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First drive: Tesla Model 3 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.

First drive: Tesla Model 3 'Highland'
A significant update for the Tesla Model 3 promises big improvements, but where have the column stalks got to?!

   



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Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive

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Tesla's Model 3 almost needs no introduction, so recognisable an electric vehicle (EV) is it. And you could also argue it possibly doesn't need updating, given the sheer numbers of them you see on our roads today. But, having been around since 2019 in the UK, it's time for the updated version - informally called the 'Highland'. Fresh looks, greater driving range, an improved interior, a sharper infotainment system and, incredibly, a lower purchase price are all on the menu, but there's something missing from this car which, as we shall come to see, rather clouds the entire experience...

Test Car Specifications

Model: 2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'
Price: Model 3 from 39,990 for Rear-Wheel Drive, car as tested 47,990
Motor: 180kW rear-mounted electric motor
Battery: 60kWh lithium-ion, 57.5kWh usable
Transmission: single-speed reduction-gear automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power: 245hp
Torque: N/A
Emissions: 0g/km
Economy: 5.5 miles/kWh (quoted)
Range: 318 miles
0-62mph: 6.1 seconds
Top speed: 125mph
Boot space: 594 litres rear, 88 litres front, combined 682 litres

Styling

In the interests of being as plain-speaking as possible, Tesla has treated this facelift as, yes, a facelift, because the obvious change to the Highland Model 3 is at the front - and, in our opinion, it's a good one. Gone is the gawky, slightly beaky appearance of the old car, with its bulging headlights and wavy line above the number plate, to be replaced by sleek lamp clusters and a perfectly horizontal leading edge beneath them. It's a simple switch in many ways, but it works oh-so-well at making the Model 3 if not handsome, then at least a lot more pleasing on the eye than it was previously.

Other alterations include C-shaped light clusters at the rear, which are incorporated into the bootlid now, as well as the addition of two new paint colours, one an evolution of the multicoat red and the other this Stealth Grey metallic, which replaces Midnight Silver.

What you can't see, and something that is another benefit to the Tesla, is that its new shape is more aerodynamic than before, with a lowly 0.219Cd figure for the Highland. That means it makes the most of its battery power for range purposes on the one hand, while it should also result in the Model 3 being quieter when travelling at speed - something Tesla claims with reductions of between 20 and 30 per cent when it comes to outside noise contributors making their way into the cabin.

Interior

It's all about the material quality in here. And the minimalism, although that's always been the case with the Model 3. Certainly, on the former score, everything feels much better than it did. There's aluminium clothing the centre-console area, which is nice and cool to the touch, while the dashboard is rendered in soft and squidgy materials that yield satisfyingly as you prod them. Even the steering wheel, about the one physical control you're left with in the Tesla these days, has pleasant tactility.

There's also a hoop-like sweep to the top of the dash, which flows into the door cards. In this design feature is a new addition for the Model 3 Highland in the form of a pinstripe of adjustable ambient cabin lighting - it looks good at night, we can tell you. Other than that, Tesla has made the frame of the 15.4-inch infotainment screen slightly thinner, so although the unit size hasn't changed there's more space on the display itself to pinch, tap and zoom on.

Oh. And the US company has got rid of the Model 3's column stalks, which previously operated the indicators, wipers and drive selection on the pre-facelift car. Now, we'll come onto this decision in more detail in the driving section, but you can probably guess we don't think this is a good idea. At all. Not least because, to get the Tesla to go now, you either have to swipe a little car graphic backwards and forwards on the right-hand side of the touchscreen accordingly - yes, even the gearbox can now be found on infotainment displays in modern cars - or prod the seemingly blank beige plastic (it then lights up with a 'P-R-N-D' line of letters if you do) either side of the hazard-warning switch. Which is mounted in the rooflining, above the interior mirror. Honestly.

Practicality

The Tesla Model 3 has a good-sized boot, measuring 594 litres, while there's space under the bonnet too for another 88 litres of stowage. This is used by the company for housing the car's charging cables, but they don't take up all the space in there. However, it's worth bearing in mind that, despite its shape in profile, the Model 3 is a saloon, not a hatchback. The bootlid is hinged at the base of the rear windscreen, not the top of it, so the actual access aperture into the main boot is not that practical.

