Tesla Model 3 (2018) review: an early drive in the cheaper Tesla

Tesla Model 3 review: CAR magazine has snuck an early drive

Tesla’s Models S and Model X are premium products with list prices to match; superior electric vehicles for the wealthy. The Model 3, now delivering to its first US owners (UK buyers must wait until late 2018 or, more likely, 2019), isn’t cheap but it’s considerably more affordable. UK pricing is yet to be set but is likely to start at a shade over £30,000.

For that you get a five-seat saloon with a single e-motor driving the rear wheels, Autopilot self-driving readiness, a starkly minimalist interior and a compelling turn of speed: 5.6sec 0-60mph and 130mph, despite weighing 1610kg.

The launch of an important new model – a new Ford Fiesta, BMW 5-series or Ferrari – makes a cover story for CAR and other specialist magazines. But the first deliveries of the Model 3 made full-page news stories in broadsheets around the planet. Why? We didn’t learn much more about the Model 3 from the event at the factory in Fremont, California, where the first 30 customers (all Tesla staff) got their cars. The test drives for journalists were extremely limited. And wise industry owl Bob Lutz pointed out that as those first deliveries were to employees, not customers, and so are more akin to the late-stage prototypes which major car makers give to their workers to shake out the final bugs before paying customers get theirs.

But the world analyses Tesla founder Elon Musk’s every burp. Such is the market’s faith in his ability to predict and create the future that, despite building only 84,000 cars in 2016 Tesla is America’s most valuable car maker, with a market capitalisation of $53 billion (£39bn). That’s slightly greater than GM’s and a quarter more than Ford’s. If GM or Ford launched a new model which quintupled their sales, that would lead the news too.

The markets’ reaction to the Model 3 was downbeat, but that’s to be expected. Tesla’s value is based on the anticipation of glittering future success. Its actual achievements – like delivering the first Model 3 – will at best meet the markets’ expectations. In this case, investors thought Musk sounded ‘squeamish’ about the challenges of building so many cars, and the share price slipped around 3%.

Tesla Model 3 review: is it actually any good to drive?

As with the S and X, slipping behind the wheel of Tesla’s newest EV feels like sliding into the future, thanks in part to its shockingly minimalist interior: a 15-inch touchscreen panel proudly signals an all-digital interface, and access is keyless and granted via smartphone. Perhaps in a few years such tech will seem as dated as a Nokia flip-phone, but right now the Model 3 is the new iPhone of the motoring world, a package of must-have features wrapped in a sleek, designer pod.

A very airy cabin: new Tesla Model 3 has a huge panoramic glass roof

Teslas have always looked generically global and the view from the front seats is pretty much that of a business lounge in a Scandinavian airport. Passengers behind will enjoy plenty of legroom and a rear window that stretches to form half the roof (above).

Digital natives will take to the tablet screen in moments. Older drivers might want to pack the manual (and a pair of bifocals) to navigate the car’s endless menus.

When Tesla unveiled the Model 3 to the world

At least the driving experience remains enjoyably analogue, with acceleration matching the response – if never the brute force – of the Model S, and rock-solid cornering. One-pedal driving soon becomes the norm thanks to strong regenerative braking.

There is also the option of zero-pedal driving with Tesla’s semi-autonomous upgrade package, bringing adaptive cruise control, lane keeping and self-parking. Like the current generation of Autopilot in the Model S, this still needs a fair bit of human oversight. However, Elon Musk is promising full self-driving, possibly within the next couple of years, as another pricey upgrade.

That’s just one of the unknowns with the Model 3, which still include the cost of using Tesla’s Supercharger network, the exact specification of the 215- and 310-mile battery options (215 is standard), and even how much you will actually pay for the version you choose. But one thing is for sure: the Model 3 looks, smells and drives like the future on four wheels.

Who’s buying the Tesla Model 3?

People like Ian Vinten, a London-based marketing director. ‘The early hands-on reviews I’ve read have made me more excited,’ says Vinten. ‘It’s a cliche but Tesla really is the new Apple when it comes to excitement around the latest tech. The final Model 3 looks amazing, inside and out, and when I was a kid 0-60mph in five-point-something was a Ferrari stat on a Top Trumps card, so it’s fast enough for me.

Tesla Model 3: specs, review and prices from £30,000 in UK

‘According to the queue on tesla.com, we’re due to get ours late in 2018, even though UK deliveries aren’t expected to start until 2019. I’m okay with that as early Tesla production models have historically had a lot of bugs. And who knows what other goodies might be available by then: hopefully the all-wheel-drive, dual-motor model. And maybe self-driving legislation will be clearer by then, allowing greater autonomy.

