Is the Tesla Model 3 the game-changing EV that spells the beginning of the end for cars like the BMW 3 Series?

A simple question deserves a simple answer – but don’t expect one here.

This question was asked on social media by Matt Miller in response to news that we were heading to Amsterdam for our first European test drive of the Tesla Model 3. “Interested to see how you think it compares to the standard, uppity sports sedans. Would you own a Tesla Model 3 over an Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series?” 

Well, would we? After the big build-up, is this the car that could finally make the electric vehicle usable, affordable, practical and viable for people not as a replacement for a city-hopper or school-run supermini or a family’s second car, but in place of a proper, good-sized, fairly high-mileage executive saloon? 

We had 36 hours to begin finding some answers, with the keys to a range-topping Model 3 Performance in one hand and those for a brand-new BMW 330i M Sport in the other. We knew before we started, of course, that this would be only the beginning of a long process, and a critical year, in establishing exactly what the state of the zero-emissions passenger car art currently is. Of establishing, too, exactly how much the Model 3 moves the game on; and whether it’s quite the transformative car that Tesla’s ever-zealous supporters so desperately hope it’ll be. 

Our Verdict

Tesla Model 3 2018 road test review hero front

Lowest-price, largest-volume Tesla yet has wooed the buying public in the US. Should UK buyers join the queue for a Model 3?

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An imperfect start, you might even say. You wouldn’t chose to line this particular Model 3 up against this 3 Series if you had the pick of both full model lines, after all. 

The Model 3 Performance is one of only two versions of the car that are now on sale in mainland Europe and will come to UK buyers later this year. It has twin electric motors; 444bhp of peak power; and 471lb ft of torque from zero rpm; and it is good for 62mph from rest in what, I assure you, is a 3.4sec dash that gives new meaning to the word ‘startling’. It’s also likely to cost UK buyers in excess of £60,000 at list price. Cue a swift intake of breath. 

The 330i M Sport looks, in some ways, like half the car on paper, with its 255bhp, 5.8sec 0-62mph claim and narrowly sub-£40k asking price – but, for the moment, it’s the most powerful petrol-powered car in the G20-generation 3 Series model range. It’s also a car you can refuel within minutes, almost anywhere you happen to want to stop, and it will cruise for a good 400 miles between fills.

It’s a car you can drive from Farnborough to Amsterdam in a day, without stopping for any longer than is needed to pump 60 litres of unleaded, plus a litre or so of bodily fluid. It will do much less for your Costa coffee reward points balance than the typical modern EV. Something tells me we will not escape the influence of these factors over the next few thousand words. 

But what we must acknowledge is that the plug-in hybrid 330e, which might be considered the Model 3’s closest competitor and is due on sale later this year, won’t be unlike the 330i to drive. It, too, has a four-cylinder turbo petrol engine and a very similar performance level. Meanwhile, Tesla’s single-motor, rear-wheel-drive Model 3 Long Range, which ought to enter the UK model range at just beyond the £40,000 mark, should be similar to the Performance to use and drive. Like the mid-range Model 3 we’d have preferred to match it up against, the Performance has a 75kWh drive battery and a usable range estimated at more than 300 miles. So, no, we haven’t quite got like for like here, but we’ve certainly got close enough to make some useful initial conclusions, though.

Observations come first. If you’ve ever seen a late-model 3 Series, you know how big a Model 3 is: the two saloons are within 15mm of each other on overall length. Given that an electric powertrain is supposed to make space in a car compared with a combustion engine, then, it’s odd that the Tesla should lose the first exchange of this test, on cabin and boot space – but the BMW offers notably more cabin room, a lower and more enveloping driving position and a considerably bigger boot. 

Just-so, right-sized practicality is at the very heart of the appeal of the compact saloon car. For a few generations now, the 3 Series has come to market with enough of it for four typically sized adults to travel in comfort and the G20 3 Series hits that sweet spot even with a little bit of space to spare. 