Mind, rear-seat space is absolutely vast, so that's a plus, and of course as an EV the Tesla has a flat floor in the back too so there's no transmission tunnel for the centre-seat passenger to have to straddle with their feet. There's also an eight-inch touchscreen in the rear for various controls, so people in the back don't feel left out on the gadget front.

Other storage areas are good, including two big cubbies in the central area and a couple of cupholders as well, while the felted, angled pad for the smartphone charging is one of the neatest - and most successful, when the car's in motion - systems we've seen for this kind of tech. Add in wide-opening doors to make access to the cabin a breeze and, overall, the Model 3 is a highly practical car.

Performance

At the moment, it would seem the return of the halo Performance version of the Model 3 is unconfirmed, so there's just a choice of two versions for fans of the Tesla. There's a single-motor Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD), which is what we're testing here, and then a dual-motor Long Range. Power is either 180kW (245hp) for the former or 260kW (351hp) for the latter, while the battery pack sizes are 60kWh gross, 57.5kWh net for the RWD and 79kWh gross, 75kWh net for the Long Range.

At least, that's what our research and questioning tells us. Tesla is a strange company when it comes to facts and figures, and nowhere in the outfit's official publications does it explicitly say what the power output and battery size is. It also refuses to quote a torque figure for the car, as well, which we suppose is just Tesla being Tesla and standing out from the herd. Sigh.

However, it is happy to talk about driving range and charging speeds, two of the Model 3's long-held strengths. With its more aerodynamic shape and better efficiency, you will now get 344 miles out of the RWD on its standard 18-inch wheels, while the Long Range will go up to 421 miles to a charge on the same-size alloys. Upgrade the versions to 19-inch wheels, one of the few options on the Model 3 Highland, and those numbers drop to 318 and 390 miles respectively; still more than decent figures.

These seem realistic claims, as well, because we drove it on one 140-mile motorway trip in cold weather with the climate control running constantly, and it returned bang on four miles per kWh for the trip. Granted, we 'Supercharged' the Tesla twice (and that really does remain the best EV charging experience of them all, it has to be said) during our time with it and, even with 90-95 per cent battery charge, its distance-to-empty reading never exceeded 300 miles. But, conversely, it always presented a truthful range reading on the screen - as in, if it said it was going to do 250 or 260 miles, then it would do 250 or 260 miles, no drama.

Praise should also be levelled at the car for the calibration of its two main speed controls, the throttle and the regenerative brakes. Both are tuned beautifully, so that even with the car in either Chill or Normal modes for acceleration, you can dole out its power smoothly and to the millimetre with your right foot. Kudos, too, for the speed of the RWD; as the lowest-output Model 3 Highland, you might be tempted to think it'll feel a bit flat. But with an admirable (for this size and class of EV) kerb weight of 1,765kg, it's anything but. It surges quickly yet smoothly off the line from a standstill, while the mid-range roll-on acceleration is more than you could ever need if you want to take advantage of gaps in fast-flowing motorway traffic.

It's also a cinch to control the Model 3 around town, because the regenerative brakes operate seamlessly and are blessed with some of the best pedal feel in the business. Elegant one-pedal driving is probably more natural and intuitive in this EV than it is in any other we've tried so far. Oh, and top marks, too, for its exceptional, 'standard-level' radar cruise - again, one of the most capable systems of its type that we've tried from any manufacturer. Apart from a few occasions where it tried to anchor on while safely overtaking lorries on the dual-carriageway bits of the A1, for hundreds of miles it otherwise blended its speed to other traffic almost as well as a proficient human could do the job.

The Tesla Model 3's enduring appeal is undoubtedly encapsulated in its performance. The way it accelerates, the way it brakes, the way it uses its energy, the range you get from it, and the spectacular speed, reliability and ease-of-use you get from a Supercharger point all work brilliantly in conjunction, to make the Model 3 such a desirable EV overall.

Ride & Handling

Right, we're going to precis this header into one paragraph, as we need to talk about something else in this section. For the ride, the car is magnificent in the main, certainly on the motorway where its supple suspension, steady gait and ultra-quiet cabin - yes, those aero claims for the body really have made it much less rowdy within at speed, while the build quality showed no appreciable squeaks, rattles or groans at pace either - all add up to a thoroughly relaxing experience. It's good around town, too, although on quieter country roads with poor surfaces, you do sometimes get some jiggle and fidgeting from the Model 3; otherwise, though, big thumbs-up for the ride. The handling? It's OK. There's grip, and the steering is sharp and accurate, but it lacks any meaningful feel whatsoever and the chassis is relatively uninvolving. Exciting to hustle, this RWD car is not.

