A small electric car that makes a big noise.
It has the size and stance of another car called the 3 (from Mazda), its single instrument is a billboard-like 15-inch touchscreen glowing in the dash, it accelerates with the nearly silent rush that cheetahs use to get their lunch, and it will start at $35,000 when it first reaches customers, which at this moment is said to be the end of 2017. Welcome to the “affordable” Tesla Model 3 that 115,000 people supposedly put deposits on before the highly secretive car was even shown to the public at a launch party at SpaceX, Tesla’s sister company headquartered in Hawthorne, California.
From the side and back, the sedan Model 3 looks like a Model S with a very tall roof and a bobbed nose and tail. Up front, it has a blunt upturned snout that evokes the original Tesla Roadster as well as the new, sealed-up prow of the Model X. It is genetically linked to all of its ancestors—both in the styling and in the many pounds of lithium-ion batteries packed into the floor (also, all but the Roadster have front and rear trunks). It owes a heavy debt to the other cars in Tesla’s lineup.
“For all of you who bought an S or an X, thank you for helping pay for the Model 3,” Tesla chief Elon Musk told the crowd, referring to the Model 3 as the culmination of Tesla’s “secret master plan” to hasten the arrival of zero-emissions, self-driving transportation by producing a series of increasingly cheaper and more-practical cars. “With any new technology, it takes multiple iterations and economies of scale before you can make it affordable,” Musk said. A mass-market car “was only possible to do . . . after going through the prior steps.”
This is the car that will either save Tesla or kill it. To tool up for the expected volumes, which could be in the range of 75,000 a year the first couple of years, Tesla will risk a lot of capital on ramping up production, retail, and service capacity, making the Model 3 Tesla’s do-or-die moment. Everything will be bigger, from the factory parts inventory to the number of robots in the body shop to the size of the fleet of trucks needed to ship the product to the financial risks of a recall.
Beyond what’s written above, we don’t have a whole lot more details about the Model 3. Musk says the base model will have a 215-mile range and will accelerate from zero to 60 mph in less than six seconds. There also will be a dual-motor, all-wheel-drive version. He also promises that it will achieve five-star crash-test ratings and that Autopilot hardware will be standard. The company is otherwise being very stingy with the details. For example, it won’t tell us the sizes of the available batteries (thought to be between 40 and 60 kWh) or what the car is made out of. The Model S and Model X are primarily aluminum, but that’s an expensive material and, at the Model 3’s price, a tough cost challenge. Even so, during our brief test ride, we quietly touched a small magnet to various outer panels, the inner doors, and the structural pillar between the doors and got not a single quiver of attraction. A Tesla engineer told us the car is a mix of steel and aluminum but refused to elaborate. Unless the prototypes we sat in were made from nonproduction materials, there’s not much steel in that body.
Musk boasts that the Model 3 has more interior space than any car with its exterior dimensions, but we’re doubtful. The back seat is snug for the knees, mainly because the underfloor battery pack necessitates a high cabin floor and also because the front seats are thick thrones. The tall side glass means there’s plenty of headroom, however, and an enormous panoramic rear glass that curves over the rear passengers’ heads helps give the cabin the feel of airy spaciousness. Up front, the driver faces a dashboard that’s completely bare save for the oversize, horizontally oriented touchscreen; the speedometer readout is in the upper left-hand corner.
Musk did let slip that there will be higher-performance variants coming, and prototypes were shown with big, carbon-fiber-accented wheels and with matte paint jobs. Can a Tesla performance sub-brand be too far off? Perhaps they should just call it L, for Ludicrous.
In its short history, Tesla has developed a passionate fan base. Just two weeks ago, the company sent out an email to its owners asking them to hit reply if they wanted to come to Los Angeles at their own expense to see the reveal of the Model 3. The invite included the chance to get a two-minute chauffeured blast up and down Jack Northrop Drive adjacent to the SpaceX plant. By all accounts, thousands responded. The 650 or so who made the cut for a launch party that, by Tesla standards, was a relatively intimate affair, flew in from as far away as Austria to witness Musk introduce the electric car he says he had in mind when he became involved with Tesla 12 years ago.
After negotiating a security net that rivaled the Oscars, as well as girthy goons in tight-fitting suits and studded sunglasses clearly veterans of the Hollywood rope line (another change from past Tesla events that have been rather rowdy and disorganized affairs), Musk’s adoring army of acolytes were treated to an open bar and passed hors d’oeuvres while waiting for the show. The event itself was rather brief, Musk talking extemporaneously for barely 20 minutes and much of the time waiting for cheering to die down.
With the Model 3 revealed, now begins a period very familiar to Tesla owners: the seemingly interminable wait until production begins.