Electric cars have been around almost as long as the car itself, however, they all traditionally suffered from the same lack of range, making them attractive only to the most die-hard enthusiasts of electric propulsion.
The age of the effective electric car dawned in mid-2012 with the launch of the highly impressive Tesla Model S, with an effective real-world range of up to and even better than 300 miles.
Good as the Model S, and the later SUV Model X are, their price – starting at over £70,000 – puts them out of reach of most of us. That’s why Tesla’s smaller Model 3, promoted as a mid-price mainstream model with all the range and performance benefits of its bigger family members, has been eagerly awaited. Indeed, at one point, the global advance order book for the Model 3 stood at over 400,000!
The Model 3, however, has been a long time in coming, not least due to the production challenges in moving Tesla from a low volume niche model manufacturer to a full-blown volume car maker. The first Model 3’s saw the light of day in mid-2017, with production up to recently being exclusively for the American home market.
European deliveries are however due to start shortly, with UK right-hand drive models due in the showrooms in the middle of this year. After being wrong-footed by the unchallenged success of the Model S, the rest of the manufacturers of the world have not been idle, and have devoted huge investment into developing their own electric models. This has been facilitated by developments in battery technology in the last few years, with costs in particular dropping by some 80% in that time. Interestingly, Tesla themselves have indirectly assisted in competing manufacturers developing their electric products, for they have made their many patents available for other manufacturers to use free of charge. Indeed, we understand that Jaguar’s I-Pace flagship electric model incorporates Tesla patent technology.
Far from having the market to itself, unlike the early Model S, the Model 3 is, therefore, entering an increasingly competitive market, where a 200 mile plus range at a £30,000-ish price point are becoming the norm. Offerings such as the already-launched Hyundai e-Kona, priced from £30,750 exclusive of Government grant, and a range of up to 279 miles, will provide stiff competition.
So we were delighted to be offered an early viewing of the new mid-market Model 3 recently at Tesla’s flagship facility in Chiswick.
From the outside, the Model 3 shares many of the clean styling of the bigger Model S. Usefully shorter than the 4,985mm long Model S, the Model 3 scales 4,694mm long overall, and is also usefully over 100mm narrower. At first glance, it’s not immediately obvious that the Model 3 is a saloon rather than a hatchback, and this alone could limit sales, for saloons have dropped massively out of favour in the marketplace in recent years. Nevertheless, the boot is cavernous, with a good depth of opening, and luggage carrying capability is aided by the front boot or “frunk”.
The door handles are worth a mention, being flush to the sides of the car. Unlike the Model S, however, where the handles glide out to meet you as you approach, these are unpowered, and opening the door is done by pressing the end of the handle, whereupon the front of it swings out to provide the handle proper. This might sound unnecessarily fiddly, but in practice, the action is easy and natural.
The windows are frameless in typical American fashion, and the resulting loss of stiffness does mean that the doors close with more of a clang than a clunk, which may put some people off.
Clean, almost Swedish, styling is also the theme of the interior of the car, featuring a unique facia design having no instrument panel in front of the driver, every display, gauge and switch function being controlled by a landscape format 15” screen in the centre. Although not having a speedometer directly in front of the driver might sound less than ideal, in practice essential driving information such as speed is grouped in the top right corner of the screen, a location which neatly avoids the driver having to take their eyes from the road ahead.
Also eliminated from the facia are the expected, and normally intrusive air vents. Not to worry, though: instead, the air is fed through a discreet narrow full-width vent below the windscreen. The facia itself is therefore simplified to a single shallow strip full-width across the car. On our vehicle this strip was finished in light-coloured wood, emphasising the Swedish feel of the interior.
Some models, including ours, feature a highly impressive full-length glass roof, giving an almost unobstructed aerial view from the base of the windscreen right up and over to the bottom of the rear screen.
The rest of the interior is otherwise rather more conservative, with the seats on the top-of-the-range model nicely trimmed with the expected leather, although lesser versions will have cloth trim. Regardless of material, the front seats themselves looked impressive, with none of the puckering at the seams so often seen on mid-spec motors which have been built down to a price. A verdict on seat comfort will, of course, need to await an extended road test, although Model S experience suggests they will be both comfy and supportive.
