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Tesla Model 3 Performance review: Worthy of the hype?

We take the most talked-about car in a generation on two European road trips

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It is impossible to introduce the Tesla Model 3 without getting caught up in the hype. Revealed to the world a little over three years ago, the car attracted a lot of attention, with many claiming it as important to the future of the motorcar as the Ford Model T, Volkswagen Beetle, and original Mini. This, the motoring and technology worlds said breathlessly, would be the turning point for the electric car.

To steal a line from VW's marketing department, the Tesla 3 would be the people's electric car, halving the cost of an entry-level Tesla to the $35,000 mark and forcing the sleeping giants of Audi, BMW and VW out of their complacent slumber. Tesla fans had queued outside stores overnight back in 2016, to pre-order a vehicle they had yet to lay eyes on, iPhone-style. The Model 3 would, however, rewrite what everyone saw in their mind when thinking about electric cars.

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Now, in mid-2019, the Model 3 has finally arrived in most of Tesla's largest markets. Yes, buyers got the first U.S. deliveries in the summer of 2017, but only now is the car readily available across Europe, the UK and beyond.

GearBrain has recently driven two examples of the Model 3. Both of these were in flagship Performance spec, which costs from $59,900 in the U.S., £49,440 in the UK, and around €62,800 in Europe, depending on local taxes.

Road Trip 1: France and Belgium

Our Tesla Model 3 adventure begins on a May afternoon in Paris, where we collect a white Model 3 Performance and drive to Bruges, Belgium for the night, before returning to Paris the next day. Although this gave us chance to experience the Model 3's strikingly minimalist interior and reacquaint ourselves with the excellent Supercharger network, this was not the most thorough of road tests, as it involved little more than the quiet, smooth and mostly forgettable autoroutes of France and Belgium.

Photo of a red Tesla Model 3 Performance After three years of waiting, the Model 3 has a lot to live up toGearBrain

And yet, stepping into a Model 3 still feels different to any other car. For a start, there is no key or key fob. Instead, you can tap a stylish black card the size of a hotel room key against the B-pillar behind the front door to unlock, then tap against the center console to activate the car. This in itself is fun, but better still is logging into the Tesla smartphone app for iPhone and Android, which turns your phone into the key.

Now, you just walk up to the car and, so long as your phone is in your pocket and switched on, the car will unlock and is ready drive. Once parked, just get out and walk away. The car locks itself — then lets you know with a quiet beep of the horn.

Step inside, and the Model 3's famously stark interior shouts out at you, its unfamiliarity a little unsettling at first, with a facade stripped of all traditional controls and dials, save for a single, central touch screen.

Tesla says this is a bid to be minimalist and cool, but secretly we all know such a simple cabin makes the car cheaper to make, and requires fewer changes when building vehicles for right-hand-drive markets. Buy a Model 3 in the UK or Hong Kong, and wheel and glovebox are swapped, and the display's software is flipped around so that the speedometer sits in the top-right corner instead of the top-left.

The Model 3's center touch screenGearBrain

It still feels like a fairly classy place to be, complete with tasteful wood trim and that high-resolution, super-responsive touch screen which performs just like an iPad Pro. Tesla infotainment systems have always been streets ahead of everyone else, and the Model 3's takes the game on even further. Its landscape orientation makes more sense than the tall-and-narrow portrait display of the Model S and Model X, while its operating system is a thing of beauty.

Beautiful, but the car is certainly complicated. There is a huge amount going on here, and you cannot simply jump in the Model 3 and set off, hoping to make adjustments to the steering wheel, mirrors, climate control, radio and driver assistance features on the go, as you might with a more traditional car. For a start, the wheel and mirrors are adjusted by going a couple of taps into the user interface, then rotating the steering wheel's scroll wheels. By all accounts, this is a different species of car.

As we head out of Paris and hit the autoroute up to the Belgian border, we quickly grow accustomed to the central display, with the speedometer in the upper-left corner of this left-hand-drive example. Here, it's close enough to be seen without glancing away from the road ahead, and so too is another permanent fixture of the touch screen, a virtual representation of your car and any vehicles or pedestrians around it.

