The best traditional track sedan meets the EVs out to dethrone it
“Randy’s just gone off Turn 2,” the walkie-talkie barks. I look up from my laptop. What happened? Our Jaguar I-Pace is most definitely in the wrong place and has come to a stop amid drifting dust.
Today is just getting weirder and weirder—Randy Franklin Pobst never goes off a racetrack. For all the tire marks that spaghetti away from the Streets of Willow’s racing line and loopily disappear at its broken edges, they’re never the graffiti of our resident championship racing driver. Randy is a model of consistency.
A walkie-talkie hisses for a moment, and then … “The Jag suddenly put on its emergency brakes and sent me off the track.” Wait, what? The Motor Trend testing staffers eyeball each other. For the past two hours, Randy had been chasing software curveballs. Even through the metallic fidelity of our Motorolas, the terseness in his voice says he’s getting a little weary of it.
“At least it wasn’t just us,” mutters a Tesla-hatted voice behind me. Earlier, the Tesla Model 3 Performance with Track mode didn’t exactly stop as planned approaching Turn 10, going straight off at 90 mph (145 km/h), then bouncing through the bumpy desert terrain and sagebrush before re-entering the front straight and rolling into the pits, with a blown left rear tire courtesy of its off-road excursion.
We expected some surprises today. Bringing together two trackable battery-electric vehicles to challenge the best classical internal combustion sport sedan in the world right now—the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio—would be the beginning of a battle for the ages. Who knew it would also wind up a battle in the sages?
Let’s rewind the clouds of dust to earlier this morning.
It’s 8 a.m. in the California high desert, and already the sun has our asphalt stage brightly lit. To our left is “Big Willow” with its white-knuckle turns and village of backstage garages and paddocks needed for Willow Springs International Raceway’s blockbuster, high-speed productions. This, though, is “Streets,” its more intimate second stage. A more technical setting for our trio of performers.
Amid the hiss of tire pressures being adjusted by co-evaluators Alan Lau and Derek Powell—and the rattle-grrrrrrrrr of photo czar Brian Vance’s incessant coffee bean grinding—I’m staring at the cars and unable to piece together a good argument for why the Alfa beats the Tesla around the track or the other way around.
It’s easy to pencil out why the Jag is going to lag behind: Compared to the Alfa, its motors’ combined 394 horsepower falls 22 percent shy of the Giulia’s output, while its 4,946-pound (2,243-kg) mass renders it 31 percent porkier. Those SEMA-ready 255/40R22 Pirelli P Zeros the Jag is wearing won’t erase the high-heeled physics of its crossover height. The Jag seems a preordained but not dishonorable third place around Streets. But the tea leaves from our real-world testing of the Giulia and Model 3 point in contradictory directions.
Leaf One tilts toward Tesla: The 505-hp Alfa’s 0–60 time is 3.8 seconds; the 450-hp Model 3 clocks at 3.3—its dual-motor AWD launches it like a rail gun. Leaf Two, to Alfa: The Giulia clings to corners like sweaty underwear, pulling a 0.98 g skidpad compared to the Model 3’s
0.95. Leaf Three, pick ’em: The Tesla stops shorter—but fractionally so. Leaf Four, mox nix: Their figure-eight lap times are identical at 24.2 seconds. Time to ditch the tea and grab some of Vance’s coffee.
The cars are prepped, and Randy is good to go. The Model 3’s cooling system is screaming as it pre-chills the battery and dual motors. Belted in, attired in his black helmet, black racing suit, and ever-bright mood, Randy asks the Tesla engineer leaning into the cockpit, “What do I do to set the handling?” The guy taps the do-everything center screen’s icon with the words “Track Mode.” That’s it. Randy raises his eyebrows. The guy climbs out; I lean in to check that our Vboxes are powered up and SD cards clicked in, then give the passenger door a good slam.
The Model 3 whirs away. A minute later it reappears, slaloming past the apexes of the last four corners of Streets. Its tail is drifting dramatically, left, right, left, then it pitchy-hops midway around the last “skidpad” corner and tail-wags onto the straight. Everybody is watching—nobody has ever seen a Tesla handle like this.
Five minutes later, Randy climbs out, I grab the data cards, and Angus MacKenzie starts readying to try it himself.
