Tesla Unveiled the Model 3 And I Got To Ride In One

Aki Sugawara
Associate Editor

Affordability or luxury—traditionally you could choose only one when it came to electric cars. On the low end you had the spartan, $25,000 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, and on the other end there’s the Tesla Model S, the commuter chariot for the one percent, with little in between. Tesla has promised the seemingly impossible with the Model 3, an attainable premium electric car that won’t have you fretting about range, and the momentous response and long queues to reserve one echoes that of a new iPhone launch. Does it live to the hype?

I had a chance to ride in a preproduction sedan, and it blew away my expectations—with an asterisk.

As rumored the Model 3 will start at $35,000, but that’s before incentives. That means it’ll cost around $25,000 if you’re in California, costing only a couple grand more than the Volt and as much as a loaded Honda Civic. That’s ludicrous, insane. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is promising that buyers “won’t be disappointed” even with a base model, which will have a range of 215 miles and go from 0-60 in under six seconds. Musk adds that these are “minimum numbers” and “hopes to exceed them.”  

Both Supercharging at Autopilot hardware come standard, and the five-seater touts more cargo capacity than any car with similar dimensions. It’s achieved with the firewall pushed forward while still providing space for a front and rear trunk. As a Tesla for the mass market, it will also appeal to families with a purported 5-star safety rating in every category.

We took a quick ride inside the higher end sport trim, with dual motors and an optional air suspension. Aside from the screen that looks like an high-definition PC monitor attached to the center console (there’s no dash cluster), it’s high-end luxury through and through. French-stitched leather adorn the door panels, with real metallic touches, and a stunning rear window arches over your head providing a panoramic view of your surroundings. While not providing the mind-bending acceleration of a P85D, the dual motor Model 3 feels like it has more kick from a stop than a BMW 340i, and my neck actually got sore from the snap of the low-end torque. The test driver did an impromptu mini-slalom on a closed off street, and there was minimal body roll with ample grip from the front 235/35/R20 and rear 275/30/R20 tires. Tesla gave no word of price for the pricier trims, but even at $50,000 it’d feel like a bargain.

Will the company pull off its audacious goals? Fervor from the throngs of brand evangelists aside, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the Model 3’s success—the company lost $889 million in 2015, marking its eighth consecutive year of losses. Elon Musk anticipates the company will be cash-positive at the end of the year, in spite of the early production woes of the Model X SUV that recently debuted. And there’s still the big question of the Model 3’s profitability. The Chevrolet Bolt launching at the end of this year also has a 200-mile range, yet with none of the luxury aspirations still costs $2,500 more. The bargain proposition will also diminish when the Federal tax credits expire, which starts phasing out when a manufacturer has sold 200,000 qualifying vehicles.

The Model 3’s competitive price point partially hinges on the successful completion of the Gigafactory under construction in Nevada, which according to Tesla is ahead of schedule and has already started producing battery packs for the Tesla Energy division. Batteries are one of the biggest costs to building an electric car, and the giant economies of scale (when completed it will make more lithium-ion batteries than all the world’s factories combined) coupled with keeping production in-house promise to keep costs down; Chevrolet by contrast outsources the battery pack production to LG.

The Tesla Gigafactory under construction

The company also plans to ramp up the supporting infrastructure, and aims to double the number of Superchargers and quadruple the number of destination chargers by the end of next year (to 3600 and 7200, respectively). 

As Musk tweeted, this is just a taste of the Model 3, and “some important elements will be added and some will evolve,” according to the CEO. We’ll likely see an equally splashy event with more details as the car nears its launch at the end of 2017—but with 115,000 deposits in the past 24 hours, the hype is real.