This is a useful system for checking your blindspots, and shows what the car's Autopilot cameras can see (more on which later.) The image then shifts to a top-down view when maneuvering slowly or parking, helping you judge the extremities of the car. Or you can ask Autopilot to park for you, which works well, but leaves an overly conservative gap to the curb.

Photo of a red Tesla Model 3 Performance The Model 3 starts at $35,000GearBrain

The rest of our three-hour drive to Bruges is fairly uneventful, save for the automatic wipers coming on every time we exit a tunnel for seemingly no reason at all. Truth be told, the wipers are a real concern on the Model 3, as the automated system is still in beta and there are no physical controls.

This means you have to tap the touch screen to open the wiper settings page, then tap again to pick the speed. We often felt uneasy doing this, as the last thing we want to do when our vision is obscured by rain and road spray is to look at a touch screen. A more reliable automatic system is badly needed — or Tesla, please, just fit the same physical stalk as on the Model S and X.

While we're on the interior, it must be said that some aspects lack the quality expected from a $60,000 car. The central storage bin and phone holder both look and feel cheap. Drivers switching from a similarly priced Audi or BMW may well be left scratching their heads and wondering where all their money went.

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Photo of Tesla Model 3 interior The minimalist interior looks good, but is let down by a lack of quality in some areasGearBrain

Our journey was broken up by a trip to a Supercharger station at a hotel in Lille, which was easy enough to locate. However, we found that, while Superchargers tend to be at motorway service stations in the UK, so you can stop for electricity in the same place everyone else stops for gas, in France they are often a couple of miles away from the main autoroute, and not at the regular service stations at all.

Additionally, in Europe the Model 3 uses a CCS charger, which is different to all other Teslas. This means the older Superchargers do not work with the Model 3 (despite the connection fitting just fine), and while Tesla is working quickly to update the chargers, many stations had just one or two pairs of CCS charger during our drive. The same was true during our second Model 3 drive in the UK in June, but the car's navigation system correctly tells you how many compatible chargers are available at each station, and these numbers will grow quickly.

Although mostly uninteresting, the French highway at least presents regular opportunities to try out Tesla's legendary acceleration. The wide, empty road stretching out from the barrier of each toll booth is all the invitation needed to floor the accelerator and feel the Model 3 Performance justify its name, launching forward with a fury that is borderline-painful, yet smooth, controlled and eerily quiet.

Photo of a white Tesla Model 3 Performance The first Model 3 we drove, through France and Belgium GearBrain

Where an Italian supercar or even a German super-saloon would serve up a hearty does of histrionics, complete with side orders of squealing wheelspin, barking exhaust and whiplash gear changes, the Tesla surges forward with the unrelenting shove of a rollercoaster, reaching 60 mph in 3.2 seconds and the 130k m/h (about 80mph) French speed limit a couple of seconds later. Such performance from a sensible family sedan is as hilarious as it is addictive; a party trick you never grow tired of — unlike the car's many Easter eggs.

Buried in a panel of the infotainment system are classic Atari video games controlled by the steering wheel (when parked, obviously), a sketch pad and web browser, a video of a crackling fireplace, an ability to switch the navigation map from Earth to Mars, and the latest addition — Fart Mode.

A sort of digital whoopee cushion, this lets you play a range of noises from the car's speakers, in such a way that you can make an unlucky rear seat passenger sound like lunch disagreed with them. Childish fun of the highest order, but after the 'hey look at this' appeal, we wonder if any of these Easter eggs are ever used more than a handful of times. Still, you wouldn't get any humor from an Audi, would you?

Road Trip Two: United Kingdom

We're going to skip forward a few weeks now, to the driver's seat of a red Model 3 Performance collected from Tesla's Chiswick store in West London. We're headed to Yorkshire, 200 miles north on a journey through some of the worst rain we've ever experienced.

Still sitting on the left (right-hand-drive cars arrived in the UK the following week), we join a rain-soaked motorway, wipers manually set to maximum speed (because in automatic they completely failed to clear the screen of spray, to the point visibility became a problem), and with Autopilot engaged.

Photo of a red Tesla Model 3 Performance The second Model 3 we drove, through the UKGearBrain

We're cautious at first. The conditions are bad enough for even the outside lane to be below the 70 mph speed limit (a rarity here), and with a bright gray sky we occasionally struggle to see the white lane markings. It's a sunglasses-glare-and-wipers kind of drive, yet Autopilot did not once falter. It never lost sight of the lane markers, and made a genuine contribution toward making the drive less mentally taxing. It also worked perfectly in stop-start traffic, faithfully pulling away and stopping to keep up with the car ahead.