The fastest EV ever at Streets was the Randy-driven Mitsubishi MiEV at a 1:10.90 … no, not the goofy Google-car you’re picturing but a sleek slicks-and-wings, Pikes Peak racing car we tested in 2014. The Model 3’s time appears on my screen—1:23.97. A production-car EV record. A blink quicker (0.07 second) than the Mustang GT Performance Pack 2. Process that. The Mustang GT PP2.
However, Randy needs to chime in: “It’s very easy to get understeer, the car’s handling is sometimes inconsistent, and there’s something weird happening when I lift off the brake.”
What Randy is feeling is a lingering deceleration after he releases the brake (before he’s moved his foot to the accelerator)—it’s the undepressed accelerator pedal’s heavy regenerative braking setting that’s confusing him during the transition. Compared to the car’s normal “heavy” rate of 0.2 g (matching that of the Jag), Track mode applies a more noticeable 0.3 g’s.
Angus rolls in from his hot laps: “It turns in quickly, especially with throttle lift, but there’s not a ton of feel from the front end. Get to the power too early, and the handling just devolves into massive understeer. The good news is a big lift off the accelerator will get the car to rotate. Roll on the power, and the Model 3 nicely drifts out of the corner. There’s never any sense it’s going to spin. Drive it like a rally car, and it’s fun. But for a traditional race driver, where smooth is fast, I can imagine it all feels a little discombobulating.”
The tall Jaguar goes out next and returns seven minutes’ worth of laps later. I pop out the SD cards from the Vboxes and open the file—a 1:27.00. No MiEV, but not bad for a 5,000-pound (2,268-kg), five-passenger crossover that’s quicker than the Golf R and WRX STi. Geez.
“There’s a lot of understeer, and the brakes could be inconsistent,” Randy notes. Those two words—inconsistent and unpredictable—keep coming up during his Jaguar download.
Finally, it’s the big-dog Alfa’s moment to break the EV silence. We hear the Giulia’s bark and baritone as Randy warms the tires. Judgment time. Which will win? Twenty-one thousand gasoline combustions per lap, or software code swarming through silicon chips? The Alfa moves dartlike through the same corners the Tesla just drifted through. Randy pulls in wearing a smile we haven’t seen yet today. Mr. Consistency just laid down a 1:22.78. That’s 1.12 seconds quicker than the Tesla. “It just does exactly what you expect,” he says. “No surprises. Always predictable. Rear-wheel drive just gives me the control that I want.”
Then somebody notices the Alfa’s Pirelli P Zero Corsa AR Asimmetrico front tires. They’re asimmetrico, all right: Half of each tread block’s rubber is gone after two sets of three hard laps. The Tesla engineer points to his car’s Michelin Pilot Sport 4Ss that are at worst scuffed. “We could do that time if we were willing to destroy our tires,” he says. The Tesla’s rubber contains complex compounding across its tread for minimal rolling resistance but stickiness for corners (with foam glued into its interior to reduce noise). The technical investment in this tire—which can generate 0.95 g’s of cornering grip from a 4,078-pound (1,850-kg) car without significantly damaging the rubber and still deliver 310 miles (499 km) on a charge—is remarkable.
Nevertheless, the conversation drifts toward imagining sliders on the Tesla touchscreen to fine-tune Track mode or tapping the names of tires you bring along to have their performance characteristics loaded. One idea I like: “Randy mode.” Ludicrous for the road racing set.
Four years ago, I drove our long-term Tesla Model S P85+ to Laguna Seca for a similar lapping day. When I arrived, I unloaded 17 bags of ice from a 7-Eleven along Route 68, plus a dusty roll of bubble wrap I found at Home Depot. We shoved the ice bags under the car until they were stacked up against the battery, then I encircled the car with bubble wrap like a floor-length insulating skirt, taped it to the bodywork, and waited for the car to charge. We had tried to lap the Tesla a few months before, but it couldn’t get to the hilly track’s Turn 11 before it self-limited its power output, due to heat buildup. This time it would start refrigerated.
Thermodynamic experimentation be damned, the Tesla power-limited at just about the same spot anyway. And our photo of the wrapped car touched a nerve with Tesla. The “Teslas can’t lap” rap has remained a thorny issue with Elon’s crew, so a month ago Tesla invited me up to Marina Airport after Monterey Car Week to finally sample its solution.
