Tesla’s dual-motor, 450-horsepower Model 3 Performance has a new Track Mode. We took it to Lime Rock Park to see how much hot-lapping this electric sport sedan can really handle.
It started, as so many things do these days, with a tweet. Tesla CEO Elon Musk uses Twitter the way most of us use our inner-monologue voice. Thoughts leave the top of his head and plop in front of his 22.3 million followers with no steps in between.
They seemingly come without warning. It’s easy to imagine a Musk tweet catching the folks who work for his car company—or his rocket company, his solar panel company, his brain-computer interface company or his tunnel digging company—completely off-guard. You envision engineers, designers and public-relations managers leaping into action, trying to figure out what the eccentric billionaire industrialist is talking about now, how his latest statement will affect the thousands of hard-working people he employs. Or at least, that’s how we see it.
Those off-the-cuff tweets can lead to real-world outcomes. Like the car you see here—the Tesla Model 3 Performance, with 450 horsepower, 471 lb-ft of torque and dual-motor all-wheel drive. Hidden in a menu on its center-dash touchscreen, this particular car has a new Track Mode that gives it capabilities no previous Tesla has offered. Gearheads within Tesla had been dying to add such a feature for years. When Musk unexpectedly tweeted about how this car would spank its most noted rival on track, the team saw it as full permission to get the feature ready for rollout.
Why, which Musk tweet did you think I was talking about?
So when Tesla informed us that its new car would have a dedicated driving mode for track use, we arranged a meetup at Lime Rock Park, America’s oldest continually-operating road course.
The short answer is: No, you can’t run laps all day long at qualifying speed. But there’s much more to it than that.
You’ll need sharp eyes to distinguish the Performance model from lesser Model 3s. It sits slightly lower on new 300-treadwear Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, 235/35 on 20-inch wheels all around. The brakes are bigger, 14 inch two-piece bimetal rotors and four-piston fixed calipers up front. The bodywork is nearly unchanged. A small decklid spoiler and a tantalizing “DUAL MOTOR” badge are the only giveaways.
Fast Teslas have been around for years
The novelty of near-silent supercar acceleration? It still hasn’t worn off. A Musk non-negotiable demands that every Tesla should launch from a dig “without event,” never squealing its tires. Somehow, you don’t miss the rubber howl. The Model 3 Performance just explodes forward instantaneously the moment you toe the pedal. It makes the traditional notion of “throttle response”—waiting for air and fuel to be drawn into combustion chambers, burned, and exhausted, all building up to a gradual increase in rotational speed of a reciprocating system—seem woefully quaint.
That’s all great fun on the street. But acceleration alone won’t get you around a race track.
Most days, the woods around the track echo with the sounds of dead dinosaurs sacrificed to speed. Not today. As I pull out of the pits in the Model 3 Performance, the silence is eerie. With no engine noise, all I hear is the grainy rumble of the tire treads gripping the pavement, cut through on occasion by the faint high-pitched skeeeee of the electric motors under hard acceleration.
The standard, rear-drive Model 3 I tested earlier this year was a joy on winding country roads. The hefty battery pack is slung beneath the seats and between the axles, putting the car’s center of gravity roughly level with the driver’s elbows. That, plus a delightfully quick and talkative steering rack, makes Tesla’s smallest sedan corner intuitively, with excellent suspension compliance and minimal body roll.
The dual-motor Performance model doesn’t mess with the original recipe. Ride height is down 10mm, but spring and damper rates are nearly identical. The Michelin tires use a tread design and rubber compound selected specifically for this vehicle. Turn-in is crisper than on the base Model 3, and the car invokes its polyurethane bump stops a little sooner in hard cornering. It’s the same familiar, charming Model 3 behavior, but sharpened.
It’s working, but the car’s street-oriented safety systems have other plans. Hauling down from triple digits at the end of the straightaway, the steering wheel judders with ABS that lasts well into trail braking. The Performance version weighs 4037 lbs, some 227 lbs heavier than the rear-drive model, but it’s distributed 50/50 front-to-rear. Working the mass to balance the car is easy. But any whiff of yaw brings out the invisible hand of stability control to steady the chassis.
Time to pit in and push the button we came here to push. The one labeled Track Mode.
Let’s acknowledge one thing right now: We had two Performance Model 3s at our disposal during our day of track testing at Lime Rock. This ensured that R&T‘s Digital Director Travis Okulski and I each got ample time behind the wheel. It backstopped us against track day unpredictabilities like scorched tires or cooked brakes, neither of which happened. And yes, it had something to do with battery life. We’ll get to that.
Ed. Note: While the track was relatively dry during our acceleration and braking tests, it began pouring rain during our lapping sessions. Due to these inconsistent conditions, we did not measure lap times.
Tesla is still working on the final calibration of Track Mode. While both vehicles had this feature enabled, the second car carried a newer version of the software, beamed down via over-the-air update the day before our track outing. I was assured the version we tested was nearly identical to what customers will receive when the option goes public sometime soon.
To understand what this new mode does, you need to forget most of what you know about typical stability and traction control systems. “Our Track Mode doesn’t disable features, it adds them,” Michael Neumeyer, Manager of Chassis Controls, told me.
