If someone told you 10 years ago that a Silicon Valley start-up with no background in the automotive industry would go on to build some of the most innovative cars ever seen and rattle the established car industry to its core in the space of a decade, you’d have laughed them out of the bar.
But the car parked in front of me is proof that that is exactly what Tesla has achieved. The Model 3 is the latest in a series of all-electric models launched by the California-based car maker that have smashed both the range and performance ceilings for electric cars, sending rivals scurrying to their R&D labs where billions are being spent to catch up.
As the name suggests, the Model 3 is the third addition to Tesla’s expanding line-up, joining the original Model S sedan and the gullwing-doored Model X SUV. Still in the pipeline are a smaller Model Y, a roadster, a pickup, and more.
Putting on a great Performance
At roughly $66,000 for the entry-level Standard Plus, rising to $85,000 for the mid-spec Long Range, and topping out at $92,900 for the Performance variant the Model 3 is right in the mix against such mid-sized prestige sedan rivals as the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Similar in size and packaging to these rivals, it’s packing a couple of hundred more kilos due to the large battery pack, albeit crucially sited down low in the structure and optimised for 50/50 weight distribution.
The Performance model tested here came equipped with prestige paint ($2900) and full self-driving capability ($8500 – more on that later), and by the time you add the various State and Federal government fees and charges (a staggering $24,418), its price as tested settles at $120,486. Suffice it to say, those taxes highlight just how much room there is for governments to move on EV subsidies in this country.
Going the distance
Like all Teslas, the Model 3 comes with a range of battery options, which it’s easiest to think of as the equivalent of different engine capacities.
The Standard Range Plus model offers 460km range and a 0-100km/h sprint of 5.6 seconds. The mid-spec Long Range variant covers up to 620km between charges and shaves a second off that 0-100km/h time. And then there’s this Performance model, which at 560km sits mid-pack for range but nails the 0-100km/h dash in a blistering 3.4 seconds.
That’s as quick as a 5.2-litre V10-powered Lamborghini Huracan LP 580-2, which costs four times as much. That puts the Model 3 Performance in some seriously elite company.
The sound of silence
But while it may be as quick as a supercar, the Model 3 sounds nothing like one and the unnerving silence of the EV driving experience is one of the first things you notice.
There are plenty of other things, too, including the fact the car may be unlocked and started with either an app on your phone or by using a credit-card like piece of plastic touched against a B-Pillar sensor.
‘Drive’ is selected via a wand on the side of the steering wheel, one of only a handful of physical controls in the entire cabin. All other controls are accessed via the large 15-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen in the centre of a cabin that looks like concept-car-meets-Scandinavian-minimalism.
A new driver’s lack of familiarity with the complex touchscreen interface presents some issues, since everything from vehicle dynamic settings and seat controls, to entertainment and ventilation, are buried in there. Among the other cool features we discovered: a 'romance mode' that displays a crackling log fire while playing mood music, and even a Car-aoke mode with lyrics displayed on the big screen. Tesla’s designers and engineers clearly have a sense of humour.
The tech isn’t just frippery. The Model 3 features a raft of standard active safety features including eight cameras allowing 360-degree vision, 12 ultrasonic sensors that detect surrounding objects, and forward-facing radar that enables the inclusion of Autopilot and, in the case of this model, the optional full self-driving capability ($8500).
We tried the latter on a section of freeway and it did its job impressively well, but due to local regulations it will sound an alarm after only a short period of hands-off driving, requiring you to retake control. That makes it an extremely expensive driving aid in this country from which you won’t get full value any time in the foreseeable future, so think carefully before ticking that box.
Otherwise, the driving experience is impressive, in a sensible and surprisingly mainstream kind of way. There’s none of the histrionics that usually comes with cars toting this sort of acceleration; just a silent, gliding efficiency and an ability to shift your innards on demand.
The ride is pretty good, the steering a bit sharp and slightly electro-weird, and the handling is terrific. In fact, the Model 3 hares around corners as if on rails thanks to fully independent suspension and, in the case of the Performance and the Long-Range variants, dual electric motors and all-wheel drive.
Homeward on the range
The issue of charging looms large in any conversation about EVs but it’s as easy as topping up with petrol, just a little slower. Simply connect the charging lead to the car and go find a coffee while the battery is replenished.
Charge times vary according to the charging source and the battery option chosen, but either way Tesla’s Supercharger network (32 and growing) is the quickest, delivering 290km of range in 15 minutes.
Alternatively, every Model 3 is equipped with a CCS-compatible charge port that enables charging at many of the 800-odd EV charging stations dotted around the country.
For home charging, a Wall Connector is included as standard equipment, recharging at a rate of 50km per hour (32 amp), or up to 75km per hour with three-phase power.
Finally, if you need to plug into a simple household power point using the supplied Mobile Connector that’s a much slower process, delivering approximately 10km of range per hour of charge.
In summary, the Model 3 is an incredible piece of kit with a depth of tech, range and performance that puts it miles ahead of any available EV competitor in this country.
EV ownership still comes with many questions and some qualifiers, but once you experience the silent rush of electric motoring, it’s fair to say that everything else seems slightly old hat.