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2019 Tesla Model 3 Performance review - picking fights with the establishment

It’s fight or flight time for Tesla, as its new Model 3 Performance promises to quash the M3 at its own game. Can it possibly compete?

Evo rating
  • Huge speed, handling is genuinely impressive and surprisingly playful
  • Questions remain over actual sustainability, build quality and the longevity of Tesla itself

It’s a curious sound. Coarse, ripping; abrasive like a charmless traffic warden having a bad day. It’s the sound of Michelin Pilot Sport 4 Ss being tortured by torque, smearing across the road’s surface and leaving a little bit of themselves behind, but without any of the accompanying racket of an internal combustion engine being worked to its limits. And it’s weird.

But then this whole experience is a bit odd. I’m in a car badged as ‘Performance’, and yet so many of the elements that mark out a performance car in the traditional sense are absent; the reference points that reassure our brains we’re sitting in something fit for the task, that prepare us for a G-force onslaught. With the Tesla Model 3 Performance there’s no warning that I’m sitting in a vehicle that allegedly offers the same horsepower as the Ford Mustang GT I drove to the airport last night. More torque, too, so they say; much more in fact, and available instantly and from zero rpm, along with the ability to power oversteer on demand with no safety net.

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There’s no aggressive aero kit (just a tiny sliver of a carbonfibre boot spoiler), or garish graphics. No figure-hugging Recaros (the seats are covered in a rather synthetic-to-the-touch white leather, and curiously spongy). There’s no racy instrumentation, gearlever or fancy titanium paddles. The press blurb has no mention of upgraded engines. In fact, it doesn’t even quote power and torque figures, and what little dynamic changes have taken place are limited to a different wheel design, that 4 S rubber and some lower springs. I can’t even quote what the engineers are telling me, because Tesla won’t allow that. It seems only Elon Musk is allowed to speak for Tesla, literally.

However, what there is is informal chat about modes, algorithms and firmware, and if that sounds tremendously dull to you then please don’t stop reading, because in fact I promise it isn’t. You only have to spend a brief period of time in the company of those same anonymous young American engineers to know their passion for cars and driving is genuine: the Model 3 Performance is a performance car, just a different type of one.

Technical highlights

If you listen to some, the Tesla Model 3 is the most important vehicle of the past decade, and possibly beyond. In the rapidly advancing world of EVs, it’s Tesla’s current state of the art, or it was last week, or six months ago, but that’s OK, because Tesla will just ping you an update ‘over the air’, like the one that raised the Performance’s top speed from 155mph to 162mph recently.

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This five-seat family saloon, which looks like it ought to be a hatchback, comes in three versions: Standard Plus (the entry-level rear-drive car), Long Range and Performance (both dual-motor all-wheel-drive). There’s some confusion about how that last one gets its additional power and slightly less range, but the majority is via software, with perhaps the pick of the electric motors coming off the line too. The result is, some say (but not Tesla itself, naturally), 444bhp and 471lb ft of torque, but most importantly of all for an EV, a WLTP range of 329 miles. Even with our charging network in the UK hopelessly disorganised and behind the curve, that’s enough to kill range anxiety stone dead for most people.

Track mode is the heart of the 3 Performance. It’s selected without fanfare, with just one on-screen disclaimer to bat away with a further press before it’s live. In normal automotive parlance it sounds like it should be an ESP setting, but it’s far, far more than that. Not only are the battery and motors set for maximum performance, but the strategy of the 3’s two cooling circuits evolves to keep them as cool as possible (even pre-cooling them), heat being the great enemy of an EV. The engineers we spoke to are confident the Performance could complete hard sessions at a trackday and not experience any major drop-off in power, and that the battery could realistically last until lunchtime, when a charge while you ate your sandwiches would see it ready for an afternoon’s lapping. But it’s what it does to the dynamics that’s really interesting. The Model 3 wasn’t conceived to be a sporting machine, but late in its development Mr Musk decreed that it should be quicker around a track than a BMW M3, and at that point an engineer stuck his hand up and confessed he’d been working on something that might help with that…

What’s it like to drive?