For years we have been dubious of Autopilot, but here the system earned our praise and felt like a system actively trying to help us. Autopilot wasn't taking over control of the car, but instead let us drive in a different way, where you monitor the system instead of do the driving yourself. Unsurprisingly, it makes you feel like a pilot.

Stopping at a Supercharger station in Oxford we get chatting with a fellow Tesla driver (they all love to chat and charge.) He's a British Airways pilot and, while he loves his Model S, he's concerned about depreciation and feels that Autopilot perhaps isn't the right name for Tesla's driver assistance system.

While we're at the charger, we should quickly discuss range. This Model 3 Performance is rated at 329 miles using the WLTP standard and 310 miles using the tougher US EPA test. This is more than enough for most people, most of the time. Charging never really feels like a chore, as after two or three hours and 200 miles, you probably want a break anyway. So park up, plug in, stretch your legs, have a coffee, then 15 minutes later the car will have probably filled by enough to get you to your destination or your next stop.

For more on using the Tesla Supercharger network, read about our 1,200-mile road trip to Scotland in a Model S 100D.

The rain clears a while later and we try out Navigate on Autopilot (NoA) for the first time. This system is intended to make lane changes for you, even exit the highway at the right junction, and then merge onto a different road. Autopilot can't navigate junctions, but it promises to merge between highways when the navigation system demands it. NoA also suggests lane changes to overtake slower vehicles, but (for now, at least) requires your permission, which is given with a flick of the indicator in the direction the system wants to go.

Photo of the glass roof of a Tesla Model 3 All Model 3s get a large panoramic glass roofGearBrain

Navigate on Autopilot overtakes safely and reliably, but we struggled to trust it as we leave the expressway, taking the right lane, and correctly joining the next road. This will doubtlessly improve over time, as Autopilot has over the past few years.

On reaching Yorkshire and the English countryside, we try the Model 3 on some more dynamic roads. While the car is undoubtedly heavy, it hides this bulk well as the 1,000-pound battery pack is mounted in the floor, giving the car a lower center of gravity than its rivals. The blistering acceleration is here again, of course, but so too is an eagerness from the chassis, moderately communicative steering (which is made a touch too heavy in Sport mode), and excellent ride quality.

The brakes are strong, and of course this being an electric car, the regenerative braking system uses the motors to do much of the slowing for you; basically, the sharper you lift the accelerator, the quicker you slow, and the brake pedal is only really needed when slowing more aggressively or coming to a complete stop.

The Model 3 is not a sports car in the traditional sense — the driver still feels somewhat detached from proceedings — but it is certainly fun and surprisingly agile. There's also a comfortable amount of seating for four (plus a middle passenger in the rear, at a push) and two trunks, although the front one is only really suitable for a couple of soft carry-on bags at most. The rear trunk, however, is huge at 425 liters.

Photo of the carbon spoiler of a red Tesla Model 3 Performance The Performance model gets a carbon rear spoilerGearBrain

Tesla Model 3 review: Verdict

So does the Model 3 rewrite the automotive rulebook? Not quite, although it might have if deliveries had begun on time. Instead, it has started a new chapter in the story of the car; a chapter which begins with proof that electric cars can be affordable.

The Model 3 deserves its moment in the limelight, but the competition is closing in fast, from Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen, who between them have dozens of new electric models due out in the coming few years, likely before the Model 3 gets so much as a facelift. Jaguar too has the I-Pace, while Hyundai has the e-Niro, Kia has the Kona, an electric Mini is on the way, and Honda is about to turn heads with the E.

Tesla and Elon Musk have earned their moment in the spotlight, and for that we must applaud them. But we wonder how long it will be before Teslas are no longer the electric cars to have, but merely one of many.

Pros:

  • Enough range for most drivers
  • Supercharger network
  • Huge performance
  • Fun to drive
  • Autopilot really can help

Cons:

  • Performance version is pricey
  • Interior looks and feels cheap in places
  • Automatic wipers need fixing
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