Rather than a vender-sourced patchwork of stability- and traction-control systems, Track mode is a holistic solution to enthusiast EV driving. It begins with a unified piece of clean-screen, Tesla-written software. Rather than look up tables of approximated data to pick a prerecorded response to steering and chassis angle, the system simulates each tire’s available grip in real time (it estimates the force on each contact patch from the car’s acceleration, braking, or cornering rate). The result is a higher-resolution picture of those patches, exploitable by each axle’s precisely controlled, fast-reacting electric motors; laterally, it’s vectored by individual brake dabs (the differentials are open). Track mode’s agility is like a cat with espresso in its water bowl—but it’s also alert to nervous-looking inputs and decreases the chassis’ cornering angles until they cease.
As to the heat problem that limited our early Model S lapping at Laguna, Tesla has a solution. Before the car heads out, setting Track mode tempers the overheating issue by launching into a (loud) coolant-chilling frenzy of both the low-temperature battery system and the high-temperature motors. Unlike in the Models S and X, both of the Model 3’s cooling circuits can be merged, allowing the hotter motors to briefly use the giant battery as a heat sink. For how long? Maybe four or five continuous laps. Weekend warrior Derek Powell makes a face. “Track sessions are normally 20 to 25 minutes,” he says, “and there are four or five sessions per day.” I don’t think he’s impressed.
We’ve figure-eighted the Model 3 Performance with and without Track mode. I did a 24.3-second lap sans assistance but a 24.2 with it. A teensy time difference, but to moi at the helm, the car’s cornering attitude suddenly became open to playful interpretation—almost to distraction. As Angus noted during our lapping at Streets, big, drifty angles are more about fun than fast.
If there were a book simply titled The History of the Sport Sedan, you’d find a dramatic picture of this exact blue Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio on its last page. The story line building up to it would ping-pong between Turin and Munich, and with every turned page there’d be episodes of engineers finding new ways to polish the sport sedan’s ingredients to a perfect gloss. Like this car’s twin-turbo V-6 engine, eight-speed paddle-shift transmission, multilink rear suspension, and 505 horsepower laser-beamed to two rear tires.
Tesla nods, closes the book, and places it on the shelf with the rest of automotive history. Park the Giulia next to the Model 3, and Leonardo da Vinci beside Robert Oppenheimer. The ultimate artist-engineer meets the calculating disrupter of worlds.
The other day, I read Bob Lutz espouse that “Tesla has no tech advantage, no software advantage, no battery advantage. No advantages whatsoever.” With all due respect, Bob, that’s bull. As I sat in the plugged-in Model 3 at the Supercharger station in a Valencia, California, parking lot, I watched a number grow on the car’s multitouch screen. That’s so cool. Just by plugging the charger in, the Supercharger network recognizes the car, charges your credit card, and displays the cost while you’re sitting there. No credit card swipe needed. Totally seamless.
Recently I drove a Model 3 for 350 miles (563 km) using its Trip Planner. Set a destination, and it routes you to Supercharger waypoints, calculates the optimum time to spend at each one to quicken the entire trip, and notifies you via its app when it’s time to return from sipping coffee nearby. Already have a Model 3 Performance with the $5,000 USD Performance Upgrade? Track mode will be over-the-aired to you. Walk up to the car with your phone in your pocket, and the dashboard’s bladelike air vents automatically angle down toward the seats, blowing cool air so you’re more comfortable on a hot day. The car is rife with clever moments like this.
Derek counters that the I-Pace is the most modern car here. Or rather, its recipe is: an electric, AWD crossover configuration (with 3 inches of adjustable ride height, great for snow) that somehow drives wonderfully, too. Tech treats: Its nav system will account for topography and your driving style to better estimate range; its twin motors and reduction gears are concentric with the axles for compact packaging; its panoramic glass roof increases headroom.
But the Jag’s EPA-estimated 234-mile (377-km) range—from a nominal battery size of 90 kW-hr—brings a sigh compared to the Model 3’s 310 miles (499 km) from 75 kW-hr. Our own internal, real-world test by Emissions Analytics computed 225 for the Jag. What’s up? Undoubtedly its large tires and 0.29 Cd aren’t helping. There’s a reason the Tesla Model X’s roofline slopes like that. Another curiosity is that the I-Pace’s front motor is permanent-magnet, which makes it impossible to be depowered during light-load cruising; the Model 3’s front motor is an induction type for this very reason.
We pull into the Canyon Crosswinds RC Flying Field on a plateau above Lake Hughes Road, where we’re met by two model airplane pilots getting ready to fly.