In the back, there is plenty of legroom, although taller passengers might find that headroom is a bit on the tight side, no doubt due in part to that massive glass roof.
So, on the surface, the Model 3 is a pretty decent mid-range saloon which clearly has BMW’s 3 Series in its sights and indeed is a worthy competitor.
Under the skin, of course, the Tesla is a very different beast to the Beemer, with much of the hi-tech underpinnings based on the upmarket Model S, and even improves on them.
The batteries, for example, are completely tucked out of the way under the floor, like the Model S, but are of an evolved design which apparently makes less use of that scarce mineral cobalt but without any reduction in performance. Like the Model S (and Model X), the batteries are warranted for 8 years, however, Tesla confidently expects a 20-year life without serious degradation. Supporting this impressive claim, we were told about one UK customers Model S which had covered 200,000 miles with only around 7% battery degradation.
To achieve this battery life, Tesla pays great attention to charge management: batteries – even the battery in your phone – really don’t like being over-or-undercharged. The Tesla system, therefore, limits the normal battery operating range to between 10% to 90% of charge, although this can be over-ridden if the maximum range is essential. Additionally, the battery temperature is critical to longevity, and battery cooling systems are fitted, the replenishment of which is, in fact, a routine service item.
As we mentioned, the owner can, if he wishes, over-ride the battery charging limits, which could cause battery life problems if done regularly. Part of Tesla’s service procedure is, therefore, to assess battery condition and advise the owner accordingly, to give him or her a chance to change their charging behaviour. In extremis, of course, Tesla could doubtless remotely limit the degree to which an individuals battery could be charged simply to protect its life. An interesting example of this remote control has been shown in the case of recent major regional evacuations due to wildfires in the USA where Tesla temporarily increased the charge capacity on customers cars in the at-risk areas.
Mention of the remote control brings me on to the Model 3’s safety systems, and in particular the Autopilot self-driving system. Every Model 3 is equipped with an incredible 8 cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and one radar unit. These should allow the Model 3 to be completely self-driving at some point in the future when legislation so allows. At present, a degree of semi-autonomous driving is possible within the limits of the law, if this optional feature is enabled.
Semi-autonomous control is activated via an over-the-air download, at a price obviously. However, even without payment, the Model 3 benefits, like other Tesla models, from continuous over-the-air updates. In some cases, these fix problems which have been discovered and which in a lesser brand, would need a visit to the dealership to resolve. On occasions, though, complete additional functions can be, and are, loaded to the car, free of charge and without needing visits to the dealer.
Many cars claim to be “connected”, but usually this functionality is limited. Current Teslas go much further, with data from the car being fed back to Tesla HQ continually. An interesting example of this is with the data from all those self-driving sensors. Regardless of whether the semi-autonomous function is activated (I.e. paid for), those sensors are continuously sending back road and traffic data to Tesla, enabling them to build up and refine mapping databases against the day when full self-driving is eventually allowed by law.
One important area where the Model 3 differs from earlier Tesla models is in the charging connection which is fitted.
Earlier Teslas used their own unique Supercharger connector. Model 3 however has a much more widely used CCS connection, allowing it to be coupled to a much wider range of charging stations. Superchargers can still be used, of course, as they are compatible with the CCS socket fitted to the Model 3. All Teslas including the Model 3 benefit from Teslas unique Supercharger fast-charging network, which incidentally is set to be increased significantly during 2019.
An adaptor is still needed in order to use the CHAdeMO connector familiar to Nissan Leaf drivers.
Although the Model 3 is intended to sit in the middle price bracket and so bring extended range electric motoring to a much wider market, cars on sale initially in the UK will not be cheap – probably around £55,000. However, this gets the Long Range AWD Performance model with all the bells and whistles, a range of over 300 miles and a fearsome, supercar-beating 0-60 time of 3.3 seconds. However, as the range extends, the starting price point should be closer to £30-35,000, which will still get you a range of 220 miles and a very respectable 0-60mph time of 5.6 seconds.
Overall, the Model 3 get a resounding thumbs-up from us.
Interested? find out more here: https://www.tesla.com/en_GB/model3