From the very beginning, Tesla has set the pace in electrification. Even back in 2008, a few years before the established car makers launched their first eighty-mile EVs, the original Tesla Roadster was capable of covering 200 or more miles on a single charge.
Later, the Tesla Model S hatchback and the SUV-style Model X were almost range-competitive with petrols and diesels from the start, as the company dared to sell large and comparatively pricey cars that would allow more battery capacity to be fitted. That bold stance has paid off handsomely, and these cars now represent the standard by which all other electric vehicles are judged.
Impressive as they are, though, the Model S and the Model X have so far sold only in comparatively small numbers. Now, Tesla is planning to change all that with the launch of the entry-level Model 3 saloon, a clean-sheet EV that looks set to become a much more common sight on our roads. Where the Model S could broadly be bracketed with the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7 Series, the Model 3 is aimed more at the C-Class and the 3 Series. In the UK, prices for the Model 3 start at £38,500, almost exactly half the price of the most basic Model S.
The obvious question that arises, of course, is whether at this much lower price, the Model 3 is still a proper Tesla, a car that offers the sort of performance, innovation and style that have been associated with the badge until now.
I recently had the chance to drive the Model S and the Model 3 back to back, and my assessment was that the essential Tesla appeal has scarcely been diluted at all in the transition to the smaller car. The larger Model S is roomier inside and naturally also rides a little better – although its air suspension system probably helps a bit too. The Model S is made mostly of aluminium, while the Model 3 is mainly steel, and the S is a hatchback, while the 3 is a saloon, albeit one with a folding rear seat.
But the similarities between the two cars are much more striking than the differences. They share a common look – in fact, you really need to get your eye in before you can reliably tell them apart. More importantly, they are similar to drive, which means that they both offer the sort of effortlessness, refinement and strong acceleration that are characteristic of electric propulsion. If you “get” electric, you’re probably going to agree with me that these are two of the best cars in the world. If you remain to be converted, these two cars are the most likely to convince you.
In a few areas, the Model 3 is perhaps even a little more radical than the S – for example, it has a single large touchscreen that replaces most of the standard switchgear and instrumentation found on other cars. This is perhaps to be expected given that the 3 is the newer design, although Tesla keeps even its older cars fresh with over-the-air software updates that add new features.
And not content with just reinventing the car, Tesla has been busy trying to reinvent pretty much every other aspect of the motor industry as well. The company doesn’t have dealerships in the traditional sense, so if you want to buy one of its cars, you can order it online or visit a Tesla outlet in a shopping centre that feels more like an Apple store than a conventional car showroom. While Tesla does have bricks and mortar service centres, it also offers mobile servicing via specially equipped vehicles in which technicians travel to work on customers’ cars at any location they choose. If you undertake a long journey, you can stay within the Tesla system by using the company’s own Supercharger network to top up your battery pack.
Tesla’s efforts to reinvent the way cars are made via advanced automation appear to have had more mixed results, but the company has nevertheless managed to ramp its production levels up to almost 100,000 units a quarter – and that’s before its new Chinese factory comes on stream, and it’s certainly an impressive achievement.
It’s very difficult to establish a new brand in the car business, as Dyson recently discovered when it was forced to abandon its own ambitious plans to offer electric cars. But Tesla is in so many ways exceptional, and I think it is here to stay.