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Tesla Model 3: The Road & Track Review

Franz von Holzhausen is explaining his creation. “I’ve always said, people should be attracted to our vehicles without realizing they’re electric,” he tells me. “It shouldn’t be, oh, that’s an electric car.

In a way, he’s made that impossible. Von Holzhausen became Tesla’s chief designer in 2008; the Model S he penned made Tesla the most recognized electric carmaker in the world. Now hundreds of thousands of customers await delivery of the car in front of us: The Tesla Model 3. None of them are confused about what’s under the hood.

The Model 3 was conceived to bring electric cars into the mainstream. Driving toward Tesla’s headquarters in Fremont, California, you might think that’s already been accomplished. On my way to meet von Holzhausen and collect our Model 3 test car at the factory, I encounter several examples of the midsize electric sedan in traffic. The earliest cars off the assembly line went to Tesla employees; regular customers began receiving theirs in the last weeks of 2017.

Our plan is to spend an entire day with the Model 3, using it the way an enthusiast would: In spirited backroad driving as well as regular highway commuting. A real-world test with an emphasis on the sporty side of Tesla’s semi-autonomous, semi-affordable experiment.

Currently, the only Model 3s being built are top-spec models, fitted with the optional Long Range battery ($9000; 310-mile range per EPA) and Premium Upgrades package ($5000). Base-models at $35,000 will come later; as tested, our vibrant red example stickers at $52,500.

The exterior styling is unmistakably Tesla, an impressive feat for an automaker with less than a decade of history to draw from. Von Holzhausen tells me he wanted the Model 3 to look friendlier than the Model S, achieved mostly by a different headlight shape. The ever-shrinking (and totally non-functional) Tesla grille is finally completely absent; the lofty roofline looks ungainly from certain angles, but the chiseled flare of the rear fenders makes up for it. The glass roof over the front seats is optional, while the giant rear windscreen will be standard on all models. The tinted gradient of the glass roof shifts colors in changing light, moving from ice blue to warm copper.

The interior is almost unrecognizable as an automotive design. The Model 3’s dashboard is an exercise in fanatical minimalism. It’s perfectly symmetrical, completely bereft of buttons, knobs, or any kind of moving parts. Save for twin stalks serving the turn signals and gear selector, every control on the Model 3 is accessed from the central touchscreen.

The equatorial dash vent mixes horizontal and vertical air jets to precisely angle the flow as you desire, controlled by moving a dot on a crosshair on the touchscreen. Twin trackballs on the steering wheel (unlabeled and, admittedly, a little cheap-feeling) offer stereo controls, voice activation, or side-view mirror and steering column adjustment, depending on which touchscreen menu is active. Even windshield wiper speed is adjusted from the monitor.

The left-hand third of the screen always displays the driver’s instrument panel: Speedometer, odometer, gear selection and the federally-required icons for turn signals, parking brake, and malfunction indicators. The rest of the desktop-computer-like screen cycles between navigation, stereo, and car setup menus.

It was designed, in part, to feel natural in our presumed autonomous future—when the car is driving itself, the thinking goes, you don’t need all that information staring you in the face. It’s also an effort at being trendless, to make sure this car doesn’t someday betray itself as having been styled in 2017. “You can get in other cars and play the date game just by looking at the buttons,” von Holzhausen tells me. “We put everything in [the touchscreen] and achieve a certain timelessness.”

Leaving the Fremont factory with a fresh, fully-charged battery, our first order of business is acceleration testing. By our measure, the midsize Tesla romps from zero to 60 in 4.9 seconds; the quarter-mile takes 13.67 at 103.1 mph, each run burning up one percent of battery life.

The Model 3 lives for the highway roll. Dead-stop acceleration is soft for the first tick, swelling into a broad wave of torque once we’re moving. The 50-70 sprint takes 2.5 seconds, the immediate hit feeling like the world’s un-laggiest turbo motor. It’s an unusual sensation in an entry-luxury sedan, matting the accelerator and squirting away without the drama of a downshift, accompanied only by the growing rush of wind and the receding ring of high-power circuitry. You can’t call it throttle response—there’s no throttle at the other end of the right pedal, only a flood of electrons—but the slap of thrust appears even before your right foot hits the floor.

