In selecting a private track testing facility for the first drive of the Australian-specification Model 3 – Tesla’s most affordable model yet – the American electric carmaker’s confidence was on full show.
And confident they should be, because the Model 3 is the first full electric car at this price point – kicking off from $66,000 – to combine a sense of properly premium motoring with genuinely usable range.
With a plush interior and a minimum range of 460 kilometres on the entry-level Standard Range Plus grade, the Model 3 arrives in Australia with the right credentials to succeed. The considerable network of Tesla Supercharger facilities also makes this EV one of the easiest to jump into owning.
The twelve months that have led to the Model 3’s arrival have seen significant progress in the democratisation of the electric car. We’ve given due credit to Hyundai’s $45k, 230km-range Ioniq Electric and $60k, 450km-range Kona Electric, and the arrival of the $50k, 270km-range second-gen Nissan Leaf in recent weeks has added a further option to the landscape.
However, the Tesla Model 3 shifts this segment’s goal posts. Presenting with a more premium cabin, the prestige of the Tesla badge and more powerful electric motors – not to mention higher range than the rest – for under $70,000, the Model 3 has the capacity to bring the fight to the BMW 3 Series class.
Tesla notes that Model 3 customers in the US have been at least as likely to be stretching their budget to get into one, with many customers upgrading out of mainstream cars like the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Golf rather than switching preferences from a BMW or Audi.
Announced with substantial fanfare by Tesla chief Elon Musk with a target price of $35,000 USD (currently around $51,000 AUD), the Model 3 arrives in Australia with an entry price that blows out the target by 29% but is better-equipped and more powerful than many initially expected.
None of the three available grades offer less than 211kW of power. All have Tesla’s Autopilot hardware and software built in and enabled. All sport a 15-inch central touchscreen within which all of the vehicle’s major controls are found. All have heated, electrically-adjustable front seats and fully customisable driver profiles linked to individual smartphones – and your phone works as the car’s key.
The entry-grade Standard Range Plus, with its 460km of range against the NEDC testing standard, is rear-wheel-drive, by dint of the fact that is where its single 211kW motor is located. The base car sprints to 100km/h from rest in 5.6 seconds.
The mid-spec Long Range is $85,000 and it can travel furthest between charges – an estimated 620km. This grade has effective AWD as it adds a front motor to the rear motor setup for a combined output of about 307kW, and a 0-100km/h sprint of 4.6 seconds. The $19,000 upgrade also adds a premium stereo and heated rear seats.
Finally, the halo Model 3 Performance grade costs $91,200 and sees combined AWD-driven power bumped up to 335kW while the 0-100km/h sprint falls to an incredibly quick 3.4 seconds – or almost a full second quicker than last year’s BMW M3 – and that BMW cost over fifty grand more. Bigger brakes and 20-inch wheels are also added if you opt for the Performance.
The numbers can be mind-boggling and so can the Model 3’s sheer straight-line speed – even in the base model. Belt the go-pedal in the Performance grade and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a supercar.
But the Tesla Model 3 is not a supercar. Instead, it reminds us more of the bygone era when German manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz produced versions of their cars with large engines but luxurious interiors and suspensions, standing apart from their M and AMG offerings.
You won’t find low ride heights, heavily-bolstered sports seats or lurid red detailing here – instead, the Model 3 is dressed in a subtle way, even in top-spec Performance trim. In Standard Range Plus and Long Range form, we’d go as far as to say the Model 3 looks a little pedestrian on its standard aerodynamic 18-inch wheels.
The meaty steering feel does convey some sporting intent, though, and the Model 3’s balanced suspension tune manages to combine good body control with what feels like relative compliance, though there were precious few potholes on the private track we were unleashed upon for this drive. More commentary on that when we take it out onto the road.
There’s no hiding the Model 3’s weight, though, which falls around 1,645kg in the Standard Range Plus and 1,850kg in the Long Range and Performance, with their larger battery pack.
This weight manifests itself in a noticeable, but manageable, degree of push understeer. Sadly, despite the Standard Range Plus’s RWD nature, dabbing the throttle to abate the understeer does nothing; the stability control prevents nearly all throttle steer – let alone oversteer. Get on the accelerator assertively on corner exit and nothing happens. The torque arrives only once the conservative ESC tune decides there is no risk of slip.
