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2018 Tesla Model 3 Dual Motor Performance Review: First Taste

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 7/24/2018 Motor Trend Staff
2018-Tesla-Model-3-Dual-Motor-Performance-side-mirror.jpg

We have 45 minutes.

What should be a newsworthy moment—a road drive of the Tesla Model 3 Dual Motor Performance—is being sharply curtailed by the car's PR handler, who insists that we have less than one hour to evaluate the vehicle before it needs to return. What, did she steal it from Elon's parking space while he was on a conference call?

We pile into the compact confines of the Model 3, which looks the same as any other, except for having a combined 450 hp and 471 lb-ft of torque. That sort of power should put its performance on par with a BMW M3 super sedan.

a red car parked on the side of a road© Motor Trend Staff

Next to me buckles in Nelson Iverson of Automobile while the Tesla PR person swaps into the back seat alongside MT social media guru Carol Ngo, who's here to capture a few moments for her social media magic. Nearby, the side door slides shut on an idling Chrysler Pacifica escort vehicle containing photographer William Walker, who'll snap car-to-car pics. The walkie-talkie barks, "Let's go." My index finger toggles down the shifter into drive. But what kind of drive is this?

Time is not our only logistical hurdle. We are immediately thrust into mid-afternoon Los Angeles traffic. I feel more like an Uber driver than a car tester. Worse yet, our multimedia plan falls apart at the first corner, as a clueless Acura MDX stubbornly inserts itself between me and the Pacifica photo van. I shoot past, and the plodding Pacifica gradually catches up, but, somehow, we both brain-fade and miss the freeway on-ramp. A few minutes later the Pacifica misses our planned Manchester Avenue off-ramp, too, and continues straight into a traffic jam. The walkie bleats, "Ahhh, keep going, we'll meet back at the photo location."

I steer toward our easy-find driver-swap spot, the gigantic doughnut above Randy's at the corner of Manchester and La Cienega that towers like a brown lighthouse for wayward prediabetics. I press the end of the shifter stalk to put it in park. And that's it for me. I try hard to disguise my disappointment as Nelson and I swap seats. He edges out onto La Cienega traffic toward the big southbound on-ramp onto the 405. What's ahead is more like a dragstrip—almost a mile of barriered on-ramp. By any chance, did its construction engineer go by the name of Garlits?

a red car parked on the side of a road© Motor Trend Staff

Tesla has never put a "Model 3" badge on the Model 3. You either know what this thing is or you don't. But this high-performance variant of the car warrants special identification, so its rump gets two words: "Dual Motor," meaning an added induction motor up front. (The rear uses a permanent-magnet type.) And although they don't get additional labeling, a nod should go to the dual-motor's higher-capability inverters, as well.

Tesla's acceleration claims (which we've repeatedly matched or beaten with other Tesla vehicles) state the Model 3 Dual Motor Performance scats to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds. A traction-limited rear-wheel-drive BMW M3 Competition pack and Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio we tested did 4.3 and 3.9 seconds, respectively, and the less powerful but AWD Audi RS4 managed 4.2. In a tweet, Musk suggested that tires even grippier than this car's Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubbber (235/35ZR20 ) might whittle this to 3.3—but also put a nick in the car's 310-mile range.

But that's on a closed-course dragstrip. What can it do in traffic-clogged L.A.? Nelson manages to sashay across two lanes of traffic to the precipice of the almighty on-ramp. I smile. This is going to make up for everything that's gone wrong so far. But as he tromps the accelerator and all four of us get simultaneously shoved back in our seat backs, I glace left. A black-and-white highway patrol SUV is pacing us in the freeway's right lane. We cannot buy a break. Nelson lifts and we painfully pedal along for 40 long seconds before politely merging with traffic, with a blinker and a smile.

So much for our first drive of the Dual Motor Performance, right?

a red car parked on the side of a road© Motor Trend Staff

Let me explain something you're not going to believe, but trust me on this. After having driven and tested perhaps 7,000 vehicles, sometimes I don't need to drive very far to get the idea.

Remember that freeway onramp we "missed" before Nelson took the wheel? It's a sweet 700-foot short-chute that whips into a right-hander I know very well, and I wasn't going to simply wait for the next freeway entry. "Hang on," I'd told everybody, whipping a U-turn and stamping the accelerator. Even with four aboard, the Model 3 DMP surged ahead so startlingly that it stopped conversation. Except maybe for an uttered "Oh my god." I braked pretty hard and arched up the on-ramp toward the freeway. It was a flourish more akin to swiping a navigation route on your phone than driving a car on the actual road. Carol might have been upside down by the time I backed off.

In maybe 120 wheel revolutions, a high-performance hierarchy has been rattled. The European marques perennially atop the sport sedan podium are about to have trapdoors release beneath them. Although nothing has fundamentally changed with the car's steering or suspension (besides an imperceptible but CG-lowering 5-10mm drop in ride height), the dual motor and all-wheel drive give the compact Tesla a tensed, hair-trigger potency for leaping ahead or around whatever's in the way. It's pure jungle cat. Our testing to come will explore whether its lighter Brembo brakes stop better and how much the now in-house vehicle control software lets Tesla directly tune the car's handling poise (without a supplier interpreting it). A track mode, which is still in development, dials up regenerative braking to lessen heat load on the friction brakes.

Speaking of software, Tesla's all-in attitude regarding its controversial big-screen driver interface has backpedaled a bit toward implementation of some physical controls. For instance, now a quick burst of windshield wiping requires just a depression of the left stalk (its screen-control actuator is now easier to engage, too); adjusting the adaptive cruise control can be done with dialing or laterally toggling the steering wheel's right scroll wheel. And on the screen itself, virtual buttons for more regularly accessed functions have been slid closer to the driver.

© Motor Trend Staff

Nevertheless, this is still—initially, at least—a very alien interface. To most people familiar with traditional automotive gauges, the Model 3 is equivalent to coming across a landed UFO in a Kansas farm field and sitting down at its controls. There's evidence of Tesla responding to criticism elsewhere around the car, too, such as a remodeling of the rear-seat shape with different cushioning. (In case you're curious, the frunk's capacity remains unchanged.)

This pure-electric torque machine starts with a $64,000 base price and requires a $5,000 push for a thin carbon-fiber rear lip, 20-inch wheels and tires, red Brembo brake calipers, and aluminum pedals. Then there's $5,000 prepaid for Enhanced Autopilot (when it ever arrives), $1,500 for white leather interior, and $1,000 destination—totaling $76,500 less applicable tax breaks.

For that kind of money, it should look impressive. But other than the lone rear-deck badging, that $5,000 option package accompanying the Dual Motor Performance drivetrain doesn't deliver the visual menace this car deserves. Here's a highway assassin dressed in Banana Republic, whereas the similarly priced Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio comes with fiendish detailing that instructs other drivers to step back. Innocents out there need a mercy heads-up that what's approaching in their rearview mirror isn't just another Model 3.

Back at the office, our 45 minutes spent, editor-in-chief Ed Loh opined that the sport sedan category isn't as important as it used to be, due to the rise of crossovers. True. But with the appearance of electrically powered AWD, the Model 3 is playing a grand finale that's going to be epic.

a red car parked on the side of a building© Motor Trend Staff 

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