What can one person determine about the ultra-important Tesla Model 3 Performance with just an hour and a half behind the wheel? Probably not much, but this week we had the collective brain-weight of four Jalopnik writers who took turns inside the quickest and most powerful version of Tesla’s compact car. And we walked away not only impressed, but wanting more.
(Full Disclosure: One of Tesla’s PR folks was in New York and they invited us to take a spin in a new Model 3 Performance demonstrator car on Thursday morning. No food, booze or airfare was involved this time.)
It’s no great secret that driving around Brooklyn is a terrible way to test a performance car, or really any car. The traffic is awful and so are other drivers. Room to really open it up and go fast is hard to come by. The streets are riddled with potholes and road damage. And to top it all off, there’s garbage everywhere, so it’s hard to even find a nice place to take photos!
But the Tesla Model 3 is a big deal, so we took what we could get. It’s the car that Tesla has tethered its entire future to, the make-or-break mainstream volume-selling compact sedan designed to fight the BMW 3 Series and its competitors. And while the much-awaited $35,000 version of the car—long the most-touted selling point—is nowhere to be found, we wanted to see if this $75,000-ish Model 3 Performance was really the M3-killer people say it is.
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The Tesla Model 3 Makes The Future Feel Normal
The Model 3 Performance gets two electric motors for all-wheel drive, a larger 75-kWh battery over the base 50-kWh one, an electric range of 310 miles, and a claimed zero to 60 mph time of just 3.5 seconds. On paper, it’s great. In reality, it’s… very fast. And interesting.
Here’s what we thought.
Patrick George: When we’ve been critical of Tesla it’s usually been over production issues, big promises or the fact that its CEO really needs to log off. (Really, everyone does.) But one thing’s always been clear to us: the actual cars Tesla makes are extremely impressive. They always have been.
For me, the Model 3 Performance is the most impressive Tesla I’ve driven to date, and easily the most fun.
Inside it feels about as roomy as a BMW 3 Series, but it feels noticeably more compact to drive. It benefits from having a super short nose up front, which makes it easy to just point and shoot wherever you want it to go. In that way I found it similar to the 991.2 I just drove a few weeks ago; the Model 3 Performance handles like a legit sports car, and that’s not a descriptor I toss around lightly, especially for a sedan. While we didn’t get any true tail-out action, its relatively small size makes it super fun to just throw into corners.
It’s very, very quick. We got a few moments to light it up on the Belt Parkway and I’m sure I scared my passengers a few times. The way it jumps from about 40 mph to 70 mph is just stunning. No drama, barely any noise but a slight whine, and then it kind of leaps forward, hard and instantly. (Also worth noting: the new experimental Track Mode was turned off by a Tesla rep for Jalopnik’s test. I don’t know why they don’t trust us!)
In some ways it feels like Tesla’s taken the classic muscle car approach here: take the engine—or batteries and motors in this case—out of the bigger car and put it all in something smaller, and you have an instant recipe for fun. I’ve never found the Model S to be boring to drive, but this is way more of a blast.
I’d need some back-to-back track time before I call the Model 3 Performance a true M3-killer, and I maintain the real measure of this car’s success will be the much-promised $35,000 version (when and if that happens), but I couldn’t help but be impressed with what I drove.
The night after the drive, and even now, I found myself still thinking about what it was like to be behind the wheel. I get to drive a lot of fun cars for my job, so that doesn’t happen to me very often anymore. I’m eager to get another, longer shot in it.
Mike Ballaban: Thought experiments like “is this an M3 killer??!?!?!” are kind of silly because the M3 has been boring for a while now (E46 4 lyfe) and because they’re vastly different cars. But even if we look at the Model 3 Performance in its own right, it was pretty great and even hilarious. This wasn’t one of those cars where you go “hmmmm, might need to spend 19 months with this before I reach my BIG VERDICT,” it’s the sort of thing you know is special right away. Well, not right away, but certainly in less than four seconds.
It’s got the neck-muscle-stretching acceleration that at this point is basically a Tesla hallmark, and it does it with such little drama and such ferocity that you don’t so much as accelerate, as it is that one instant you’re doing 20 mph, and the next instant you just happen to be doing 60 mph.
Yes, it needs a HUD, and yes, the interior is just “minimalist,” it’s downright so empty you expect a fly to come tumbling out once you open the door, and YES, that’s kind of wild for a car that costs $80,000.
Ryan Felton: Unlike Patrick and Mike, I didn’t have as much space to open up and see how the car performs, so my driving experience was about as exciting as you can imagine bumper-to-bumper traffic in NYC can be. That said, there were a few moments that stood out and underscored exactly why there’s such an interest in the Model 3: it’s a damn good time.
Jumping off the line, it’s not going to throw you back into your seat like a Model S P100D can, but fully-optioned Model 3 is fast. I’m not sure what Patrick’s mixing with his coffee this morning to make him think him the Model 3 Performance makes for a better time than a Model S, but it could just boil down to preference. The Model 3’s light on its feet, and that’s great, but I get an overwhelming, maniacal rush and pure joy throwing around a car like the Model S. I thought before that the Model 3 Performance could cannibalize sales of the S, but it’s obvious now they’re two different experiences.
