nose a couple of car lengths back.

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Much swearing and hand gestures, and I’m convinced the BMW’s won it. Only when I pause for breath and deploy basic arithmetic do I remember this test has nothing to do with distance, the winner is the one that stops first. Far too close to call from my vantage point, so it’s over to the numbers. I time both as real 0–100–0 runs, making my reaction time a factor but equally so for both, and the results are in. Tesla has it...just.

TESLA : 2 – 0 : BMW

PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

ROUND THREE: Hot(ish) lap

One at a time against the clock, zero bonus points for style

We could have drafted in The Stig for this one—he couldn’t care less whether a car is powered by petrol or electricity, and Califonian Sea Lions are in his top-three otariids—but we made a judgement call. For this lap to be relevant to the overwhelming majority of you who aren’t mute racing drivers, and to keep things even, I, a man of adequate driving talents, would set the lap times. This strategy is immediately called into question, mostly by me, as I find myself sideways-beyond-the-point-of-return over a tricky little right-hand crest on Thunderhill’s West Course, skating through the boggy run-off area, watching a tsunami of mud rain down on the Tesla like Albatross droppings. Quick hose down, take two.

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I’m not entirely to blame. You see, this Track Mode—exclusive to the Model 3 Performance—not only juggles torque to allow drifty shenanigans, it also increases the regen force to 0.3g, which has the hilarious effect of making it lift-off oversteer like an ’80s French hot hatch. Using it sparingly tightens your line. Using it clumsily—say, over a blind crest where you’ve been told to not be a wuss and keep it pinned—results in mild off-roading.

Even so, it’s a welcome dose of character in the Model 3’s dynamic repertoire, because it’s just so capable and ruthless in the way it piles on the speed and dispatches corners with pristine body control, that it’s in danger of being dull.

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That mule kick of acceleration means that if you’re facing the right direction, no matter how much understeer you encounter (quite a lot, if you come in too hot) and how dubious your lines are (creative—I like to call them creative), you can fire out of corners like a marble from a catapult. But there are issues. The steering is without feedback and fast, like Ferrari 488 Pista fast, which gives that feeling of instant agility on road, but slight nervousness on track. Then there’s the weight: The center of gravity is supercar-low, so stability is exceptional, but mass can only be masked, not hidden forever.

Once you have the measure of the handling, weight quickly becomes the limiting factor, the thing that stops it from ever feeling truly nimble. Drive an Alpine A110 and one of these back to back for a physics lesson through your fingers and butt cheeks. And then there’s the big fat elephant—you can only drive it for a handful of laps (three or four around this 3.2km track) with full-fat performance before heat becomes an issue and the computer dial backs the power by what feels like 30 or 40 per cent. Not ideal.

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From the first corner, the M3 feels less tied-down, more up on its toes—unnerving at first, but then you realize you can lean on the front end harder, work the brakes later, and flick it around in places where the porky Tesla demands patience. Unfortunately, when you floor it, the throttle response is glacial by comparison, and the accompanying racket isn’t quite as glorious as you remember—more of a distraction from listening to what the tires are doing and getting on with the business of going fast. I bang in a timed lap in each, neither is the tidiest, and given another few hours I could have gone faster in both, but the delta is plain to see: Tesla takes it by almost two seconds.

TESLA : 3 – 0 : BMW

PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

ROUND FOUR: Drift-off

Same corner for both, marks for ease and amusement

Rules of engagement for this one: Find a corner with a wide exit and the least amount of solid track furniture in the vicinity, and give it a whirl. No measurables here, just the size of my grin. I had a fairly clear idea of how this one would go—the BMW, famed in non-Competition Pack trim for being a spiteful little thing on the limit, would be a handful, while the Tesla would use its enormous brain to work out what exactly I was trying to do and juggle the torque accordingly to bestow upon me godlike sideways skills. That’s not how it turned out.

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The BMW goes first, everything off, and immediately makes itself at home, sliding predictably and naturally, the angle of my right foot directly proportional to how exotic the angle of the car. Yes, there’s a delay between asking for torque and it arriving in great loads at the rear wheels, but keep your wits about you initially and the rest is easy.

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Over to the Tesla and Track Mode, which requires a whole new approach. You can’t just turn in and light ’em up like the BMW—the knack is to turn in and lift slightly to wipe out understeer and get the car pivoting, then, at the point it’s neutral or just over-rotating...give it the boot. The software takes account of your steering angle, throttle position, speed, g-force, probably what you had for lunch, then launches you sideways until you start to take the lock off and the front wheels pull you straight. The sensation is similar to the Focus RS’s drift mode, except it doesn’t seem as natural.

You have to give the sensors exactly what they want to instigate the fun, rather than them letting you drive however you like. Tesla knows this, and is working on something it calls sliders—a software update that will let you choose the proportion of torque sent to the rear axle. We’ll take 100% and a set of spare tires, please...but that’s for another day. Today, the BMW walks it to clinch a consolation point at the death.

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TESLA : 3 – 1 : BMW

PHOTO: Rowan Horncastle

The verdict

A big ‘W’ for the Tesla then, and credit where it’s due, for $65,200 (around P3.38 million)before options, BMW is $66,500 (roughly P3.45 million)it’s an astonishingly quick car. But here’s the crunch: Taking into account the repeatability of performance, the overall agility, and the endorphin rush, it’s the BMW I’d take for one last lap of Thunderhill. Out on the road, it’s a different story. Where the BMW’s comfort and refinement is conceded quite a bit to unlock its track potential, the Tesla is utterly uncompromised, besides having to find a Supercharger every 400 kilometers or so.

It’s unreasonably fast when you want it to be, but mostly glides along mute, cosseting, drifting and hot laps a hazy memory. If Tesla really wanted to produce a track-orientated 3, then half the batteries and twice the cooling—less weight, enough for 10 full-power laps, then into the pits for a 20-minute juice-up before heading back out—would do the trick. But let’s celebrate where we find ourselves now—in a place where combustion is still unsurpassed for unbridled driving joy, but electric has already exceeded it for peak performance. And, once battery tech evolves, handling finesse will surely follow suit.

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So tweet this, Elon: you were right, you’ve won my awe and admiration, but the battle to win over petrolheads rages on.

NOTE: This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of Top Gear magazine. Minor edits have been made.

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