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One of the hottest EVs in Oz demolishes Mount Buffalo

By Ash Westerman | Photos: Ellen Dewar, 04 Apr 2020 Features

2020 Tesla Model 3 Performance

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A real artisan of a wheelman, piloting a potent rear-driver like, say a Merc-AMG C63 S or an Alfa Giulia QV, could sure unleash a noisy, flamboyant flourish on a road like this. The climb to the summit of Mount Buffalo in the Victorian Alps is only 21km long, and the gradient never kicks much harder than around eight percent, but plenty of the tight turns have good sightlines, and the road, built in 1908 and still in excellent health, offers an intuitive rhythm in which to find a fast groove. Get up early, mid-week, as we have, and you’ll beat the slow-grinding lycra-ites and have the place to yourself.

I’m about as artistic as Mr Squiggle with a skinful, so my first run in this American-built EV disruptor is less of an expression session; instead this car reveals itself a glinting, tempered steel blade, enabling you to slash, clean and clinical, like a near-silent ninja. Holy crap, it is fast.

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2020 Tesla Model 3 Performance

We’re in the top-spec Model 3 Performance, claiming outputs of 353kW and 639Nm, but the torque feels like much more. We know that twisting force from an electric motor is delivered differently to that of an internal-combustion engine, and this thing is giving me a graphic demonstration of that. With no ratios to shuffle through, and no boost to keep on the boil, the acceleration feels instantaneous and relentless. We’re firing uphill, but even with a claimed 1847kg to haul, this $92,900 mid-sizer seems energised by the task of soundlessly inhaling the ribbon of twisting bitumen like a class-A narcotic.

I brake as late and hard as I dare for the first hairpin at about the 4.5km mark, cautious that the bitumen is still cool from the crisp dawn and the shade of the snow gums. There’s virtually zero dive, just belt-straining retardation from the combination of big Brembos and adhesive Michelin Pilot Sport 4s. The steering is ultra-quick at 2.0 turns lock-to-lock, so no need to shuffle hands, just quickly roll the wrists over, glance for the exit, and feed the throttle in hard from somewhere approximating an early apex. There’s a chirp of understeer, but then just a borderline brutal unleashing of torque, so searingly delivered it would make even a twin-turbo V8 feel fleshy. It’s enough to make the rear end wriggle and squeal in protest, but the brain has barely registered this before the torrent of acceleration demands full concentration for the next bend that’s being sucked towards us like we’re in some kind of hyperloop vacuum.

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2020 Tesla Model 3 Performance

Can this slightly dumpy-looking four-door really be so stunningly quick? Is the lack of any mechanical soundtrack messing with my mind, distorting the sensation of speed? Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Don’t loud cars feel faster? I thought I had a basic handle on EV performance, but this is the future, after all, so maybe it’s okay to be just a little confused.

But not on all levels. The drive along the Hume from Melbourne to the foothills of the Victorian Alps is a chance to really try and connect with this car in a touring role, and it does require some familiarisation. Before I attempt to get to grips with the does-everything touchscreen, I notice how the seats feel a bit squishy for a performance car, and there’s little under-thigh support. The tinted, fixed-glass roof is great at night, but punishingly hot under an Aussie sun, forcing the air-con to work harder. Whoever insisted that no blind be fitted needs a slap with a hot thong, especially as the vast black dash-top section also acts like a heat sink. Trim materials, too, are dour-looking and feel cheap. On the upside, storage is generous, and the audio system stunningly punchy and detailed. Just a shame it has to contend with a fair degree of coarse-chip noise from the 20-inch Michelins, which largely negates the electric NVH advantages over ICE when cruising. Where’s the in-cabin active noise cancelling, Elon?

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2020 Tesla Model 3 Performance

The banishing of all buttons and switches except for the two multi-function controllers on the wheel won’t be to everyone’s taste, but you have to acknowledge that at least the design team had a clear vision as to what they wanted to achieve, in terms of a full rethink of how a customer interacts with their car. 

The NEDC range for the 3 Performance is 560km, but we’re on track for more like 390km when we make it to the four Tesla Superchargers in the car park of our accommodation at the Happy Valley pub in the tiny town of Ovens. Our car has a charging account applied to it, and we’ve downloaded the app, so it’s a simple case of plugging in then going for a coffee while the electrons flow – 20 minutes if we’d been happy to take it to 80 percent, but we wait 40 minutes to brim the batteries to 95 percent, which is the new 100 percent, if you’re fast-charging. Yeah, ‘the future’, and all that.

