It was one of the most anticipated car launches of recent years, but has Tesla’s ‘affordable’ electric car lived up to the hype? Paul Maric saddles up for a 1000km+ road trip across the USA to find out.
It was freezing cold and 6:30AM on the 10th of April in 2016. That was the morning that Tesla opened the books for global pre-orders for the Tesla Model 3 and Australia was the first cab off the rank.
That morning I stood with a stack of new owners keen to put a deposit down for the eagerly anticipated Tesla Model 3. Fast forward almost three years and those with pre-orders are still at least six months away from seeing their cars.
The hype behind the Model 3 hit fever pitch when the brand announced a go-fast dual-motor version called the Model 3 Performance. So, we wanted to see what it was like to drive the Model 3 in its country of origin – the United States – which has a well established electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
Our aim was to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back again, completing well over 1000km over the period of five days. During this time we used the Model 3 for everything from the long distance drive to sight seeing and even visiting several shopping centres to see how well charging infrastructure worked in the USA.
Let’s start with Model 3 basics. Australia is expecting to get its first right-hand drive Model 3 deliveries in 2019. While the month is yet to be confirmed, we wouldn’t expect to see anything this side of June.
In the US, pricing is expected to eventually start from US$35,000. I say ‘expected’ because the company is currently only building the more expensive long range vehicles and dual-motor offerings to prop up profits before offering consumers the entry-level vehicles.
So at the moment, the minimum you’ll need to spend on a Model 3 in the US is US$52,000, which reduces to US$34,200 after potential government incentives.
Step up to the Model 3 Performance though and it’s a US$70,000 proposition or US$52,200 after potential savings. Convert those to Australian dollars and we’re talking a current starting price of just over $71,000 for the entry-level and $97,000 for the Model 3 Performance (and that’s without all the additional taxes that come with owning a luxury vehicle in Australia.
Unlike the early days of Model S and Model X vehicles, all Model 3s attract a fee for charging, which makes the ownership proposition a little less skewed to the positive side. But there is a convenience factor with over 11,000 Tesla superchargers located around the USA. They’re in locations from shopping centres through to roadhouses. In the US you’ll struggle to find a spot that isn’t easily serviced by a Tesla supercharger or destination charger.
How long does the Model 3 take to charge? It depends on the charger you’re using and the Model 3 you’re driving. Model 3s with the standard battery pack feature an onboard 32A charger, while the long range vehicles (and Performance) come with a 40A onboard charger.
That means if you’re at a supercharger, expect to spend around 30 minutes at the supercharger if you’re charging from empty to get to around 80 per cent. Head home and that rate changes to a charge rate of around 42km per hour.
Under the panels, you’ll find two electric motors that produce a combined 335kW of power and 640Nm of torque. Tesla claims a range of 500km, while the US Department of Transport claims a mpg-e figure of 1.8 litres of fuel per 100km (that’s a figure that looks at the relationship between the amount of energy required to burn a litre of fuel and how that relates to electric vehicle energy consumption).
Despite how small it appears from the outside, there is an impressive amount of room on offer inside the cabin. Leg and headroom up front is great. Taller passengers won’t have any issues fitting in the first row with the glass roof removing most of the padding that takes its position in cars without full glass roofs.
Storage in the first row is outstanding with a huge bin in the centre of the cabin, mobile phone storage with inbuilt charging slots, while a total of four USB ports service the first and second rows. They’re fast charging too, which means you’ll be able to top your phone up at the fastest rate.
As you move to the second row you’ll find two air vents and more than enough legroom. But, there is a slight compromise. The sub-floor battery storage means the floor sits higher than it would in a ‘regular’ car. The end result is a lack of toe room beneath the seat in front. It can be a real problem if you have big feet or want to try and stretch out. Tall passengers will also find a slight lack of headroom with the sloping roof line eating into headspace. There’s a centre armrest that sits between the two outboard seats, plus two ISOFIX points.
Another curious point worth mentioning is that there isn’t a cover for the rear portion of glass, which means you’ll be exposed to the sun as it sets and comes in through the back window. Not a big deal with UV protection built into the glass, but I’d love to see how it fares on a stinking hot Aussie summer day.
At first, the thought of a white interior had me gasping. But, believe it or not, it’s easy to keep clean and didn’t stain, despite us constantly getting in and out of the car with all of our luggage. It’s easy to wipe clean and is a durable surface for dealing with the bits of food that fall out of the mouths of kids constantly. It’s not leather, which means its hippy friendly and it has further built in properties to prevent tearing and damage from jeans and belts.
Cargo storage is excellent with 423 litres available across the boot and ‘frunk’. There’s also sub-floor storage in the boot big enough to store a small suitcase or the occasional use charger. The second row also folds flat to offer even more cargo capacity.