Since my seat time was limited, I’ll focus on the car’s minimalist interior, which typically garners a boatload of attention and deeply puzzling looks at first. I was definitely skeptical that I’d ever enjoy it, but I get it now. A couple months back, I was in new Buick Regal, and I couldn’t get over how much shit was happening behind the steering wheel.
Patrick George: The interior is a trip. Nearly everything you can think of operates through the screen. Want to open the hood or trunk? Screen. Adjust your mirrors? Screen, then the buttons on the steering wheel. A/C, radio, climate controls? All on the screen. I get the thinking there, but there’s a learning curve to get used to it.
Ryan Felton: But the spartan layout of the Model 3 felt liberating. The use of the center touchscreen immediately felt intuitive. Over time, I can see how locating the necessary controls would get easier, like how we have mental reflexes to locate a necessary app on our phones without thinking about it. If anything, I’d say that’s what stands out the most: the empty interior won me over.
Kristen Lee: Unfortunately, I did not get a chance behind the Model 3’s wheel, as we were extremely pressed for time and I had a prior engagement around the same time. But in the years that I’ve spent doing this job, I’ve developed a fairly good butt dyno at feeling out what a car is like and how it rides. And I can tell you this: It tucks neatly into corners, has very little body roll and rides at that perfect level between numb-soft and rock-hard. It’s definitely not something you’d fall asleep easily in.
Up front, the forward visibility is incredible. The car’s fantastically low and short hood means that you can easily see over it, and its large windshield gives the cabin a wonderfully airy feel. I’m still not sold on the big tablet in the middle, as I will never give up buttons and dials. But Elon gets what Elon wants and I guess the rest of us will just have to deal.
As Patrick mentioned above, the acceleration is unforgettable. It’s been a full 24 hours now and I’m still stuck on that peculiar feeling of accelerating so fast that your tongue kind of curls up on itself in your mouth. But it’s not violent, murdery acceleration, like in a V10 M5 or anything. The feeling was very fast, yes, but also elastic. Like we were using big rubber bands to shoot ourselves into the horizon. The lack of gear shifts also adds to this sensation.
All you get is an increased, high-pitched whining noise, unrelenting forward propulsion and then suddenly the whole cabin is giggling manically. If you look into Patrick’s eyes, you’ll know that the man has a heavy foot.
Anyway, our test car came with the new, snowy white leather interior, I forget exactly what it’s called. It is a truly, dazzling white, but as someone who owns a white couch, I can assure you that that white will not last long. All it takes is for some improperly dyed jeans and a coffee spill from one moron friend and then it’s a rapid descent into gross, off-white. Everyone’s favorite. (Update: Evidently I spoke too soon, as the white seats are apparently un-killable. Good job there, Tesla.)
Consumer Reports wrote that it felt that the back seats were too low and didn’t provide any knee support. I thought they were fine? But I only spent about 30 minutes there and, as Ballaban constantly reminds me, I am apparently an abnormally sized human and my seat takes can’t be applied to everyone. (By the way, the average height for women in the U.S. is 5’4”, which is only an inch difference for me.)
The last thing I noticed when the car was at speed was the wind noise. It’s not generally something I experience, so I was surprised to hear it at all. One could ding the Model 3 for poor wind noise insulation, but I think it also has something to do with the fact that there’s no engine noise to drown out the wind. This is something I’d like to investigate further, though.
I’d like to see how the Model 3 performs in situations other than straight-line acceleration. That’s awesome and everything, but it can’t just be a one-trick pony.
Mike Ballaban: And yes, Ryan is a downright crazy person for looking at a bare cupboard and going “mmmm there’s a full meal here,” but the truth of the matter is that Ryan is a sick vegetarian and this is the sort of very-few-compromises drivers’ car that people pine for. The steering is downright lively compared to virtually any new car on the road, and despite weighing ever so slightly more than SpaceX’s Big Fucking Rocket—I’m being hyperbolic but it’s still a hefty 4,000 pounds—it was somehow both nimble and comfortable. It’s stupid fast, comfortable, and the rear window crawls all the way up its ass and over the back seats. What’s not to like?
Oh, and the seats. The seats are DEFINITELY to like. The Volvo S60’s old seats were legendary, but Volvo replaced them for the new S60 with a different seat. Those new Volvo seats are fine, but a worthy successor? Feh!
The Tesla Model 3 now takes the crown for Best Seats. They’re soft and pillowy and not too large and not too small. Gimme these chairs for every chair I sit on for the rest of my life.
Patrick George: A big question with these (and rightfully so) is still build quality. And in our brief drive, collectively, we didn’t spot any outstanding or major issues. In one case the nav system directed us from downtown Brooklyn to Red Hook by going to Lower Manhattan and looping around, in what should have been a straight shot on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. But I see questionable navigation decisions in plenty of cars.
Also the car’s temperature read 97 degrees when it was 81, which we’ve apparently seen in other Teslas. That was it. I’ve seen weirder issues on newer Jaguars.
Ryan Felton: I did get to try the horn.
Patrick George: It went beep-beep!
Ryan Felton: Yeah, it did.
Patrick George: Proud of you, bud.