Going electric is, without doubt, the new revolution for the automotive industry and for car buyers. Although almost all of the big names have now announced electric models (EVs) – or at least have them in the works – it was a Tesla that really kicked things off.
It all started for Tesla back in 2011 with the Roadster, an electric version of the Lotus Elise, but today the range features four additional models: the S, 3, X and Y (the Y and new Roadster are currently on pre-order). The Model 3 was originally due to be the E, completing Tesla founder Elon Musk's 'SEXY' range, but Ford had already trademarked the name, so it was swapped to 3.
While the S is a large sporty saloon, with Jaguar-esque looks, the 3 is more of your mid-size four-door – similar in size to a Ford Focus or Honda Civic, but with spec and styling are more in line with an Audi or Mercedes. It's a good-looking car but, much like the Model S, quite ordinary from the outside.
However, this is Tesla's most affordable model to date, starting at £38,050 for the Standard Plus model and going up to £56,050 for the Performance edition. Sure, it's by no means cheap, but the model we tested – the Long Range All-wheel-drive model with 19in alloys, priced at £47,050 – is marginally less than a Porsche Boxster and just a touch more than a BMW 3 Series. That's quite remarkable for an all-electric car.
Having been behind the wheel of the Model 3 for a week – driving portions of Route 66 in the USA – does it truly offer a tempting package for those looking to go electric?
When it comes to performance the Model 3 is class-leading, with a 0-60mph of 3.2 seconds from the Performance model. That's the same as a Ferrari Enzo or a Porsche 911 GT3.
Thanks to the Tesla's two independent motors (in the Long Range and Performance) the power is delivered to the front and back wheels almost instantly, with huge amounts of torque. The Long Range is marginally slower due to extra weight, but the 4.5 seconds it takes to hit 60mph is still blisteringly fast.
Even the Standard Plus, with a 0-60mph time of 5.3 seconds, is on par with a Jaguar F-Pace.
Futuristic app-based entry
We picked up our review car in Chicago, Illinois, for a bit of a road trip. The goal being to test the Model 3's range and Autopilot technology.
Rather than a traditional key, the Model 3 uses what looks like a credit card to open and operate the car. This is held up to the camera in the central pillar to open and lock, and placed on the central arm rest to drive. The car then starts up (silently) when the brake pedal is depressed.
You can also make your phone the keycard, by connecting your car to the Tesla app. Once this is activated the car will detect your phone, open and start without you removing it from your pocket. There had been issues of sophisticated theft occurring by hacking, but Tesla has patched its software with new modes to prevent such problems in the future.
The app also gives you a range of other controls, including the ability to turn on the climate control, locate the car, check the battery level and even have the car drive to you, using the summon command. This is James Bond-level gadgetry but is genuinely useful for those tight parking spots.
Sparse yet suave interior
Inside the car, the interior is beautifully finished in black leather and black gloss panels with a broad light wood strip along the dashboard (a white leather interior is also available).
The layout is extremely clean, modern and almost unnervingly bare. Aside from the two dials on the steering wheel, an indicator and an automatic gear stick either side, all other controls are via the giant 15-inch touchscreen – which we'll go into more detail on that in a bit.
There's no separate instrument panel or even air vent controls as on previous Tesla models. This makes finding the Model 3's controls a bit of a challenge the first time, but the process of accessing the central screen – even to turn on the window wipers and open the glove box – soon becomes natural.
You can actually do quite a bit from the steering wheel: the gear selector is used to engage the adaptive cruise control and Autopilot with either one or two downward presses; the right dial on the steering wheel can set your maximum cruising speed; the left dial controls music volume and track selection.
You can connect your mobile via Bluetooth for hands-free and media streaming too. There are docks for two phones (one Apple's Lightning connector, the other USB-C) in the centre console, as well as four USB ports and a 12V adaptor.
The Long Range and Performance models also feature the premium audio package, including 14 speakers, one subwoofer and two amps.
There's plenty of space, both for people and luggage. Unlike the X, this model only seats five people, but does so generously and has both a large boot that can easily fit three large cases, and an additional storage space under the bonnet thanks to the lack of petrol engine. The rear seats can also fold flat to extend the luggage space if needed.