The 3 has complete and infinite digital control over the interaction of the motors on the front and rear axles, and also has a static 48:52 weight distribution. In Track mode, the ESP is effectively switched off, and the software works in a very different way to the normal, traction-enhancing programming. How different? Well, turn into a corner on a circuit, as I’m doing here at Paul Ricard in the south of France, be confident on the throttle, and the rear will step out like it’s on castors. As long as you haven’t overworked the outside front on turn-in, the Performance wants to oversteer, and strongly. Keeping it there involves a specific technique, because feathering the throttle confuses things and applying lots of corrective lock makes the software want to hit ‘game over’ ASAP. Instead, a small, early hint of correction and a steady throttle settle the car into an absurd, tyre-shredding drift, which with the necessary deftness can have the 3 donutting around a skidpan in a continuous arc. And if you do overstep the mark, a bootful of throttle will send a heap of torque to the front axle, pulling the car back from the brink at the sort of angle even Gigi Galli might think was unrecoverable. Get it wrong, though, and you will spin, in a silent, helpless washout, but the engineers have tried to pitch the system at somewhere between novice and expert wheelman. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

But then the Model 3 Performance is a car full of surprises. It does 0-60mph in just 3.2sec – a number seared onto my brain thanks to the McLaren F1 – but where you may think such readily accessible and seamless performance loses its shine quickly, in reality it needs careful metering out. No way can you simply hoof the 3 at every opportunity; for the sake of your passengers and other traffic, it’s far too rapid for that.

It may weigh 1847kg, but with all the weight mounted so low down and between the two axle lines, the 3 changes direction with impressive vigour. The steering rack is Ferrari fast, and as long as it’s not in Comfort mode possesses real accuracy as well. Just as walking into a pitch-black room heightens the sense of sound and smell, so driving the 3 quickly exchanges certain challenges and disciplines for others. Although the Brembo brakes are powerful, on the road at least you rarely need to use them, instead learning to use the powerful regen effect to slow the car on lift-off. Soon, the sensitivity of your right foot is all-important, replacing clutch pedal and gearlever technique and coordination. No longer is there an engine note to enrich the senses and provide clues to your progress, but instead the silence somehow focuses the mind on cornering lines and attitude, and even minor sounds such as the deflection of the tyres under load become heightened in the brain as part of the engrossing puzzle of driving.

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Do I miss the sound of a Lamborghini V12, a Mezger flat-six or the straight-six in an E46 M3? Of course I do. Who wouldn’t? But do I miss the sound and vibration of a 2.0 TDI, however refined, and the operation of the ubiquitous ZF eight-speed automatic? No, I don’t. And that’s important, because as everyday transport the Model 3 is fantastic: smooth, effortless, authoritatively rapid, slightly firm in terms of ride quality but well controlled and rational, and the new landscape tablet control screen instantly renders traditional infotainment systems hilariously obsolete. But of bigger surprise is the possible emergence of a new strain of the Thrill of Driving, and of dazzling new possibilities for chassis dynamics, which make the Model 3 Performance a car with real relevance to evo. At £56,900 (plus £5800 if you want the Full Self-Driving Capability software) it’s BMW M3 money as well as performance, but tellingly, it doesn’t feel overpriced.

The debate around electric cars, their use of natural resources and issues of infrastructure is immense and ongoing, just as questions over Tesla’s financial stability and its ability to build enough cars, and to the right quality level, persist. Whatever the reality, the Model 3 Performance makes the SUV-based EV efforts of other manufacturers look terribly conservative and uninteresting, and I’ll readily admit it has opened my eyes to a completely new type of driving that, alongside the continued enjoyment of internal combustion engine vehicles, seems to promise a bright and exciting future after all.

‘What’s to stop someone reprogramming the motors for more performance and adjusting the torque vectoring if you knew how to get into the code?’ I cheekily asked over lunch. The gigantic grins from the engineers with no name said it all. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

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