The Model 3 is a celebrity on wheels, injected into the middle of the general public’s consciousness.
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 rotatingon 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 Ground. There’s no rock soundtrack; the only lighting is the orange ball of blazing sun overhead. The test team of road test editor ChrisWalton, associate road test editor Erick Ayapana, and me 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, knowing that his best run will happen with the motor cool and the battery nudging 100 percent charge. There’s no Ludicrous launch mode here—just old-fashioned stamp-the-pedal-as-hard-as-you-can. Chrisdouble-checks that the Vbox and the laptop are recording and secured. He collects his thoughts, looks ahead, and 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 0–60 time of 4.8 seconds pops on the screen, then theacceleration rate slightly fades as aerodynamics reel back against the motor’s 271 hp. 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.”
How do these numbers compare? Better than expected. The single-motor Tesla Model S 60 (which was upgraded to a 75-kW-hr battery via an OTA update, the same size as in this Model 3) 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 and stands on rubber 0.4 inch wider.
The car’s low battery location and firm springing give it a go-kart quality, and it quickly points 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. Of the other cars on hand, only the Porsche 718 Cayman and Boxster and the Honda Civic Type R, drive this precisely.
Each night after sunset photography wraps, we tether the Tesla to a lonely Supercharger in a Mojave, California, parking lot. As the clock moves toward midnight and the 75-kW-hr battery closes in on 100 percent charge, there’s time to think. Where does the Model 3’s performance fall in the automotive landscape? The iconic BMW 330i—everybody’s favorite yardstick (and 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). The Tesla outperforms the Bimmer in almost every metric: 0.7 second quicker to 60, a 4-foot-shorter stopping distance, and a 0.4-second-quicker figure-eight lap. The Model 3’s lateral grip is only 0.1 g behind despite hauling 365 extra pounds sideways. And although our real-world 103.7 combined mpg-e from Emissions Analytics (89.7/128.2 city/highway) lags behind the EPA’s official 126 overall, the Tesla still eats its energy at only 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.