What are you driving?
By far, the most important car that Tesla has launched yet (that's Tesla the American all-electric car - and other technology - company, in case its existence somehow passed you by). This is the Model 3, joining the existing Model S executive car and the Model X SUV. It's the most affordable EV in the company's range, with prices kicking off well below €50,000 after grants. That may not be 'affordable' from the point of view of the average new car buyer, but it's a hell of a lot less than the premium car makers charge for their high-end electric models. All of the Audi e-tron, Jaguar I-Pace, Mercedes-Benz EQC and Porsche Taycan are considerably more expensive to buy.
While the Model 3 looks like a hatchback or fastback, it's effectively a four-door saloon, with frameless door windows. Some might call it a four-door coupe (not me...). Inside, it seats five and the overall exterior dimensions place it somewhere between the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series.
Nonetheless, we can't think of a single direct electric rival for the Tesla Model 3 when you take into consideration its price, body style, size and performance. Even the base version, the only rear-drive one, called the Standard Range Plus, can do 0-100km/h in 5.6 seconds, yet it comes with a WLTP-ratified range of 409 kilometres between charges. The other two models get an extra motor for all-wheel drive, even better performance and a longer range. The Long Range costs €58,990, can do 0-100km/h in 4.6 seconds and 560 kilometres between charges.
Topping them all is the car we're testing, the Model 3 Performance, starting at €65,490 before options. It still manages 530 kilometres between charges, but drops the 0-100km/h time further, to a scarcely believable 3.4 seconds. That's quicker than a Porsche 911 Carrera S can do, for about €100,000 less. The Performance model rides on bigger wheels (20-inch rims), gets uprated brakes, lowered suspension, a modest carbon fibre boot spoiler, alloy pedals inside and a selectable 'Track Mode'. Despite all this, it looks only moderately sportier than the other versions.
Name its best bits
First up, the cabin. There's loads of space front and rear and the minimal design is very pleasing on the eye. Well worth paying the €1,050 extra to get the black and white interior, as it adds to the high-tech vibe brought about by hidden air vents and, of course, the massive touchscreen dominating the dashboard. I'd prefer a few more physical controls, but it's still a very good menu system that you quickly learn your way around, plus it has voice activation.
I love how Tesla has had some fun with the software too, with lots of hidden features designed purely for your (and your kids') entertainment. Examples we found include the equivalent of an electronic whoopee cushion, featuring a 'Ludicrous Fart' setting, and a Santa Mode including sleigh-bell sounds when you use the indicators. Highly amusing.
The interior has the basics right, too, with lots of storage in the centre (though a surprisingly small glove box and door pockets). The rear seat backs fold pretty flat and the boot is a decent volume, if quite shallow.
In terms of the driving experience, the Model 3 is a bit special. And it may come as a surprise to hear that it's the chassis that impressed us most. Oh sure, it really has phenomenal acceleration, made all the more surreal by the lack of engine noise, but ever has it been with Tesla's cars, so it's nothing new, as such. There are Chill and Sport modes for the throttle and there's a big difference between them. The Chill setting is best for normal driving and it likely extends the range, too. Even so, it's faster accelerating that anything remotely close to it in price.
The Model 3 Performance's suspension may be lowered a little, which results in a lower centre of gravity, obviously, but there's no adaptive damping or air spring technology. That makes the car's ability all the more impressive, as it mixes acceptable comfort levels with seriously good body control and, whisper it, a lot of fun. Admittedly, the larger wheels detract from the comfort a little, while the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres can be noisy over some surfaces.
Nonetheless, those high-end tyres make good use of the traction afforded by the four-wheel-drive system. And yet, it isn't at all clinical in how it capably covers ground quickly. Sure, the power steering is a little lacking in communication, but the steering wheel rim is nigh on perfect in terms of its thickness (if not its appearance) and the steering itself is direct and free of slop. The Model 3 is keen to turn into a bend and, if you've initiated the Track Mode (which you have to be stopped and in Park to do), it really comes alive, using the electric motors front and rear - and their regenerative braking ability - to subtly shift the weight of the car around, allowing you control its attitude into and through a corner. On some of the most challenging mountain roads in the country, it was huge fun to drive.
Anything that bugs you?
At higher speeds, the sealing on those frameless door windows left a little to be desired, though that's the only sign of low quality I experienced with the example tested here. The other things that bugged me about the Model 3 are fixable. For example, the column stalks are a bit horrid to touch, which is in contrast with the rest of the cabin, while the exterior door handles, solid as they are, are infuriating to use.
And why have you given it this rating?
The Tesla Model 3 is not a perfect car, but it doesn't need to be just yet as it has no direct rivals. If Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes and the rest all sold €50,000-€70,000 electric saloons with the performance of the Tesla, it might be judged differently. Right now, however, there's nothing to touch it. And even when the others do catch up, will their offerings be as interesting, as characterful and, simply, as fun as this Model 3? We're not so sure.
What do the rest of the team think?
Just as the Tesla Model S remains largely untouched for overall driving range, the Model 3 seems likely to hog the limelight in this segment for a while to come. Its ride quality is very good, and it is plenty of fun to drive. However, as much as I love the look of that minimalist interior, a few more physical controls wouldn't go astray.
Dave Humphreys - Road Test Editor
I don't think I've ever driven a car that impresses and frustrates in such equal measure. In terms of its drivetrain, battery range, performance and cabin styling, the Model 3 is little short of exemplary. It's even pretty decent to drive - not up to BMW 3 Series standards, but not perhaps a million miles away. It's also well-priced. However, the continuing quality niggles just niggle too much. Panel gaps and paint like that on a car costing from about €50,000? No - not good enough.
Neil Briscoe - Editor-at-large