What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Unless you get to try the new Tesla Model 3. Then you have to tell people. While out with the excellent Open Highway Tours a few weeks ago for the SEMA show I took the opportunity to drive a Model 3 for a day. This is Elon Musks ‘VW Beetle/Model T’ moment, the peoples car he envisioned as a young man and the one he hopes will change the face of motoring forever by making a desirable EV affordable.
Tesla’s current Model S and X are both class leading cars but come with a hefty price tag. The ludicrously quick ones will set you back £130k with the usual goodies, not bad for the incredible performance (read 0-60 in 2.3s and the quarter in 10.5s) but not great on the wallet. The Model 3 was always touted as a $35k car in basic spec. It uses Tesla’s own 2160 batteries produced at its Gigafactory instead of the commercially available 18650 laptop batteries and a new permanent magnet motor in order to reduce cost.
The one I had rented for the day was well optioned and included a 75Kwh/310 mile extended range battery ($9k option) as well as enhanced autopilot ($5k) and rang the till at $55k. This is more affordable but not quite the people’s car yet. However, the basic car should drive the same as our test version and with RHD production starting up now to fulfil the UK preorders, it seemed like an apposite time to test one.
I was lucky enough to have an interesting testing team along with me, comprising of AutoMek owner and Pro Time Attack driver, Andrew Baird, Legendary Monster snapper Dan Fegent, and Status Error Guru Gianni Lamanuzzi.
Our route was to pick the car up from a residential Vegas street using the Turo car sharing app, then take in the Hoover Dam, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Red Rock Canyon and cruise the strip a few times before returning it.
As our Uber took us in the direction of Jims house, I had a call from his business (and possibly life) partner to say he hadn’t managed to fully charge the battery and so was going to give us 200 miles and a free extra hour instead. As I wanted to try a Tesla supercharger anyway, I told him that was fine.
When we arrived, we were greeted by a resplendent candy apple red Model 3. Jim’s partner came out and took us through a few of the basics.
Entering the car for the first time, the lack of controls immediately sets it apart from anything else I’ve driven. Apart from 2 stalks and 2 multifunction buttons on the wheel, everything else goes through the touchscreen protruding from the dash, even opening the glovebox!
We created a profile for me using the touchscreen, recorded my seat and mirror positions and were given a keycard. Normally the phone app will geofence the car and unlock it for you as you approach.
We set the GPS for the Hoover Dam and silently wafted away.
Obviously, as soon as I got round the first corner I nailed it, not having to wait for an ICE to warm up. ‘Fuuuucccccccccccckkkkkkkkk’ gasped the assembled as the instant 258 horsepower and 317 lb-ft of torque from the all new permanent magnet reluctance motor booted us down the road. The figures say 0-60 in 4.8s but the response feels a little odd, the initial torque makes it feel racecar quick with zero lag, but then the performance dilutes and becomes very linear. At a private test track we found that 4 up the acceleration over 100mph was a little average.
However, in the real world, especially when you need to overtake/change lanes etc, that zap of instant torque is right where you need it, and pretty addictive. It was obvious early on that the torque was traction limited as depending on the surface the full throttle acceleration had considerable variation.
Onto the freeway, 2 clicks on the right stalk, and an eerie thing occurs; the Model 3 starts to drive itself. Enhanced Autopilot is a mixture of adaptive cruise control and auto-steering. It uses cameras to pick up the lane markings and surrounding traffic/obstacles, and maintains the lane at the speed of the car in front or at the cruising speed you set. Indicate, and if the lane is clear, it will change lanes for you. This initially requires a level of trust you are almost unwilling to bestow on a machine you’ve just met, but it gets easier as the miles roll by and you don’t end up involved in a much anticipated fireball.
It isn’t clever enough to recognise red lights, which it will run, but if you are following another car that stops, it will stop behind and then follow again behind it as it moves off, with you doing nothing at all.
Put it in a testing situation, like indicating into a lane full of traffic, and it waits for a gap before darting into it. It felt a little more aggressive than I think I would have been, but that might be more a reflection on me than the car.
The car requires occasional light pressure on the steering wheel since videos were popping up of people jumping into the back seat, sleeping, eating etc. Tricks to get round this include strapping an ankle weight to the steering wheel or wedging a tennis ball in the spokes. We tested it by just not touching the wheel through repeated warnings until the car got sufficiently pissed off and disabled the autopilot for the rest of that leg. It was the first time I’d been bollocked by a car.
Going through the state line and getting to the Hoover Dam, we parked up and did the tourist thing.
On the way out I set a course for the motor speedway via a supercharger. We probably had enough charge for the day, but I wanted to try one out. The screen informed us that all 12 chargers were currently free, so we double clicked and relaxed as we were driven serenely to our destination.
Upon arrival we simply plugged in and went for a coffee. I’d heard that the course of a cuppa would be sufficient to have us on our way again, and so it proved. Charging in excess of an incredible 400 miles per hour, 15 minutes added over 100 miles of range and enough for us to carry on without a trace of range anxiety.
When we unplugged I took the opportunity to test the dynamics on my own. As you can imagine, without the extra 200kg of meat on board, the car felt significantly punchier. As a Fueltopia Barrel Sprint and Gymkhana driver I was keen to see if I could persuade it to perform some tight manoeuvres, but we couldn’t find a way to release the traction and stability safety nets. I did find a nice medium radius 180 degree turn back onto the freeway, and turned it in on the limit of adhesion. The car settles into a very flat turn due to the battery being under the floor giving a very low Centre of Gravity. With a trailing throttle there is a hint of understeer, but with the car set in sport it allows a modicum of oversteer if you plant the throttle to balance it. The steering is well weighted and reasonably neutral. Out of the box it feels very good, and feels like the drift update released a few days after I had the car would make it a smoky monster. I picked the meat back up again and we headed to petrolhead nirvana.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway is epic. It’s on a scale you don’t really see anywhere else. Apart from the 1.5 mile banked oval, it has infield and outfield circuits and a dedicated drag strip. It’s like a big posh Rockingham, but not shut.
You are free to drive into the infield and I got talking to the guys at the Richard Petty experience. They have genuine NASCAR Chassis (like Dale Earnhardt Jrs) that they put a 425hp crate motor in which is good for 160mph 40sec lap of the oval (Full race cars are 28s!). 3 laps with a pro driver was just $129. I wanted a go, but the sun was going down and they don’t have lights. On the way out I noticed the gate to the circuit was open and the temptation was strong, but we were due to fly the next day and jail would have made that awkward.
We then set the Nav to take us to Red rock canyon, west of the strip for an incredible sunset.
With our last hour in the car, we cruised the strip at night. Trusting the autopilot in these tricky crowded conditions took a bit more faith, but ultimately the car is safer than the nut behind the wheel, and took us for a few laps without incident. There was some interesting metal on the strip, it being SEMA week, and the instant torque surprised a few of them. Pulling up next to one of Lyfts Aptiv self-driving cabs was interesting, the engineers screen looking very busy compared to the relatively uncluttered view our autopilot presented. It felt like the future, now.
We dropped it off on Jim’s driveway at night, the Turo app working perfectly and Ubered it back to the Luxor. The future of motoring is due to arrive in the UK early 2019, and although there is already a considerable waiting list I strongly recommend a test drive in this game-changing vehicle, it will redefine your relationship with the car.
Now, where can I get my hands on a Roadster 2?
Words: Andy Stevens.
Pics: Dan Fegent, Andrew Baird, Gianni Lamanuzzi.
Biccies and Bantz: All.
Engineer, Racer, Pilot, Owner of Enduring Solutions Limited (Subaru ECUs). Mainly Dad.