Road Test of the Year 2019: Tesla Model 3
Few cars as crucial to a car company’s success as the Model 3 is to Tesla’s. Elon Musk’s full-bore assault on the automotive world has been aggressive and persistent, but it has drained cash from the firm like a shotgun hole to an oil sump.
Musk had his fortune riding on the success of the Model 3, and while orders came in thick and fast – faster, in fact, than any other car before it – the battle to build them then began. And that was no small challenge, with Musk eventually ending up sleeping on the factory floor as he struggled to get the project running on time.
But it seems those gargantuan efforts are finally beginning to bear fruit. While America enjoyed the first waves of production, Europe is now starting to see its own, and this box-fresh white Standard Range Plus edition was one of the first to find its way on to the press fleet following the car making number three in the best-selling car chart in August.
Road tester Darren Cassey had been dispatched early on day one to collect the car from Tesla’s Heathrow dealership. Tesla doesn’t ‘do’ deliveries to the press – it’s just one more trait that marks it out as different. If you want one of our cars, you come to us, they say – much like their approach to zero advertising.
But when Darren arrived in the Brecon Beacons late in the afternoon, after battling with horrendous weather and the associated traffic that dictates, he was still smiling.
I jumped in the driver’s seat alongside him and could soon see why. The Model 3 is quite simply like nothing else on the road. This is one of the cheapest in the range but it still comes with trick things such as doors that are opened via your mobile phone, flush handles and that much- talked-about single-screen set-up. Darren and I excitedly chatted about all the cool tech for the next 30 minutes before we even began to think about what it was like to drive.
But before I get to that, let’s discuss that whopping screen. Firstly, it’s very easy to get used to, and while for the initial few miles the fact you haven’t got your speed displayed in front of you is a little disconcerting, that’s very quickly forgotten.
The single-screen has everything on it, from heating controls to your music. It’s a massive 15- inch display, mounted horizontally, and it’s easy to see why people rave about it. It’s connected via 4G to the internet for live updates too, with even the car’s software updated over the air.
In fact, it updated overnight during our test, giving us access to a new game to play while we sat in a lay-by waiting for the photographers to do their thing. Not that we played it much, as we were too busy watching Netflix – another thing also available on that giant screen.
Everything about the Model 3 has been thoroughly thought through. Like an iPhone user experience, it’s crisp, quick and intelligent – and above all, cool. Everything from the fonts to the graphics have been superbly designed.
Let’s face it, this is a gadget, not a car – it’s as far removed from the clunky-by-comparison user interfaces in the likes of BMW or Mercedes as you can get, and another place where Tesla has stolen a march on its rivals.
So what’s it like to drive? Well, even though this isn’t the Performance model it’s still rapid, hitting 60mph in 5.3 seconds and with a top speed of 140mph. The steering does feel a bit too light, even in the various different options, but it handles flatly and is wonderfully composed.
It’s no dynamic challenger to the likes of Porsche or McLaren here, but then did you ever expect it to be?
Build-quality issues seem to be much improved, although still not up to the standard of other premium rivals. I still loved it after four hours of driving, but it was frustrating that this car’s lumbar support was stuck in its most aggressive setting, like having a kid permanently pushing their feet into the back of your seat on a long flight.
Range-wise, this specific Model 3 has 254 miles at its disposal. Charging it via the Tesla charging network dotted across the UK is easy, too. It’s quick and simple to get going and, cleverly, the car tells you where you’ll need to stop along your journey and how busy those charging points are as you approach them. Tesla really does win here with its infrastructure-first approach.
Looks-wise, the Tesla isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I love the shrunken Model S design.
My crueller colleagues nicknamed it ‘The Refrigerator’, but I told the Model 3 to ignore the jibes. The 18-inch Aero wheels were included in the £39,490 price, as was the Pearl White paintwork. Our test model also had the famous Autopilot function fitted, which worked well, even on the Welsh back roads.
What’s hard to get past with Tesla is the cult mentality that owners suddenly seem to adopt. It’s almost Scientological in its ferocity. But then I can sort of see why it happens. A Tesla isn’t just a new car, it’s a movement. Tesla makes you feel like that by giving you access to an exclusive charging network, by making buying one an experience on its website and delivering it to your home. It’s changed the way people think about cars like no other firm arguably has since modern motoring began.
For that reason alone, I can’t see why this affordable version of its range shouldn’t be handed the title of our Road Test of the Year winner. But sadly, I don’t get to make that call, democracy does, and as well as letting us down for three years in Parliament, so too does it here…