2018 Tesla Model 3 Performance review: Unholy quick, but still incomplete
Reviewing Teslas can be challenging. They are, you see, always changing. Everything from Autopilot capability to the braking performance of the Model 3 has been tweaked since the car's release via software updates, creating a bit of a moving target when it comes to evaluating the thing. And so, nine months after our original Model 3 review, we're back to weigh in on this latest flavor of the car and all of its improvements.
But it wasn't just the software that got tweaked. This is the new Model 3 Dual Motor with the Performance Upgrade Package. That suite shoehorns a second motor to the front of the car, adding all-wheel drive and enough acceleration to make passengers squeal with either delight or horror -- or, perhaps, both.
This, then, is a car radically improved in a number of ways, but you'll pay for it: $64,000 to start. If that sounds like a lot, a Model 3 Performance equipped as the one I tested would cost a rather more dear $78,500. That pricing sets it squarely against BMW's M3, Audi's RS5 and any number of absolutely lovely sports cars. That's serious competition, but as I would quickly discover, the Model 3 is surprisingly up to the task.
Among the many waves the Model 3 stirred along its (circuitous) road to production was debate about whether the famously minimalist interior was perhaps a little too simplified. The car lacks a gauge cluster, dashboard vents of the traditional variety and many of the wheel- and stalk-mounted controls we've come to expect. Rather than the usual buttons and knobs and the like, you have a 15-inch touchscreen affixed to the dashboard and little else.
This creates a stark and visually simple effect that, as someone who has spent a little too much money on mid-century modern furniture over the years, I find very aesthetically pleasing. However, the word "simple" can rarely be applied to the actual process of interacting with the car. The basic task of reaching up and moving a vent is now instead a few taps into a sub-menu on the touchscreen. Want to adjust the wing mirrors or reposition the steering wheel? Tap, tap, tap.
This was my (and many others') primary complaint the last time I drove the Model 3 and I'm very pleased to report that Tesla took much of that criticism to heart. Many important revisions to the interface not only make the car easier to live with but, frankly, safer. For example, adjusting the follow distance of the adaptive cruise control formerly required tapping into a sub-menu. To me, this shoddy design crossed the boundary from merely inconvenient to outright dangerous.
In today's car, adjusting follow distance is a simple matter of rocking the steering wheel's right thumbwheel left and right. Changing the cruise speed, another task that previously required the touchscreen, is now achieved by rolling the wheel up and down. This is a massive improvement and very nice once you experience it, but still not as immediately intuitive as the dedicated controls found in most cars.
Touchscreen wiper controls are also handier and a host of other, minor updates result in a car far more usable than before, but living with a Model 3 is still a radical shift from anything else on the road. It's a shift that those of the touchscreen generation likely won't mind and many will prefer, safety be damned. Those who predate that generation, those who still prefer honest-to-gosh buttons, will find themselves gritting their teeth while learning the nuances.
That generation would likewise prefer a physical key fob to the Model 3's unlock options. The "key" for the Model 3 is an NFC-enabled card of the sort you might get at a hotel. I love that these are small enough to fit into a wallet and cheap enough to give away to friends if you like. However, slapping it against the B-pillar of the car to unlock the doors is not something you'll want to do every day.
Instead, you're supposed to use your phone. Once securely paired, your Bluetooth LE-compatible phone will automatically connect to your car when you approach and unlock it. Most of the time. While the process is more seamless than the last time I tested a Model 3, I still noticed a few occasions where I had to wait three or four seconds before I could actually unlock the door. In one instance I actually had to cycle my phone through airplane mode. Minor inconvenience? Yes, but if you've ever run to the shelter of your car in the middle of a rainstorm you can see the problem.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the continued lack of ventilated seats, increasingly curious as the Model 3 continues to move up-market. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are both missing as well. It's time, Tesla.
While the interface changes are the most important from a usability standpoint, and of most relevance to most Model 3 owners, the performance upgrades here are a little more exciting to experience. The base, single-motor flavor of the Model 3 is rated at around 270 horsepower. This new one, with two motors, all-wheel drive and the Performance upgrade, has 450 hp. That's enough to drop the 0-60 time from 5.1 seconds to just 3.5.