It’s a little more relaxed in the Performance, which despite its weight, felt more malleable during hard cornering thanks to the additional traction from the front axle, which is powered by a dedicated motor. We found we were able to get on the power much earlier in the dual-motor Performance, helping to pull – not push – the Model 3 out of corners. This feels neutral but benign – more like Audi’s Quattro system than BMW’s rear-biased xDrive AWD.
There is a dedicated Track Mode for the ESC in the Performance grade, though we were barred from testing it due to the narrow width of the track we were using. We’re told this backs off the intervention considerably while allowing power oversteer and promoting lift-off oversteer through aggressive regen braking. That sounds fun!
We noted that the brakes on both grades driven – the Standard Range Plus and the Performance – generated significant heat over repeated hard stops and also that the cars leaned hard on their Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber, though neither of these points are surprising given the mass of the vehicle. We would have said that few owners will take the Model 3 to the track but Tesla sources note they’ve been surprised by the quantity that are doing so in the United States…
All Model 3s are fitted with Tesla’s Autopilot hardware and software, and this suite of adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring and other sensing tech is operational on Australian roads.
However, the $8,500 ‘Full Self Driving’ optional upgrade is ambitiously named but highly limited in both the brand’s US home market and here in Australia. If the regulatory environment changes here to allow for autonomous cars to ply the roads, the Model 3 can receive over-the-air updates to enable these baked-in capabilities.
We’re looking forward to driving the Model 3 on a conventional road test to determine how it operates in normal environments. Driving home from our Model 3 drive in the new BMW 3 Series, which exhibits a very playful chassis, made clear that the Tesla faces stiff competition from non-electric vehicles of the same size and style.
Where the Tesla stands more alone is in its approach to interior styling. We like the minimalism on show: the Model 3’s interior is concept car-like in its execution. Tales of quality woes on previous-generation Teslas are unlikely to be repeated if the vehicles we drove are a guide. Fit and finish appeared to be good.
You sink into plush seats, available in black or blindingly-light white, and the small but thick-rimmed steering wheel falls to hand – the driving position is good. The seats are adjustable electrically but deserve greater lateral bolstering, especially with the cornering speeds the Model 3 can pull off.
There will be a learning curve involved in getting used to the Model 3’s central touchscreen, which houses not only the navigation, media and climate controls but also all the primary instrumentation – your speed, battery range, lights, door locks, and the like are all controlled by this screen.
Controversially, there is no instrument cluster ahead of the driver or even a projected head-up display. There is a small glance involved in seeing your speed, and we’ll be interested in seeing whether this promotes eye fatigue or whether it is a non-issue.
The back seats exhibit similar legroom to a new BMW 3 Series but headroom is limited, with a 6’2” adult’s head touching the huge pane of glass that extends almost to the centre of the Model 3. There are effectively two fixed panoramic glass roof panels, and even the midwinter Australian sun penetrated them pretty easily. What about in high summer? We’ll have to wait and see.
The lack of many mechanical components running the length of the vehicle means several deep and practical storage components in the front row, while in the back there is no floor hump – so five adults can fit at a pinch.
The lack of an internal combustion engine means more benefits for boot space – as there’s both a conventional sedan boot with 425 litres of room and a carry-on sized ‘frunk’ (front trunk) with 340 litres ahead of the passenger cell.
While we’ll need to complete more thorough evaluation of the Tesla Model 3 on our own roads to gain a deeper understanding of this vehicle, it’s clear this is a game-changer for both electric vehicles and entry-level premium motoring.
Tesla’s Superchargers, the ability to install a Tesla wall-box at home and the long range afforded by large battery capacities should make the Model 3 easy to live with.
But quite apart from that, the fact this new Tesla brings the brand’s prestige and a more genuinely premium interior than their previous Model S and Model X efforts to a lower price point is meaningful.
For those who have decided to jump to zero tailpipe emissions motoring, the Model 3 is highly compelling – and for those who would otherwise be buying a vehicle in the Audi A4 class, the Tesla is an option that demands consideration.
Key specs (as tested)
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