TORONTO — Keycard to the new Tesla Model 3 finally in hand, this is not what we were expecting. The car is a $102,600 lightning bolt, a far cry from affordable electric car that was announced two and a half years ago.
Hype was off the charts in March 2016, in Hawthorne, California, as Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the Model 3. He called it the final step in his master plan.
The crowd’s weird, reverent euphoria was something no other auto-industry CEO could inspire.
The Model 3 was to be an affordable, mass-market, long-range electric car, a product to disrupt a century-old industry.
“You will not be able to buy a better car for $35,000, or even close, even if you get no options,” Musk told the crowd.
More than 400,000 people put down $1,000 deposits for the Model 3.
It’s been more than two years since the company took those first deposits and the $35,000 Tesla still isn’t here.
Making cars, it turns out, is really hard. In 2017, Tesla ran into what Musk called “production hell.”
The well-documented problems with manufacturing at the California factory — and its adjoining tent that houses a second production line — meant the affordable, mass-market Tesla would be delayed.
Build quality issues were a major concern on early cars.
Trying to make this car profitable seems to be driving the company, and its CEO, to wit’s end.
Today, on Tesla’s Canadian Model 3 page, you’ll find the notice: “Standard battery available in 5-8 months,” That’s the affordable, $35,000 model — which will start at $45,600 in Canada. (You can debate whether that qualifies as affordable or not.)
The 5-8 month estimate is only for customers who put down early deposits. If you order now, depending on how production ramps up, you won’t get an entry-level Model 3 until 2019 or 2020.
“Shipping min cost Model 3 right away [would] cause Tesla to lose money & die,” Musk wrote on Twitter earlier this year.
Only the long-range battery version is available to order now, at a price of $64,100 and up.
Until Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government abruptly cancelled the program, buyers would have received up to $14,000 in incentive rebates on EVs under $75,000.
Tesla Canada is taking Doug Ford’s government to court, claiming, “The decision has already inflicted substantial harm on Tesla Canada in the form of lost sales and the creation of an impression among Ontarians that Tesla Canada may be singled out for future arbitrary treatment under the law.”
Tesla won’t say how many deposits it has had to refund, but at the end of Q2, only 28,386 Model 3s had been delivered while 420,000 people were still waiting. Canadian deliveries of the long-range Model 3 only began in May this year.
All automakers try to up-sell after attracting people into showrooms with a low, low price. Few buyers purchase the base model, but with other automakers it is at least possible.
Two-day test drive
The car we’ve got on test is the top-of-the-food-chain Model 3 Performance with long-range battery and all-wheel drive courtesy of two electric motors: one at the front axle and another at the rear.
It starts at $84,800 and comes with what Tesla calls “more capable inverters” to bump horsepower and torque up to 450 and 471 lb.-ft. respectively.
Loaded with the optional Performance Upgrade package, Enhanced Autopilot and white interior, our test car costs an eye-watering $102,600.
Only having the car on loan from Tesla for two days, this will not be an in-depth review, but rather first impressions. Panel gaps and built quality seem reasonably good.
We had no minor malfunctions as happened on early Model S and Model X vehicles I drove.
Is it slow? No. This Model 3 rips from a standstill to 100 km/h in 3.7 seconds. That’s quicker than most Porsche 911s, or any of the Tesla’s sport-sedan competitors.
Without a racetrack to test its limit handling, it’s impossible to say if the Performance model has the chops to threaten a BMW M3 or C63 AMG.
The Tesla feels tuned for safe, neutral handling — going where you point it — rather than the drifty, muscle-car thrills offered by those German machines.
A bit of understeer is inevitable with this much car on skinny 235 section tires, but less friction grants increase driving range, which is a worthy trade-off.
Empty Apple Store
Sitting in this car is like being in an empty Apple store. It’s cool and austere, with a giant iPad-like screen front and centre. And, that’s it. It’s barren. The seats are excellent, but overall the cabin feels a little basic considering the six-figure price.
The problem with having all controls on the touchscreen (save for two joysticks on the steering wheel) is that it’s distracting.
You need to take your eyes off the road and dive into menus to accomplish even simple tasks.
There’s also no permanent “map” button on the big screen, which seems like an easy-to-fix oversight.
On the road, the Model 3 has squirrel-like agility thanks in part to a very quick steering rack. The low centre of gravity, due to the underfloor battery pack, means the car turns with hardly any body roll.
It’s certainly the best-handling Tesla I’ve ever driven, and maybe even the best-handling electric car. The fact it weighs hundreds of kilograms less a top-spec Model S helps a lot.
Powering out of a corner with gusto grants brief flashes of oversteer. You can feel the electric motors adjusting power to the wheels, swinging the rear axle around. It’s an artificial, computer-generated sensation, but it shows there’s potential here.
The level of precision control at each wheel offered by electric motors could grant EVs handling ability beyond what their gasoline counterparts are capable of.
An upcoming Track Mode feature is said to deliver more entertaining, tail-happy handling, but it unfortunately wasn’t equipped on our test car.
Over rough city streets, this Model 3 on 20-inch rims rides slightly on the sporty side of comfortable. Given the car’s agile handling and lack of body-roll in fast corners, you’d expect much stiffer suspension.
However, it’s surprisingly compliant, with the caveat: for a sports sedan. Again, that’s likely thanks to the low centre of gravity.
Energy density cells
What’s most impressive though is the battery. “Cells used in Model 3 are the highest energy density cells used in any electric vehicle,” the company claimed in letter to shareholders earlier this year.
During our brief test in which we drove like we stole it, it averaged 221 Wh/km. Tesla is getting an EPA-rated 499 kilometres of range out of an estimated 75 kWh battery (the company declined to disclose the actual capacity of the battery).
Jaguar’s electric I-Pace, for comparison, gets an EPA-estimated range of only 386 km from a much larger 90 kWh battery.
Charging at home on a 240V, 40A outlet will get you 60 km of range per hour. Tesla’s superchargers will provide 274 km in 30 minutes, but using them isn’t free for Model 3 buyers.
The Jaguar is the Model 3 Performance’s closest — and so far only — real rival. The I-Pace is slower off the line, with a whopping 100 kilometres less range, and a similar $86,500 base price.
But the Jag is more of a known quantity with a refined, luxurious cabin.
Audi will reveal the electric E-Tron Quattro in September as a 2019 model, but it too will have significantly less driving range than the Tesla.
Porsche’s electric Taycan sports sedan will go on sale in 2019 as a 2020 model.
Could live up to the hype
Between production hell and the strange things Elon Musk tweets — calling a rescue diver a “pedo guy,” and a surprise announcement about taking Tesla private that reportedly got the company subpoenaed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — it has been a rough year for Tesla.
However, first impressions of the top-of-the-line Model 3 give reason to believe the entry-level version, whenever it does finally arrive, could live up to the hype.
There are only a handful of other cars, of any sort, that are this fun to drive in mundane, daily-commuting situations.
Whatever happens to Tesla, the Model 3 is a strange and exciting machine that bodes well for a future filled with thrilling electric automobiles.
- Model: 2019 Tesla Model 3 Performance
- Base Price: $84,800 ($102,600 as tested)
- Engine: Dual-motor electric
- Transmissions: N/A
- Range (EPA-rated): 499 kilometres
- Drive: All-wheel
- Alternatives: Jaguar I-Pace, Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf, or wait for the 2020 Porsche Taycan