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2020 Tesla Model 3 Performance

RECENT SPRING RAIN HAS given this region a bucolic postcard quality, and any of the roads leading to either Mount Beauty, or to the ski resorts of Mount Hotham or Falls Creek, will sate the keen driver. But the hot tip is that Mount Buffalo is quieter at this time of year, and so it proves.

The climb starts at the now-defunct toll booth at the entrance of the Mount Buffalo National Park just a few kays from the town of Porepunkah. Flatten the throttle from standstill and 100km/h whips past in a claimed 3.4sec, though it’s the rolling response that’s just as startling – try 80-120km/h in a whisper over 2.0sec.

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2020 Tesla Model 3 Performance

But the chassis composure will also get your attention. The fixed-rate dampers aren’t ultra-stiff, but the low, centralised mass makes the car feel super-planted and predictable. Unless Track mode is selected, it’s not what you’d call playful; there’s just so much traction from the incredible power-down ability of the dual-motor set-up. More steering feel would be nice, but the speed and sensitivity of the rack is brilliant, and with so little roll, and the lack of dive or squat, your hard-driving confidence rises to the next level. Eventually the raw speed at which you arrive into braking zones will start to soften the stopper pedal, but otherwise this thing is happy to be ragged like a Doberman’s soft toy. 

We pause to give ourselves and the brakes a breather at the Mount Buffalo chalet, perched on the top of Bents Lookout. Constructed back in 1910 with public works funding, the vast timber building was Australia’s first ski resort, and once buzzed as a winter playground. It closed in 2007, so I wander across the road for a moment of reflection from the Echo Point lookout, which takes in the mountain’s plunging granite cliffs and the lush, fertile Ovens Valley below.

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2020 Tesla Model 3 Performance

I’m frankly a bit head-scrambled by this car, wrestling to rank it for driving thrills and satisfaction against vaguely comparable ICE sports sedans. Is a crucial element – the aural thrill and stimulation of engine and exhaust – missing? Yes. Does the lack of a soundtrack detract from the pleasure? Yeah, for me it does. Then there’s the lack of a conventional gearbox, yet another typical prerequisite of ‘involvement’. Yet somehow the absence of these things does seem to tighten the focus wheel on the other elements of driving fast. Maybe it’s like the blind guy who develops a heightened sense of smell and hearing. You become even more deeply immersed in the process of car placement; of nailing braking points, of loading the outside tyres, and chasing the throttle ever earlier.

As car enthusiasts, I reckon we can all agree that nothing will ever replace the full-senses immersion of wicking a truly analogue performance car on a favourite road. Glorious noise, stick shifts and feelsome steering is immune to obsolescence. So I’m sure plenty of you will look at the Model 3 Performance and not care how quick and capable it is; you’ll dismiss it as some kind of digitised facsimile of true sports driving; a 1:1 Scalextric experience.

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2020 Tesla Model 3 Performance

And that’s okay. I’m still trying to fully reconcile how I feel about it on an emotive level. But on a rational level, my overriding take-out is one of admiration for how this car nails its brief. Tesla has copped plenty of disdain, and with the Elon on Twitter sideshow, often with ample justification. However, use this car as intended – as a seamless, quiet five-seater that rides with reasonable compliance as it glides around the suburbs, then as a backroad demolition machine, theoretically powered by green renewable energy – and, well, you’re a tough critic if you can’t bow to its achievement.

We pause for more photography in the fold of the Cresta Valley, the idle ski-lift infrastructure looking dinky and dated. Towering above us, catching the last of the afternoon light, are the spectacular granite formations of the summit known as The Horn. These huge ancient boulders, many the size of a VW Transporter, seem knitted together by the stonemasons of the gods. They’ve sat like this for hundreds of millions of years, from when a rupturing mantle pushed them out of the Earth’s crust. They’re a reminder of the awesome potency of heat and compression and force; the very same formula engineers have harnessed for over 150 years to create internal combustion.

2020 Tesla Model 3 Performance

Fittingly, the Tesla Model 3 points in the opposite direction as the shutter clicks. 

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-BREAKOUT-

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Expect to hear more about ‘over-the-air’ upgrades as the EV revolution advances. Tesla boasts that it is constantly improving not just functionality but also performance. The company’s VP of Technology, Drew Baglino, says: “We’re continuing to learn how to optimise the motor control systems in our vehicles. Thanks to an upgrade to firmware, Model 3 customers can soon expect a five percent performance improvement, and about three percent for S and X models.”

 2020 Tesla Model 3 Performance

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