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Tesla Model 3 event: what to expect from Elon Musk’s most important car yet

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This is it: after years of hype, Tesla Motors is scheduled to pull the covers off of its Model 3 electric car at the company's facility in Hawthorne, California this evening at 8:30PM Pacific Time. Unlike the Model S sedan, the new Model X crossover, and the seminal Roadster, the Model 3 is supposed to have mass-market pricing — a base price around $35,000, before tax credits — making it potentially attainable by everyday commuters who are ready to go electric.

The Model 3 name and project were announced in mid-2014 (after Ford blocked "Model E" on trademark grounds, ending Musk's dream of spelling "SEX" with his product lineup). The concept of the Model 3, though, dates back a decade, when Musk first laid out the plan for arriving at an affordable EV by first building a niche sports car and a pricier sedan. With the Roadster and the S taken care of, the time for the affordable model has come.

There's a lot we don't yet know about the Model 3, but here's what we have so far.

The time for the affordable model has come

It'll have plenty of range. The auto industry has been rallying around 200 miles as a baseline range for practicality; below that, range anxiety starts to become a big concern for potential buyers. Tesla has never said exactly how far the Model 3 will go between charges, but it'll be over 200 miles — and if it's anything like the S and X, there could be multiple battery capacity options.

$35,000 will be the base price, but you'll probably be able to pay a lot more if you like. Speaking of multiple battery capacity options, the Model 3 won't just be a $35,000 car — you'll be able to pay that, but it'll buy you a "base" version of the car, and it's unclear just how stripped-down that'll be. Tesla has announced that it will give ordering preference to existing customers — all of whom have previously afforded the much more expensive S, X, or Roadster — so it's likely that early builds of the car will run well above the minimum price.

In that regard, it'd actually be no different than the Model S, which retails from $75,000 to over $133,000 depending on battery, drivetrain, and options. And a vehicle like the BMW 3 Series — which the Model 3 will compete with directly — can be specced at more than double its $33,000 base price.

It's designed to sell in much higher volumes than the Model S and X. So far, Tesla has only built a little over 100,000 cars in total; with the help of a higher-volume model like the Model 3, Musk wants to make a half million cars per year by 2020. To do that, he needs the Gigafactory — a massive battery factory the company is building in partnership with Panasonic in Nevada — to ramp up, because today's supply of lithium ion cells just can't keep up with EV production otherwise.

It won't be the first "practical" affordable EV on the market. A number of affordable EVs with lower ranges are already available, including the Volkswagen e-Golf, Ford Focus Electric, and Nissan Leaf. But even at that "practical" 200-mile range mark, GM expects to ship its Chevy Bolt later in 2016, which is likely a full year (or more) before Tesla's "late 2017" target for the Model 3. That may not buy GM much of Tesla's legendary hype, but it does mean that Tesla is going to have competition on day one — and competition is healthy for everyone.

tesla-model-3-teaser-01

There might end up being more affordable vehicles in Tesla's lineup soon. The Model 3 is a sedan — or at the very least, sedan-like. But Tesla also recently started selling a very, very expensive crossover — the Model X — at a time when affordable crossovers are extremely hot. That could be where the Model Y comes in, a vehicle that Elon Musk once briefly mentioned on Twitter before deleting his comments. Nothing is known about the Model Y, but Musk's now-deleted tweets suggested that it could have the Model X's so-called falcon doors, a complex mechanism that draws the rear doors overhead even in tight spaces. Electric car blog Electrek recently reported that two vehicles would debut at the Model 3 event this week, sparking rumors of the Y's debut — but the rumor was quickly shot down by Tesla.

Hurry up to get your deposit in, then wait. Tesla is accepting deposits to get your name on the Model 3 waiting list starting today, a practice it has previously used with its other models. It'll take $1,000 to get a reservation slot, but then you're in for a wait: the very first cars are planned to roll off the line late next year, and early cars will be going to existing Tesla owners on the West Coast. Only later will Tesla move eastward, expand to other countries, and start making cars for right-hand-drive markets like the UK and Australia.

Pay a grand then be very, very patient

But if that doesn't scare you off, there are two ways you can get on the list: Tesla recommends walking into a store this morning for the earliest slot possible, otherwise you can wait until online reservations go live this evening when the car is unveiled.

We won't see all of the car this week. In a recent earnings call, Musk had indicated that he hadn't decided how much of the Model 3 to show right away — and now we have the answer: we won't see the final car. In a tweet yesterday, Musk describes today's event as a "Part 1," with a "Part 2" coming closer to production. "You will see the car very clearly, but some important elements will be added and some will evolve," he says.

We'll be there. Tune in tonight at 8:30PM PT / 11:30PM ET for our coverage from the unveiling — hopefully followed by a drive. You'll also be able to watch the event on Tesla's website.


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