Tesla Model 3 quick drive review

The Tesla Model 3 is one of the most anticipated new car releases of 2017 - and we're here in California, among the first to drive it.

Following the first 30 deliveries tonight, Tesla will begin mass producing the Model 3 for global markets with Australia expecting to get its first deliveries in early 2019. It should land here at around $50,000.

So, what's it like to drive? We'll get to that in a minute, but, first, let's look at some of the innovations packed in here.

Releasing just another car would be a bit of a cop out, so it's worth pointing out some of the interesting features that will make the Model 3 unique.

Getting in and out of the car will no longer happen with a key, or even a regular 'fob'. The driver can open the door using their phone (over Bluetooth or GSM) and if they don't have their phone handy, or if the battery is flat, they open it using an RFID card.

Adjusting the mirrors or steering wheel happens electronically, as you'd expect. To save space on the doors and steering column, two joysticks on the steering wheel serve as multipurpose controllers and are activated using the central 15-inch colour touchscreen.

When activating the steering controls, for example, the left-hand joystick controls telescopic adjustments, while the right joystick controls tilt adjustments. Likewise, the window mirrors are adjusted using the left joystick for a left mirror and right joystick for the right mirror.

Unlike the Model S and X, the doors are opened using a lever that's pushed at one end and pops out at the other end — much like the Aston Martin V8 Vantage.

Inside the cabin, Tesla has used coarse-grain wood along the top of the dashboard and integrated air vents between the wood panelling and dashboard. The rest of the storage space has been cleverly hidden, with a larger area at the front with two USB outlets, a central storage cubby and a glove box.

Climate controls are adjusted via the central screen, but also in a first, direction and air blower location are adjusted using the touchscreen as opposed to manual adjustment.

Rear seat passengers get their own air vents, plus two USB charging points. Rear leg room is good, but a little cramped. Thankfully with the Model 3, consideration has been put into toe room, with ample room to slide feet under the seat.

The rear seats fold flat in a 60/40 split folding fashion with a centre armrest. And, they include two child seat anchor points. Both front and rear doors are released using a button on the door, as opposed to a conventional handle.

Outside the cabin, Tesla's head designer has gone for a smooth look with attention to details like full LED lighting and a glass panel that stretches from above the A-pillar through to the boot opening. That feature has increased interior room with the glass panel directly above second row passengers, and a curved end section where the tailgate opens.

Cargo capacity measures in at 423 litres with a large cavity beneath the boot floor, plus a 'frunk' that allows storage at the front of the vehicle. The 423 litre capacity is believed to be a total split across both the front and rear.

The one thing you're all wanting to know, of course, is how it drives. Well, it's bloody quick. The Model 3 will debut in two-wheel drive initially, with a 355km driving range and a 0-60mph time of 5.6 seconds.

We had the chance to briefly drive the uprated version, which comes with 500 kilometres of range, plus a quicker acceleration time of 0-60mph in 5.1 seconds.

Just like the Model S and X, hit the throttle at any point and the Model 3 is transformed into a rocket. The instant throttle response is backed by an incredibly quiet cabin while cruising.

Off the line, slamming down the throttle offers a small hint of wheel spin before it hooks up and delivers its full complement of torque. The Model 3 will only be available with coil-sprung suspension, which consists of a double wishbone up front with coil-over twin-tube shock absorbers and stabiliser bar. The rear is an independent multi-link suspension setup with twin-tube shock absorbers and stabiliser bar.

Part of the reason acceleration is so rapid is thanks to the new battery pack in use beneath the floorpan. The new 2170 battery type is capable of drawing double the current of the packs used in the Model S and X.

Instead of 3000mA, which is what the current Panasonic 18650 can draw, the new 2170 battery type has been tested drawing between 5750mA and 6000mA. According to Tesla, it also offers the most power density of any power pack available on the market.

Despite missing out on air suspension like some Model S models, the Model 3 is at once comfortable and competent. Keeping in mind that this was only a short drive, it absorbed bumps well and didn't crash over pot holes or imperfections.

We had the chance to throw the car around a little and it benefits from that excellent centre of gravity offered by the heavy battery packs down low. With a kerb weight of 1610kg from the entry-level model, it doesn't feel heavy or bloated like the Model S and X can feel at times.

Steering feel can be adjusted thanks to three steering modes — comfort, standard and sport. Each mode varies steering resistivity.

Brake pedal feel is also great. It doesn't feel like it suffers from the sudden pedal feel changes of vehicles like the Toyota Prius or other hybrids.

Visibility out the front, sides and rear is excellent and one point that we really liked was the new switchgear. The Mercedes-Benz indicators, column gear selector and wiper functions now sit on sleek new stalks. The indicator springs back after a soft touch and clicks in with a firmer push.

It takes a little while to get used to the speedometer, which sits in the top left corner of the 15-inch screen. It includes the speed, plus all of the AutoPilot functions, along with everything related to parking. While it has both front and rear parking sensors, we were a little disappointed with the definition of the reverse-view camera, which appeared a little washed out.

Frankly, we were blown away with how impressive this car feels at this price point. It's a consumer electric car that offers impressive performance and a generous interior. It's loaded with features and gives everyday people access to an electric vehicle.

As always, buyers wanting to customise their vehicles have a stack of options available, such as:

  • Long-range battery (US$9000)
    Increases range to 310 miles (500km), supercharging at a rate of 170 miles' range (274km) per hour, and home charging at a rate of 37 miles' range (60km) per hour (240V/40A)
    Acceleration rate increases to 0-60mph in 5.1 seconds and top speed increases to 140mph (225km/h)
  • Paint options (US$1000)
    Solid colours are free, but midnight silver metallic, deep blue metallic, silver metallic, pearl white multi-coat and red multi-coat are all extra
  • Wheels ($1500)
    18-inch wheels are standard, while 19-inch sport wheels are an extra cost
  • Premium upgrades package (US$5000)
    Includes premium heated seating, open pore wood decor, two rear USBs, 12-way power adjustable front seats, steering column and side mirrors, premium audio system, tinted glass roof, auto dimming and folding side mirrors, LED fog lights and centre console cover with docking for two smartphones
  • Enhanced AutoPilot (US$5000)
    Radar cruise control, lane-keep assist, lane change assistant and self parking, plus any additional functions that are developed
  • Full self-driving capability (US$3000, requires Enhanced AutoPilot)
    While all Model 3s come with the required hardware, this option enables full self driving, which is planned to be rolled out in the future

The Model 3 will come with a four-year warranty on the vehicle and an eight-year warranty on the battery pack.

We can't wait to have a proper drive when it finally lands in Australia early in 2019. At this price point, it stands a chance of being a real hit with buyers after a green alternative.

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