We get the first instrumented test of the electric car that could change the world
Tesla’s product unveilings are notoriously wild nights. If you’re with the press, you’re outnumbered by a rooting section of invited owners who show up psyched, chic, and ready to party. Hors d’oeuvres waft by every 15 seconds. A rock beat pounds away, the lighting in nightclub mode. When Elon Musk finally takes the mic 90 minutes late, his halting improvisation only adds to the edginess. But he’s preaching to the faithful, and they don’t care if he’s polished or not.
In the case of the Model 3, Tesla engaged in a moment of stagecraft genius: a real-time reservation counter appeared on the screen behind the three cars rotating on their turntables. In the hall, the press watched as the number rocketed. People were lining up at Tesla stores to place reservations; the Tesla website was bogging down. The number passed 100,000, then 200,000. By the next morning, it was the talk among complete strangers in Starbucks lines that some new car had gotten 400,000 orders in one night. Suddenly, the Model 3 was a celebrity on wheels, injected into the middle of the general public’s consciousness.
It’s now 19 months later. The scene: The arid Hyundai-Kia Proving Grounds. There’s no rock soundtrack; the only lighting is the orange ball of blazing sun overhead. The test team of road test editor Chris Walton, associate road test editor Erick Ayapana, and myself is eying this jackpot of a car with anticipation and wariness. Without its surrounding hurricane of hyperbole, our very-early-build production Tesla appears oddly alone without its rooting-section entourage. There’s just it, us, our instruments, and these asphalt surfaces.
Walton goes first and tapes a 1-inch-square GPS antenna to the Model 3’s glass roof. Beneath the glass, Chris knows his best acceleration run will happen with the motor cool and the battery nudging 100 percent charge. There’s no Ludicrous launch mode available here—just old-fashioned stamp-the-pedal-as-hard-as-you-can. Chris double-checks that the Vbox and the laptop are recording—its lights are blinking just so—and secured by cinch strap. He collects his thoughts, looks ahead, pauses—and then kicks the floor. Pressed to the road by its tail-heavy (48/52) weight distribution, the Tesla surfs away on a steep, 307-lb-ft wave of torque. A 4.8 second 0–60-mph time pops on the screen, then the acceleration rate slightly fades as aerodynamics reel back against the motor’s 271 hp and Walton flashes past the quarter mile: 13.4 seconds and 104.9 mph. “The torque is certainly impressive,” Chris says, “but I wonder if its acceleration seems exaggerated by the absence of engine noise to distract you from it.”
Is this good? Bad? It’s better than expected. The single-motor Tesla Model S 60 we tested last year (which was upgraded to a 75-kW-hr battery via an OTA update, the same battery size as this Model 3’s) runs a 0–60 in 5.0, two-tenths slower (which carries over to its quarter of 13.6 seconds at 103.5 mph). On the cooling laps between his acceleration assaults, Chris inserts emergency brake stops—his best in the Model 3, at 119 feet, is essentially identical to the 121 for the Model S, which is 532 pounds heavier that stands on 0.4-inch-wider rubber.
Chris returns from the quarter-mile and hands the car over for figure-eighting. I fit a different set of Vbox data loggers, slide the seat back for my 6-foot-1 size, tune the steering wheel into place with its tilt and scroll thumb wheels, toggle the stalk shifter down a tap for D, and whir toward the first corner. Nine times out of 10, this first brake application and steering cut says most of what I need to know; up ahead are loopy black tire marks where a few notable sport sedans have already half-spun. As the arc of orange cones appears on the right, I straighten my ankle into the brake pedal. The 3’s nose barely sinks, I can lower it like a micrometer, as I’m gauging my stopping rate to within a foot or two. Very precise braking. The car’s low battery location, fast steering, and firm springing give it a go-kart quality, and it quickly points to the right with a fraction of the expected body roll. On most laps it relaxes into a mild understeer, 0.87g cornering stance. But a few times I chuck it in and use its 3,902 pounds to rotate into brief drifts. Its lap is a crisp 25.7 seconds.
This is a very digital car to drive: Brake, dial in one single steering angle, wait for the corner to end, and tidily accelerate. Most sedans are a conga line of steering corrections and throttle stabs. After thinking about it, perhaps just the Porsche Cayman and Boxster and the Honda Civic Type R that were on hand today drive this precisely.
Each night after sunset photography wraps, Erick and I take turns babysitting the car, tethering the Tesla to a lonely Supercharger in a Mojave, California, parking lot. As the clock approaches midnight and the 75-kW-hr battery closes in on 100 percent charge, there’s time to think. How does the Model 3’s performance stack up?
The iconic BMW 330i—everybody’s favorite yardstick (actually, about 2 inches shorter, 1.5 inches narrower, and 0.5 inch lower)—is similarly priced to this full-boat, glass-roof, every-feature Model 3 Long Range (after deducting its tax incentives). In the nearby comparison chart, the Tesla betters the Bimmer in several metrics. And to better illustrate this, I’ve added (scaled) bar graphs to some selected categories to indicate each car’s advantage (a bar means better—whether it’s cheaper or faster or bigger, the bar’s length suggests how much so).
For instance, the Model 3 is 0.7 second quicker to 60, stops 4 feet shorter from that speed, and has a 0.4-second-quicker figure-eight lap, and its lateral grip is only 0.1 g behind despite hauling 365 extra pounds sideways. There’s more power and torque, it’s steering’s way quicker, it’s shorter on trunk space, and after tax incentives ($10,000 USD in its most popular market state (California), its as-tested price winds up about $1,000 USD more. (It’ll be interesting to repeat this graphic for the Model 3’s anticipated $35,000 USD basic version versus a loaded Accord or Camry.) Although our real-world 103.7 combined mpg-e measured by Emissions Analytics (89.7/128.2 city/highway) lags behind the EPA’s official 126 overall, the Tesla still eats its energy at just a quarter of the BMW’s pace.
Did I say energy? You haven’t lived until you’ve carried a bag of the fish special back from Primo Burgers—and dined in a Model 3—because there are only to-go orders after 10 p.m. Horseradish sauce and vinegar dipping cups balance very nicely on the center armrest, by the way. Not exactly the hors d’oeuvre trays at a Tesla introduction. But the horseradish is OK, and Brubeck is playing on the car’s internet radio. It’s not bad company.
|2017 Tesla Model 3 (Long Range)|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Rear-motor, RWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||3-phase internal permanent magnet electric motor|
|BATTERY TYPE||Liquid-cooled lithium-ion|
|POWER (SAE NET)||271 hp|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||307 lb-ft|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||14.4 lb/hp|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.6-in vented disc; 13.2-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||8.5 x 19-in flow-formed aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||235/40R19 96W (M+S) Continental ProContact RX|
|TRACK, F/R||62.2/62.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||184.8 x 72.8 x 56.8 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.1 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,902 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||48/52%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||40.3/37.7 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.7/35.2 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.3/54.0 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||14.6 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||2.1|
|QUARTER MILE||13.4 sec @ 104.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||119 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.87 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.7 sec @ 0.74 g (avg)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$57,500|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||8 years/100,000 mile (/120,000 mi w/Long Range Battery)|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|BATTERY CAPACITY||75 kW-hrs|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||89.7/128.2/103.7 MPGe|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||131/120/126 mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||26/28 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||110-volt, 220-volt electricity|