From £39,9908

The most affordable Tesla yet is tempting on the face of it, so should you yield or resist?

In many respects, the Tesla Model 3 is the car Tesla always wanted to build when the company was formed in 2003. A relatively low-cost, high-volume electric car that promised to be as easy to use and enjoyable to drive as its internal-combustion rivals.

Indeed, the compact executive saloon has gone on to become one of the best-selling EVs the world over. In fact, in the UK, it has even topped the monthly sales charts outright on occassion, although that's as much to do with Tesla flooding the market with new arrivals all in one go when boatloads of its cars arrive on Southampton docks.

Either way, the Model 3 has the kind of appeal that started to wean the world off internal combustion for good. And while it effectively started its life in a class of one, today's highly updated Model 3, often referred to as the Highland, goes toe-to-toe with major manufacturers, primarily in the form of the BMW i4 and Hyundai Ioniq 6. But upstarts such as the BYD Seal are also increasingly becoming sparring partners for the American firm.

As the number of worthwhile alternatives continues to grow, is the Model 3 still the ultimate choice for everyday electric driving? Find out below as we test drive the heavily updated Model 3.

Range at a glance

At the moment, the range consists of just two models: the standard Rear-Wheel Drive with a WLTP range of 344 miles and the dual-motor, All-Wheel Drive Long Range with 421 miles.

The entry-level model Rear-Wheel Drive starts from just under £40,000. This unlocks the stellar electric range already mentioned, as well as single motor powertrain that will complete the 0-60mph sprint in 5.8sec.

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The Long Range ups the stakes with two motors and more power (although how much more is hard to say, as Tesla refuses to divulge any figures), clocking 0-60mph in a sports car-baiting 4.2sec.

Top-of-the-range Performance models have yet to be announced, but we expect them to arrive at a later date with a 0-62mph time starting with a 3 and a range that falls between that of the Rear-Wheel Drive and Long Range.

02 Tesla Model 3 Highland FD 2023 alt front

Tesla’s goal has been to ensure the Model 3 is “smaller, simpler and more affordable” than the Model S. So this car doesn’t use air springs or adaptive dampers. Instead, you will find a passively damped coil spring at each corner, although the suspension itself is of a double-wishbone design at the front axle and five-link rear – the expensive, favoured set-up of traditional sporting saloons.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the almost entirely aluminium Model S, the Model 3’s body-in-white consists of mainly high-strength steel. Several exterior panels – notably the bonnet, boot, doors and roof – are made of aluminium, though, and this contributes to a reasonably low kerb weight.

Aesthetically, the updated car features sleeker headlights that are now powerful enough to make the foglights redundant, so they’ve been removed. Doing so has freed up space for the bumper to be reshaped in order to reduce drag and boost efficiency. In fact, Tesla claims these changes have delivered a slippery drag figure of just 0.22Cd, which boosts efficiency and is also said have a beneficial impact on cutting wind noise.

At the back, the rear lights are now C-shaped and integrated into the bootlid while the badge has been replaced with ‘Tesla’ lettering. The reverse lights are now located low down on the bumper. The red and grey paint choices have been updated slightly and the wheel designs have been tweaked to be even more aerodynamically efficient.

There’s some good old-fashioned aggression provided by the frowning headlights, too, and with a grille-less front bumper, the nose has something of a grimace about it. Note how low the nose is. Without an engine, Tesla has been able to capitalise on packaging and nowhere is this more apparent than the cabin.

08 Tesla Model 3 Highland FD 2023 dashboard

As an example of how the principles of minimalism can be applied to the field of automotive interior design, you needn’t look much further than the Model 3. So extreme are the lengths to which Tesla’s designers have gone to remove as much switchgear from its cabin as possible that you can count the number of physical controls on one hand. 

Crucially, for the latest car the column stalks have been consigned to the bin, with the indicators now operated from a touchpad on one of the steering wheel spokes and the wipers activated via the infotainment screen. No doubt these changes saved a few pennies in the production process, but they were clearly signed off by someone who thinks indicating on a roundabout is optional or that sudden downpours give you a few moments notice to fumble through a sub-menu.

The Model 3’s interior has also been upgraded in terms of materals and finish as part of the latest facelift, mostly to make it feel more upmarket. Overall the updates have worked, the Tesla finally having the premium chops to rival its upmarket combatants.

For instance, you can now personalise the top panel of the dashboard with inserts in a different colour or material, such as a grey textured fabric. The cupholders have gained a sliding lid, while an almost endlessly customisable strip of ambient lighting runs along the upper section of the doors and continues along the top of the dashboard. Crucially, it all feels more solidly screwed together, with almost none of the creaks and rattles that could afflict the old Model 3.

Elsewhere, oddment storage is plentiful and a combined luggage space of 682 litres (split between a small compartment at the front, the 'frunk' and a traditional rear boot) is certainly usable enough and more than the 480 litres you get from an ICE BMW 3 Series.

