The modified Tesla Model 3 is faster than the Porsche GT3 RS

Tesla Model 3 Full Overview

For some, shares were never enough. Decades of hot rodents, idlers, low trails, rats, and everything in between have shaped rich and enduring cultures centered around car modification. But with the inevitable age of electrification looming, there are those who believe we face an existential threat to the future of the enthusiasm for cars themselves.

We have to admit ourselves a bit terrified. But after a day reaching the top and traveling at triple-digit speeds behind the wheel of a track-ready Tesla Model 3 – the Unplugged Performance Ascension R – we’re feeling a lot better about what those who love to drive and tune can expect as the electric vehicle revolution gradually takes hold.

Old tuners, new tricks

We got our chance to beat the Ascension R at Buttonwillow Raceway in California during a Tesla Corsa track day organized by Unplugged Performance. The Tesla Corsa is a Tesla-exclusive series that, according to Unplugged founder Ben Schaffer, “creates the slightest barrier to entry for anyone with a Tesla to test their vehicle on the track.”

The team behind Unplugged Performance is nothing new to the mod game. Schaefer began importing Japanese auto parts in 2000. “In those early stages I was trying to get paid to go to the track, so I sold parts to do that, and I turned my hobby into a business,” he said. That business is Bulletproof Automotive, which offers a range of components for tuner favorites such as the Nissan GT-R, Subaru WRX, and Toyota 86.

At Bulletproof Automotive, Schafer said, “We’ve built a client base of people who are going to go to the track and drive down the street with modified Japanese cars.” In Unplugged Performance, the cars are different, but the thinking isn’t: They create competition-ready Teslas but retain real-world appeal. Unplugged got up from what Schaffer noted was a Teslas aftermarket void that he was meant to help fill. “In hindsight, everything makes sense,” Schafer said. “What we’re doing now to advocate for EV tuning – especially when there was no one on our side to defend it – is similar to what I did 20 years ago with Japanese cars.” In 2014, the Tesla Model S from Unplugged became the first Tesla car ever shown at SEMA.

Enthusiasm motivates Schaeffer: “There is joy in sharing something you love. Building a community around shared feelings is my passion. With how divided the world is, the things that connect us are becoming more special.” In fact, electric cars have been a source of division among car enthusiasts. But as the Ascension R shows, it’s also a place where they can align their interests around something great to drive.

Like a rocket: Unplugged Performance Ascension R 3

At this point, it should come as no surprise that Teslas cars are little more than electric park tractors. As a finalist in two Car of the Year competitions, 2018 and 2020, we praised the Model 3’s “laser-like control” as “the best sports sedan on the market.” And it’s still fast—in the twin-engine performance spec, the Model 3’s 450-hp, 471-lb-ft engine shoots it to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds.

Improving greatness is a welcome challenge from Unplugged Performance. “Stock Model 3s are amazingly capable and only get better when you modify them,” Schafer said. Named in honor of SpaceX, Tesla’s cousin and Unplugged Performance’s neighbor in Los Angeles, the Ascension R was extensively built and tuned to perform on the right track. After daily driving the focus remains.

Basic aerodynamic principles trouble range-sensitive electric vehicles – more downforce equals more drag equals less charge mileage. Thus, the Ascension R toolkit is intended to be as functional as it is aesthetic. “What matters for a car like this is not just making downforce, but making clean downforce,” Schafer said. Working with aerodynamics and computational fluid dynamics scientists, Unplugged Performance increases the car’s downforce with minimal drag penalty. In-line acceleration and efficiency remain within 1 percent of the stock model 3. Among the Ascension R’s carbon-fiber body parts is a Koenigsegg-made front splitter. Distinctive fenders are also designed around the precisely calibrated sensors that enable the Tesla’s driver assistance capabilities.

Rolling stock is another area that could significantly affect the range of electric vehicles, and the Yokohama Advan A052 Ascension R’s wide, sticky tires certainly weren’t chosen for efficiency. It’s common for Tesla Corsa attendees to drive to and from the event on street wheels and tires, with a track inside the car, said Eddie Castellan, director of motorsports at Unplugged Performance. “The only two things you have to worry about are the charge level and tire pressure – very simple,” said Castellane.

In one of our previous Model 3 experiences, Tesla saw fit to outfit the car with track brake pads. Unplugged performance goes further by toggling the front brake setup for the 15.5-inch carbon-ceramic rotors that are bitten by six-piston calipers, along with track-focused pads on the rear iron rotors. Given those changes to the frictional braking system, the Ascension R can decelerate hard without relying on the car’s regenerative braking. Since the Regen drives heat into the powertrain, Schafer said many Tesla Corsa drivers prefer to run without it so the battery stays cooler during the session. A cooler battery delivers more consistent power. The team also chose brake pads that don’t require high heat to function, keeping the Ascension R easy to use in the real world, where the driver might want to rejuvenate.

More than anything else, the Ascension R’s speed comes from its chassis changes. “Suspension tuning is everything for a car, and it’s a very heavy vehicle,” Castellan said. Once the Model 3 receives parts like the company’s control rods, adjustable anti-roll bars, outer tank coils, and forged aluminum wheels, fine-tuning can begin. Castelan’s post: “All I do is figure out how to make these cars faster without adding power.”

