Inside Tesla’s new ‘cheap’ car

My first car was a 1993 Toyota Paseo. It was originally painted in Satin Black, but by the time I owned it, that was mostly peeling and faded off.

The transmission was a clunky, barely working manual, it struggled to get up hills even with the foot to the floor and I'm sure its four-cylinder engine emitted enough fumes to make Al Gore cry.

But this was my first car, my first true driving experience, and ushered in a new world for me. Most people I talked to had a very similar experience with their first car, and that shaped their perception of driving and vehicles until this day.

That perception of what a car is and how it should drive is completely rewritten in Tesla's Model 3. It ushers in a new age of motoring and transportation that you didn't know was needed until you experience it. In fact, it's a car that will literally drive itself.

The Tesla Model 3.
The Tesla Model 3.

Tesla's latest car, the Model 3 is by far the company's most important vehicle to date. It's the one that's supposed to bring you and I into the electric car revolution and into this new world of technology driven cars.

The Model 3 will be priced from around $60,000 when it lands in Australia midway through 2019, a much more affordable entry point for an electric car aimed more at the masses. Its first car was a small, two seater sports car, while its second and previously most popular model, the Model S is a luxury sedan that starts at well over $120,000 in Australia for the bare bones model.

Smart cars just got affordable with the Model 3 priced at $60k.
Smart cars just got affordable with the Model 3 priced at $60k.

Tesla has already received more than 500,000 deposits for the Model 3, including from perspective Australian buyers. And it has struggled recently to keep up with production demands, however controversial CEO Elon Musk claims the company is finally on track to hit Model 3 production targets.

However, that cheaper model that Tesla has been talking a lot about won't quite be ready when it launches, as the company has been focusing the production line more on its high-end Performance model with fatter profit margins.

This particular version will be priced around $100,000 when it hits our shores, and it's this version I've been driving recently in the United States.

Tesla Model 3: The future of driving.
Tesla Model 3: The future of driving.

The Model 3 is aimed squarely at BMW's 3-series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi's A4, in every sense and specification. Its low-end model competes with the base model of the German three, while Elon Musk continuously talks about how the Performance model is even better than BMW's fabled M3 performance sedan.

Your first impression of the Model 3 will be how it looks, and it's quite controversial. Personally I find it quite an unattractive car from the outside, with the front and rear ends of the car to looking squashed and disproportionate.

What do you think of the Tesla Model 3 exterior? Attractive or unattractive?
What do you think of the Tesla Model 3 exterior? Attractive or unattractive?

That squashed look is more about maximising air-efficiency and space though. With a sleeker line, it has a lower drag, which means less energy is needed from the car's batteries, maximising its range. While the squashed ends allow the car to have a shorter, more nimble wheelbase and still have a comfortable amount of room in the cabin.

In fact, that cabin space, while considerably less than the Model S, is extremely roomy and comfortable. The rear seat feels much more spacious compared to a BMW 3-Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

Tesla is able to create this room because the electric car doesn't require a transmission or driveline tunnel to run through the middle of the car like a traditional petrol-powered car does and it fully takes advantage of this extra space.

The centre of the car is of course the massive 15-inch touchscreen that controls almost everything in it. This is where your speedometer is shown, where you control the music, the car's settings and the temperature. In the USA, there are also extras such as a web browser, but this isn't enabled in Australian cars.

 

The Tesla Model 3 has no dashboard — just a giant 15-inch touchscreen.
The Tesla Model 3 has no dashboard — just a giant 15-inch touchscreen.

There is no dashboard, which means having the speed of the car shown on that screen and not directly in front of you. However after about 30 minutes of driving you quickly become used to this and it becomes a non-issue. A heads-up display on the windscreen would be a nice addition, though.

The main touchscreen looks beautiful. It's crystal clear and extremely easy to use. The landscape design is also much better than the Model S - being able to display more information closer to your eye-level, compared to the portrait-orientated Model S screen.

For the most part, having everything controlled and operated on that single screen is easier and better than just about any other car I've been in - with one exception.

That's the windscreen wipers, by default it's on auto so you don't have to worry, but I found the auto-setting to be too conservative and wanted to turn it up.

Now on most cars - that's an easy move done on the steering wheel stalk, but on the Model 3 you need to first press a button on the stalk and then change it on screen - way too much work for such a simple function.

When you look at the rest of the interior, it's pretty mixed results. The windscreen, which extends further across the roof than most cars is fantastic, your vision is much better and it actually made it an awesome road tripping car because you could see so much out the window.

The seats were also extremely comfortable and supportive, with my passenger actually calling them the most comfortable car seats they've ever been in. While I personally like Volvo's seats more in its current models, this isn't that far off.

My favourite, but perhaps most subtle part of the Model 3 interior is how the airconditioning works. Rather than having a dozen air-vents and fans across the car, it has one long vent across the dashboard, neatly tucked so you barely notice it. It then has just the one fan working in the middle.