Think of how this car’s dual-motor all-wheel drive system works. Torque output from the front and rear motors is constantly finessed by the car’s computer controllers, reacting instantaneously to traction conditions and driver demands. It’s akin to a modern fly-by-wire fighter jet—no computers, no go. This car’s driveline, chassis and dynamic control systems are all intertwined. You can’t just “turn off” traction control. (We learned this when we coaxed a rear-drive Model 3 into doing some donuts earlier this year. The car was not happy.)
Neumeyer and team programed the vehicle dynamic control system in-house to make Track Mode possible. This mode pushes the margins of stability control farther away. (Note: Track Mode does not alter acceleration performance; the Model 3 Performance does not have a launch mode or Ludicrous acceleration setting.) But more importantly, it does some tricky things with the car’s regenerative braking.
It also gives the Model 3 Performance a nifty trick no other Tesla can do: Lift-throttle oversteer, coded right into the software. In Track Mode, the regenerative braking is increased significantly—up to 0.3g of deceleration, compared to a max of 0.2g in street trim. When you lift in a corner, the regen tosses all the weight forward, loading up the front axle. The rear tires, now regenerating under much less weight, break loose. The stability control looks the other way. Presto! Oversteer.
At this point, if you were to, say, nail the accelerator, the system would overdrive the front axle motor, powering the front tires to pull you neatly out of the corner in a controlled return to the line. You’ll kill me for saying it, but this sport sedan has the same toss and catch that makes the best front-drive hot hatches such a joy to hustle—bolstered by no-joke instant horsepower and the predictability of vectoring all-wheel drive.
The car minimizes distraction. With no engine noise to out-shout everything, and no concerns over shift points or powerband, you can focus on the most elemental part of track driving: The tires. I’ve never had such a clear understanding of the millisecond changes in front-end grip through a corner. You hear, and feel, everything going on at the contact patches, even at 100-plus. Pushing wide through Turn 1? Dab in a little regen, load up that front axle, and get ready to rotate. Feeling light over Lime Rock’s puckering Uphill? You’ll hear it, and correct for it, at a level you’ve never experienced in a bellowing internal-combustion car.
At full speed, each lap of the 1.5-mile circuit burned up about nine miles of battery range during our testing. Lime Rock Park has just installed a passel of 240V Level 2 Tesla chargers at its facility—not Superchargers, but the kind of residential charger that will fill your Tesla’s battery from dead in about six to eight hours. So, having plugged in overnight and immediately hit the track with a full 310 miles of range, we could have run just over 30 full-speed laps before needing to unspool the extension cord. Right?
This linked approach to thermal management means that, unlike previous Teslas, track driving won’t lead to a total performance shutdown when one component’s temperature spikes. Battery and motors heat up at the same rate; when the car starts approaching its thermal limits, it dials back power gradually, until the heat output can be managed by the car’s cooling capability.
And you can keep lapping through it. The car’s power output plateaus, the cooling system reaches a steady state. You’re more than welcome to continue in this condition until you’ve drained the batteries. You’ll miss some of the hard punch of acceleration coming out of the corners, but you end up driving it like a momentum car. It’s still a ton of fun.
Our experience matched his predictions. After three or four laps, the hard slap of the Performance Model 3’s acceleration slowly began to dissipate. It was always gradual, workable, not a sudden loss or change of performance. A few cooldown laps—or 20 minutes parked in the pits while we ran our backup car—and the thing would bounce right back to full power, no drama involved.
Is this a limitation? Sure. But it’s one we’ve experienced in plenty of internal-combustion cars. At our Performance Car of the Year testing last year in summertime heat, our particular Honda Civic Type R could only hold on for two laps of NCM Motorsports Park before overheating and going into limp-home mode. An Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio that our man Sam Smith tested at Gingerman Raceway fell on its face on its first full-speed lap, multiple times. (Alfa Romeo later explained that the car we tested was missing some crucial software updates.) A new Mustang GT with Performance Package 2 will start to overheat its differential after a handful of laps at a typical circuit. Ford figures if you wanted a track car, you’d have gone with the GT350. And remember the well-documented track day overheating problems of the Corvette Z06?
There are, of course, drawbacks. After an entire morning of track laps and hooning around Lime Rock’s autocross and skidpad, our two Model 3s each had less than 40 miles of battery range left. Making the 110-mile drive back to my home in Brooklyn, NY meant plugging into one of Lime Rock’s chargers for an hour while I grabbed lunch, then pit stopping at the first Supercharger on my route home. The situation was never dire, but it required a bit more forward planning than simply GPSing the nearest gas station.
And I get it: Nobody outside the car magazine business is going to bring two cars to a track day and hot-swap drivers to keep lapping. Especially not when they cost $78,000 each, as happens when you order a $64,000 Performance Dual Motor Model 3 with the $5000 Performance Upgrade, $5000 Enhanced Autopilot, and the ritziest paint and interior options.
In that context, the Tesla Model 3 Performance does a realistic job of delivering impressive numbers and unbeatable feel. It’s quick, it’s tossable, and unlike everything your garage buddies told you, it won’t melt at the mere whisper of a full-speed lap. It’s a compelling argument for feelsome, charming electric cars. No surprise, given who built it: Neumeyer’s garage includes a BMW 2002 and a Porsche 912, while Moravy wrenches on vintage Volvos in his off time.
What they’ve created along with the entire Tesla team is the world’s first electric sport sedan with bona fide race track chops. That’s important for electric car technology, for motorsports culture, and for the future of the automotive hobby as a whole.
It’s almost enough to make you thankful for Twitter.