That’s right – there is no extra strength. Unplugged performance does not change the powertrain, not because of technical impossibility but because it is preferable to leave the areas that might be affected by software updates unchanged. Indeed, the Tesla’s powertrain is impressive as it gets. Track mode allows the Model 3 Performance to split variable torque between its two engines, anything from 100 percent front to 100 percent rear — all adjustable in real time, even between corners. Castelan collaborates with the Unplugged Performance roster for professional drivers, which includes MotorTrend Tesla friend and pilot Randy Pobst, to set profiles for different chassis settings or tracks to be stored and selected through the touch screen.

Still — all that work and not one extra horse? Sneak if you like, but the results prove that strength isn’t everything. “I remember coming to Buttonwillow at first when we were excited to break a two-minute lap – and now we touch 1:50,” Castellan said. In fact, with development driver Craig Coker at the wheel, the Ascension R set a record of 1:50.35 laps around the 13-lap clockwise track configuration. 991 generation Porsche GT3 RS? 1: 50.40. We carried this context in our helmet while we were committing to the first session.

On track in the world’s fastest Model 3

As we drove from the garage toward the staging area, we saw other cars appear on Tesla’s touchscreen, confirming that Unplugged Performance had precisely placed those sensors in the bumper. At Coker’s recommendation, we set up the initial session in Track mode with torque split and stability control at their neutral and light recovery positions. Then the Marshal indicated – Go back.

The feeling of the electric car’s crushing acceleration in the absence of the motor remains fantastical. Without the turbines for buffering, redline to reach, or switch to ace (or botch), driving the Ascension R was very intuitive, making our focus sharper on how much we could put it down at any given moment. There’s superb linearity to the throttle, with each input powered by an instantaneous responsive response. Power waned as three-digit speeds appeared on display, but at anything less, the car jumped out of corners and through shorter straits.

The handling of the laser we praised earlier appears to be improved by the action of the Unplugged Performance chassis. The Ascension R rode planted and smooth, absorbing Buttonwillow’s cracked, undulating pavement and upper berths. Devoid of a heavy engine between the front wheels, there was a feeling of almost zero latency from the motions of the steering wheel to where the nose is directed – agile and passionate but determined and free of steering.

Deceleration in Turn 1 and Turn 12, both at the end of Buttonwillow’s longest tracks, came in handy for the 4,000-pound Ascension R brakes. They held up firmly with a great feel, allowing us to back off neatly before throwing the car inside. For cruising around the track and turns that needed just a pat, a little more engagement from the heavy pedal would have helped. However, even the light regeneration did allow some speed control through the accelerator mod, and we didn’t detect any fading at any point.

The four-lap session was complete, and we headed back to the garage—having exhausted about 30 miles of range in just over 10 miles of driving. Tesla Corsa events are held at routes selected for ease of charging, and are structured to ensure ample time between sessions; The closest supercharger to Buttonwillow Raceway is about 10 miles south on I-5 in California. During the downtime, we saw drivers stepping into 50-amp outlets in the track garage and RV sites. Schaefer denied that recharging hinders the viability of the electric car’s track day: “It’s one of those things where if you settle externally, concerns about it will eventually go away as the infrastructure is built.” To this point, a Supercharger station is currently being installed at the Buttonwillow Raceway site.

As we were ready for our second session, Coker encouraged us to play with the Track mode settings to send more torque to the rear and relax the jams. Back on track, Ascension R immediately showed a different character. Now he wanted to exaggerate the drive, to move with a new calm. With less interference with stabilization, we did detect some of the rear bumping that we’ve felt on previous Model 3 drives, especially when the cams have been flattened. Those were few consequences. Changing the track mode settings added new layers of engagement. Even as the battery seemed to dwindle a bit in the later stretches of the last cycle, we’d have loved to have had more time to explore this real-time tuning—like one of Coker’s profiles, called simply “the Drift.”

Exciting future for expats

With the Ascension R, Unplugged Performance transformed the Model 3 from a nimble luxury sedan into a track attacking machine. This is evidenced not only by our experience behind the wheel but also by the globally competitive lap times you can put into the hands of professionals. Although we did notice slight Tesla-esque quality issues in the cabin of the Ascension R, it was forgiving for the excitement it delivered, and it’s still rich compared to normally stripped racetrack offerings.

Besides speed, the new dad Schaffer finds substance in EV tuning. “It is another level of meaning in life and work where we do not only do fun things because they are fun but because they are important,” he said. “Once we realize that Tesla racing is moving the car culture towards a sustainable place, we can never go back. So it’s just electric vehicles for us because we are enjoying our hobby in a good way for the future.” That won’t limit his team from making the fastest electric car they can build. Unplugged Performance is developing a Model 3 at the German Nürburgring to prepare future projects for the world’s most demanding tracks.

Enthusiasts of modification must lose their fear that electricity might stifle their potential. Whether building their dreams soars to the sky or slams into the ground, motivation is the only thing that will stop them from achieving it—and we don’t point out what’s under the hood.

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