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It’s the Tesla Model 3! It is, but it’s no ordinary Tesla Model 3. This one’s been modified by Unplugged Performance, a tuning company that lives very close to Tesla’s California base and whose boss – Ben Schaffer – has history in tuning Japanese performance cars past 1,000bhp, via Bulletproof Automotive. So what’s he done to this? Tuning an electric car is different to tuning a traditional petrol car, and thus the Unplugged Model 3 has no powertrain modifications, the focus instead being on its suspension, brakes, wheels and tyres. When 0-60mph takes as little as 3.3secs you could easily argue additional power’s pretty low on the priority list anyway. So there’s a list of options which you can spec individually. The blue car you see here gets a number of big tweaks: coilover suspension ($1,995, or around £1,600), carbon ceramic brakes ($8,995/£7,000) and lightweight forged wheels (prices vary, but you’re looking at another £7,000 or so). Beyond those, there are detail things like new brake lines and lighter wheel nuts. It’s a thorough job.
The Model 3 is pretty good to drive as standard though, right? It’s Tesla’s neatest handling car yet, especially the all-wheel-drive, dual-motor version. But by its nature it’s a heavy, complex car with a different feel to a traditional BMW 3 Series or Mercedes C-Class. The net result of Unplugged Performance’s tweaks is a car that feels more like those traditional petrol sports saloons. We like that a lot. We drove two versions. The blue car is a single-motor, rear-wheel-drive Model 3, the red car a dual-motor all-wheel-drive version. The former does 0-60mph in the mid fives, the latter in the low threes. And? Starting with the blue car, it feels immediately sharper and more focused than the standard Model 3 (in comparative spec) we drove immediately beforehand. There’s clarity and communication in the steering, much quicker reactions into corners and a tangibly lower centre of gravity. It feels tauter and more honed, and right up there with a 3 Series for agility. The one thing that stops it completely replicating the experience is its overbearing stability control system, which blows the whistle on your fun far too early. This makes sense in a base Model 3, which really struggles to put down its prodigious, immediately available torque. It could be a wild ride with the electronics off. But Unplugged’s car is so well controlled, helped by the addition of some excellent Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, that it’d be great to have a bit more freedom to really exploit its balance. If you’re expecting all this extra handling nous to come at the expense of ride comfort, however, you’re wrong. Unplugged’s coilovers are based on Ohlins components and are manually adjustable through 24 levels, and we were soon ratcheting them up for more stiffness. Unplugged will set them up for your own preferences when you order, too.
How’s the AWD car? It’s another step on entirely. It doesn’t have the purity of the RWD car – its extra weight is obvious in corners – but flipping heck, it’s quick. It gives a small, relatively unassuming looking saloon car the outrageous performance of a supercar. Specify Unplugged upgrades on one of these and we wholeheartedly recommend the ceramic brakes; while the Model 3’s standard brake regen helps slow you into corners, the velocities you’ll be carrying here warrant something a little stronger. Again, we’d love to try it with the electronic nannies unshackled. The use of dual motors allows some clever shuffling around of the power and you can corner at quite silly speeds when you get your head around it, but some trust from the car that you’ve an idea of what you’re doing would be welcome. Unplugged’s upgrades help this car operate in the realm of BMW M3s, Mercedes C63s and Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglios, with only their tyre-shredding sense of humour missing. That’s not something Unplugged can offer, but perhaps Tesla will consider it in future over-the-air updates, and its Track Mode is certainly a start. An M3, C63 or Giulia rival? Really? It’s a different experience, given the complete absence of noise, save for some tyre squeal when you’re getting really excitable. But after a day on some wonderful LA canyon roads, we’d quite warmed to that; here’s a car you can have an awful lot of fun in without attracting unwanted attention. It’s a tuner car that doesn’t consume more fuel or make more noise than standard, and there’s appeal there. All of Tesla’s self-driving Autopilot tech remains intact, too, albeit after five months of Schaffer making its sensors talk to carbon ceramic brakes. On the long trudge back through LA traffic we largely let the car drive us back itself. So does an electric car lend itself to modifying? Unplugged operates on a different plane of car modifying, something Schaffer happily admits. “Things that don’t translate are quite obvious. We can’t make a bolt on exhaust system and a turbo kit, or increase the displacement of the motor. “Certain old technologies cannot co-exist in the EV world, but you can have high-end suspension, brakes, weight reduction, custom interiors with higher quality materials and custom exteriors which are not just beautiful, but functional. “You can modify a lot of the car and make it into something that is kind of more special, more exotic, more personal, and arguably, that can perform better for the use you have it for.” Indeed, adding $20,000 or so of suspension, brakes or wheels to a Model 3 is merely where the Unplugged experience begins. Head into six-figure sums and Schaffer’s team will fashion a completely bespoke car for you in forensic detail. Naturally you can have an Unplugged Model S or Model X, too. Are you convinced? These two Model 3s are certainly a very good demonstration of the company’s talents. Teslas have always been very good at smacking your gob in a straight line but then letting you down in corners, where they’ve felt more like a science experiment than something designed to make you smile. Unplugged has made the Model 3 feel like a proper driver’s car and a genuine sports saloon. The RWD car wins for purity, but one small taste of the AWD car’s performance is enough to convert you to its unfathomably quick ways. Sample either, though, and you’ll not want to drive a standard Model 3 again. 9/10 Images: Taylor Brodsky