The Model 3, however, makes adults feel squeezed in its second row. The Tesla’s packaging leaves little foot space under the front seats, makes head room slightly tight underneath that full-length glass roof and obliges you to sit bandy-kneed if you’re behind a full-sized adult. The BMW is guilty of none of these offences. It also has a wider, deeper boot than the Tesla’s so it would be more useful for carrying bulky items, something the American’s separate front cargo compartment wouldn’t compensate for. 

The Tesla’s driving environment certainly feels like it should belong to the more spacious car of the two. The Model 3 makes a good first impression on perceived quality and its pared-down, minimalist fascia is tidy, clean-looking, modern and very pleasant, not unlike your own personal branch of the Apple Store. Big windows and a glass roof make for a light, airy feel, although the business of actually interacting with the car is something that may be slightly unintuitive, given that almost every secondary system and function is managed through the car’s monolithic 15in touchscreen computer display. 

The 3 Series’ cabin, by contrast, isn’t one needing several hours and repeat dealership visits to become familiar. It neatly reminds you that the best-laid-out car interiors look busier than designer apartments because they need to be that way in order to work well on the road.

Electric cars have had plenty of prominence on the pages of this magazine over the past decade. You’ll have read about how uncanny they can feel to drive: super-responsive, eerily quiet, torquey at low speeds. But when you actually compare a Model 3 with a 330i back to back, you become aware that your isolated perceptions are to be trusted in some cases – and yet in others they are surprising misleading. 

There is certainly no keeping up with an energetically driven Model 3 Performance around the stop-and-start streets of a major European city like Amsterdam; not in a 3 Series, at any rate. A superbike might manage it; a catapult, too, until such time as you needed to change direction.

The pure, seamless thrust generated by the Tesla’s motors, from the instant your right foot begins to move the accelerator pedal, seems ridiculous even for an EV. The car has two drive modes – Sport and Chill (thanks for that one, Instagram generation) – and if you use Sport, you’d better have decent fine motor control in your right ankle. 

Yeesh, it’s responsive. You might even say too responsive, since the force you can inadvertently unleash with a half inch too much pedal can make you look pretty juvenile. There is, needless to say, barely the blink of an eye’s delay between asking for, say, 50% of the car’s available torque and getting it. By my rough estimate, though, you probably only need to use the first 25% of the throttle travel to get that 50% engine torque because of the aggressive calibration of the car’s right-hand pedal. Suffice it to say, I think I’d be a ‘chilled’ sort of Model 3 owner. 

By contrast, when you’re in the 330i sat at a traffic light that has just turned green, you need to wait for several things to happen before a meaningful amount of torque makes its way to the car’s driven wheels. As you lift off the brake pedal, the engine first has to restart; and then the crankshaft needs to spin up; and then the gearbox has to lock up; and then the turbo needs to spool up; and finally the force you requested three or four seconds earlier is transmitted to the road. That’s the biggest difference of them all between driving an EV and almost any modern combustion-engined car: a heartbeat versus three or four seconds – and not quite every time you accelerate, but often. 

Now let’s move our frame of reference out of town. With direct drive gearing, the Model 3’s electric motors feel like they’re dropping away from peak torque beyond 50mph, when the 330i is just getting into its stride. At that point, if the EV holds an outright performance advantage, it’s mostly to do with pedal response, because full power feels pretty similar in both cars when it arrives. 

On the motorway, meanwhile, it’s actually the 330i that’s the quieter and more refined car. Sure, the Tesla’s powertrain is the quieter but the BMW’s better cabin sealing more than makes up for the deficit. Wind noise intrusion in the Model 3, with its frameless doors and huge glazed expanses, is a bit of a vulnerability. It wouldn’t really bother you on a longer trip, but you’d notice it all right. 

Does the BMW handle better? Plainly so, but perhaps not by as much as you might expect, given its 300kg kerb weight advantage, which is a compliment to Tesla’s vehicle dynamicists. The 330i has a remarkably level of poise both when cornering and over bumps. It steers less directly than the Model 3 at first, but with greater linearity and mid-corner bite. It feels more neutral and engaging when accelerating out of a bend and more precise and communicative in its handling at all times. 

