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The Tesla Model 3 Performance Skips Ludicrous Acceleration for Ridiculous Cornering

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 9/7/2018 Davey G. Johnson
The Tesla Model 3 Performance Has a Track Mode That’s Legit: The Performance version of Tesla's Model 3 offers 450 horsepower, more than 300 miles on a charge, and sideways idiocy.© Provided by Hearst Communications, Inc The Performance version of Tesla's Model 3 offers 450 horsepower, more than 300 miles on a charge, and sideways idiocy.

In 1956, after Ernie McAfee crashed his Ferrari into a tree and died at the Pebble Beach Road Races, it was decided that the Del Monte Forest was simply too dangerous a place to continue racing. The hunt began for a new location on the Monterey Peninsula, and salvation came in the unlikely form of the United States Army, who allowed a course to be built in a topographic bowl just off the Monterey-Salinas Highway at the edge of the massive Fort Ord complex. That's Laguna Seca Raceway, which opened in 1957, and although the Army base is gone—shuttered in 1994 amidst the post–Cold War drawdown—its Fritzsche Army Airfield lives on as the general-aviation Marina Airport. If Laguna Seca (now named WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca) is the world-famous high-speed heart of the region, the airport's pad is its grassroots hub, home to autocross events throughout the year. And it's where Tesla invited us to drain electrons and chew up tires while dodging cones in its new Model 3 Performance. 

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Beyond Ludicrous

a car parked on the side of a road: The Tesla Model 3 Performance Has a Track Mode That’s Legit© Car and Driver The Tesla Model 3 Performance Has a Track Mode That’s Legit

To answer the burning question on the lips of those whose interest in Tesla's products goes only as far the Ludicrous-spec Model S sedan, the Model 3 Performance doesn't offer stoplight drag-racing capability nearly as otherworldly. Instead, the Model 3 Performance offers up a set of innovations that may well prove more engaging to the enthusiast—for one, it offers a Track driving mode.

That's a bold move in the face of internal-combustion partisans' contention that while the Model S may offer acceleration that'll cause an occupant's large intestine to swap places with their kidneys, it can't maintain that pace for long due to thermal-management considerations. In layman's terms, just as the hoonage is reaching a spirited crescendo during a back-road blast, the Model S cuts power so as not to overheat the battery. A friend once saw a fellow show up at Laguna Seca with two Teslas, so he could lap in one while the other was cooling and charging.

In that sense, Elon Musk's offer of a feature explicitly called Track mode is a burlier statement of intent than his goofy bite from Mel Brooks with Ludicrous mode. EVs, after all, have been capable of startling accelerative feats for a while now. The Model 3 Performance, on the other hand, is the production realization of the promises made by a raft of sporty EV concepts rolled out by mainline automakers over the years, only to be quietly tucked into warehouses after completing the auto show circuit while development money invariably is poured into internal-combustion crossovers. 

What's in the Performance Version

a man driving a car: The Tesla Model 3 Performance Has a Track Mode That’s Legit© Car and Driver The Tesla Model 3 Performance Has a Track Mode That’s Legit

The 450-hp Model 3 Performance is based on Tesla's recently launched all-wheel-drive Model 3 Dual Motor, a variant available exclusively with the Long Range 80.5-kWh battery pack, which offers an EPA-rated 310 miles per charge. The Performance carries that same range rating, but offers 31 more horsepower from the rear motor and additional standard features—and it's a $10,000 jump over the regular Dual Motor version. But if you're already dropping the coin on the Model 3 Performance, you'll really want to add the $5000 Performance Upgrade package. For all this, you'll spend at least $70,200.

Cash spent, you'll have a Model 3 with 20-inch wheels wearing Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber, upgraded brakes, a higher top speed, sport-tuned suspension, and a carbon-fiber spoiler on the back. As spec'd, it promises zero-to-60-mph dashes in just 3.5 seconds and a 155-mph top speed, although we've always struggled to match Tesla's acceleration claims. Track mode is also part of the Upgrade package's deal, although Tesla just announced a post-sale upgrade program that will allow current Model 3 Performance owners to get the Track mode setting even if they didn’t originally purchase the Performance Upgrade package. We don't know yet how its cost will compare to the $5000 the package commands at the time of purchase. 

Track Mode

a car parked on the side of a road: The Tesla Model 3 Performance Has a Track Mode That’s Legit© Car and Driver The Tesla Model 3 Performance Has a Track Mode That’s Legit

Normally, when a manufacturer offers a vehicle with a selectable “track” setting, it consists of the least-invasive stability-control program the automaker feels comfortable offering, changes to the throttle mapping, and perhaps adjustments to the steering weight and suspension. Tesla has taken a different tack.

