Car Review: Tesla Model 3

Few electric cars have caused as much of a furore as the Tesla Model 3. It’s been teased and talked about, previewed and – not least – plagued by production issues that saw the European launch date pushed back repeatedly.

Now a common sight on US roads for over a year, Tesla’s more affordable and long-awaited Model 3 has finally arrived in the UK. It brings competitive performance, a practical EV range and stunning technology to the mainstream executive class.

Are there worthy rivals?

Pricewise and with a premium badge, the closest rival to the Model 3 is the BMW i3 at £35,350. Other less premium EVs include the KIA e-Niro (£32,995), VW e-Golf (£33,785) and Hyundai Kona Electric (£26,900).

Lower down the EV price scale are the KIA Soul EV, Renault Zoe, MG ZS Electric, Nissan Leaf and MINI Electric, all of which continue to appeal as our driving habits adapt to a new automotive world order.

In the non-EV arena, Tesla has its sights set on sales conquests from traditional ICE-powered executive saloons such as the venerable BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Jaguar XE, Mercedes C-Class and Volvo S60.

Exterior design

The Model 3 is smaller, cuter and imbued with a style cheekiness missing from the bigger, heavier-looking Tesla S and X models. The front end is short thanks to the extended cabin area and the car is unlocked with a credit card waved against the B-pillar – or you can set up your smartphone to work just like Tesla’s card key by unlocking the car as you approach.

Interior and practicality

When unlocked, push the left side of the flush door handles to open the door. The handles don’t pop out as they do on the Model S and are a tad awkward to use with one hand if you’re holding anything else.

Inside, you’ll find that space is pretty similar to that in a BMW 3 Series. There’s the added bonus of a flat floor with no transmission hump, but rear headroom might be a little tight for taller adults who could have their heads brushing the sloped, full-length glass roof, gifted to the Model 3 as standard.

It certainly feels airy and spacious and is quite comfortable throughout and you’ve got a choice of front and rear boots with a combined 542 litres of storage space.

Access to the rear luggage space is good by class standards and the boot lid is hinged to lift higher than most saloons. Meanwhile, the rear seats split and fold to reveal the surprisingly large luggage area.

Slide into the front seats and you are enveloped in openness. It’s a perfect example of just how well ‘minimalism’ can work in a car. Steering wheel aside, there is nothing directly in front of the driver and even the vents are hidden in a single, slim crease that stretches the full width of the dashboard and looks like a design feature rather than a vent.

The dash is dominated by a slim, 15-inch landscape touchscreen. It controls absolutely everything, including the air-flow direction from those vents, steering wheel adjustment, external mirrors – and more.

You may think that having everything on the screen could be problematic, and although Tesla has put the most important driver information as close to the driver as possible, you do have to look further away from the road to check your speed than you would usually.

A head-up display would be a welcome addition and go some way to solving this problem. Otherwise, it doesn’t take much time to become familiar with the screen’s menu layouts and how to use the two switches on the steering wheel.

In practice, it’s these wheel-mounted controls that you use to control most functions, including the audio functions, cruise control and the like. 

Trim grades and equipment 

There are no conventional trim grades as such. Instead, the three available variants of Tesla Model 3 are based more on electric motor power output and battery range.

In the UK, the line-up consists of the ‘Standard Plus’ with its 254 mile range as tested here, ‘Long Range’ (348 miles) and ‘Performance’ (329 miles). The Standard Plus has just one electric motor driving the rear wheels, while the Long Range and Performance models have two motors driving all four wheels. Be warned: the battery range will plummet if you drive the car like you stole it – which you must from time to time.

The equipment list is pretty much standard throughout the Model 3 range: 18- or 20-inch alloys, electric front seats, heated mirrors, heated seats, parking sensors, navigation, etc.

Powerplant, transmission and performance

It might be the least expensive Tesla currently available but, even in range-entry guise few are likely to be disappointed – as even the base model packs a claimed 254-mile range and the ability to sprint from 0-60mph in just 5.3sec. It even comes with Tesla’s ‘Autopilot Drive Assistance’ system, which takes the edge off long trips and brings added space-age feel.

A dual-motor version with all-wheel drive and increased range is available as well; it can cover a claimed 329 miles and serves up a supercar-rivalling 0-62mph time of 3.6sec.

How good is the drive?

One thing strikes you as soon as you take the wheel of a Tesla Model 3: its steering is surprisingly fast-geared, giving the wheel an immediate response. At first some drivers may find this disconcerting, as it makes the car respond to inputs in a heartbeat, but you’ll quickly learn to enjoy the agility this imparts, and its quick turn-in becomes second nature.