“Hi, we’re with Motor Trend. Would it be OK to take a few pictures here? It’s a beautiful spot.” It is. They size us up, see the mild desperation in our eyes (the sun is rising fast), and say heck, why not.
One of them eyes the Tesla and says, “That electricity has to come from somewhere, you know. By burning things. Wind is too unpredictable.” I nod, but I don’t add that about 30 percent of California’s 2017 retail electricity was produced by renewable sources.
Down below is Lake Hughes Road, where we are soon taking turns looping a road filled with blind corners, drop-offs, and no room to exit at 90 mph (145 km/h). As we start, the Alfa predictably picks up where it left off at Streets of Willow.
Its grip, torque, brakes, and overall unflappable coherence make it the hero of the trio. It’s amazing how swiftly the Giulia can thread through even the kinkiest sections. To be honest, it took me a few minutes to calibrate to its quickish steering, the brake pedal’s deadness, and its tires’ considerable limits. But once you’re synched and moving to the Alfa’s rhythm, it’s balanced, positionable with throttle, moves as a piece, and, as Alan notes, carries “an eagerness to turn in that makes me forget it’s a sedan.” Dislikes? The V-6 lacks the Italian terror scream, and neither Derek nor Alan understands stationary shifter paddles that are out of reach when turning the wheel on tight corners.
Angus describes the Jaguar as being “more organic in terms of driver inputs and vehicle outputs than Teslas and other BEVs, which tend toward a digital feel. There’s a pleasant fluidity to the way the Jaguar goes down the road.” And fluidly is how it went down Lake Hughes Road for us, too. “It’s astonishing how well it rides on 22-inch wheels,” Derek adds.
But Derek’s warm thoughts cool as he nears the Jaguar’s performance limits: “The ride height and blocky shape make me feel like I’m piloting a rogue subway car on rubber wheels.” About those brakes: “There’s a fair amount of travel before the pads bite. Letting up then reapplying pressure yields a different response than the initial stab. I found myself braking earlier because I didn’t know how the system would respond.” And then there’s its ambient sound: “Depress the throttle, and a simulated spaceshiplike warble emanates from the speakers, amplified further in Dynamic mode. Make it stop!” My displeasure fixated on how ridiculously slow the infotainment system responds—you can count one or two Mississippis before the next screen appears. But let’s pause a moment, Visine our road-weary eyes, and take another look at the I-Pace.
As Angus points out, “There are few crossovers of any sort capable of lapping Streets as coherently as the Jaguar that are also so capable in the dirt.” And the I-Pace is great-looking. All Tesla drivers in the carpool lane snapped their heads to the right as they passed me last week on the snarled 405 (I didn’t have HOV-access stickers). To me it’s the best-looking of all current Jaguars, in large part because of its honest EV proportions (stubby front motor equals stubby hood). “If the Tesla represents the future of performance sedans,” Derek opines, “then the Jag demonstrates the actual shape of the future’s electric car.”
Back on Lake Hughes Road, the Model 3’s tail is easily triggered into bounding and gyrating. Driving fast means thinking ahead, managing these motions, picturing your trajectory, and carefully placing the car into the next corner and then apexing early to capitalize on its wicked exit. (Elon has signaled that a more sports-oriented air suspension is in the offing.)
But at 80 percent of its limit, the Tesla is an Oculus Rift headset in a CXC full-motion driving simulator. Even down to the chubby, rubbery, simple-looking steering wheel in your hands. Threading down a twisty road at night—that big screen to one side, darting through corners with laserlike steering, the warp-drive whir-shrieks of its twin motors the soundtrack, and nothing but the headlight-lit road ahead—you’re Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star.
Some might suggest a battery-electric vehicle cannot be a real driver’s car. I disagree. The powertrain is different, with a new set of challenges to master in terms of torque delivery and powerband and braking. Not having to worry about shifting doesn’t reduce the challenge of finding the absolute limits of adhesion or the right chassis balance. To the contrary, it demands even greater sensitivity in terms of finding the very edge of the envelope. The world’s most gifted F1 drivers—Senna, Schumacher, Hamilton—all honed their otherworldly car control in sprint karts, which lack a transmission. The Model 3’s Track mode may be a work in progress, but it’s a helluva baseline.
