Tesla Model 3 upgrade review

Tesla Model 3 upgrade review

This revamped model is now a serious mile-eater – just don’t shell out for the mythical self-driving autopilot system.

This is the car that Tesla first envisaged when Elon Musk wasn’t at the head of the US electric vehicle maker: a family-sized, battery-powered saloon (sedan) at an affordable price (for an EV, that is). Whether it was Musk’s vision and drive that saw this project through is debatable but probably true and since 2017 the Model 3 (and its SUV counterpart the Model Y of 2020) have been the standard-setters in the EV world.

Not without controversy, however, as anyone who has expressed the least scintilla of doubt about the Tesla range will have found out; this company carries its own considerable and committed fan base along with it.

In truth the Model 3 wasn’t a particularly outstanding product in those early years. Not very well built, with an awful ride quality, mismatched panels and so-so paintwork, it had a confusing and distracting central touchscreen and came with a sort of secretive lack of detail and arrogance that characterises Silicon Valley companies. Even for this test, we’ve had to gather some of the technical figures from US magazines and expert websites rather than from Tesla itself.

It was also expensive, although there were enough folk who valued the ease of use, long ranges and convenience of the Tesla Supercharger network, not to mention the government grants, to buy one. Tesla’s Model 3 and Y have basically been the best-selling EVs for the past eight years and, during Covid, the best-selling cars to boot. I should state here, however, that sales figures tend to go up and down according to the docking of ships laden with thousands of new Teslas.

BYD takes number one spot

Things have changed during that time, with Chinese competitor BYD coming up on the rails to pinch the top spot from Tesla, the US-based firm tinkering with its existing models rather than offering something new, to the extent that it now has one of the oldest EV model fleets.

Clearly something needed to be done, but you wouldn’t expect a disruptor like Tesla to do a mid-cycle facelift as legacy car makers do. No, the Model 3 has been quietly titivated throughout its life, most recently in 2020 when it received standard heat-pump heating, chromium trim swapped for matt black, wireless phone charging and double-glazed windows to quieten the noisy interior.

This 2024 model has been further re-engineered and we felt it was time to revisit the car. There are only two models in the revised line-up, but while Tesla says that’s it and there will be no scorching Performance models, it often says one thing then does another, so don’t be amazed if later this year a couple of faster models break cover.

Starting at £40,000

For the moment, the Model 3 starts at £39,990 (its rival the Polestar 2 starts at £44,950) for the 245bhp, 57kWh rear-wheel-drive version with a range of 318 miles and 0-60mph acceleration in 5.8sec. The other is the £49,990 75kWh dual-motor, long range all-wheel drive tested here.

This more expensive model has twin motors delivering an estimated 351bhp, with 0-60mph in 4.2sec, which is seriously quick even compared with combustion-engined sports coupes such as Porsche’s 911. The claimed range on the 18-inch standard wheels is 421 miles, but if you specify 19-inch rims that drops to 390 miles.

It’s 4,720mm long, 1,850mm wide and 1,441mm high. The snouty looks have been softened slightly with a more handsome front end. Tesla claims it has the world’s safest platform architecture, which is fairly serious hyperbole, but the side impact protection has been improved and there are now blind-spot indicators in the windscreen pillars.

There’s also a lane-keeping assistant, which Tesla claims is a self-driving system (it isn’t) and in practice the camera-based system misses rather too much for comfort. It failed to spot a horse right in front of the bonnet, but did spot a wheelie bin beside it, so it’s a neigh from the equine population, then.

It also failed to detect a pedestrian in a dark coat and an unlit van parked half on the pavement and was preparing to drive straight into it. Tesla has garnered serious amounts of money from customers to have their cars prepared for full self-driving Autopilot capability (it is currently £6,800 on the Model 3) but the cars can neither do it nor, on the evidence of this model, will they do it in the future without serious further engineering (and most likely the addition of radar and Lidar cameras as well).

Changes to the appearance are a more aerodynamic front, which also looks less clunky and increases the range by about five per cent. Inside, there’s now a touchscreen for rear-seat passengers and a new steering wheel with the deletion of column stalks, replaced by haptic switches for indicators, wipers and headlamp flashes. There are ventilated front seats and two bodywork colour choices: a rich red and grey.

Better quality

Even the most cursory perusal shows these Shanghai-built cars are of far better quality than previous Model 3s. Paint finishes are generally glossy and deep without too much orange peel effect, panels meet where they should and their gaps are consistent. Doors shut with a thud and the interior feels nicely put together, unlike in the past.

But it’s not all wonderful. The matt black exterior door handles are unlit and invisible in the dark so you find yourself prodding the car’s grubby bodywork like a pin-the-tail-on-a-donkey game. Also in the recent cold weather, the spring-loaded handles got frozen in the out position, which took some brute force and ignorance to fix.

The seats are comfortable and supportive and there’s just about enough leg and head room in the rear seats for one six-footer to sit behind another, though it’s no bigger than rivals in the sector and if you are carrying large teenagers you might want to take an extended test. And quite how anyone thought Persil-white was a suitable upholstery colour for a family saloon is beyond us.