It’s quite a heavy car, with a kerb weight stretching from 1645kg to 1,847kg depending on the size of batteries fitted, but it doesn’t really feel it when you thread it along your favourite back road.

The suspension keeps the EV composed through corners, with just a little body roll when you’re really pushing hard. Despite this agility and keen handling, the Model 3 still soaks up the worst road lumps and bumps. If ride comfort is your priority, we would recommend sticking with a smaller choice of alloy wheels, however.

Like most EVs, the Model 3 features a regenerative braking system that helps top up the battery when you’re driving. There are two modes; in ‘standard’, the car slows significantly when you lift off the accelerator, which feeds more energy back to the battery. The ‘low’ mode is less severe and is probably best for most driving conditions. Drive the Model 3 with a measured degree of attentiveness and it’s very possible to match the claimed range in the real world.

Of course, you don’t necessarily have to do all of the driving. In the UK, the Model 3 comes with Autopilot as standard, with adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping. You still have to rest a hand on the steering wheel just so the system knows you’re conscious, but the Model 3 will accelerate, brake and steer while monitoring the vehicles around you.

Indicate left or right and Autopilot will also judge if it’s safe to change lanes and complete the manoeuvre for you. It’s the most intuitive semi-autonomous tech driving available right now and regularly gets better thanks to live, over-the-air updates from Tesla.

How easy is it to charge?

Investing in a Model 3 gives you access to Tesla’s own network of Superchargers that allow you to charge the battery (from 10-80%) in as little as 30 minutes. In Tesla UK’s early days, recharging was free but now you have to pay each time, but at around £14, the price is still reasonable.

You can also charge at any public CCS charging point. This method takes longer (around 1hr 15min) for the same 10-80% top-up, whereas a full 0-100% charge at home using a 7kW type 2 charger takes 11hr 45min – or overnight at home or at the office during the day – which is little hardship, to be honest.

Safety and reliability

The Model 3 has been on sale for some time in the US, where it appears to have been largely reliable but plagued by quality control issues like poor paintwork, large gaps between panels and poorly fitted trim.

In the media, this is often attributed to Tesla’s relative inexperience in mass producing cars compared with manufacturers like Mercedes, but Tesla is also keen to show it offers great customer service by rectifying issues quickly under warranty.

The Model 3 has yet to prove itself in the fiercely competitive European market. If it can hold a candle to the century-old, fossil fuel-drinking proletariat here, it can be deemed a success.

Euro NCAP has now crash-tested the Model 3 and it scored the highest-ever figure in the safety assist category, with an impressive 94 per cent. Its overall five-star score includes excellent ratings for adult and child occupant protection, and it scored well in the vulnerable road user category too.

The Tesla Model 3 is one of the safest cars on sale and the manufacturer claims the Model 3 is particularly safe thanks to its compact electric powertrain, which allows for large crumple zones and a rigid passenger compartment.

Thanks to its semi-autonomous Autopilot technology, the Model 3 is also covered in myriad sensors and cameras that can help protect occupants by alerting them to danger and even braking or steering itself around obstacles.

Why should I park one on my driveway?

Several reasons: If your lifestyle supports an electric car, the Tesla Model 3 is as good as it gets. Tesla needed to introduce a brand-entry product that is more affordable and available in bigger numbers, and while the Model 3 is by no means a cheap option, it is definitely closer to the mark than what came before. 

Progress with electric cars is really gathering momentum and this car is a good indicator of the state of the art. None of the premium marques (Audi, BMW and Jaguar) come close to matching the Model 3’s all-round efficiency as well as the convenience of its own-brand Supercharger network.

If you’re after the cheapest Tesla Model 3 on offer, then a £38,100 Standard Range Plus in two-wheel drive form (as tested) is where you need to head. Bragging right aside, it produces a very green 0g/km of CO2 and capable of a claimed range of 258 miles (WLTP) on a full charge.

With rivals like the Audi e-tron, Jaguar I-Pace and Mercedes EQC lining up to take a slice of the executive electric class, Tesla has never faced so much competition. And yet, despite very publicly reported company difficulties and that growing competition, the Model 3 still feels like a trailblazer…different, but in all the right ways.

The car is great to drive, packed full of tech, is fast and even quite practical. Sure, the ride is more firm than some of its rivals, but it’s never uncomfortable even over our crusty UK roads. Factor in a competitive price, especially given its sheer pace and it’s in a prime position to steal punters away from both EV and non-EV rivals.