What Car? says...
What with owner Elon Musk’s space ambitions and X/Twitter purchase, there’s so much noise around Tesla that you could almost forget that the company makes cars. Well, it does – and its best-known model is the Tesla Model 3.
The Model 3 is a fully electric car, and is also the US brand’s smallest and cheapest model. It sits below the Tesla Model S electric luxury saloon, and the Tesla Model Y and Tesla Model X electric SUVs in the car maker's (all-electric) line-up.
It's roughly the same size as a BMW 3 Series and there are two versions to choose from: an entry-level, rear-wheel-drive model called simply the RWD, and a Long Range version designed to (yep, you guessed it) maximise the range between charges. Speaking of which, a recent facelift has added even more range, some tweaked styling and a plusher interior.
In the world of electric cars, the Model 3's closest rivals are the BMW i4 and the Polestar 2. However, you might also find yourself considering the Hyundai Ioniq 6 or possibly higher-riding options, such as the Genesis GV60 and the Kia EV6.
So, is the Tesla Model 3 better than those rivals? Read on to find out...
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
Even the entry-level, rear-wheel-drive (RWD) Tesla Model 3 can do 0-60mph in a claimed 5.8 seconds. That's much faster than an equivalent BMW i4 or Hyundai Ioniq 6.
The Long Range has four-wheel drive, and two electric motors, so it’s even quicker. Indeed, it’ll officially get from 0-60mph in just 4.2sec, matching the time it takes a Porsche 911 Carrera 4 and slightly faster than the Polestar 2 Long Range Dual Motor.
Battery capacity (and charging speeds) on both the RWD and Long Range versions remain the same as the previous version, but improved efficiency is said to have increased the range by about 5-8%.
On standard 18in wheels, the RWD is expected to cover 344 miles (up from 305 miles), while the Long Range should travel up to 421 miles (up from 374 miles). With 19in wheels, the figures drop to 318 miles for the RWD and 390 miles for the Long Range model.
Suspension and ride comfort
The Model 3’s ride has always been at the firmer end of the scale, but revised suspension and new tyres take the edge off bumpy roads. It’s not made a huge difference, but occupants aren’t jostled around in their seats as much and you don’t get as much of a thud over road imperfections.
Overall, the Hyundai Ioniq 6 and the VW ID 7 are both more comfortable long-distance cruisers, but that doesn’t mean the Model 3 is uncomfortable by any means, and it offers better ride quality than the Polestar 2.
As with most electric cars, the Model 3 is heavy and doesn’t feel particularly light on its toes.
That said, the RWD version handles better than most other electric cars, with the ability to stay remarkably upright through turns and with loads of grip on offer.
The Model 3's steering is quicker and more precise than the Polestar 2's somewhat vague set-up, and you can change its weighting to suit your tastes. You don't get a lot of feedback streaming to your fingertips, but the same is true of most rival cars.
Noise and vibration
The Model 3 is, like many electric cars, whisper-quiet at town speeds. In the past, it has suffered with quite a lot of wind and road noise, but the 2024 car has a reshaped bonnet to help guide air over the windscreen. Plus, the rear windows are double-glazed, as well as the front ones. Road noise is still present, but it’s not as harsh as before.
The brakes deserve a special mention for being far less grabby than those in many electric cars. They make it easy to slow down smoothly without your passengers thinking you’ve only just passed your driving test.
There's also a selectable one-pedal (Hold) mode, which ramps up the effect of the regenerative braking system and allows the car to bring itself to a standstill fairly quickly without you pressing the brake pedal at all.
Strengths Rapid acceleration; agile handling; great range between charges
Weaknesses Ride is firmer than in some rivals
The interior layout, fit and finish
Driving position and dashboard
To keep the Tesla Model 3's dashboard looking as minimalist as a Scandinavian studio apartment, everything from the wipers to the headlights is controlled using the central touchscreen. The downside is that even adjusting the door mirrors requires you to delve into the touchscreen then fiddle with buttons on the steering wheel. It's a real faff, and not advisable while you’re driving.
