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Tesla Model 3
The Top Gear car review:Tesla Model 3
What is it like on the road?
We won’t patronise you with another recap on the cornerstones of the EV driving experience (smooth, quiet, instant torque etc), so instead let’s focus on the difference between driving a Model 3 and its bigger brother, the Model S. First thing to address is speed. Even in base-spec ‘75D’ trim the Model S covers 0-62mph 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 (0-62mph in 5.6 seconds, 130mph top speed, 220-mile range) and a long-range model (0-62mph in 5.1 seconds, 140mph, 310-mile 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. If we’re keeping the 3 Series comparison rolling, then the rush of acceleration is more 340i than M3, but because it’s perfectly linear, because there are no gear changes required, because 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 moving 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 in in the middle setting for the rest of the day)… and that’s your lot. 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 centre of gravity, and there’s (whisper it) actual fun to be had here.
The Model S has long been criticised for having a vomit-inducing 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 – this is still a heavy car and the tyres 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. Alternatively simply enjoy its 0-30mph point and squirt potential around town and lifting-off to slow down, using the brake energy regeneration to stop rather than an old-fashioned pedal.
The ride is firmer than 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, 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. So, the Autopilot system – a $5,000 option, or $8,000 if you want to prepare the car with all the sensors and cameras it’ll need in the future for more advanced autonomous functions. 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. 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 for that? An over the air update will sort that out soon, says Tesla.