With the Model 3 Performance, the first thing you notice when selecting Track mode is that the fans kick on high before you've even started moving, working to rid the electronics and powertrain of as much heat as possible in anticipation of the abuse to come. Tesla's new thermal-management strategy allows the Model 3 Performance to run harder for longer than the company's earlier vehicles. And while the Model 3 does feature a relatively standard stability-control setup, it also has two motors that can come to life in a moment, making for practically instantaneous torque vectoring.

Put those two things together with the motors' ability to run entirely independently of each other, and the varied combinations of which parts can be accelerating, decelerating, clamping, and spinning at any given time makes for a smorgasbord of dynamic possibility. Tesla's intent with Track mode wasn't to turn everything off so you could play hero, it was to maximize the car's potential to help you go faster.

Spend a fair amount of time in EVs, and the lack of traditional powertrain noises and sensations ceases to be a novelty. On the autocross course, the Model 3 Performance brings that novelty back. For those with less fine-grained attenuation to the vagaries of torque vectoring and the strategic actuation of individual brake calipers, the lack of sound and vibration means that what each wheel is up to is telegraphed with minimal interference.

Carelessly chuck the Model 3 Performance into a corner, pick out a fixed point in the distance, and let Tesla's computers figure out how best to get you to that point. In Track mode, you've got an additional option, a SpaceX-age take on using lift-throttle oversteer to initiate a drift. Give it a try and you'll find yourself yelling "I am Tsuchiya!" as you bomb Portola Valley Road on your way home from work at Google. We suspect that more than a few of these cars will be rolling around Silicon Valley wearing Fujiwara Tofu Shop decals on their doors before the year is out.

a close up of a car: The Tesla Model 3 Performance Has a Track Mode That’s Legit© Car and Driver The Tesla Model 3 Performance Has a Track Mode That’s Legit

In less antisocial forms of spirited driving, the Model 3 Performance excels. Turn-in is sharp but not overly aggressive, and rather than coming off as an electric take on the hairy-chested Mercedes-AMG C63 or BMW M3, the Model 3 Performance feels like a normal car that happens to have the chops to keep up with those overtly masculine German sedans. We will, however, issue an immediate call for more thoroughly bolstered front seats. After about 20 minutes on the autocross course, our left leg was tired from bracing against the Tesla's dead pedal. Driven with one's hair merely smoldering rather than in full sideways conflagration, the traditional EV virtue of a low center of gravity allows the car to corner flat without paying the ride-quality penance necessitated by an overly stiff suspension. Overall mass centralization pays a part, too. The Model 3 carries its forward motor behind the front axle, just as the dual-motor Model S does, but while the S has its aft motor located behind the rear axle, Tesla decided to place the 3's primary motor ahead of it.

The handling doesn't feel as if it's dictated by the vehicle's weight, but rather by what the car is actively doing to counteract that weight's inertia. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and every reaction prompts an appropriate response from the Tesla's computers. What's amazing about the experience is that without the torque interruptions necessitated by shifting or the distraction of a howling engine, you have the space in your mind to pick out just what's going on. It's almost as if time slows down. And yet, it all doesn't feel as digital as some heavily computerized super-sedans of recent years. The machine is doing real, mechanical work, and it's a pleasure and a marvel to experience it. If the feedback through the steering wheel isn't remarkable, what comes through the chassis is.

What we can't tell you at this point is what the Model 3 Performance will do on a real track. But in 40 or 50 minutes of nigh-continuous tomfoolery on the autocross course, the car never cut power, the brakes exhibited zero sign of fade, and the only casualty seemed to be 100 miles of range.

The original Tesla Roadster mooted that EVs could be long-ranged and fun. The Model S took that possibility and turned it into a useful everyday automobile. The Model X SUV proved that funny doors are usually best left on the drawing board. The Model 3 has been a mixed bag, prompting complaints about its controls and build quality when it bowed last year, as well as gripes that we've yet to see an actual "affordable" Model 3 that costs less than fifty grand. Not to mention there's undoubtedly a book-length case study to be written about the Model 3's troubled launch. But all drama aside, the Model 3 Performance stands as a testament to just what Tesla's engineers are capable of. It's a hugely impressive machine, and after this taste, we're aching to give it a whirl at the track on the other side of old Fort Ord.

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