How is the build quality? This is probably the part I was most interested in given the number of negative stories we have come across in recent months.
On the outside it was good, but not great. Some of the panels didn’t line up as well as expected, while the doors had a hollow sound when they closed. Inside the cabin though, it was a different story. Everything felt solid and very well assembled, indicating that the brand is on track to iron out the build quality issues that have plagued them for some time.
Central to the cabin is a 15-inch colour LCD touchscreen display. It’s also the only visual display unit in the car. You won’t find a speedometer in front of the driver or even a head-up display. The main reason for this is to declutter the cabin, but also harmonise all systems to one location for ease of use and ease of control.
The steering wheel is much the same and links to the main screen. It features two scrolling wheels that can click inwards, scroll up and down and flick left and right. Using the main infotainment display, the driver selects their function.
So the two wheels can be used to control audio levels, audio selection, mirror adjustment and even steering wheel adjustment by calling up the function on the central screen. It’s seriously clever and minimises the need for countless buttons strewn throughout the cabin.
But, how well does it all work? I was a bit skeptical at first. Slapping all of your controls on a single screen would surely make it hard to find things and change settings on the run.
Thankfully, it’s pretty good. In fact, I’d call it excellent. It’s easy to navigate through the menus – even when on the move – and if you can’t find a function, you can call up the voice recognition system that will allow you to do everything from changing the radio station through to calling somebody.
The speedometer is displayed in the top left corner of the screen and can easily be seen at a glance from the driver’s seat. The only thing to take note of is that the lax speed limits in the US make it more or less acceptable to exceed the speed limit briefly. Try that in the most militant speed camera state in Australia (Victoria) and you could wind up handing over money to the government regularly.
Built into the screen are a number of games to keep your passengers busy, along with functions for radio, internet radio, web browsing, car controls and satellite navigation. Satellite navigation in the Model 3 is superb and linked directly with Google Maps. It displays a high resolution outline of the country, along with all Tesla superchargers.
You can even drill down to each supercharger to see how many charging points are currently available. If you head to a big shopping centre, they normally have a valet on hand to move your car into a charging bay if they’re all full – it’s very clever stuff.
Slot your destination into the navigation and the internals will calculate whether you’ll make it on your current charge and if not, where you can go to charge along the way. On top of that it will give you an estimate of your battery range when you arrive or what it would be if it’s a return trip.
If you love your music you’ll love the sound system. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that it’s one of the best sound systems we’ve ever experienced in a car. Tesla doesn’t reveal much about the sound system outside of it having 14 speakers, plus one subwoofer.
Getting in and out of the Tesla is unique to this car too with the brand ditching a conventional key. Instead, a credit card sized piece of plastic is used to tap on the side of the vehicle’s B-pillar to get in and out.
If you can’t be bothered using that, your phone’s Bluetooth function with the phone in your pocket will also unlock the car. Finally, if either of those options don’t sound appealing, you can remotely unlock the car using your phone over wireless. It’s hard to lose!
Out on the highway you’ll be able to experience the latest incarnation of Tesla’s AutoPilot system. Tesla hit a milestone earlier in the year, hitting over 1.5 billion kilometres of travel on AutoPilot systems across all of its cars. During this time the company logs and learns from everything the car observes to further improve the system.
Overall it works incredibly well. It does stop/start with ease in heavy traffic conditions. It’ll also do lane changes for you and while it does work ‘hands free’, it requires you to be attentive and in control, often requesting that you tug slightly at the wheel to confirm you’re there.
We found two or three situations where the system didn’t work as well as intended. At times when two lanes merge into one, it will dart over to the right hand side of the road harshly instead of gradually moving over. There were also times when the car came close to lines next to freeway barriers that it felt a bit too close for comfort, which required driver intervention.
The system works by utilising eight surround cameras that can detect objects up to 250 metres away. In addition there are 12 ultrasonic sensors that can detect both hard and soft objects. It’s finalised with a forward-facing radar that can see through heavy rain, fog, dust and around the car in front.
You can often see the system in action while it detects other vehicles around you. Depending on their size it will display them as motorbikes, trucks or other cars.
Driving in and around California proved that it’s an advanced state when it comes to alternative energy vehicles. While there’s stacks of petrol stations, there are also stacks of EV charging stations for both Teslas and other vehicles. The Tesla stations are often the fastest charging and easiest to find and access. You can also conveniently check availability using the screen in the car.
Connectivity with the application is also fantastic with the ability to remotely control the vehicle, send navigation destinations, kick off cooling and even summon the vehicle in to and out of parks.
There’s also a sense of community with other Tesla drivers. When you enter supercharger sites people will move their cars out of charging bays if they’re full to allow easy access for others. Some shopping centres even have a Tesla valet that will shift your car out of a charging bay and into a regular parking bay if there is congestion at the site.
