It's not perfect, the waiting list stretches on for miles, and autopilot is still a work in progress. Still, we're convinced the Model 3 is the future of affordable EVs.
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 ass as his company tries to ramp up production to 5,000 cars a week in the short-term, building towards churning out 500,000 Model 3s a year. Currently the production number hovers at just over 2,000 a week.
Demand is clearly feverish, but reports of sub-standard build quality as Tesla tries to push the cars out, are rife. It must be said, though, that the car we spent a day with in and around New York was perfectly well put together, but you’d expect no less from a press demonstrator.
First thing to address is speed. Even in base-spec '75D' trim the Model S covers 0-100kph in 4.4 seconds, while the P100D does it in a gut-warping 2.7 seconds. With the Model 3 you have a choice of two versions--the standard car (0-100kph in 5.6 seconds, 209kph top speed, 350km range) and a long-range model (0-100kph in 5.1 seconds, 225kph, 499km range).
We drove the latter--the only model Tesla is currently building before rolling out the lower-spec car later in 2018. There is no 'Ludicrous Mode,' there’s no four-wheel drive, there’s no adjustable air suspension (just fixed rate springs and dampers)… but who cares when frankly, the Model 3 never feels anything less than enthusiastically fast.
Rear-wheel drive it may be, but there will be no skids here. 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. Turn it on by waving the key card somewhere near the cupholders, pull the Merc-sourced column shifter down, right pedal to move, left pedal to stop, 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 center of gravity, and there’s actual fun to be had here.
The 3 moves things on. Push it too hard and physics will take over--this is still a heavy car and the tires 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.
The ride's sensation is firmness, but well damped firmness, much like the sporty German sedans 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 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 and let’s you take your hands off for much longer than the equivalent BMW or Audi systems, before bonging at you. 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.
Staying true to the Model S maxi-minimalist interior design, the Model 3 is just as stark. The dash is nothing but a slab of wood running the full width (less appealing plastic on the base models), a full-width air vent and a 15-inch touchscreen, landscape orientated, rather than the larger portrait screen in the S.
Scour the cabin and the only physical buttons you’ll find are two unmarked scroll wheels on the steering wheel, buttons for the electric windows, a button for the hazard lights above your head and a button on the grab handle to open each door, although there’s a physical lever below that.
The seats are comfortable, electrically adjustable but could do with better lateral support. Also, how Tesla manages to make real hide look like pleather is endlessly fascinating.
On the subject of equipment, here’s what you get as standard on the $35,000 (P1.8 million) model: 18-inch alloys, 15-inch screen, on-board Wi-Fi, sat-nav, 60/40 split folding rear seats, LED headlights and taillights, and a reversing camera. Not bad.
Space in the back seats is fine for anyone up to six feet 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, 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.
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.
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 on 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 to make you and your passengers laugh and prove Elon isn’t an evil genius from another planet, he has a sense of humor, too. Modes like the Mars button that turn the map into the surface of the Red Planet.
Everything Tesla has done up to this point has been building towards the Model 3--a genuinely affordable mass-market EV--but it’s all for nothing if the product itself doesn’t stand up. So the question is, after spending a day in its company, do I want one? Does it have the desirability to drag not just early adopters and tree-hugging environmentalists out of their gasoline and diesel cars, but the wider public too? The answer is a surprisingly emphatic yes, and that’s because beyond the hype is a truly well-engineered car.
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 slick, the decision to put everything on one touchscreen can be distracting when you’re on the move. We admit, coverage of Tesla can get a bit frenzied, at times it’s more like a cult than a car company, but credit where is due, the Model 3 is a convincing product.
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.