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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 can do it in a gut-warping 2.4 seconds. The single-motor Model 3 – the one that’s grabbing all the affordability headlines – accelerates much more like a BMW 3 Series or Mercedes C-Class, albeit a 340i or C43 AMG version thanks to its instant torque. The dual-motor Performance, though, is breathtakingly fast, and a Tesla more in the mould of what all those YouTube clips lead you to expect.
When it comes to handling, both are very adept. Tesla’s best car yet, no doubt. Despite offering rear-wheel drive or enthusiastically set-up all-wheel drive, mind, there will be no skids. 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, though a Track Mode has been teased that allows a bit more fun in the right circumstances.
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 column shifter down, push the right pedal to move, the left pedal to stop, twirl the 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. Much more so if you take your Model 3 elsewhere for some suspension, tyre and wheel mods…
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. The 3 already comes equipped with all the sensors and cameras it’ll need for autonomous functionality, and the (slightly notorious) Autopilot system is a $5,000 software option. 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, letting you take your hands off the wheel for much longer than the equivalent BMW or Audi systems. On American highways it’ll happily drive itself for a startlingly long time. 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. Some of this is perhaps down to our own distrust of such tech – the human brain slowly getting its head around the robot tech. But there’s probably a reason all of Teslas rivals haven’t yet allowed these systems to take the reins for more than a few moments.