At this moment, in the first battle in the BEV versus ICE war to come, the romantic, beautiful, turbocharged V-6-powered Alfa is still a blink or two quicker than its electric rivals. But think of the Tesla’s Track mode as version 1.0.
|2019 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio*||2019 Jaguar I-Pace EV400 HSE (First Edition)||2018 Tesla Model 3 Dual Motor Performance (Track Mode)|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD||Front- & rear-motor, AWD||Front- & rear-motor, AWD|
|MOTOR TYPE||176.4 cu in/2,891cc twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve 90-deg alum V-6||Front and rear permanent-magnet synchronous electric||Front induction electric; rear 3-phase internal permanent-magnet electric|
|BATTERY TYPE||505 hp @ 6,500 rpm||197 hp front/197 hp rear (394 hp combined)**||197 hp front/283 hp rear (450 hp combined)**|
|POWER (SAE NET)||443 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm||256 lb-ft front/256 lb-ft rear (512 lb-ft combined)**||471 lb-ft combined**|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||7.5 lb/hp||12.6 lb/hp||9.1 lb/hp|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||8-speed automatic||Front/rear 1-speed automatic||Front/rear 1-speed automatic|
|AXLE RATIO||Multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, adj air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, adj air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Multilink coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||11.8:1||15.2:1||10.3:1|
|TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK||15.4-in vented, drilled carbon-ceramic disc; 14.2-in vented, drilled carbon-ceramic disc, ABS||13.8-in vented disc; 12.8-in vented disc, ABS||14.0-in vented disc; 13.2-in vented disc, ABS|
|BRAKES, F; R||8.5 x 19-in; 10.0 x 19-in forged aluminum||8.5 x 22-in cast aluminum||8.5 x 20-in flow-formed aluminum|
|WHEELS||245/35ZR19 93Y; 285/30ZR19 93Y Pirelli P Zero Corsa AR Asimmetrico||255/40R22 103V Pirelli P Zero PNCS (J)||235/35R20 92Y Michelin Pilot Sport 4S (TO)|
|WHEELBASE||111.0 in||117.7 in||113.2 in|
|TRACK, F/R||61.2/63.3 in||64.2/65.1 in||62.2/62.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||182.6 x 73.7 x 56.1 in||184.3 x 74.6 x 59.4-63.2 in||184.8 x 72.8 x 56.8 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||37.0 ft||39.3 ft||38.1 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,785 lb||4,946 lb||4,078 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||53/47%||53/47%||50/50%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.6/37.6 in||39.9/38.1 in||40.3/37.7 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.4/35.1 in||40.9/35.0 in||42.7/35.2 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.1/53.6 in||57.6/54.6 in||56.3/54.0 in|
|CARGO VOL BEH F/R||13.4 cu ft||25.3 cu ft (51.0 w/ rr seat folded)||15.0 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.6 sec||1.7 sec||1.4 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||1.7||1.7||1.5|
|QUARTER MILE||12.1 sec @ 116.2 mph||12.5 sec @ 110.1 mph||11.8 sec @ 114.2 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||101 ft||103 ft||99 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.98 g (avg)||0.93 g (avg)||0.95 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||24.2 sec @ 0.83 g (avg)||24.8 sec @ 0.77 g (avg)||24.2 sec @ 0.83 g (avg)|
|1.6-MI ROAD COURSE LAP TIME||82.78 sec||87.00 sec||83.90 sec|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$88,895*||$88,595||$78,700|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 years/50,000 miles||5 years/60,000 miles||4 years/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 years/50,000 miles||8 years/100,000 miles||8 years/120,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 years/Unlimited miles||5 years/60,000 miles||4 years/50,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||15.3 gal||90 kW-hr (liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery)||75 kW-hr (liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||17/24/20 mpg||80/72/76 mpg-e (est)||120/112/116 mpg-e|
|EPA PREDICTED RANGE||306 miles (at combined mpg)||234 miles (est)||310 miles|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||198/140 kW-hr/100 miles||42/47 kW-hr/100 miles (est)||28/30 kW-hr/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.99 lb/mile||0.00 lb/mile (at vehicle)||0.00 lb/mile (at vehicle)|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||120-volt electricity, 240-volt electricity||120-volt, 240-volt electricity|
|*Mechanically identical 2017 model test vehicle with 2019 pricing. ** Individual front- and rear-motor peak power ratings (which occur at different rpm and hence are not additive), miles-per-gallon equivalent (mpg-e), and predicted range are sourced from EPA results. The combined horsepower and torque ratings are provided by the manufacturer.|