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Exclusive: Tesla Model 3 First Drive Review

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 7/29/2017 Motor Trend Staff

The Tesla Model 3 is here, and it is the most important vehicle of the century.

Yes, the hyperbole is necessary. The original Tesla Model S was a proof of concept—it was possible to make a long-range electric vehicle. The Model X showed that you could make an electric SUV. But neither was affordable to the masses. And although the Chevrolet Bolt has shown that 238 miles of electric range is possible for less than $40,000, GM’s volume aspirations are modest.

Not so for Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who wants to blow out the walls of his Fremont, California, factory to build a half-million Model 3s every year. That’s the future of electric transportation right there, and its success or failure all hinges on the ability of Tesla to convince the mass market that a Model 3 is a better car, regardless of powertrain, than mainstream vehicles such as the Toyota Camry V-6 or BMW 3 series.

Motor Trend was privileged to get a drive of an early-build Model 3 the day before Elon showed it to the world. Are we impressed? Mightily.

Tesla Model 3 lead© Motor Trend Staff Tesla Model 3 lead

Anyone familiar with the Model S will quickly be oriented with its little brother. However, give the shifter stalk some extra taps, and it double duties as the cruise control lever. All of the car’s infographics reside on a 15.4-inch, landscape-oriented, multitouch screen that’s perched on the almost Scandinavian-simple dash. And being a Tesla, it’s an hors d’oeuvre tray of software delectables: interior air (from discreet vents) is aimed by moving spots around on the display (even inviting them to send airflow past each ear). Other coolnesses? There’s side-by-side, twin inductive iPhone chargers, the steering column tilts and telescopes by scroll wheels on the spokes, and the panorama glass ceiling nevertheless protects like SPF 90 sunscreen.

For a compact vehicle, Tesla struggled with interior space, said Tesla chief designer Franz von Holzhausen. The dash is pushed ahead and pressed down; the Model 3 has a trunk opening instead of a Model S-like hatch in order to delete the crossmember that shaves rear headroom. Up front, the ‘frunk’ is precisely sized to hold a carry-on suitcase. “If it’s too big here, you’re going to have to check it,” he said.

How does it drive? The gush of torque clearly indicates DNA shared with the Model S. Yet it’s a new motor specific to the 3, and Franz is coy about its horsepower. But Tesla’s claim of 0-60 mph in 5.1 seconds seems right when paired with its Long Range Battery ($9,000). Yes, there will be a choice of two batteries—the base providing 220 miles (while still doing 0-60 mph in sub-6-second times), and the LRB will provide 310 miles of cruising.

What’s blanching, though, is the car’s ride and handling. If anybody was expecting a typical boring electric sedan, you haven’t been paying attention to Elon’s ethos. The ride is Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio-firm. Quickly, I’m carving Stunt Road like a Sochi Olympics giant slalomer, micrometering its apexes. I glance questioningly at Franz. “Go for it,” he nods. The Model 3 is such an unexpected scalpel that I drive, but I’m sputtering for adjectives.

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