The Model 3 rolls only a little more but makes you feel every degree in your more lofty driving position and it also has more to do to rein in its body movements. It rides comfortably but ultimately the BMW is the more satisfying driver’s car by a decisive margin, although you probably do need to get out of town to appreciate it. 

Would any of that actually matter to a buyer, though? That’s what you find yourself puzzling when summing up what really separates these cars and seeking to pick a winner. To some, the Tesla’s electric motors and zero tailpipe emissions will be like a 50-yard head start in a 100-yard running race; from where, by the way, it’s more than good enough to sprint home in the lead. 

For others, the allowances and limitations necessarily associated with running an EV in daily use – and they’re still significant here, although they’re set to become less and less so – would rule it way out of contention. Because it depends so much on personal circumstance, nobody can tell you which side of that equation you’re on. You have to work it out for yourself. 

I can help a bit, perhaps. Over plenty of different test routes and driving styles and a good seven or eight hours of driving altogether, the energy efficiency of the Model 3 Performance averaged out at 2.8 miles per kWh: enough for 210 miles of usable range on a charge of its 75kWh battery. Drive exclusively for economy, at reduced pace, and you can just about put 300 miles between charges, but that means keeping the average speed below 50mph. We should point out, for the sake of balance, that this was from the Performance model on 20in rims and performance tyres, and Tesla’s Long Range derivatives might add 10-20% to that range, on the basis of relative US-market claims. 

Still, there are significantly cheaper EVs that go quite a bit further on a charge; and on that basis, even though the Tesla’s recharging network is now better, and improving faster, than ever before, it’d seem unjust to declare this the car to finally convince the majority that an EV could be as viable, usable and practical as one of the best, most broadly talented combustion-engined cars in the world. 

So no, Mr Miller, now is probably not quite the time for the average 3 Series owner to switch from BMW to Tesla. The simplest answer to your question would simply be to point out that it’s the job of the latest technology to make for a better car and, in the Model 3 at least, electric car technology hasn’t quite done that yet. Not in enough ways, at least. 

The time might well come soon, though; within the life cycle of these particular cars, considering the way that CO2 legislation is going. And I dare say many of those whose usage pattern would accommodate the switch already probably wouldn’t look back. 

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Comments
52

30 March 2019
Performance and space wise, this is a fair comparison. Though this article completely ignores one of the main reasons why people switch to a Model 3 from cars like the 3 Series: Hardware, software, over the air updates and safety.

30 March 2019
Sonic wrote:

Performance and space wise, this is a fair comparison. Though this article completely ignores one of the main reasons why people switch to a Model 3 from cars like the 3 Series: Hardware, software, over the air updates and safety.

You cant carry out repairs, recalls or warranty work over the air, and the Tesla might requre a drive longer than the range of a full charge to get to the nearest delaer, and then weeks to await those repairs to be carried out, no owner of any ICE vehicle would accept that. What is it about 15 dealership in the whole of the UK, and over half centred around London. 

31 March 2019
Citytiger wrote:

You cant carry out repairs, recalls or warranty work over the air, and the Tesla might requre a drive longer than the range of a full charge to get to the nearest delaer, and then weeks to await those repairs to be carried out, no owner of any ICE vehicle would accept that. What is it about 15 dealership in the whole of the UK, and over half centred around London. 

Indeed, but an EV is not a super complex machine compared to an ICE car which has a thousand plus more mechanical components which wear over time. If for whatever reason the car needs a specialist mechanic, Tesla use their own mobile van service. For major services, they collect your car and replace it with a loaner - you don't need to leave your house.

31 March 2019
Sonic wrote:
Citytiger wrote:

You cant carry out repairs, recalls or warranty work over the air, and the Tesla might requre a drive longer than the range of a full charge to get to the nearest delaer, and then weeks to await those repairs to be carried out, no owner of any ICE vehicle would accept that. What is it about 15 dealership in the whole of the UK, and over half centred around London. 