Display and navigation
The 15-inch screen on the Model 3 is the focus point of all operation. Just as we've said of Audi's screen-based focus in the e-tron, this can sometimes be taxing while driving.
In standard setup the Model 3's display divides into a vehicle panel display on the left third and a map covering the right two thirds. The vehicle panel includes the current driving mode, speed and remaining charge (either in percentage or miles) along with a graphic of the car. While driving, vehicles surrounding the car appear in white as an indication of what the cameras and sensors are seeing, occasionally turning red when they present a perceived danger.
The navigation part of the screen offers a clear map display along with satellite view and live traffic visualisation, viewed either top-down or in 3D. When you search for a destination, the software handily builds any required charging points into your journey and gives you an estimate of the charge you will have left when you reach your destination.
It also allows you to view all Tesla charging points in the mapped area, so you can quickly navigate to a charger. The only things missing for us here are the ability to change the journey based on the final charge left on the car, and the ability to add multiple stops – including additional charging stops – to the journey.
The screen also hides a number of Easter eggs for pure LOLs. Slide down the car information screen and it reveals a selection of games and fun modes. The selection on the current software version include an Atari game simulator, a Mars mode which changes your map into the Martian landscape, a sketch pad, a fart machine, a rainbow road, a Santa mode, and an open fireplace screen saver. It even pays tribute to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy if you change the car name to 42.
How does it drive?
On the road the 3 handles very well. The suspension is on the stiffer side, making cornering solid, though it does make you feel the bumps on those less maintained roads.
Driving, especially at low speeds, can be eerily quiet at times, and though Tesla has added a subtle growl to mimic engine noise, the lack of vibration and instant power make you very aware you are not in a petrol engine car.
The torque from the electric engine is impressive and makes that quick sliproad entrance or overtake a breeze. Though we were expecting to miss the feel of a car going through its gears, you soon realise in an EV how superfluous that is.
From a pure driving point of view, our only real negatives were the limited vision through the rear window, which is quite slim, and the wingmirrors, which due to their angular shape can leave you with quite a large blind spot (maybe that's why the Model Y is rumoured to be going with camera-based digital mirrors).
Autopilot adds safety and assists
The Tesla Model 3 contains a number of new driving technologies that make the experience unique and very futuristic. Autopilot is the overarching name for most of the clever technology that comes with any new Tesla. The system includes a number of safety features along with various driver assistance features, including traffic-aware cruise control and lane assistance, which make use of the car's eight external cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors.
The full self-driving package, which adds the ability to navigate lanes and sliproads in Autopilot mode, auto park and summon the car, costs an additional £4,900 (note: retrofitting is more expensive). It doesn't, however, provide fully autonomous driving. At least, not yet.
The safety features are similar to those that you see on many high-end cars, such as the automatic emergency braking, front and side collision warnings. But they go further with the addition of obstacle aware acceleration, to reduce your acceleration when an object is spotted in front of the car, and blind spot monitoring, which warns of obstacles when changing lanes and helps counteract those small wingmirrors.
When driving, the display shows a graphic of the vehicles (and also cyclists and people) the computer can see around the car, and we often found that we spotted other vehicles on the screen before we saw them in the mirrors.
The traffic-aware or adaptive cruise control (ACC) is part of the standard Autopilot package and, though relatively simple, is perhaps our favourite part of the new technology. As the name suggests, this is similar to a standard cruise control system. The difference being that, when faced with another vehicle in front, the car slows to match that vehicle's speed.
It is switched on with a single downward press of the gear stick and is really handy on busy roads, as you can set your maximum speed and then allow the car to adapt to match the speeds of the cars in front. There's nothing worse than having to disengage cruise control every time you come in to heavy traffic, and with this you don't have to. During our trip we kept the ACC on through some roadworks, where we were brought to a complete standstill on a 70mph road. The car crawled through the traffic and slowed to a stop when needed, then returned back to full speed once the road was clear.
With a double downward press of the gear stick, you can engage the full Autopilot system. As well as providing the ACC, the car will now activate Autosteer to automatically adjust the steering to stay within the lane. You need to keep some resistance on the steering wheel at all times, otherwise the software will warn you and eventually disengage, slowing the car to a complete stop. We found a light hold of the wheel was enough to keep it happy and it was much more accurate at keeping the car in the centre of the lane than we were.