We head into the looping mountain roads at the edge of Fremont, nearly abandoned on this weekday afternoon. The steering is a shock and delight. The Model 3 sports an incredibly quick rack—just two turns lock-to-lock—with three levels of boost available through the small-diameter steering wheel. I keep it in Sport, where firm weighting and impressive feedback help mitigate the dartiness of such a responsive wheel.

The knife-sharp steering would be unpleasant if it wasn’t for the Model 3’s low center of gravity. The newest Tesla weighs just over 3800 lbs, half a ton lighter than the Model S; with all the battery weight slung under the floor, the Model 3 dives into corners with hardly any body roll. The driver’s seat is far forward in the wheelbase, behind a notably shallow dash, perfectly positioned to feel the car pivot around the inside front wheel. Suspension tuning is compliant, never feeling overly firm or crashy even on the choppy, barely-maintained pavement of California’s mountain routes.

For now, all Model 3s are rear-drive, Long Range models, a single 271-hp motor hiding between the back wheels. Like every Tesla, the Model 3 has unflappable grip, finessing power output instantaneously and nearly imperceptibly as traction conditions shift. Regenerative braking handles all but the most panicked decelerations, a firm and linear pedal operating the backup disc brakes.

Out on the road, the Model 3 feels special. There’s an eagerness to the car. Steering, acceleration and chassis are nearly perfectly balanced, no one trait overpowering the others. Outward vision is expansive, the low dash, tall windshield, and minimized A-pillars making it easy to place the car in corners. Through twisty mountain roads, the car feels dynamically cohesive, thoughtfully tuned.

It’s the kind of friendly, engaging drive that could make anyone excited to slide behind the wheel. Hustling the Model 3 is rewarding and un-demanding. This isn’t a car you drive with an iron grip and dilated pupils. It’s playful, charming, involved without demanding sacrifices in comfort or usability.

That fun-to-drive character doesn’t feel like a contrivance. Tesla doesn’t bill this as the “performance” variant (though one is rumored to be coming); the optional 19-inch wheels wear uninspiring all-season Continental tires that howl if you push them too far. But just below the limit, there’s joy in the very design of this car, rooted in the electric drivetrain’s subterranean center of gravity and snappy acceleration.

There’s something sincere about that. It’s one thing to discover driving joy in a sports car that was painstakingly engineered to tickle the pleasure neurons of autocrossers and track rats. Finding that in a family sedan—a car aimed at entry-luxury four-door buyers, the silver drones of white collar office parks worldwide—is an unexpected delight. A small handful of models in automotive history have offered such immediate, unfettered brightness to regular, non-gearhead drivers. Think of Sir Alec Issigonis’s riotously tossable Mini, BMW’s revelatory 2002. The Model 3 shares something with those legends: It sneaks engaging, emotive driving into the hands of buyers who weren’t even looking for it.

Or at least it promises to—provided Tesla can someday achieve the production goals it swore would happen months ago.

The gray Bay Area morning turns into a misting, overcast afternoon. We tumble down from the hills and hit the freeway for a taste of Autopilot. Tesla packs seven cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors and forward-facing radar into every Model 3, enough hardware to support future feats of increasing autonomy with over-the-air software updates. The current version of Autopilot works well enough that there isn’t much to say about it. When lane-lines are clearly visible, it happily steers along, tailing the vehicle in front of you at your preset distance or speed. Leave the wheel unattended for long enough, and the top left corner of the center display flashes blue to draw your attention. Keep ignoring it, and you’ll be grounded from Autopilot until the next time you start the car. The system still feels like it draws uncomfortably close to big-rigs in adjacent lanes, something I’ve experienced in several Autopilot samplings, but overall it feels competent. It’s shocking how quickly you get used to it.