So that leaves us with those departed column stalks. By crikey, what a hare-brained decision this was. Sure, Tesla itself and fans of the marque will probably immediately point to some high-end Ferraris which have slapped their indicators onto the steering wheel, but we don't like the idea in those cars and it's a move which certainly doesn't work in the Model 3.

On the motorway, where you never put in much more than half-a-degree or so of steering lock (all things being well), yeah - the gimmicky indicator buttons work fine, and they have a clever camera-based system to self-cancel, although that in itself raises the query in your mind of all the costly software programming and man hours that went into working out that system, when a cheapy tab of plastic in a self-cancelling column stalk has done much the same job for decades.

But when you're on a roundabout, or negotiating city streets and tight junctions? With the wheel either a quarter-turn or half-turn round? It's just bloody stupid. You want to switch signals as you go round a roundabout and need your exit? You'll grope madly at thin air behind the wheel, then curse yourself and look directly at the steering wheel to see precisely at which random compass point the indicator buttons are. Whereupon they might be upside down or at 90 degrees, so you're not sure which one you now actually need to press to put your left indicator on and leave the roundabout safely. By which time, you've passed your junction in a blind panic.

The wipers are even worse, with a click of the button on the wheel meaning you need to look bottom-right of the touchscreen to adjust their speed, and their auto rain-sensing is genuinely hopeless as well; fails to work in heavy drizzle, goes mental when it's lightly spitting. What with the back-up transmission pad mounted on the ceiling with the hazards, and the foglight switch buried in various touchscreen menus (something the poor Volvo EX30 took a pasting for from many motoring critics when it launched a few months back, so Tesla's not allowed to get away with the same egregious move) these zany - and utterly needless - ergonomics take the ultimate shine off what is otherwise a very fine EV indeed.

If we could have everything the Highland brings in, coupled with the column stalks the pre-facelift Model 3 had, we'd probably be proclaiming this the class-leading EV in a deeply talented field. As it is, we can see how many people would be put off enough by the stupid indicators and infuriating wipers, both of which are unnecessarily hard to use on the move, to not even want to buy this otherwise-excellent Tesla at all. Ah well, there's always the Polestar 2 for you folk, eh?

Value

The extraordinary value of the Tesla Model 3 Highland cannot be in doubt. In an age when a Vauxhall Astra Electric can cost you 44,000, for 156hp and a maximum theoretical range of 250 miles (read: 200 miles, really), the fact the RWD comes in at 39,990 basic almost looks like a bargain. The Long Range, by the way, is a mere 10,000 more, so even that dual-motor car isn't expensive.

Be wary of the options, though. Our test RWD was clothed in the Stealth Grey paint, a 2,000 - yes, two-thousand pounds - option. It also had the 19-inch Nova wheels (1,500), the black-and-white Premium interior (1,100), and Enhanced Autopilot (3,400), bringing its grand total to 47,990.

You could definitely drop the last of these toys, by the way. We know Tesla fanatics want to claim this is a self-driving car, but in murky, wintry conditions in the early evening on a wet M11, the Enhanced Autopilot wouldn't work for much more than 30 seconds at a time before cancelling itself, no matter what we did. Presumably, its cameras couldn't cope with abject British weather, but if that's the case then we reckon splurging the price of a decent second-hand runaround on a technology that refuses to cooperate here is probably as daft a decision as a manufacturer deciding to get rid of its column stalks... wait a minute!

Verdict

With the one hand Tesla giveth, and giveth us a lot as it were, by notably improving the already-talented Model 3 in almost every key regard. And with the other it taketh away our column stalks, one of the most daft decisions we think an automotive manufacturer has made in recent years.

Which means it all boils down to this: what you have here is one of the best EVs on the marketplace in many respects, undone by counter-intuitive interior ergonomics that make driving it a continual-loop memory game, rather than a natural process. You might learn its weird foibles and love it; we, however, can't help thinking that the Model 3 Highland is two cylindrical pieces of plastic away from genuine greatness.



Matt Robinson - 21 Dec 2023



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2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.

2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive 'Highland'. Image by Matt Robinson/Tesla.








 

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