A zombie shuffles in our direction,
his glazed, lifeless eyes fixed on a glowing screen clamped to a plastic stick. Overhead, a man fires off rounds from his Canon, points hysterically and hops on the spot like a sugar-drunk fouryear-old. Stage right, a queue forms outside a glass temple marked with the sacred T. In front of me, an average-looking saloon car.
“A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object” – that’s how the Oxford Dictionary defines a cult. A fair assessment, I’d say, of what Tesla and its allseeing eye, Elon Musk, have become. It’s certainly not a car company as we know it. Car companies don’t burn through hundreds of millions of dollars every month, consistently miss production targets, keep shareholders at bay with a vague prognosis of turning a profit later this year… and still find themselves the darling of the industry.
Car-company bosses don’t take conference calls with Wall Street analysts then send stock value tumbling by calling their questions ‘stupid’ and ‘boring’, make April fools’ jokes about the company going bankrupt or tweet about Catherine the Great shagging a horse. But then again, car companies don’t take 325,000 paid deposits for a car within a week. Jaguar tried a similar trick with the I-Pace... and has kept the numbers firmly under wraps. Read into that what you will.
There’s a reason why Tesla doesn’t operate by the rules. Because it doesn’t give a monkey’s about the rules. Musk’s mission isn’t to turn a juicy profit – although that’s a necessary by-product – it’s to electrify the world, to turn us all onto the idea that electric cars can be fast and sexy and practical, too. If everything was to come crashing around his ears next quarter – a not-inconceivable possibility – then with attractive, long-range EVs from established manufacturers about to flood in from every angle, it would still be mission complete.
But there’s no sign of any towel throwing. Not yet. To recap, the Model 3 is a foot-shorter, half-price (or thereabouts) complement to the Model S and Model X; there are well over 500,000 deposits down; it’s the lynchpin of Musk’s mission to rid our roads of fossil fuels, and it’s also the thing giving him a significant pain in the arse 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 close to 3,000 a week.
Its mission? To change the world, one neatly executed parallel parking manoeuvre at a time
Back to the kerb outside the Tesla dealership in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. We have seven hours with the Model 3 and I’m wasting it waving a key card in the general direction of the B-pillar and waiting for the wing mirrors to unfurl. Bingo. Push and pivot the handle with your thumb, yank it and you’re presented with an interior that makes a padded cell seem disorderly. The dash is nothing but a slab of wood across the entire cabin (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. Turn the 3 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. Easy.
We won’t patronise you with another recap on the cornerstones of the EV driving experience; instead, let’s focus on the difference between driving a Model 3 and the Model S... beginning with 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 at launch – the $35,000 standard car (0–100kph in 5.6 seconds, 209kph top speed, 354-km range) and a $44,000 long-range model (0–100kph in 5.1 seconds, 225kph, 499-km range).
Here’s what you get as standard on the Tesco Basics $35,000 model: 18-inch alloys, 15-inch screen, on-board wifi, satnav, 60/40 split folding rear seats, LED headlights and tail-lights and a reversing camera. Not bad, but you’ll have to be a staunch pennypincher to resist the allure of a $5,000 premium bundle that adds electrically adjustable, heated seats all-round, wood trim, an
“For now, there’s no Ludicrous mode, but who cares?”
upgraded stereo, tinted sunroof and folding wing mirrors. Space in the back seats is fine for anyone up to six foot, 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.
We drove the long-range – the only model Tesla is currently building before rolling out the lower-spec car, and faster, dualmotor versions, later in 2018. For now, there is no adjustable air suspension, no four-wheel drive and no Ludicrous mode, but who cares? As we turn our back on the skyscrapers, glide onto the Hudson Parkway and point towards Bear Mountain, 80km north, the Model 3 never feels anything less than enthusiastically fast. The rush of acceleration is more 340i than M3, but because it’s perfectly linear, no gearchanges are required and you’re never caught off-boost, it feels more lively than a 340i, more of the time.
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 creeping from a standstill on low-friction surfaces. Beyond that, you can choose three weights for the steering (we tried all three in the first five minutes, then left it in the middle setting for the rest of the day)... and that’s your lot.
“On quick, sweeping corners, you can hustle it at quite hilarious speeds” Tesla waits patiently as its triple macchiato is lovingly prepared
Unsurprisingly, the steering 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 a solid unit. Add to this the fact the battery pack is in the floorpan, which gives the 3 an unusually low centre of gravity, and there’s (whisper it) actual fun to be had here.
The Model S has long been criticised for having a vomitinducing turn of speed in a straight line, but lacking any real emotion. The 3 moves things on. Push it too hard and physics will take over, but it’s a whole league nimbler than the Model S. On quick, sweeping corners, keep your inputs smooth, your foot away from the brake and you can hustle it at quite hilarious speeds. Alternatively, simply enjoy its 0–48kph point-and-squirt potential around town.
The ride is firmer than in a Model S, but rarely crashy – and this is on the crumbling, weather-beaten tarmac in and around Manhattan. Chances are it’ll cope well in the UK, too. The sensation is firmness, but well-damped firmness, much like the sporty German saloons it’s looking to eradicate.
So, the Autopilot system – a $5k option, $8k if you want to prepare the car with all the sensors and cameras it’ll need for advanced autonomous functions down the line. 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 lets you go hands-free for much longer than a BMW or Audi does before bonging. 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. The graphic for setting your maximum speed on the cruise is also on the small side, tucked away in the corner of the screen – why not use the scroll wheels on the steering wheel? An over-the-air update will sort that soon, says Tesla.
A word on range: we spent the day crawling around Manhattan, cruising on the freeway to Bear Mountain, having some fun once there, then heading back into the city. A total of 225km of very mixed driving, and there was still 160km in the ‘tank’. At no point did the range sweats kick in. Without getting too carried away... it works.
So, after spending a day in its company, do I want one?
Does it have the desirability to drag not just tree-humping environmentalists out of their petrol- or diesel-fuelled cars, but the wider public too? The answer is an emphatic yes, and that’s because beyond the hype is a truly well-engineered car. The way it drives is genuinely satisfying, more so than the Model S despite being several yards slower, which elevates it from an appliance to something worth investigating for the likes of you and me. There’s a refreshingly simplicity to the proposition and a ripple of excitement wherever it goes.
But it’s not perfect. Tesla’s production woes are well documented, reports of shoddy build quality are hard to ignore (our test car was perfectly well screwed together), the 18-months-plus waiting list is daunting, the Autopilot function is a work in progress, and, while slick, the decision to put everything on one touchscreen is just as distracting as checking your phone. We admit, coverage of Tesla can get a bit frenzied, but credit where it’s due, the Model 3 is an electric car you’ll want to own and can probably afford. Here’s to Musk clawing his way out of production hell. If he does, it’s mission complete.
Jack takes a break to check Twitter. Yep, the Tesla fanboys are still angry about stuff TESLA MODEL 3 (LONG RANGE) Price: $44,000 OTR/$57,000 as tested Engine: Single electric motor, 70kWh lithium-ion battery Transmission: singlespeed, RWD Performance: 0–100kph in 5.1secs, 250kph Range: 499km Weight: 1610kg