Two adults will fit in the second row in reasonable comfort, too. Vegan leather and glossy piano black trim do a convincing job of lifting the Model 3’s material appeal, but there’s still work to be done to truly match the best that AudiBMW and Mercedes-Benz have to offer.

The enormous, 15.4in touchscreen slap-bang in the middle of the pared-back, slimline dashboard is used to control and adjust practically every aspect of the Model 3. From the wing mirrors, to the steering wheel position, to the sat-nav, headlights, cruise control and windscreen wipers – all are operated through screen or thumb-wheels on the steering-wheel spokes.

There’s no instrument binnacle, either. That job has also been given to the touchscreen, which means an awkward glance to the left (in right-hand drive cars) to get a look at your speed.

Such an approach to cabin architecture does take some getting used to. But once you’ve learned your way around the various sub-menus and figured out what everything does, it works well enough – if not perfectly. By using the screen not only as a means of controlling most of the car’s features but also as a medium for displaying important driving information, there is inevitably a heightened need to remove your eyes from the road that isn’t always comfortable.

Multimedia system

As you’d expect from a Tesla, its infotainment system feels as though it has been lifted straight out of Silicon Valley. The 15.4in screen may seem almost comically large, but credit where it’s due: it’s difficult not to be impressed by the quality of its graphics and the slick manner in which it operates.

Unlike with rival systems, you rarely need to tap twice to access a function or menu, while on the whole the layout is logical and easy to follow, which is a good thing when you consider it’s used to operate everything from the windscreen wipers to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Even so, a few physical control for the most frequently used functions wouldn't go amiss.

At least it isn’t short on toys, not in the literal sense at least. In addition to features such as sat-nav, Bluetooth and DAB radio – the sort of things you’d expect from a circa-£40,000 compact saloon – there are some more, let’s say surprising, features. Such as a digital whoopee cushion and a full suite of arcade-style games. The genuinely useful Apple CarPlay and Android Auto remain absent, however.

For the latest version of the Model 3, rear-seat passengers can get in on the infotainment action, thanks to the addition of an 8.0in touchscreen mounted between the front seats. From here occupants can adjust the air-con as well as access various multimedia functions. Moreover, there are also a pair of 65W USB-C ports that allow rapid charging of devices from smartphones to laptops.

15 Tesla Model 3 Highland FD 2023 performance

The car launches from standing on a wide open throttle in surprisingly smooth and contained fashion, without ever threatening to break traction but also with plenty of gathering urgency. Once rolling, it accrues speed towards the national limit very strongly and it feels much more potent at times than even its generous power- and torque-to-weight figures would promise, since it responds so crisply and stoutly the instant you dig into the accelerator.

Real-world pace, in its richest supply from everyday speeds, plainly isn’t something that most Model 3 owners are going to want for. If this powertrain isn’t to be found supremely appealing for keen drivers, then, it will probably be because it’s so quiet, eerily smooth and inevitably a bit characterless. Given the athleticism that the car can command, it does seem odd that Tesla didn’t add a choice of switchable ‘engine noises’ among all the other novelty digital features. In fact, there's so much pace on offer that for most the standard Rear-Wheel Drive version should be as quick as anyone ever needs to go, zapping from 0-60mph in 5.8sec.

Brake pedal progression is very good by EV standards, so it’s not at all hard to slow the car precisely and smoothly. A sophisticated method of cycling the car’s regenerative braking calibrations is the only thing really conspicuous by its absence in the driving experience. When other EVs offer one – and by doing so make it possible both to better engage with the car when driving quickly and to eke out better energy efficiency when driving gently – the Model 3 plainly should as well. Even so, the Tesla's single one-pedal mode is nicely tuned, allowing you to to complete most journeys witout ever having to use the friction brakes.

17 Tesla Model 3 Highland FD 2023 front cornering

It’s an interesting sign of what’s to come in this section to observe that the Model 3 steers, in some ways, like a mid-engined supercar. You can argue that it probably shouldn’t, that such directional sensitivity makes the car more demanding to drive than Tesla’s self-proclaimed “world’s first truly mass-market electric vehicle” ought to be.

And we’ll come to that. But whatever you think about it, with just under two full turns between extremes of steering lock and a usefully tight turning circle as well, the Model 3 really does feel as rampantly agile, up to certain speeds, as something built very expensively in Emilia-Romagna.

But the Model 3 doesn’t weigh what a Ferrari, a Pagani or a Lamborghini weighs, and wherever it hides away the majority of that mass, you can feel its influence in almost every move that the car makes. So although the front axle bites into a bend almost the instant you move the wheel off dead-centre and the firmly set suspension resists body roll very effectively, it takes an instant or two for the car to settle into a cornering stance and feel stable enough to allow you to begin driving it out.

