Tesla test drive: Around the 'burbs, in a jam, and down the highway in a Model 3 | The Driven
Model 3

A few weeks ago, I was one of a lucky group of people to take first test drives of the Tesla Model 3 electric sedan in Australia – on a private track north of Sydney. For four laps we got to throw the car around as quick as we dared.

It was enough time to discover the Model 3 performance version is bloody quick, has unbelievable acceleration, and  great handling. And it was enough time to underline the fact that two of these attributes – acceleration and handling – are direct benefits of electric vehicles.

The batteries provide instant torque, so when Tesla says the Model 3 performance can go from 0 to 100km/h in 3.5 seconds, that is exactly what it can do. And because of the positioning of those same batteries, the car’s centre of gravity is low, and that means the handling is great.

EVs have other great attributes too: They have lower greenhouse emissions, they do not pollute the air with particulates, fumes, or noise. And in the case of the Model 3 and other Tesla vehicles, they have extremely high safety ratings.

And, just to top it off, they look good too,  inside and out.

Granted, this is a subjective assessment – and I even know of people who say they like the look of modern SUVs. Although I do have a question for them: How the hell do you tell the difference between models?

The other day I saw a Hyundai/Mazda/Nissan type thing with an MG label on the back. What’s the point, I wondered. That’s not what I understood an MG to be.

Tesla has introduced some new lines with the Model 3. I like that it is distinctive. You see, there were some advantages to growing up in the 60s and 70s. The car-makers didn’t follow each other like clams.

And Tesla is no clam. It’s taken vision and some corporate guts to challenge and upturn the cosy incumbency of two trillion dollar industries, car making and transport fuels. The Model 3 is the next phase in that revolution.

So, having given it a tick for performance, handling and looks, it was time to find out what the Model 3 was like in real life, and driven over a few days.

The question to be posed was this: Would it still be as much fun stuck in endless Sydney traffic jams, going around suburban streets, ducking down to the shops for a bottle of milk, picking people up at the airport, and hopping on to the freeway to Canberra and back?

After the showboating, how did it stack up as the regular form of transport, sharing the roadway with the mere mortals, the diesel and petrol mob.

Rather well, as it turns out.

I picked up a blue Model 3 dual motor (performance version) in Sydney on a late weekday afternoon.

I got the debrief from the Tesla folks at the Alexandria depot, and had my phone sync’d to the car so it became its key, as well charging monitor, climate controller and bonnet and charging point opener and closer, and a heap of other stuff I didn’t get round to testing out.

For backup, and if you want to lend your car to someone else without giving them your phone as well, there is a hotel style key card that can be used.

The first stop after the depot was a traffic jam, right round the corner. And an endless traffic jam that seemed to go for more than hour. But it gave me time to absorb what was around me.

The first thing that struck me was the silence. All EVs are quiet, but some have less road noise than others. The Model 3 seems to me to have less than any I have driven. Sure, not much road noise in a traffic jam, but I found that too on the highway to Canberra and back. Maybe it’s selective memory, or the fine roads to the capital.

That in turn highlights another feature – the sound system. “Hey,” my daughter noted, more used to driving her bottom-of-the-market Toyota, “you can actually hear the music.”

And with a full selection from Spotify there is plenty of choice, and the greatest rock hits from the 1980s never sounded so good. (No, really, there were some good ones).

To make your music selection, and to do just about anything in the Model 3, you use the big 15 inch screen that – more than anything – differentiates the Model 3 from any other vehicle that went before it.

And this, frankly, is likely to be the biggest mind-f*** for anyone, like me, who hasn’t yet worked out how to use their iPhone properly. Or, as Bridie Schmidt writes in her review, this car is just as much a mind-changer as a game-changer.

So, while most other car-makers are busy trying to make their electric cars look and operate just like their petrol versions, Tesla has gone the other way, and that’s mainly because it has no legacy fossil fuel models and customer habits to protect.

This is a look to the future, and it seems deliberately so.

It reminded me of what one of the original designers had told us at that first-test drive. They began with an open slate and decided a single screen, and the absence of dials and rows of knobs, would mean that the car would not be dated, and could in fact be updated by more software downloads.

The possibilities are endless – imagine when full self driving is a thing, you could download a whole office suite or indoor theatre. It’s not a matter of driving a different way, it’s an invitation to think differently too.

So after the landmark Model S, the extraordinary Model X, we now have the Model 3 – just one big touch screen, two small paddles on either side of the steering wheel, and two little buttons on the steering wheel itself that you are invited to manipulate with your thumbs.

The first time we did this was the set-up. Click on mirrors on the screen, adjust on the left button. Ditto, steering wheel – up, down, in, out. The right button is to help control adaptive cruise and auto-pilot. Maybe there’s something else, but I haven’t got there yet.

Lights, indicators and wipers are all on the left paddle. The right paddle is your gears – reverse, neutral, drive, and then one or two clicks down for adaptive cruise and auto-pilot.