While 3.5 seconds to 60 is properly quick, that doesn't begin to tell the story. Most sports cars require a dedicated launch to achieve that kind of time, either with a nimble dance of brake and clutch or a convoluted sequence of button presses. In the Model 3, you just step on the gas.
A flick of your right foot on the right pedal is enough to throw you into your seat, simultaneously launching any unsecured cargo towards the rear of the car. When I first got in the Model 3 Performance you see here I casually tossed my phone on the center console. After my first initial, part-throttle launch I had to pull over and spend a few moments rummaging around beneath the rear seats to find it again.
These sorts of gravity-defying antics are not unique to the Model 3, but what's remarkable is how easy it is -- at any time, at any speed -- to simply leap forward with brutal aggression. You won't need to cycle through any drive modes, the Model 3 is just always ready to go, morphing from docile, silent EV to ballistic projectile with just a little more pressure on the go pedal.
The Model 3 Performance you see here rolled into my life on the optional 20-inch wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, backed by bigger brakes and attached to a lowered, sportier suspension. This $5,000 package should not be considered optional for anyone interested in properly spirited driving. Read another way, the base Performance car really starts at $69,000.
The change in tires alone, grippier and lower-profile than the base rubber, creates a car far more eager on turn-in yet not flighty or nervous. There's a slight penalty in ride quality, but the Model 3 Performance is far from harsh. Its eagerness continues through the corner, where the Model 3 Performance exhibits better control thanks again to those tires and the revised suspension.
It's a nice upgrade over the base car, then, but there's still room for improvement. The Model 3's handling still falls short of the benchmarks set by the competition's premium sport sedans and their decades of refinement. While the Model 3 turns in readily, it flounders a bit when making quick changes of direction, as you'd expect considering its curb weight of 4,072 -- about 500 pounds heavier than a BMW M3. It's also more easily unsettled by mid-corner corrections or road imperfections than, say, Audi's RS5.
Range and charging
The only Model 3 you can buy now is the Long Range, officially rated at 310 miles. Over 479 miles of cumulative testing in the Model 3 Performance I burned 140 kilowatt-hours of electricity, giving a rating of 293 watt-hours per mile. Given the 75 kWh battery pack here, I would have been able to cover approximately 260 miles per charge were I able to actually drain it totally empty. However, that time included a fair bit of... spirited driving that surely impacted my range.
On one, 160-mile stretch with a mixture of in-town and congested highway driving, I average 266 Wh/mi, providing a theoretical max range of 284 miles. Driven moderately and without extended time on the highway, I'm confident that 310 mile figure is achievable, though perhaps not quite as easily as on the base, single-motor version.
Regardless, this is one of the few EVs I've driven where I rarely even thought about charging. Living with a 110-mile Kia Soul EV, every time I consider taking that out for a drive I have to first ask myself whether it was plugged in after the last trip. And, while our 151-mile long-term 2018 Nissan Leaf offers plenty for in-town driving, I still need to plan a charging stop whenever I want to make the 150-mile trip down to New York.
Range rarely crossed my mind when driving around town in the Model 3. While I did make sure to charge it the night before making that last, 150-mile drone down 87 to New York, I didn't have to think about stopping to top up the batteries along the way, arriving with 127 miles of range still showing. That's a very comfortable cushion, made even softer by access to the world's greatest network of chargers. The Tesla's nav system will automatically route you to your destination via a Supercharger, should one be required, and it'll even tell you how many spots are available.
While there are many aspects of the Model 3 Performance that I adore, every time I started to be truly charmed something jumped out and stomped on my growing enthusiasm.
I'll give you an example. One of my biggest prior complaints in the Model 3 was that if you wanted to adjust the wiper speed you might find yourself making three or four swipes on the touchscreen just to find the wiper controls. Now, a quick tap of the wiper stalk raises the wiper interface at all times -- still not as good as physical wiper controls, but an improvement.
However, in my very first drive in this Model 3, arriving home late at night, I turned a corner and entered an unexpected rainstorm. It wasn't torrential, but it was plenty enough to warrant the wipers. Only they didn't come on, patently ignoring the rain and leaving me reaching for the touchscreen. I really wouldn't have minded this were there traditional wiper controls, but driving at night in the country in the rain is exactly when I don't want to take my eyes off the road to look down at a bright LCD touchscreen, yet that's exactly what I had to do.
