A few weeks ago, when I went on local TV to chauffeur a news anchor who didn’t have a license and explain why the Tesla Model 3 won our magazine’s Car of the Year award, I screwed up in two ways.
First, I failed to say “Popular Mechanics” on air, which I’m told I should do whenever possible. Second, I talked about the car like a car salesman on his first day. Without much criticism I rattled off all the stuff it could do, the way its price would influence the electric vehicle market, and how it made me a better person for having driven it.
Had I really become a Tesla loyalist? To find out, I spend a few days behind the wheel of the Model 3 Performance Edition to find out what a little extra oomph can do for Elon Musk's "entry-level" electric car.
First, an abridged explanation of why the Tesla Model 3, the car on which the Performance is based, is exceptional:
Price: As of early September, you cannot purchase the $35,000 base Model 3. It’s a bummer because that number means entry into electric transportation for so many people. Until that car arrives, the least expensive Model 3 you can buy costs $49,000 and comes stock with a 310-mile Long Range Battery and a Premium Interior that includes wood accents, heated seats, power front seats, bigger sound system, glass roof, fog lamps, and Tesla's awesome synthetic leather seats.
Fun: Model 3s have a double-wishbone front suspension and multilink rear suspension. It’s the same setup found on other fast sedans like the Porsche Panamera. In practice, that means you can mash a Model 3’s right pedal on an on-ramp and the car stays level through the turn.
Like a Panamera, hard cornering in this thing makes you giggle because you’re confident the car will go where you’re pointing it. Also: you can also move the car with just your phone. Useful? Nah. Cool? Very.
User Experience: Talking vehicle dynamics isn’t quite my thing, but I do know a lot about product design and user interfaces. On that front, the Model 3 is hard to criticize. Because the car unlocks when your phone get close enough, there’s no key fob to lose. Because there’s no engine in front, the lower windshield lets you see more. And that center-mounted tablet means fewer glowing numbers distracting you from the road.
After driving a Model 3, every other car’s console feels like a misuse of wires and visual real estate.
Luxury: Like the Chevy Bolt or even a first-gen Nissan Leaf, electric cars are as smooth and quiet as a Rolls Royce.
Range: 200-plus miles for $35k is the new standard for mass market electric vehicles. Whenever Tesla actually starts selling the base Model 3, at least.
My ride for the next 72 hours is even nice. The ultra-luxe Performance variant, at $64,000, adds the kind of stuff that will appeal to anyone who'd chose a BMW M3 or M4 over the 3-Series. Meaning, it's a car with enough space to be your only vehicle, but will reward you for finding good back roads.
A second motor for the front wheels adds power, and takes it from rear- to all-wheel drive. Upgraded inverters deliver power to both motors more efficiently than the regular Model 3, Tesla says. Lower suspension makes it more aerodynamic and reduces body roll. New software developed in-house (rather than from a supplier, like on other Teslas) helps everything talk to each other, both for safety and towards the goal of going faster.
All of that noticeably drops the zero-to-60 time from 5 seconds to 3.5 seconds. Or, just 0.1 seconds slower than a McLaren F1. That means a lot. CEO Elon Musk told Joe Rogan that a Tesla is a tool for fun. After driving one, it’s hard to disagree.
Going that fast with electricity is different from using a V12. Having the battery weight low means the car stays level without requiring a punishingly stiff suspension. Without any noise or vibration, your hands and butt have clear communication with the wheels. And since there's no engine to wind up, acceleration is immediate. You can dust anything that’s not mid-engined and costs six figures.
All that gratuitous speed doesn't take away from the Model 3's obsession with squeezing every mile out of its batteries. With the regenerative braking, removing your foot from the accelerator turns your motors into generators, pulling power from the wheels’ rotation and storing that energy back in the battery.
It’s so dramatic that you can do all the stopping you need without touching the brakes.
Better Than Base Model
My specific Performance 3 loaner car had the $5,000 Performance Upgrade package: 20-inch wheels, a carbon fiber spoiler, and bigger brakes with the calipers painted red. It also had Enhanced Autopilot, another $5,000 extra.
On a hospitable road (paved roads with lane markers bright enough for the system to see, decent weather), you can turn it on, take your feet away from the pedals, and hook your thumb onto the steering wheel. If the wheel senses no resistance from your hand, the system will ask for your attention and self-disable if you ignore its warning.
But even the most advanced self-driving systems forbid the driver from shifting focus away from the road long enough to compose a text. So in practice, "autonomous" driving isn’t far removed from adaptive cruise control found on late-90s Mercedes S-Class.
But the Model 3 Performance exists because it rewards anyone who accepts this reality, because it’s the car is much more fun when you let it monopolize your attention.
The Daily Grind
When I pulled into my garage after a day of back roads, plus 90 minutes of commuter traffic, I realized that you would have to work hard to kill 310 miles of range. For the average American who drives less than 30 miles a day, you can go for weeks without needing to find a high-voltage charger. The app actually told me to charge it less for sake of the batteries' longevity.
After 72 hours of putting this Model 3 through my daily routines- groceries, visiting friends, and commuting into the city- I began slipping into the mind of a Tesla-phile.
You imagine quiet city streets subtly humming with electric engines. You imagine how the dangers of fossil fuels, whether global or personal, would be relegated to the past. You even compulsively check the car's charge status on the Tesla app. You smile and nod approvingly at other Tesla drivers.
And while fanatics can be annoying by nature, when it comes to Tesla, I kind of get it now.
('You Might Also Like',)