So the infrastructure is sorted and there’s a buzz amongst owners. But, most importantly, how does the Model 3 drive?
Adaptive suspension and air suspension are missing from the Model 3. Instead, the company has stuck with passive dampers and springs to manage the ride portion of the Model 3. Frankly, it’s not an issue because the ride is very good. It’s softly sprung with medium damping that rounds off sharp bumps, but offers enough movement for continuous undulations (like you’ll find on a number of concrete Californian freeways).
Even while riding on 20-inch alloy wheels, the suspension does a great job of offering a balance between sportiness and comfort. Steering feel can also be changed through three modes – Comfort, Normal and Sport. We kept the steering in Normal mode given the lack of resistance in Comfort and a little too much resistance in Sport.
Beneath the skin is a double wishbone front setup with coil over twin-tube shock absorbers and a stabiliser bar. At the rear it’s an independent multi-link setup with twin-tube shock absorbers and a stabiliser bar.
If you listen to Tesla, they’ll tell you the Model 3 Performance is on par with the BMW M3 and Mercedes-AMG C63 in terms of dynamic performance. In a straight line they’re on the money. Point to point it blitzes both an M3 and C63 due to its all-wheel drive setup and full torque available as soon as the throttle hits the firewall.
But, where it all begins to unravel slightly is when you meet rough sections of road mid-corner. The softly damped ride is comfortable for straight line driving, but catch a mid-corner bump and the body shuffles a little sideways. It results in extra load suddenly being transferred to the outside wheels, which upsets the inherent balance of the car.
This forces the very grippy Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres to work overtime. It can also cause steering feel to temporarily become unsettled as the driven wheels are kicked about and temporarily unloaded and then loaded again.
After some time behind the wheel you can get used to these character traits and compensate for them by allowing extra space through a corner for the car to adjust itself. But the end result is a slightly sloppy body balance that becomes more evident as speed increases.
But, let’s put this into context. When you hits the bends at this pace, you’re almost always going a little faster than you would be in an M3 or C63. That’s due to over relying on regenerative braking, which continues as you trail the throttle into a corner.
When you build your confidence in the car, you would realistically left-foot brake into the corner, trail the throttle through the corner and then pin the throttle on exit. This would settle the car a little better, but ultimately it’s the soft springs that cause it to move around. We suspect replacing them with firmer springs would flatten out the ride.
Most surprising to us was the incredible torque coming out of corners. An electronically controlled torque vectoring system sends more torque to the wheels with more traction and it results in the most bizarre feeling of endless grip.
It takes a lot of effort to induce understeer or get the car feeling sketchy on corner exit. It’s most evident around sweeping bends where you can continuously feed in the throttle to the point where you need to take a breath and get ready for the next corner.
The performance doesn’t taper off either. We did around 20 runs through the same set of corners for filming, plus an additional two extended runs through this 15km long canyon road and each time the throttle was called on, it would deliver without fail.
This is contrary to other electric cars we’ve tested that begin preserving systems with rapid and continuous demands for torque.
Brake performance is very good with a lot of the work done by the electric system’s regeneration system before you transfer on to the brake. But, hit that pedal hard and it does a commendable job of pulling up the car each time.
The Brembo branded front brakes are called upon to slow the circa 1900kg mass down. These team perfectly with the Pilot Sport 4S treads to keep the vehicle in check.
We think that with adaptive dampers and slightly firmer springs, the Model 3 could definitely do some damage to an M3 or C63 around a race track, but until then it falls a little short in terms of the way it behaves through corners.
In terms of straight line performance, we clocked a 0-100km/h time of just 3.8 seconds using the VBox. That was on a slightly loose surface on a hot day, so some great numbers from the dual-motor all-wheel drive electric car.
We wrapped up our drive back into Los Angeles with an epic sunset before dropping the car back the following morning. With well over 1000km under our belts, we discovered how much potential there is for electric cars in Australia. When sales pick up we are likely to see a bigger investment in infrastructure and the tools required to make cars like this work effectively.
Tesla’s claim of a 500km range is about on the money. Even with a huge stint of highway driving (which saps the most amount of energy from a battery, because the system never has a chance to regenerate energy back into the batteries through deceleration), the numbers even out when you throw city driving into the mix.
The Tesla Model 3 pushes the game forward for the brand with better than expected build quality, impressive on-road dynamics and explosive acceleration. Tesla reckons it will commence first deliveries in Australia in 2019. Let’s hope that’s correct, because those reservation holders have been patiently waiting.
Pricing is likely to be much more expensive than we expected it to be given how poorly the Australian dollar is doing, but here’s hoping Tesla factors that into their modelling when pricing is set for Australia.