Another major annoyance? The auto high-beams. Driving on pitch-black country lanes the lights flicked from high to low and back again with enough frequency that I found myself wondering whether woodland creatures ever get epilepsy. (They do, apparently.) The auto-headlights on our $38,115, Nissan Leaf SL long-termer work perfectly. This Model 3, costing more than twice as much, simply couldn't cope -- but at least no touchscreen-tapping is required to turn these on and off.
Last but certainly not least there's the interior. For every moment I spent admiring its simplicity I spent at least three or four lamenting the lack of quality. Shut the center storage compartment door with anything heavier than a baby's touch and it flies back open again. Open that door while something is sitting on top and that something will be swallowed into the recesses of the center console, trapped until you find someone with tiny hands to fish it out for you.
It's the materials, though, that really bother me. I genuinely appreciate the lack of leather everywhere, but I fear the white vinyl seats won't age well. A textile like Volvo's City Weave would be far preferable. Similarly, the materials used in the center console are poor, an attempt at a piano black glossy finish done using cheap plastic that will not hold up. This test car had just 1,500 miles on it when I picked it up, yet the surface behind the cupholders was already scuffed.
What caused those marks? The Model 3's own NFC-enabled, plastic key card, which must be held there to engage the car when not using the Tesla mobile app as a key.
On a $35,000 car all this would be annoying but tolerable. On a $49,000 car, the cheapest you can get a Model 3 for presently, this kind of construction is disappointing. On a $78,500 car? It's simply unacceptable.
Options and competition
The Model 3 Performance starts at $64,000, but to get the bigger wheels, tires and brakes you'll spend another $5,000. The red paint here, which is quite fetching, is a further $2,000, but I'd leave off the $1,500 for the white interior. The $5,000 Enhanced Autopilot upgrade is a good one, but skip the $3,000 Future Self-Driving Capability option. We're still years away from the necessary technologies and legalities.
Add on a $1,000 destination charge and that gives you an as-configured price of $77,000. For that money you could get yourself into a well-equipped BMW M3, a legend whose current generation has been derided for being a bit mute on the handling side, but still trumps Tesla's option. However, its rear-wheel drive isn't ideally suited for serious winter driving and, like most cars, the BMW lacks the Tesla's instant acceleration.
Audi's RS5 Sportback won't leap forward like the Tesla either, but it does twist all four wheels, has an interior crafted of vastly better stuff and the kind of refined driving character that comes with decades of practice. It's also the better looking car in my book, but your gaze may fall differently.
Finally, there's the $69,500 Jaguar I-Pace. It, too, has AWD and is electric, though not quite as quick as the Model 3 at 4.1 seconds to 60. Still, it made a suitable track toy in my time behind the wheel and even forded a river with aplomb. It likewise has a better-crafted interior than the Tesla and a more alluring badge. What's the catch? Its 240 miles of range falls 70 short, and when you hit zero you can't pull up to a Supercharger. Also, its interface is a bit of a hot mess at this point, but CarPlay and (soon) Android Auto obviate that to some degree. Beyond those limitations, it's the better car.
Conflicted feelings are the name of the game today, dear readers. While I enjoyed and appreciated the initial, Long Range edition of the Model 3, I didn't quite fall in love. In contrast, the Model 3 Performance captured my heart immediately -- then proceeded to break it many times over the nearly 500 miles that followed. Tesla's gone and fixed a lot of the bigger issues noted in my first review, yet there are still plenty more lingering, many of which can't be fixed by a software update.
Problems like the price. The $78,500 sticker on the car you see here is hard to stomach. Yes, the acceleration is supernatural, really only matched by the Model S in terms of overall eagerness, but that is the only aspect of this car which is truly world-class. For that much money, this car needs to be better than really good.
So it's a very fun car, a very quick car and, with 310 miles of range plus easy room for four, a frugal and a practical car, too. But it's still far from a perfect car, and as the price of the Model 3 continues to climb away from that initial $35,000 promise, I can't help feeling that we're likewise moving further away from the real potential of this machine.
By the way, if you need a little help deciding whether the 3 is the right Tesla for you, if maybe you're better off with a Model S or Model X, check out our new Tesla buying guide.