Speaking of which, arguably the biggest difference drivers will find between the old version and the facelifted car is the rearranged controls. You see, as in the Tesla Model S, the stalks on the steering column have been removed – the gear selector is now on the touchscreen, while the new three-spoke steering wheel houses responsive haptic buttons to control the lights, indicators, windscreen wipers, cruise control, cameras and voice control.
Aside from the questionable ergonomics, the Model 3's driving position is good. You sit relatively high up by executive saloon standards (although still lower than in the Polestar 2), and the seat, steering wheel and pedals line up neatly.
The seat could do with a bit more side support, though, especially considering the astonishing cornering forces the Model 3 can generate.
Visibility, parking sensors and cameras
The front windscreen pillars are exceedingly thick and angled in such a way that they can badly hamper your view out at junctions. How badly will depend on your height and your general driving position, and it's fair to say that the Polestar 2 is no better in this regard.
More positively, the view out of the back is pretty good and all versions come with parking sensors at both ends of the car, along with a surround-view camera.
LED headlights are standard and illuminate very well, although you can't have the matrix headlights available on some executive cars, including the BMW i4, which shape their beams to avoid dazzling other drivers.
Sat nav and infotainment
The facelifted Model 3 gets a new, brighter, 15.4in central infotainment touchscreen that has a slightly thinner bezel (frame) to increase the usable space (although you’d have to look carefully to notice the difference).
The operating system is pretty intuitive, and while some of the smaller icons can be tricky to hit accurately while driving, the system is quick to respond once you’ve made your selection.
There are loads of useful features (navigation, web browsing and so on), welcome additions (such as Netflix and Spotify) and some purely fun applications (driving games controlled using the steering wheel and the ability to make whoopee cushion noises to amuse your passengers).
You also get two easily accessible wireless phone-charging mats below the infotainment screen and a couple of high-powered USB-C ports for rapid device charging. Overall, it's better than the Polestar 2's infotainment.
It's a bit disappointing that no Model 3 has Android Auto or Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring. You get a free data connection (for watching films, browsing the internet and so on) for 30 days, but after that you have to sign up to a subscription or use your mobile phone data allowance.
The Model 3's build quality is definitely the best we’ve seen from Tesla, especially after the car’s mid-life facelift, making it more of a match for the Polestar 2’s interior.
For starters, the doors have now been reinforced (for safety) and give a more reassuring thunk as you shut them and you’ll find soft-touch materials everywhere you touch.
True, the faux-leather on the seats and steering wheel still don’t feel truly premium, but everything else feels good.
Even the gloss-black finish on the lower central part of the dashboard (which marked too easily) has been replaced with a harder-wearing matt plastic, and the centre console has been redesigned to incorporate a sliding lid, which operates in a pleasingly slick fashion.
Strengths Minimalist interior feels fairly upmarket; infotainment system is quick and packed with features; plenty of parking aids come as standard
Weaknesses Windscreen pillars hamper visibility at junctions; seats could do with more side support; lack of stalks can be fiddly
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
No one sitting in the front of a Tesla Model 3 is going to complain about space – no matter how tall they are.
There’s also loads of room for odds and ends, with a couple of lidded cubbies between the front seats, as well as front door bins that can each take a big bottle of water.
The front seat area feels remarkably light and airy, with a combination of tall side windows and a standard panoramic glass roof.
Rear leg and head room is roughly on a par with the BMW 3 Series – there's comfortably enough for a six-footer to sit behind a driver of a similar height, in other words.
As is the case with the front seats, the Model 3's tall side windows and standard panoramic glass roof make it feel less claustrophobic in the back than many executive car rivals. A middle rear passenger will have plenty of space for their knees and feet, with no central hump in the floor to straddle.
Seat folding and flexibility
The Model 3’s rear seatback splits in a 60/40 arrangement and can be folded down when you need to carry long loads.
Electric rivals, such the Ioniq 6 and the Polestar 2, also have 60/40 split-folding rear seats, but the i4 offers a more flexible 40/20/40 split as standard.
There are no clever features, such as sliding or reclining rear seats in the Model 3, but then there aren't in any traditional executive car rivals either.
The Model 3 is a saloon, so its boot aperture isn’t huge. However, there’s more space for luggage than you’ll find in conventional executive rivals, such as the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, as well as many electric alternatives, including the Ioniq 6 and the Polestar 2.