Price of a Tesla Model 3

‘Tesla hasn’t revealed UK pricing to us in the queue, and by  the time our car comes we’ll be staring Brexit full in the face, so who knows what the exchange rate will be.

‘I’ll definitely order the long-range battery, and I’m hoping the Model 3 helps me get a solar roof and powerwall for the house early. With Autopilot and other future-proof extras, I think we’ll be looking at £50k-plus, which is not cheap. It’ll be interesting to see how that compares to a secondhand Model S: for the same money the S might offer greater range and 0-60mph in 3.0sec.

‘That’s the interesting thing: right now, I think the only company Tesla is competing with is itself. I haven’t seen anything from another car maker that would tempt me away from the Tesla. I love that Tesla is making the established names make big statements about phasing out combustion-only engines. Tesla feels like it’s genuinely driving the industry, so I’m okay with it having my deposit for a bit longer yet.’

We interview Tesla boss Elon Musk

The question remains: can Tesla meet Model 3 demand?

Probably not, but nobody cares, apart from those in the queue. Over half a million people have now paid a refundable deposit of $1000 (or £1000 in the UK) for a Model 3. Tesla says that production will hit 240,000 cars each year by the start of 2018, and 10,000 cars a week – or half a million in a full year – at some point during 2018.

So Tesla won’t build half a million Model 3s next year, but it estimates its total output will be in that region, of which around 400,000 will be Model 3. It currently makes about 100,000 Model S and X annually, although battery supply problems have caused the increase in production of those cars to stall, and Model 3 could have the same problems.

Few people outside Tesla believe that it will hit those numbers. Musk said at the launch event that Tesla is about to enter ‘production hell’. A major car maker increasing volumes five-fold in a year is improbable, and would be unprecedented.

Tesla Model 3

Tesla has made things slightly easier for itself by designing the Model 3 to be simple to produce: features like that huge, single, central touchscreen and single full-width air vent cut the car’s complexity and part-count. It’s about to sign a joint-venture deal with a Chinese car maker which will let it build cars in China, giving it extra production capacity, losing the heavy import duties it currently pays on its cars and at least doubling its sales in the short term in the world’s biggest and fastest-growing EV market. And a significant number of those deposit holders will drop out: a refundable deposit doesn’t need much commitment.

The big question is not whether Tesla will keep its promises, but how much it will miss them by. Morgan Stanley thinks that Tesla will make just 2000 Model 3s this year and 80,000 in 2018, around a fifth of what Musk has promised. But this doesn’t make the financiers bearish on Tesla’s share price, because everyone expects Musk to set hyper-aggressive targets, and miss them.

More Tesla Model 3 news, specs and scoops

The future: what will Tesla be doing  in 10 years’ time?

Last year Musk published his Master Plan, Part Deux (a movie reference), 10 years after his original (unpublished) masterplan which he claims to have implemented in full. So we know what he thinks Tesla will have done by 2027. It will have added a pick-up, a small SUV, a heavy truck and an autonomous bus to its range. It will have introduced full autonomy by 2019, long before any other car maker. It will be the world’s biggest battery maker. It will have created an integrated home solar fast-charge system, and it will have built car-sharing and ride-hailing apps which will both create a market for Tesla cars and reduce the net cost of owning one.

Essentially, it will be a mobility company, not a car maker. It will have created an ecosystem of software and services which make ‘driving’ its cars cheaper and more convenient than any other option. This is the stuff that Silicon Valley is typically very good at, and the established car makers generally very bad at. And in the medium-to-long term, it’s what really counts. That’s why the markets value Tesla as highly as they do: one analyst says that Tesla’s autonomy plans alone account for a quarter of its valuation.

It’s also why the markets don’t care much if Tesla misses its targets now: by the time its services come on-stream, its car production will be sorted and will no longer be such an important part of the business. The same is true of that hyper-aggressive target on autonomy: Tesla will almost certainly miss it, but it will get there at least as fast as anyone else. Google’s Waymo project has way more cash, but Tesla gets the machine-learning benefits of having hundreds of thousands of Autopilot-equipped cars already on the road. Google will only offer its autonomous systems through the major car makers, who are notoriously risk-averse. Musk would rather get the tech out there first, and fine-tune later.

The biggest challenges might be regulatory, but Tesla will find legislators increasingly flexible. If the UK Government’s plan to ban internal combustion engines in cars by 2040 is to have any meaning, it will need to assist, not obstruct, innovative companies such as Tesla.