I can’t say the same for the giant central display. It’s easy enough to remember to look to the right to find your speed or odometer—gazing through the steering wheel at a featureless expanse of dashboard is a handy reminder. But it demands an extra thought to accomplish something that’s been ingrained in every driver’s mind. It’s akin to a bottle company producing a righty-loosey, lefty-tighty jar. You’d get used to it, eventually, but only after un-learning a deeply habitual behavior.

In addition to the Model 3, Tesla gave us a Model S P100D to drive around for comparison. Ever since its introduction, the Model S has felt one step removed from “normal” cars, with its rocket acceleration and tablet dashboard. The Model 3 feels like it hails from a decade in the future. It redefines the scope, painting the Model S as the halfway point between conventional cars and the capital-F Future.

Road and tire noise seeped into our Model S, while the Model 3 whooshed along in dampened silence; the studious minimalism of the 3’s interior made the S’s dash and door panels seem overadorned. Outward vision from the S’s driver’s seat feels needlessly clipped. The esophagus-squeezing rush of Ludicrous Mode is still as exhilarating as ever, but it makes the hefty, uneager-to-turn Model S feel like a one-trick ZEV. If the S was an ambitious and successful first experiment, the 3 benefits from everything Tesla has learned since.

There are skills that Tesla still hasn’t mastered. Our Model 3’s turn signals blinked unsteadily and far too fast, like it was one incandescent bulb short of a complete circuit (Tesla says this was fixed with a software update after we returned the car). One DRL was notably dimmer than the other. Body panel gaps, particularly around the doors, were gaping and inconsistent; the paint showed a few sags and one spot of mismatched hue on the driver’s door. There’s a deep irony here: Tesla assembles its cars in what used to be known as New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., or NUMMI, a factory once jointly-operated by GM and Toyota in an effort to teach Japanese quality control and tight tolerances to American autoworkers.

As the sun went out behind Bay Area clouds, there was one thing left to do. It involved disconnecting some crucial components. The method is not described in any owner’s manual or handbook; the option is unavailable from the touchscreen. Your service department likely would not be happy with you attempting it. The car certainly wasn’t.

Returning to Tesla’s Fremont factory after dark, I thought back to what I expected from the car at the start of the day. The news out of Tesla hasn’t been all positive lately, particularly when it comes to building the Model 3 in mass numbers.

It feels like a real car. Prior to my Tesla factory visit, I briefly drove a Model 3 that had just been delivered to one of the first non-employee customers. Both vehicles were solid, silent, and substantial. Body and trim alignment issues aside, the cars felt complete, well-engineered, cohesive in philosophy and design.

Tesla entered the auto industry tenuously with the first-generation Roadster. The Model S was revolutionary on introduction and stayed fresh with continual updates and improvements. (The Model X proved that even the sleekest design gets dorkified in the transition to SUV.)

The Model 3 proves that Tesla is thinking far beyond the edges of the Model S and X. Stepping out of the 3, you realize that, as far as the S and X pushed the envelope, they were always meant as intermediaries, stepping stones designed to draw people away from comfortable convention and into the future of the automobile. Previous Teslas defined themselves by the standard paradigms: Sports car, luxury sedan, flashy crossover.

The Model 3 is Tesla at its most unabashed. It’s an automaker finally willing to abandon the skeuomorphism of a false radiator grille, the tradition of a driver-oriented gauge panel. It’s as daring today as the Volkswagen Beetle was in the days after World War II, as dedicated to unconventional solutions as old-days Saab.

It’ll take years to find out whether Tesla can make the electric car ubiquitous. The Model 3 is the right car for the task—but accomplishing this feat will require building them in the hundreds of thousands, at a level of quality the newcomer automaker has yet to master.

If Tesla can hack it, Von Holzhausen’s dream may yet come true. People will look at a Tesla and they won’t wonder what propels it—because, if the plan works, electric cars will be the new norm.

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