That’s thanks partly to a huge well under the main boot floor, but also the extra storage under the bonnet ('frunk' in Tesla speak). In total, we managed to squeeze in an impressive total of 10 carry-on suitcases into the Model 3's two boots. A buggy or two sets of golf clubs shouldn't prove a problem.
All versions have an electric tailgate that can be opened and closed using the touchscreen, from the Tesla app on your phone or by pressing a button on the boot lid itself.
Strengths Big boot with lots of underfloor storage; spacious rear seats; plenty of storage in the front
Weaknesses Saloon boot hinders practicality; rear seats don't slide or recline
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
Costs, insurance groups, MPG and CO2
The Model 3 is the least expensive Tesla you can buy, and the entry-level rear-wheel-drive (RWD) version undercuts pretty much every rival, including the BMW i4, the Hyundai Ioniq 6, the Polestar 2, the Vauxhall Astra Electric and the VW ID 7. Those alternatives are likely to depreciate more quickly too.
Like all pure electric cars, the Model 3 makes a huge amount of sense for company car drivers because of the enormous benefit-in-kind tax savings on offer. You’ll also spend less on electricity than you would on petrol or diesel – assuming you charge up at home.
Buying a Model 3 gives you access to Tesla’s Supercharger network and impressive maximum charging speeds (up to 170kW for the RWD and 250kW for the Long Range), allowing you to charge the battery (from 10-80%) in less than 30 minutes. You have to pay each time, but the price is reasonable, and the network is more extensive and reliable than any other. That's a big reason to buy the Model 3 over, for example, the Polestar 2.
Of course, you can still charge up at any public CCS charging point if you need to, but it will take longer. A full 0-100% charge at home using a 7kW charger takes around 12 hours in a Model 3 Long Range, and roughly nine hours in the entry-level RWD model.
Equipment, options and extras
All versions of the Model 3 come with plenty of luxuries, including climate control, adaptive cruise control, faux-leather seats (heated and ventilated in the front and heated in the rear), a heated steering wheel and keyless entry using an app on your smartphone.
Other than an upgraded 17-speaker stereo system (instead of 14), there’s no equipment difference between the Long Range and the entry-level RWD.
It’s a good thing the Model 3 is so well equipped as standard, because there isn’t much on the options list. Indeed, apart from metallic paint, different alloy wheel designs and white (instead of black) seats, the only options are Enhanced Autopilot and Full Self Driving Capability.
Those last two featurers allow the car to make lane changes on its own (just hit the indicator), steer itself into a parking space and even be 'summoned' with a smartphone app at very low speeds. So, if someone parks too close to your Model 3 in a car park for you to open the doors, you can drive it out of the space using your phone.
The Model 3 comes with a four-year/50,000-mile warranty. The battery and drive unit are covered separately for eight years and 100,000 miles on the entry-level (RWD) model, or eight years and 120,000 miles on the Long Range version. That covers the electrical bits against faults and guarantees a minimum 70% retention of battery capacity.
In the 2023 What Car? Reliability Survey Tesla finished a respectable 10th out of 32 car makers in the overall league table. Meanwhile, the pre-facelift Model 3 did quite well as a model too, coming eighth out of 20 electric car models in the same survey.
Safety and security
As for security, as well as the usual accoutrements, there’s something called Sentry mode. When enabled, it uses the car’s external cameras to start recording when the car is approached after it’s locked, saving the footage to a USB drive. If anyone tries to break in or if someone drives into your Model 3 when it's parked up, the cameras will record it.
Strengths Attractively priced; access to Tesla Supercharger network; all versions are well equipped; excellent Euro NCAP safety score
Weaknesses Tesla reliability record is only average
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The Model 3 is usually more expensive to insure than rival electric cars because Thatcham has given the car a relatively high insurance group rating.
Generally speaking, you'll pay less to charge at home than at one of Tesla's Superchargers. There are exceptions, though. For example, early versions of the Model S and Model X were offered with free lifetime Supercharger access.
The Model 3's battery is covered for eight years and 100,000 miles on the entry-level RWD model, or eight years and 120,000 miles on Long Range and Performance versions. During the term, Tesla guarantees a minimum 70% retention of the original battery capacity.