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The Tesla Model 3 is an American four-door saloon car with rear- or -four-wheel drive, seating for five people at a pinch, and a touchscreen inside. Sure, it’s all-electric, but it hardly sounds A Verified Big Deal, does it? But the Tesla Model 3 is one of the most important big deals of the 21st Century so far.
This is Tesla’s long-awaited affordable entry-level car, designed to take on the best-selling likes of the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, and Mercedes C-Class, not to mention their slow-off-the-mark electric cousins. And thanks to Tesla’s viral, household name status and the ambition of the car’s features, the Model 3 has become a phenomenon.
It sits below the Model S saloon in the range, and in Standard Range Plus guise, is priced from £40,490. That gets you rear-wheel drive, and a claimed 278 miles of range between visits to a public Supercharger, or your home wallbox.
Above that in the ‘3’ pecking order lie two all-wheel drive versions: the Long Range (good for up to 360 miles), and the Performance, which sacrifices a few miles of range but will outrun a Lamborghini Huracán up to the national speed limit. Something for everyone, then…
These model lines are correct at the time of writing (January 2021) but Tesla has a habit of creating and killing off trim levels willy-nilly – here today, gone tomorrow. And the price has long since crept away from the mid-£30k target once vaunted. Not that it stopped the Model 3 becoming Britain’s best-selling electric car in 2020.
As per all Teslas – and most electric cars – the Model 3 is powered by a slab of lithium-ion batteries mounted in the car’s floor, where they’re best protected from a crash and helpfully low to keep the centre of gravity in check. That means you get a second boot (frunk or froot, choose your front-biased cargo bay term) in the nose, which is handy for stowing mucky charging cables.
Chances are you’ll have heard fragments of what makes Teslas so interesting floating around the internet. Giant touchscreens, funny Easter egg content like games and built-in Netflix, and something about them being able to drive themselves while you take a nap or watch Tiger King. Let’s get on with saluting Tesla for the truth in that, and dispelling the myths the Californian brand’s cult-like following would have you believe.
Yes, you do have to do this bit yourself. All UK-spec Model 3s come with ‘Autopilot’ built in as standard, declares Tesla’s website, and you’ll have visions of setting the nav for Saint-Tropez, bedding down for the night and waking up on the riviera. Not yet, by a long stretch.
Autopilot is merely an umbrella term for adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane-following assistant and pedestrian-avoidance steering. All terribly useful and well-integrated, but nothing you can’t find in a BMW 3 Series and co.
To get the full suite of Tesla cleverness, you’ll need to spend £6,800 on the Full Self-Driving Package, which purports to control the car entirely on the motorway (though no longer without your hands on the steering wheel) to automatically find and enter or exit parking spaces, and even summon the car to your location if, say, you want to avoid getting caught in the rain when leaving the shops. Welcome to The Future.
Splendid idea, but in execution, not quite there. The Model 3’s automatic lane-changes on the motorway vary from hesitant and haphazard, causing other drivers to be wary of the Tesla rather drunkenly dawdling nearby. Similarly, the Summon feature is a great party trick but better suited to sprawling American parking lots than your average provincial high street. We’ll bet you end up just taking over and doing it the old-fashioned way, using the supercomputer between your ears.
Having saved you a few quid on the tech, next let’s do the same with speed. Trust us, you really don’t need the 450bhp-strong Performance. The £56,490 dual-motor range topper is supercar fast and that’s one heck of a punchline, but the acceleration is so vivid it’s verging on uncomfortable for passengers. We’ve got into the habit of turning down the acceleration from ‘Sport’ to ‘Chill’ mode, which sort of defeats the point. Imagine how rapid it feels to make us lot at Top Gear say we’d make do with the slower one. Aspirin, anyone?
Even the entry-level Standard Range Plus will go from 0-60 in 5.3 seconds, silkily speeding away in silence from the Porsche Cayman who’s still changing gear and building up his revs. It’s effortlessly, instantly rapid.
The other reason you might not want quite so much poke is that, despite Tesla’s best efforts, this isn’t a true sports saloon. Sure, the CoG is snake-low and there’s plenty of grip, but the remote, synthetic steering feels like it’s come off an early Xbox rig and the brakes are mushy.
The Performance can be coaxed into powerslides, but you can sense the sheer mass heaving around in direction changes and the Model 3 feels out of sorts when pushed as hard as the Crème aus Cremes of German performance metal. As a seven-tenths car with effortless pace though, it’s sensational.
Shall we talk range? Teslas tend to excel here, and the Model 3 keeps up the tradition. In a recent winter test of the 2021-spec Model 3 Standard range, we were headed for 210 miles on a charge, with power consumption of 4.7 miles per kWh knocking the VW ID3 and Nissan Leaf’s 2.7 mpkWh into a cocked hat.
Teslas are pretty range-anxiety proof, due to the proliferation of the Supercharger network, its speed of charging, and how efficiently the car uses its battery reserves. A new heat pump from the Model Y has eaten into front boot space in the latest models, but it means even less guilt from cranking up the heater in cold weather. Of course, you can save yourself the bother by pre-conditioning the car via the touchscreen calendar, or your smartphone, which can also act as the car’s key.
The low-speed ride is leagues better than it used to be in, say, an early Model S, and the rolling refinement is predictably serene. But handling and speed – that’s all a bit 20th Century, compared to Tesla’s true forte: the interior tech.