The luggage capacity consists of an 88-litre space under the bonnet and a 594-litre boot, which is simply massive for the class. It’ll tow up to one tonne and weighs between 1,765kg for the rear-drive model and 1,828kg for the dual motor model. Charging is up to 170kW for the rear-drive model, up to 250kW for the long-range dual-motor version.

On the road

For those used to gear-selector buttons or a lever, the slider control (which only illuminates when the vehicle is stationary with your foot on the brake) will take some getting used to. Equally so the indicator buttons on the steering wheel, which are hopeless. Not only are the switches inconsistent in where you need to press them, the steering is low-geared and the turning circle quite large. As a result it’s far too easy to find your arms crossed on a roundabout, for example. At that point, you’ve no way of signalling your intentions to other road users without staring down at the wheel and performing stupefying feats of prestidigitation, which isn’t safe at all.

While some will eulogise the centre touchscreen, despite its size it’s actually rather confusing, lacking a hierarchy of needs, so that Spotify gets its own permanent screen icon but the windscreen wipers require three touches to access, or a steering wheel button which flashes up an on screen panel which means you’ve got both hands trying to operate the wipers. Of course, you can leave the wipers in the Auto function but at times, for no discernible reason, the wipers spring into full-speed action which feels like being attacked by a deckchair.

With no centre binnacle or head-up display, you have to turn your head to see the car’s speed, which continually swapped without reason between kilometres and miles per hour. Altogether there’s far too much finger pushing required and time spent with your eyes away from the road.

Great strides

Tesla claims to have made great strides in ride and handling and to test this I covered about 600 miles across the Black Mountains, the Welsh Marches and Peak District, on country tracks, A- and B-roads and motorways in a variety of conditions. There’s no doubt this is a far better riding and handling car than it was when introduced. Now it’s a serious mile-eater and you don’t step out with wide-eyed fatigue as you did with less refined earlier models.

On 18-inch wheels and Michelin tyres, the ride is quieter and more gentle, though there’s an unsettled quality over harsh surfaces and the interior noise levels are still quite noticeable. Hyundai’s Ioniq 6 and Volkswagen’s recently launched ID.7 have a far more sophisticated and quieter ride quality and are better long-distance EVs.

The handling is much improved, with far better body control inspiring greater confidence than before, though the initial turn-in to corners is marred by the lack of feedback and strange weighting to the steering system, which also lacks much self-centring. Rival performance EV saloons such as the BMW i4 and Polestar 2 are better driver’s cars.

The Model 3 does have a super sophisticated response to the accelerator pedal, though. With a 0-60mph capability of 4.2sec, this is a very fast car but you never feel intimidated by the power and it’s easy to maintain brisk speeds without the fear that the wheels are going to slide out of control. The lift-off regeneration braking is an example to most rivals with progressive deceleration and none of the clunky on/off “one-pedal-driving” feel of some EVs.

As far as range is concerned, in cold conditions, and despite the standard heat pump, we were never going to get near the claimed 421 miles. In fact the Model 3 consistently returned 345 miles; good enough when you factor in the Tesla Supercharger network, which is an object lesson in how to do it if you live near major conurbations and travel mainly on motorways. It’s not quite so good, however, in the West Country and darkest Wales.

The Telegraph verdict

Tesla and Elon Musk are Marmite propositions and while there are those who love both, there are others who regard the firm as an over-hyped (and over-valued) toy car maker dreamed up by a narcissistic squillionaire and designed by arrogant Californians who believe they should inherit the earth.

For a mass market EV, the Model 3 desperately needed a dose of common-sense engineering and a lot less experimental software and quirky human-machine interfacing. Unfortunately it received both, so the Model 3’s controls will continue to be a source of frustration (as will the keyless credit card unlocking).

On the plus side, the dynamics and useability of this base-model Tesla make it a serious contender. Tesla’s ultra-convenient Supercharger network used to be the clinching argument, but since it now sells access to non-Tesla owners the benefits of these rapid chargers are shared.

This car is a solid four out of five stars, but I’d want to try some of the excellent competition before buying – and I’d avoid paying seven grand for the mythical Autopilot system.

The facts

On test: Tesla Model 3 long range

Body style: Battery-electric saloon

On sale: Now

How much? From £39,900 for rear-wheel drive, £49,990 in dual motor AWD form as tested

How fast? Top speed 125mph, 0-60mph in 4.2sec

Maximum power/torque: Estimated 351bhp/n/a

How economical? 5.6m/kWh (WLTP combined), on test 4.6m/kWh

Electric powertrain: 75kWh lithium-ion battery with twin electric motors

Electric range: 421 miles (WLTP combined), 345 miles on test

Charge times: 45 minutes for 20-80% charge on a 250kW DC charger

CO2 emissions: 23.4g/km (well-to-wheels)

VED: £0

Warranty: 4yrs/50,000 miles (8yrs/100,000 miles on battery)

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