When the kind dudes at Tesla Naples-Waterside Shops suggested I schedule a Model 3 Performance test drive, I offered a generic, affirmative type of response. Not wanting to be rude, “Yeah, I’ll have to do that” came to mind.
It was a response not unlike when you run into that old high school acquaintance and suggest that a meet up is most definitely perpetually just around the corner. As a traditional performance automotive gearhead, such was my limited enthusiasm for the Tesla automotive concept (threat). I’ll take the 7.0 liter V8 in my Camaro Z/28, thank you very much.
What I didn’t tell the kind Tesla dudes was I was there with my young gearhead of a son just to kill a bit of time. The Tesla showroom seemed like a better destination than those on the docket of my significant other – Lululemon, Burberry, Saks, et al. – and it wasn’t yet lunch time, so California Pizza Kitchen wasn’t serving.
So there we were having a good poke around the Model 3, admiring the trunk and frunk space, and with my son incessantly revisiting the idea that it doesn’t make any noise, almost mumbling that fact to himself as if deep reflection was underway. “Yes… that’s still right bud. No noise from the engine.” (Looks of puzzlement.) This concept in particular just didn’t compute with his IndyCar, F1, IMSA WeatherTech racing series fandom, or lifelong familiarity with performance V8s in the home garage.
We left with admiration for the very sleek, modern dashboard though. And we both thought the center screen/onboard computer was killer. Him, probably because of larger iPad envy. Me, because of the immense function and drive customization options.
Fast forward a few days and we’re in a similar predicament wandering around a shopping center just to the north in the relatively early a.m. hours. Lo and behold there’s another Tesla showroom with one of the same kind dudes just getting the place open.
He recognizes us and vice versa. We stop and exchange pleasantries like old high school friends would, and he asks if we’ve scheduled that test drive yet.
Me: “Oh man… (Oops.) No, not yet.”
Him: “Well, what are you doing now?”
Me: “Waiting on our shopping counterpart.”
Him: “I have a Model 3 Performance ready and available if you want to give it a shot.”
Oh, what the hell. Mini-me was on board too, probably looking to resolve this “no noise” concept once and for all.
As a performance driving snob, some of the first evaluation points are seat type, cockpit positioning, steering wheel and pedal access. If all of that isn’t right, then it takes a Murcielago V12 to compensate in my book.
The Model 3 Performance seats are excellent. Just enough bolstering for street driving purposes, and supreme all-around comfort. Pedal placement is spot on, and the steering wheel position can be adjusted (via a powered dial) into any position within the very wide range, including straight out and close to one’s chest. It’s almost as if the Model 3 Performance interior was engineered by folks who understand enthusiast driving. Hmmm.
With the driver cockpit oriented to great satisfaction, and the unobstructed view out the front noted, thanks to the minimalistic dash and all information occurring on the center screen, we were underway.
The Model 3 Performance is billed as a BMW M3/Mercedes-AMG C63/Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio competitor. (A notion I scoffed at ahead of time.) With experience in two of those three cars, what I can tell you is they immediately distinguish themselves from their base model counterparts from the moment you set off. Partly due to engine, but maybe even more definitively due to feel, feedback, seat type, driver cockpit, and chassis characteristics. These design features communicate performance to the driver, at any speed.
The Model 3 Performance is of the same mold. Straightaway I noted the steering weight in particular is excellent, and gives you the immediate sense you’re piloting something legitimately oriented toward performance. The steering wheel itself is top notch too – bump outs above the proper “9 and 3 o’clock” hand positions, and shrouded in a very nice pleather sort of material that reportedly won’t grease up and shine over time. (Take note, BMW.)
Throttle response is sharp and immediate, as one might expect. Roughly equivalent to a “Sport” or “Race” setting in one of the aforementioned competitors. The throttle calibration takes advantage of the immediate torque delivery afforded by the engine, but it’s by no means jumpy or difficult to manage.
Other than the absence of noise, one of the immediate recalibration requirements of the driver is due to the regenerative braking that occurs off-throttle. Because the Model 3 Performance looks to funnel deceleration energy back into the powertrain, if you lift your foot entirely off the throttle conventionally, then the vehicle reacts as if you’ve given a good punt to the brakes.
What you learn as you get used to the driving experience is, other than when coming to a complete stop, the Model 3 Performance can essentially be driven entirely on throttle, which is definitely different and pretty darn cool. The lack of transition between brake and throttle means, for instance, that you can slow sufficiently for a turn or corner with a slight lift of the throttle, and then roll back onto the accelerator with immediacy mid-corner and at corner exit as you unwind the steering wheel. It creates this smooth, constantly engaged, flowy type of driving experience if you do it right.
