We drove the Model 3 Performance, capable of hitting 96km/h in just 3.2 seconds. Picture: MARK SMYTH
We drove the Model 3 Performance, capable of hitting 96km/h in just 3.2 seconds. Picture: MARK SMYTH

There’s so much hype around Tesla that people around the world, including in SA, placed $1,000 deposits to secure a Model 3 before the car had even been seen. Rumours have been building that Tesla is coming to SA, fuelled by the usual stream of information from its CEO, Elon Musk, who last tweeted that it will “probably” be here before the end of 2019.

That’s looking increasingly unlikely and numerous requests by Business Day to Tesla in Europe and California have been met with silence or a simple “we will only know when Elon tells us”.

We’ve written extensively on the issues and hype surrounding Tesla, but now we are the first publication in SA to test the Model 3 and we have to say it’s rather cool.

We spent a few days with the Model 3 Performance model and its nomenclature is certainly justified. It will hit 96km/h in just 3.2 seconds, and that’s sports car territory. With motors on each axle it’s all-wheel drive and provides incredible amounts of grip through its 20-inch rubber. It is a bit like a skateboard though. Ride over bumps in corners and it skips off them, forcing you to concentrate way more than most executive sedan drivers would need to.

Electric cars provide instant, relentless acceleration and the Model 3 is no different. Come up behind a slow-moving vehicle and just the lightest prod of the throttle will have you past in a second. Highway lane changes are effortless, which we also discovered while doing a long-distance trip in the more luxurious Model S long range.

Talking of range, the Model S was capable of achieving up to 603km and the Model 3, even in performance guise, 529km. That’s impressive. After discovering that it takes more than 24 hours to charge off a normal socket at home, we made full use of the Tesla supercharging network in the UK, which at one point showed we were charging at a rate of 677km of range added per hour.

The interior of the Model 3 is a case study in modern minimalism. Picture: MARK SMYTH
The interior of the Model 3 is a case study in modern minimalism. Picture: MARK SMYTH

We did have a big range anxiety moment when the battery capacity dropped to 8%. We stopped at a regular charger only to find it out of order and the navigation told us we had to take the next junction and go back up the highway again to get to a supercharger. Fortunately we made it.

We didn’t have to sit there for long and while we did we were kept busy with the Tesla Arcade. It’s a suite of games from famous old Atari 8-bit names like Asteroids and Centipede to Beach Buggy Racing, which kept the kids occupied. Bizarrely though, you can play the game by turning the steering wheel, which we discovered also turns the car’s front wheels. Do that too often and you’ll make nice flat spots.

That’s not all the huge touchscreens can do. In the Model S it’s a vertical layout but the Model 3 is horizontal. And it’s the only instrumentation in the car. There’s nothing else, except for two buttons on the steering wheel. All your infotainment is in the central screen: your navigation, air-conditioning controls, speed, trip computer and charging information.

It’s very clever with its over-the-air updates but is it safe? We have serious reservations about it. It’s in your peripheral vision but you have to look away from the road. With all its technology, a simple head-up display should be included.

Back to the fun stuff though because the screen also contains some rather interesting features. While parked you can switch on the fire, which is possibly a rather tasteless in-house joke after a number of Model S vehicles caught fire. It displays a crackling fireplace scene in the screen. There’s a fart machine — the kids absolutely loved this one — which can generate random flatulence noises from each corner of the interior and even when you indicate.

There are certainly lots of novelty factors in a Tesla, probably part of the reason owners love them so much that they have often been referred to as cultists. We’ve been critical of some of the company’s business practices as well as Musk’s outbursts, but boy does the Model 3 endear itself to you.

We did find numerous quality issues, not least of all the total failure of the infotainment system in the Model S to connect to the internet. That’s a problem because it relies on connectivity for navigation, charging, even being able to unlock the car on the Model 3, which is operated via an app on your smartphone. We were told this happens and you just have to reboot the car by pushing both buttons on the steering wheel.

The interiors are extremely minimalist, so much so that on the Model S there is no storage in the doors at all and not even an armrest, making it not as family friendly as you might expect. Another interesting observation was all the Mercedes switchgear in the Model S, including the gearstick and window buttons.

Not so in the Model 3 which in our test model had vegan, pure white upholstery. Apparently global animal rights organisation Peta is a Tesla shareholder, though the steering wheel is still leather because they can’t find anything that wears better.

We can’t talk about Tesla without mentioning its much talked about Autopilot system. Essentially it uses cameras around the car to monitor traffic and roadside objects, together with a series of sensors and radar to maintain speed and distance to the vehicle in front while also keeping you in your lane. It’s a bit temperamental, occasionally braking mid lane-change, and we’ve experienced much smoother systems from other automakers.

Has our experience turned me into a Tesla fanboy? Partly. The Model 3 in particularly is not only great fun but it’s a great car to drive. Then there’s the price tag. In the UK the Model 3 we tested cost £52,640 (R987,378). That’s before a R65,000 government grant.

In SA you will have to add electric-vehicle duty plus taxes. The Model 3 won’t be cheap and the Model S would probably have to start at about R2m. Charging is included and there’s very little servicing required, so it’s very cheap to run but it requires the Tesla network to be installed.

If our experience with the Model 3 has whet your appetite then best you keep an eye on Elon Musk’s Twitter feed, because when he says so, it will be all systems go.

MOTORING PODCAST | 2019 SA Festival of Motoring doesn't live up to the hype

For more episodes, click here.

Subscribe: iono.fm | Spotify | Apple Podcasts | Pocket Casts | Player.fm