Indeed, but an EV is not a super complex machine compared to an ICE car which has a thousand plus more mechanical components which wear over time. If for whatever reason the car needs a specialist mechanic, Tesla use their own mobile van service. For major services, they collect your car and replace it with a loaner - you don't need to leave your house.

That just about sums up the problem in a nutshell, Tesla are reliant on ICE vehicles to recover or service yours.

Then of course there is the problem of repairs after an accident, and the fact it can take weeks or even months to complete due to lack of spares and loactions to carry them out. 

30 March 2019

Yes, EV Cars will rule the roads, and as the conclusion in the article said, it’s not now,when?, we’ll, a couple of years at a guess, paying around £40K for a Family Car is still for most out of reach,and yes ICE cars are getting cleaner but ultimately they need to go in favour of zero emissions Vehicles, and when they do, I’ll be in one if I want Transport, and it won’t be a new one because brand new there too expensive.

30 March 2019
Peter Cavellini wrote:

Yes, EV Cars will rule the roads, and as the conclusion in the article said, it’s not now,when?, we’ll, a couple of years at a guess, paying around £40K for a Family Car is still for most out of reach,and yes ICE cars are getting cleaner but ultimately they need to go in favour of zero emissions Vehicles, and when they do, I’ll be in one if I want Transport, and it won’t be a new one because brand new there too expensive.

Thats true, these are 40k cars when compared like for like, which isn't a normal family car price but the point of this exercise was to decide if a typical 3 series owner could now switch to a comparable model 3, and providing you can live with the ev range and use of charge stations, which is excellent for the tesla, I found the review concluded yes, as the ev was almost as good to drive, the same of which can be said of an a4, and almost as practical. Of course for now until more affordable long range evs are available, most people cant change just yet. Soon though.

30 March 2019
Peter Cavellini wrote:

Yes, EV Cars will rule the roads, and as the conclusion in the article said, it’s not now,when?, we’ll, a couple of years at a guess, paying around £40K for a Family Car is still for most out of reach,and yes ICE cars are getting cleaner but ultimately they need to go in favour of zero emissions Vehicles, and when they do, I’ll be in one if I want Transport, and it won’t be a new one because brand new there too expensive.

New family cars are pretty much there already. It's into the mid 30s for most interesting cars these days.

30 March 2019

Tesla fans are not gonna be happy be with this at all.

30 March 2019

You don't mention the big point, company car drivers who get the car funded for them but pay company car tax. Even in your own odd choice for comparision, the £40K BMW has a BIK of £10,500 and the £60K Tesla only £7000. Next year the Tesla would rise to 16% but...from 2020-2021 it drops to 2% so an annual BIK of £1200, whilst the BMW keeps rising to 29%So a 40% taxpaying Tesla driver wiould be £480 a year out of pocket, the same BMW driver £4640, ten times more! and thats depite a 20K more expensive Tesla.Now when £40K Model 3's finally get here, should be just in time for the bizarre governments rates drop for EV's from 2020. they will work out even cheaper, its going to look very attractive to company drivers with moderate range needs.

Why fork out the equavalent of a exotic family cruise holiday per year to the taxman for something with an engine that you have to wait for it to warm up and defrost in the morning and maybe 'handles' a bit better when you can keep the money and still have a fast smart EV car that does all you need?Of course this assumes we don't have another election and somehow Labour get in, they have made it clear company cars are a repungant sign of bourgeois decadence, ignoring the many that actually need them to do their job and they will hike the tax rates until peoples eyeballs bleed to punish the drivers for their exploitation of 'the workers'. Perhaps there will be breaks for people driving state approved Brown Ladas?

30 March 2019
Apologies for the errors above. This system seems to enjoy removing formatting and I am so used to Chrome spell checking and highlighting mistypes, I forget it doesn't work for some reason in the Autocar comments boxes.

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