This could be the Tesla which shapes our automotive future
It's here - finally.
More than three years after Australian customers lined up, Apple iPhone style, to put a $1500 deposit on the "affordable" Tesla, the Model 3 is on sale locally.
Outspoken Tesla founder Elon Musk says the Model 3 "is really important for the future of the world".
Not one for understatement, he also claims the car is the safest in the road, with peerless technology and better performance than driving benchmarks such as BMW's M3 sports sedan.
Pitched as a model attainable for mainstream buyers, the Model 3 could prove a vital step on the road to electrification.
Musk's aim was to sell the Model 3 in the United States for $US35,000 ($50,650) with the help of government incentives.
That's roughly the same money required to get into a top-end Mazda6, both here and in the US.
In Australia, where there are precious few incentives to choose a green car, the Tesla Model 3 range starts at $66,000 for a rear-wheel drive Standard Range sedan claiming about 460km of driving as well as the ability to hit 100km/h in 5.6 seconds, fast enough to keep up with a Subaru WRX.
Spend $85,000 on the Long Range model and those figures shift to 620km and 4.6 seconds while bringing a premium interior.
The range-topping Model 3 Performance can reach the highway speed limit in 3.4 seconds and promises an anxiety-free range of about 560km.
It also has 20-inch wheels, bigger brakes, lower suspension, higher top speed and track mode for high-performance driving.
Five-star EuroNCAP safety comes thanks to eight airbags, a strong body and the highest score awarded to the active driver aids on any new model.
Impressive credentials they may be but Tesla's pricing model for the Model 3 isn't without controversy. The maker is asking customers to pay upfront for technology that doesn't work yet.
Owners can tick a box to order "full self-driving capability" for $8500.
The maker claims the tech will deliver "automatic driving on city streets", the ability to recognise and respond to traffic lights and "automatic driving from motorway on-ramp to off-ramp including interchanges and overtaking slower cars".
Critics say "full self-driving capability" is misleading.
Tesla says the features are "coming later this year" depending on regulatory approval and other factors. Given the company's regular habit of missing deadlines - and the caution of governments when it comes to road safety - that seems optimistic.
More than two years ago, there was a similar option on the Model X. Buyers are still waiting for it to be activated.
When it gets the green light, Musk will flick a switch to allow customers to stream YouTube and Netflix videos on the move, with the car taking care of driving duties.
Video play is one of the many features made possible by the Model 3's 15-inch screen, which replaces conventional displays. There is no dedicated driver display, infotainment screen or climate control readout - it's all done through the central tablet.
In the United States, Motor Trend magazine rates the Model S as "the most significant vehicle of the past 70 years", while Consumer Reports does not recommend people buy the brand's cars due to reliability concerns.
Production and quality issues have dogged Tesla for years, though the brand says it is working hard to address them, and that teething troubles for the Model 3 were resolved in the first year of production.
Tesla supports the car with a four-year/80,000km warranty and a further eight years/160,000km of motor and battery support in Australia.
Electric cars require far less maintenance than combustion models.
There is no scheduled service plan at Tesla but owners are encouraged to bring cars in for annual check-ups for consumables such as tyres, brakes and air filters.
You are likely to find more heat than light in the millions of words written about the Model 3. The brand's passionate fans sing its praises, while doubters predict that Tesla's failure to produce Model 3s quickly or cheaply enough will doom the company to ultimate failure.
Behind the hype and anti-hype, the Model 3 is an excellent car, especially in the guise of the range-topping Performance version we drove in the United States.
The Performance is based on the existing Model 3 Dual Motor and shares the 80.5kWh battery pack but its punchier rear motor takes the total output to 335kW - this in a car that is pretty much the same size as a BMW 3 Series. Over lesser versions of the 3 it also gets bigger 20-inch wheels, Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres, lowered suspension and higher top speed.
Acceleration is startling. It doesn't matter what you are used to, the Model 3 Performance is going to feel fast, the car delivering organ-sloshing longitudinal forces without drama or even apparent effort.
With no gears to swap the Performance can deliver instantly, there's no pause between pressing the throttle and feeling the surge.
It makes for a car that is remarkably easy to drive quickly but which also delivers unflustered and near-silent progress at everyday speeds. No other EV at anything close to this price point delivers similar straight-line thrust.
The chassis copes well with the huge loads being put through it, although the Model 3 never feels as playful as the best conventional sports sedans. The ride is firm but body control is excellent over rougher surfaces.
The Performance is a heavy car (about 1850kg) and that feels obvious in slower turns or when it's asked to change direction quickly.
Inside, the minimalist ethos creates a cabin that feels almost empty compared to a more conventional car - the enormous portrait-orientated touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard is the defining feature. Almost everything has to be done through this interface, even opening the glovebox or adjusting cabin temperature. Space is good in the front and reasonable in the back.
You don't need to look too hard to find flaws. Some of the interior fit-and-finish would feel iffy in a car costing far less, with exposed wires under the front seats and some very low-rent plastics in less-exposed places.
Overall the Model 3 is a remarkable piece of engineering and a reminder of how far the rest of the car industry must go to build a true Tesla-beater.
- by Mike Duff
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