(Regenerative braking can be made to be less aggressive, but you lose regenerative activity and therefore range. On a related note, the sharp off-throttle deceleration must be considered as positively contributing to “reaction time” in a real world emergency brake situation. By the time you’ve transitioned to a hard brake, the car is already slowing. When milliseconds of reaction time can make the difference between a crash and safety, the Model 3 Performance holds an inherent edge over any conventional performance automobile.)
And what happens when you bury the accelerator? Yeah, the Model 3 “Performance” moniker is no joke. It feels every bit of 3.5 seconds to 60 mph, if not less. With all-wheel drive on tap, acceleration is drama-free and just immense. The fact that it accomplishes the acceleration with no gear shifts, and just a faint, barely perceptible high pitched battery hum contributes to the surreal acceleration experience. (By this point, my son had forgiven the fact that it doesn’t make any discernable noise.)
But actually, the sub-maximum acceleration is what’s stuck with me the most. The slight lift off when rounding a corner, and movement back into the throttle riding a gearless, silent surge of torque back to speed is a novel, different driving experience. Really, the first truly different driving experience I’ve had in decades.
Speaking of taking corners, the Model 3 Performance does that with aplomb. Taking full advantage of Michelin’s latest Pilot Sport 4S performance tires and a low center of gravity (the batteries are at the base of the chassis and between the axles), the Model 3 Performance manages any cornering activity at street legal speeds with poise and control similar to what you’d experience with an M3. (Hate to admit that.)
And then to really shock my driver’s senses, the Tesla dude suggested we try autopilot. So just when I was coming to grips with the profoundly new driving experience, the car took over driving duties.
As an enthusiast driver I (defiantly) won’t go into the autopilot feature in depth, but suffice it to say if that’s your bag, it’s on point. Every once in a while you have to remind the car that you’re there and conscious (read: not drooling) with a slight tug of the wheel or a radio volume adjustment. But if you want to stick to a lane or even safely change lanes, maintain a set speed and gap to the car ahead (customizable), the car will do all of it with shocking competency and apparent safety, thanks to cameras and sensors galore.
(For a truly mind-boggling experience, alternate between flogging the Model 3 Performance and relaxing with the car in autopilot mode. Just crazy cool.)
I think I was hiding my shock and awe relatively well, as any V8 lovin’ performance car gearhead would, but Tesla dude probably sensed the enthusiasm from both me and my son during the test drive. Near the conclusion of our drive, he suggested I take home the Model 3 Performance for a couple of days, see how I like it once more integrated into my garage and life. (How cool is that?)
I graciously accepted the offer, already having come a long way from using Tesla showrooms to avoid Lululemon and kill time before lunch.
Over the next few days of quasi-ownership I fell in love with the thing, truth be told. My wife also loved it. My sister loved it. My son loved it. My mother was sickened by the acceleration, and my father probably shouldn’t be permitted to pilot something with such effortlessly accessible speed.
I immersed myself in the Tesla ownership experience. Synced it with the home Wi-Fi, and came out to vehicle updates in the a.m. that were downloaded overnight. Whaaat…?
(At some point that update will reportedly be full autonomous driving mode, by the way. The hardware is already onboard the Model 3 Performance, just needs the green light from Uncle Sam.)
The standard plug-in wall charger is barely effective, so after a couple of days we found a nearby supercharging station and hooked it up for about 50 minutes, which is the time it took to go from near empty to full charge and ~300 miles of range. While there I conversed with actual Tesla owners, who clearly enjoyed my favorable impressions, and the fact that the thing had challenged my lifelong performance automotive preferences and paradigms. They smirked and nodded, as if unsurprised that I had discovered their automotive superiority secret.
The Model 3 Performance is so cool it’s almost unsettling to someone like me; it’s just so clearly, undeniably the future.
What Tesla has been able to pull off as a relative newcomer to the automotive scene is incredible. Their entire business model, from the quality, safety and performance of their cars, to the unostentatious salespeople (despite the $100k+ cars on display), and the theme of environmental responsibility in combination with irreverence for both the conventional auto industry and supposed electric car performance limitations, is utter brilliance.
It’s an automotive experience that will stick with me for a lifetime, or at least until the day I have a Model 3 Performance more permanently in the garage for daily driving duties, alongside my gas guzzlers for weekend runs and track days. That would quite honestly be garage, complete.
Whatever your automotive preferences and pre-conceived notions of what an “electric car” is all about, you really should get a dose of the Tesla experience. I guarantee it’ll be unlike any automobile you’ve ever tried.
If you’re a traditionally stubborn automotive enthusiast like me, go ahead and wear your poker face for as long as you can. Good luck.
(Special thanks to Andrew, a Tesla dude at the Tesla-Coconut Point Estero, Florida location for the introduction, test drive, and Model 3 Performance loan.)