The Tesla Model 3 might be the newest vehicle in the electric automaker’s lineup, the “affordable” car starting at $35,000. But as I pushed my foot down on its accelerator, I knew: Yeah, this thing’s still a Tesla. There’s the silent driving, the signature rapid acceleration, and the semi-autonomous Autopilot functions built right in. The company has been reminding customers that the Model S, its luxury make rolled out in 2012, will remain the flagship sedan, with the fanciest features. But if you’ve lusted after that expensive Model S, you’ll likely be satisfied with the Model 3, too.
This car feels like an automotive tipping point, a sign that electric vehicles (and hopefully, their infrastructure that supports them) have finally come into their own. Time will tell whether Musk & Co. can hit their deadlines and keep production lines humming. (Elon Musk revealed Friday that over half a million people have now plonked down $1,000 to reserve their own.) For now, it looks real nice.
Initially, Tesla is building just two configurations of the car, to keep things as simple on the production line. The base will be the $35,000 version, with a range of 220 miles and acceleration from 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds. The “long range” version will go a claimed 310 miles between charges, and do the 0-60 sprint in 5.1 seconds—but it’ll set you back $44,000. Both models come with just one electric motor driving the back wheels. The twin motor, the all-wheel-drive option, will follow in a few months. (In a break from tradition, Tesla won’t talk kilowatt-hour battery sizes, saying that customers understand range in miles better.)
Then there are optional add-ons, which will quickly jack up the price. Turning on Autopilot is $5,000. A premium package, with the fancy glass roof, power adjustable front seats, and wood trim, is another $5,000. If and when Tesla actually enables full self-driving, it will set you back another $3,000.
First thing you’ll notice: The Model 3 looks like a smaller Model S. It has a conventional trunk, not a hatch, but Tesla says there’ll be plenty of room for a bike in the back with the seats folded.
The door handles don’t pop out automatically, but they do fold flush into the metal, giving the car a smooth, streamlined look. It’s designed to unlock as you walk up to it, using a low-power bluetooth connection to your phone to recognize you. There’s also a card, like a hotel room key, to hand to the valet—no conventional key.
The interior is the most radically different from other cars. It’s definitely minimal, but in a stylish, Scandinavian kind of way. “Everything that we do at Tesla has to be beautiful,” says Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer. “We worked to take away things that aren’t necessary, to make a clean, minimalistic interior.”
It’s why the inside is dominated by the giant touchscreen; in fact, there’s nothing else. No buttons or switches, no gauges in front of the driver, not even a speed readout. It’s all on the screen, which is also the main control panel. Want to turn down the heat? Tap the screen. Change the radio station? Look at a map? Switch on the headlights? Same deal. Two click-y scroll wheels on either side of the steering wheel help out too. You can use them to change the volume on your radio, but also to adjust the mirrors.
Even the air vents are impeccably designed. One long slot spans the entire dash to buffet front passengers with air. Direct the heat and direction with the screen too, naturally. That may not sound like “keeping things simple,” especially compared to low-tech mechanical vents, but Tesla says this actually eliminates a bunch of moving parts. If you’re wondering why car nerds are so obsessive with Tesla—well, this obsessive attention to detail helps.
Push your foot down on the accelerator pedal, and the Model 3 leaps away from a standing start. The acceleration of electric cars always elicits giggles—it’s some sort of unavoidable human response—and the Model 3 is no exception. It’s not as fast as Tesla’s “ludicrous” Model S, but high performance versions will likely follow in the future. The car feels solidly built, rattle free, and there’s no noticeable whine from the motor. All you hear is wind and tire noise.
A lever on the right hand side of the steering wheel controls movement. It’s marked Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, and Autopilot, highlighting how integral self-driving is to Tesla. To pull off that autonomous driving, the Model 3 comes with the same sensors (eight cameras, radar, ultrasonics, and a supercomputer) as its larger brethren. Right now, that enables the car to stay in its lane and keep a safe distance from the car in-front. But Musk promises full self-driving is just a software update away, though with no firm timetable for pushing that to owners.
The Model 3 isn’t the first electric car on the market, not by a long shot. The Chevrolet Bolt and BMW i3 look like competitors. But there’s a reason hundreds of thousands of people shouted “Take my money!” at Tesla, and not at any other automaker. Tyler the Creator bought one. A Model S makes a cameo in Fifty Shades of Grey. Elon Musk is a media genius, and his magic makes Teslas objects of desire. Drivers want these cars—and now, drivers might be able to purchase them, too. “If you’re trying to make a difference in the world, you have to make cars that people can afford,” says Musk.
Now Tesla has to actually build these cars. “We’re going to go through six months of manufacturing hell” to manage expectations, Musk says. He still believes the company will pump out 500,000 vehicles next year from its Fremont factory in California.
On Friday night, the factory wasn’t producing much more than noise, as employees gathered to watch their CEO hand over the key(cards!) to 30 staff members. They’ll be driving guinea pigs, helping shake out the car’s bugs. Hopefully they enjoy the party, because come Monday, it’s back to work.