The quick steering is surprisingly sensitive (to sneeze on the motorway is to change lanes, various driver aids permitting of course) and there’s very little in the way of feedback, regardless of whether you select Comfort or Sport mode. It means the Tesla turns in keenly with strong front end bite, while the pendulous effect of its hefty mechanical components helps mid-corner rotation if you have a small lift of the throttle.

But there’s not enough feel from the controls or ultimate body control to make this a truly sparkling sports saloon, while the electronic safety net kills any throttle adjustability as soon as slip is detected. The BMW i4 eDrive40 is a more balanced and biddable electric saloon.

Yet row back on your commitment, calm your inputs and there’s satisfaction to be had from scribing smooth shapes from corner entry to exit to make swift cross-country progress.

Assisted driving notes

Autopilot will centre the car within its lane, maintain a chosen speed, regulate distance to the car in front and perform lane changes automatically. The system asks you to keep a hand on the wheel at all times, but oddly it requires no input of physical effort from the driver at all and is prone to deactivation if you do attempt to steer the car slightly.

It can also overreact to the presence of other cars around you in traffic that it has only just detected, making the car sweep to the far side of its lane or, worse, abandon an automatic lane change halfway through. Handover of control from car back to driver is communicated quite poorly as well.

Comfort and isolation

Eerily strong performance is a dynamic trait we now all expect of an EV, but noisy rolling refinement certainly isn’t. However, owners of early Model 3s were likely to have been be disappointed by how much road roar the stiffly set suspension conducts into the cabin, and how much high-frequency audible buzz the car’s body structure can generate on a rough surface.

For the revised car, engineers have worked hard to address the NVH issues, and while the Model 3 still trails the best it's a vast improvement over its predecessor. Acoustic glass combines with the lower drag body to help reduce wind noise, while retuned rubber bushes in the suspension and low noise EV tyres have helped cut road roar. As a result, the current machine is a much more relaxing long distance companion, even if traditional ICE models such as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class are more hushed.

The updated bushings are joined by subtly revised geometry and new wheel and tyres in a bid to smooth out the car's previously stiff-legged ride. But it hasn't made much of a difference. The ride comfort is below par for suppleness and bump absorption over less than smooth roads. Here, the firm suspension springing makes the body busy and fidgety. However, ultimate body control is retained and handling security isn’t compromised, while the quieter suspension helps disguise some of the firmness.

01 Tesla Model 3 Highland FD 2023 lead front corner

We've yet to come across a similarly priced EV that’s a genuine match for the Tesla in terms of its desirability and drivability. Now the Model 3 can add superior range to its list of credits, even in the entry-level Rear-Wheel Drive version. Our drive in the latest car delivered a decent efficiency figure of 3.7mpkWh during a route that included everything from brisk motorway use through to stop-start urban crawl and spirited back-road blast. Assuming a usable battery capacity of 57.5kWh, that works out to 213 miles of real-world range.

As ever, the Model 3 also has a massive advantage up its sleeve: access to a network of reliable and accessible public rapid chargers in addition to all the third-party rapid chargers. Of course, Tesla's Supercharger network remains the car’s default choice and is what the sat-nav will automatically guide you to if you don’t have enough range to complete your journey. But there’s no apparent penalty for using another network, and plugged into a 350kW Ionity charger, the Model 3 was still adding 300 miles of range per hour of charge.

The updated Model 3's starting price of £39,990 makes every vaguely comparable rival look expensive, but there are a few catches. Don't want white? That'll be at least £1300 for blue or black. Want the nice 19in wheels in the pictures? That'll be £1500. White interior? £1100.

PCP finance also isn't especially kind to the Model 3. With £6000 down, a three-year deal comes out as £619 per month for a base model through Tesla's own finance calculator. By contrast, a Hyundai Ioniq 6 with a list price of £47,040 is £488 on the same terms.

19 Tesla Model 3 Highland FD 2023 verdict

Tesla’s phenomenal rise has already delivered big success for the Model 3. The positioning of the car alone has seen to that. In the UK, it comes in at less than £40,000. But there is much more to the Model 3 than a Tesla badge at an affordable price. Even in the current cheapest, lowliest form, the car combines truly realistic and practical usability with competitive saloon car practicality, really striking performance and handling dynamism that doesn’t lack anything for the want of ambition.

It’s still no dynamic high-water mark, and the ergonomic eccentricities do grate, but it's an enjoyable thing to rub along with on a daily basis and remains the American firm’s most complete offering. That’s especially the case of this entry-level version, which offers a compelling blend of pace, poise and usuability. Quality improvements also mean it feels like the premium offering the brand has always claimed it to be, while there's no faulting the amount of standard kit on offer, from the impressive 17-speaker stereo through to the heated and vented seats.

Tesla Model 3 First drives