However, this system uses the really smart "air-multiplier" technology, similar to those fancy Dyson fans, which disperses the air across the car. It means that the fan is much quieter even when it's really cranking, and it also doesn't blast directly on you - evenly spreading around the car to cool the entire vehicle down. Pretty neat.

It's not all happy-times in the interior, though, especially in the Performance model. The quality of the build just isn't up to scratch with the Germans at this price point. The car I was in had Tesla's "Vegan Leather", which is really just fancy pleather - like the one you'd get on a $50 Jay-Jay's jacket. And it feels cheap.

In a $100,000 plus BMW or Audi, the leather and its stitching is usually a highlight of the vehicle, feeling incredibly luxurious. And as these competitors continue to improve their infotainment systems and digital screens, Tesla can no longer rely on its minimalist big screen approach to cover up for that quality deficit.

Likewise, the panels on the doors and in the centre console feel cheap and plastic-y, while some of the storage bins often wouldn't close until the fourth or fifth attempt to shut them.

Now if this was the base $60,000 model, you could maybe cut it some slack, but in the $100,000 plus Performance model M3-competitor, it's inexcusable.

 

Tesla Model 3
Tesla Model 3

HOW DOES IT DRIVE?

This is where the Model 3 Performance really shines. While the Model S was scarily quick in a straight line, it felt like a boat when trying to take it around corners. The lighter, shorter Model 3 changes all of that though, making it a genuinely blisteringly fast sports car.

Yes, in a straight line, you can still stamp the throttle to the ground and be thrown back in your seat with 335kW of power and 640Nm of torque on tap at all times. But it will also do so much more than that.

We took the Model 3 around the mountains of Oahu in Hawaii to test all of that out, and it didn't disappoint.

Throw the Model 3 into any corner, and it can keep incredible speed, turning as sharp and as hard as a BMW M3, while having all 640Nm of torque to pull you out at ridiculous speeds. I've never driven a car that can pull you out of a corner so fast and with such ease - it's truly insane.

The lower centre of gravity, thanks to the battery placement under the car means it corners extremely flat, while the combo of a shorter wheelbase and all-wheel drive allows it to turn into corners super sharp and with loads of grip that most drivers wouldn't be brave enough to even try to go fast enough to undo it.

You can almost slingshot yourself to each corner from any speed you like. It's one of the most addictive driving experiences I've had.

My only complaint though is the suspension. It's fine on smooth roads, but when you're trying to carve mountain roads with some less-than ideal road conditions, the car crashes and bumps and can get a little skittish.

Slam the throttle though and it'll pull it back in line. It needs the adjustable air-suspension that Tesla claims is coming soon though.

Once you're done blasting the mountain roads at ridiculous pace, the Model 3 becomes the most civilised car on the road through town. It's eerily quiet, smooth to drive and best of all - has autopilot.

Tesla Model 3
Tesla Model 3

Autopilot is essentially an early preview of what will soon become completely driverless cars. It's going to be an extra $10,000 or so on the Model 3 when it lands, but it's money worth spending in my opinion.

Flick the indicator stalk twice, and it'll enable the mode. From there, autopilot uses a bunch of sensors to keep its speed adaptive to the cars around you, while also steering itself in the lane. I went a good stretch on the highway with the car driving itself for me - even changing lanes when you tell it to.

It's a bit creepy at first - but the centre console helps ease that fear by showing you all the cars, trucks, bikes and people that the sensors can detect, giving you some more confidence in its ability.

There's still a bit to go before it's completely ready for close-your-eyes for a nap driverless ability, but for the most part on the highway it can do the job, allowing you to relax a little and rest your brain a bit on those longer trips. It'll beep at you to then take over if it's starting to lose where the lane is.

But this will only get better with more software updates down the line - Elon Musk says that with the sensors installed on Model 3s that option it will be ready for full-time driverless control, and it's just updating the software smarts inside them that need work.

And what about the electric driving range? This is by far the most asked question around electric cars. The Model 3, has a claimed range of around 350kms in the standard model, while the Performance model I was in has a claimed range of about 500km. It's going to be a little less in the real world - but surprisingly not too much less. Including a fair bit of spirited driving up hills, using around 400kms of driving I managed to hand the key back with a little more than 10% battery left in the car.

Which means for most people, you can easily drive away for the weekend from your capital city and be fine. During the week, the idea is you plug it in your garage and charge it while you sleep, like your phone.

Tesla also has its supercharger network, which is right up the East Coast of Australia now, and a few more scattered across WA and South Australia. You can add about 300-400km of range to your Model 3 here in about 40-minutes.

Much slower than filling your car with petrol, but if you time it right with a meal break, it shouldn't be an issue.

Now would I buy one? While its interior underwhelms me compared to its competitors, as a daily driver, I would buy the Model 3 Performance.

It genuinely feels like driving the future - it's fast, fun, and smarter than any car on the road, and will cost you $1000s less over the ownership period than any of its competitors will thanks to minimal servicing and fuelling costs.

While my Paseo taught me what a 20th century car feels like, the Tesla Model 3 has shown me what a 21st century car should feel like.


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