After that, it’s all on the screen. Charging status, range, performance monitor, climate control (the shifting of the air vents with finger and thumb went down as the coolest thing noted by various passengers), music, opening stuff, closing stuff, all sorts of other gadgetry, gimmicks and games, syncing with the phone. And who knows what else.

But what’s it like in the city? Stuck in traffic, going through the ‘burbs. There’s not a lot you can do at an average speed of 10km/h. But there was no engine noise, no idling, the radio/music was clear. I didn’t even get impatient. It seemed like an altogether more relaxing experience.

And out on the highway? Well, kind of like a dream. Again, smooth, quiet, you can enjoy the music. Occasionally I found myself glancing through the steering wheel to locate the dials I had been used to for more than 40 years and check on the speedo. Oops, not there any more, glance to the left.

Again, on a highway, there’s not a lot you can do to vary the trip, unless you are really trying. Don’t want to be sat next to that B-double as you overtake? Accelerate away! Crikey! That was quick. Let’s hope there wasn’t a highway patrol at that precise spot misinterpreting his speed camera.

Feeling bored by the endless highway? Use either adaptive cruise (it holds the distance between you and the cars in front), or auto-pilot (it can hold the lanes, and change them when asked), which I think will take the most to get used to. But let’s face it, both are undoubtedly a lot better at avoiding accidents than a human.

And charging, too. I stopped in Goulburn on the way down, and on the way back up. Not because I needed to, but because it was time to stop anyway. By the time I had bought a coffee and gone to the loo, the battery was back up to 90 per cent.

Ditto on the way back. In fact, because I had dawdled, the car sent me a text telling me it was charged and ready to go (and included a warning that I was about to be charged sitting time if I didn’t move on, which seemed a little churlish given that I was the only EV in the range of 6 charging stations. But it’s a good habit to get into).

So, what has the Model 3 delivered? Performance, comfort, quality, safety, style. As one person on a WhatsApp thread put it – tech, zoom, safety and a supercharger network.

And I’d like to add another technical term, too. The Wow! factor. It’s what makes Tesla customers so damn excited and so obsessive.

What other consumer group has members watching the docks for boats departing and arriving; that share photos of car-carriers moving down highways; that try to hack into their reservation pages so they can get an early look at their VIN (vehicle identification number)?

I got to like the minimalist look. I went from ‘I’m not so sure,’ to ‘yeah, this is really good!’ Some people won’t like it, mainly because they don’t want everything on a touch screen. Some will agree with other manufacturers that EVs should look just like their fossilised antecedents.

But there’s value here, too. It’s got better range than the vehicles that match it on quality, and better quality than the rivals that match it on range. And if Elon Musk is right about self-driving, then there are all sorts of downloadable possibilities into the future.

There are a few things that didn’t quite work, where style might have taken precedence over form. The door handles took a while to get used to – they don’t self present like the model S, and they are not the easiest to open when you have your hands full.

I was surprised by the lack of over-shoulder visibility for blind spots and reversing. That’s probably because I drive a 10 year-old car with ample visibility.

Anyone who has driven a modern SUV will be used to this. I just had to use the side mirrors more and get used to reversing with the camera. Those tricks my father told me more than 40 years ago to line up the car correctly when reverse parking will finally find their use-by date.

And then there is the issue of the spare tyre: There isn’t one. So if you do have a flat you want to believe that a Tesla service-person is just around the corner. But they might not be. And that’s going to be a grump when it happens.

So, I remind myself, this was a dual motor performance version of the Model 3, and I am about to get a rear-motor standard range plus. What am I missing out on?

I’ve save about $30,000 but I will get less range and acceleration. The Model 3 will get me from 0 to 100km/h in 5.6 seconds instead of 3.5, but that seems fast enough. I doubt there are many people with the skills to properly manage the former.

Range is lower, but that’s not a deal breaker for me. I will probably challenge it a few times a year, and will just have to think about where to recharge.

If i did go on a really long trip – well, then I’d need to make sure where and when I was going. But hey, this is early adopter territory (although it doesn’t feel quite like that when you realise half a million people around the world already have one), so that could be part of the fun.

My SP+ is coming soon, so I’ll let you know how it goes with another report. But I do know I am going to feel bad about one thing – Tesla have gone to all the trouble of making it aerodynamic with sleek lines and retractable door handles, and here I am going to throw roof racks and a long board on the top.

Well, that was the plan, but it turns out that the roof rack, and other Model 3 accessories, won’t be available immediately, and maybe not for months. When I do get them, I’ll have to work out where to hide the key.

You can find more stories, reviews and details about the Model 3 on our Models page.

Meanwhile, if you are thinking of ordering one, try my referral code, and help yourself to some 1,500km of free supercharging. (Disclosure, I will get the same). https://ts.la/giles20203

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