With the full-self driving package, the Model 3 can also perform auto lane changes in Autopilot mode. By holding down the indicator, the car will check its sensors and move across to the other lane by itself. If it senses a vehicle in the way it will not allow you to change lanes. Also, as we discovered, if you stop indicating too soon, it will bring you straight back into your original lane. The standard lane change is a gentle process and suits fairly quiet roads. However, provided you are travelling under your set maximum speed, the car will accelerate as you engage the indicator, allowing you to pass the car in front more efficiently.
The system isn't perfect, yet. Phantom breaking can occur when passing lane exits and sometimes when there's nothing in front. It would also occasionally slow the acceleration when returning to the inside lane. As the system is relying on cameras and sensors, it works best in good weather - when driving through a rain storm one evening, we switched back to manual driving to cope with the unpredictable nature of the lorries we were passing. The adaptive cruise control can lead to the car wanting to undertake or pass vehicles when a seasoned driver may hang back.
With a route set, you also have the option to engage the Navigate on Autopilot mode. This mode allows the car to suggest lane changes to overtake slow moving vehicles and guide you on and off slip roads and through intersections. From the car's options menu, you can change how often it asks you to overtake to keep you at your maximum speed. On the model we tested, the lane changes had to be confirmed with the indicator. However, a new release of the software which will be rolled out this month, allows you to opt for no confirm. This will allow the car to change lanes all by itself (provided your hands remain on the wheel).
There are two situations when you can take your hands off the wheel completely and let the car do its thing. Auto park, as the name suggests, will reverse the car into any street-side parking space it detects, either with a deftly performed parallel park or a simple reverse for perpendicular spaces. Placing the car into reverse and selecting the space on the screen will set it on its way. Unfortunately, it doesn't work in private car parks, and often on busy streets we found the presence of other cars trying to pass caused it to cancel the movement.
For the Summon mode, you don't even need to be in the car. This is accessed on the Tesla app and, on the version we tested, gives the ability to move the car forwards and backwards. However, a new release (due in time for the UK models) provides an enhanced version that allows the car to navigate to your position, even across a busy car park. As long as you are within the radius given you can drop a pin on the satellite map and hold the button down until the car reaches your location.
There are still more additions to come to the current full self-driving system, such as traffic light and stop sign recognition and the ability to engage it for city driving. However, there's no dates to these updates a present.
Charging and range
The Model 3 we drove in the US had a specified range of 310 miles, which in a full day's driving meant at least one decent stop to charge. Each stop required less than an hour to take the car back up to a nearly full state, and gave us a good excuse to stretch our legs.
The Supercharger points are well situated close to the major routes across the USA, while there are now over 3600 over Europe, with 440 in the UK alone.
Tesla doesn't recommend to completely fill the battery as it leaves no room for the regenerative braking to top it up. So, 90 or 95 percent is plenty for long distances, while you can go less for around town.
Stopping also gave us chance to chat to other Tesla drivers, who all come across as very loyal to the brand. Despite its quite normal looks, the Model 3 is talk of the town the world over.
With its UK release, the Long Range model has a WLTP (Worldwide harmonised Light vehicles Test Procedure) range of 348 miles, which you'd struggle to achieve on many long journeys in the UK – aside from maybe London to Edinburgh.
One thing to note though is that the predicted remaining mileage is based on average speeds. On one journey, which was due to leave us with more than 20 miles remaining, the display warned to keep speeds below 70mph to reach our destination, and even when doing so, got us to the next charge with just 10 miles to spare. So range anxiety isn't 100 per cent removed.
Though still not at mass-market pricing, the Model 3 is the first Tesla that feels like the electric revolution is truly underway. This is a premium mid-size car that not only offers luxury inside but seriously high performance.
Though Tesla is no longer the only choice for those looking for a fully electric vehicle, its network of charging stations and range make it the most appealing choice for those looking for a true replacement for their petrol car.
From a technology point of view, the Autopilot system is a game-changer, particularly with the full self-driving options. Using the Autosteer and Adaptive Cruise Control take the strain our of long-distance driving, while the Navigate on Autopilot feels like a glimpse into the future of fully autonomous driving. And we like what we see.