This is Tesla’s moment. It wasn’t the Roadster, nor the Model S, nor the Model X — it’s the Model 3 that matters, the practical EV for the masses that Elon Musk intended to eventually be able to make all along. This car has been a solid decade in the making.
But somehow, it all feels a little anticlimactic.
It’s not that the car isn’t awesome. Truthfully, I don’t really know if it’s awesome, because I got just the briefest imaginable test drive this evening — a few fleeting seconds ripping around Tesla’s Design Studio in Hawthorne, California in the back seat with two other journalists along for the ride. And therein lies the anticlimax: after 60 seconds inside the car, give or take, it’s basically going away until we’re singing Christmas carols in 2017. I was obviously hoping to spend a little more time with what could be Tesla’s greatest accomplishment.
And with the real car still that far out, there’s the matter of this being a prototype. Elon Musk himself has said that we’re going to see a refined, more production-ready version of the Model 3 down the road. With a year and a half to go until the first deliveries are promised, the company has plenty of time to make changes.
(I also wish I had more to show you, but in addition to the rushed drive, Tesla had a curious ban on real cameras at the evening’s event; only phones were permitted, so the heavy lifting fell on my iPhone 6S at a time when I’d normally be using something like a Sony A7RII. Still, we made it work.)
But here’s what I can tell you: the Model 3 definitely looks and feels like a Tesla. If you completely debadged it and hid the giveaway design elements, you’d still know it was a Tesla. You know it from features like the unreal glass roof that extends basically from the windshield to the back of the car, reminiscent of the giant windshield on the Model X. The seats have Tesla’s trademark shape, too. And it’s fast like a Tesla — granted, Tesla stacked the deck in its favor by putting journalists in an uprated dual-motor Model 3 that definitely won’t be $35,000, but even with four grown men planted in the seats, the car moves. Stomping on the accelerator of a Model S never gets old, and I can tell already that doing silly things in the Model 3 will put that familiar grin on my face.
Where the Model 3 diverges most obviously from its bigger, pricier stablemates is in the dashboard. Gone is Tesla’s trademark 17-inch portrait touchscreen, replaced with a landscape-oriented 15-inch display that floats above the dash. There are no other controls to speak of, which isn’t a surprise considering how much Tesla adores using touch UIs in its cars. But the Model 3 goes one step further in that simplification: the touchscreen also takes the place of the instrument cluster, with speed displayed in the upper left corner closest to the driver.
Moving instrumentation to the center of the dash isn’t unprecedented — cars like the Toyota Prius have been doing it for years — but I’ve always found it a little annoying, since it necessitates moving beyond your normal field of vision just to see how fast you’re going. I don’t really understand the value in it, other than giving the dash a cleaner look and perhaps saving a few dollars in the manufacturing process.
In general, the simple, stark dash looked kind of unfinished to me, but I was told that it is essentially production-ready. Depending on how the prototype gets refined in the next 18 months, this could end up being one of the weaker elements of the car — the place where the cost-cutting shows the most. We’ll see.
Even though the Model 3 is a physically smaller car than the S, it felt surprisingly spacious from my vantage point in the back seat. Musk noted during his presentation that this little magic trick was due in part to seating the driver further forward, while still leaving room for a front trunk (the "frunk") and a normal trunk in the rear. The feeling of space also definitely comes from the glass roof, which is as cool-looking from the outside as it is inside — there are other cars on the market with panorama sunroofs, but none that swoop this elegantly down to the trunk. (Note that the Model 3 is not a hatchback — the trunk hinges behind the glass, not through it.)
It’s very Tesla-like, it’s definitely quick, and it’s roomy
But that’s about all I can tell you right now: it’s very Tesla-like, it’s definitely quick, and it’s roomy. Given Musk’s MO, none of that should come as a surprise. I also think it’s pretty — certainly prettier than the Model X, and possibly prettier than the Model S. That won’t necessarily matter to the Tesla die-hards who were going to plunk down a deposit no matter what, but to legitimately pit this $35,000 sports sedan against the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4s, and Mercedes C-Classes of the world, looking good is non-negotiable.
Beyond that, there are many questions we still need answered over the course of this year and next. How will the touchscreen UI end up looking and working on the final car? How much can you spend if you want to really go crazy with options? And for that matter, exactly what do you get for $35,000? Musk is promising at least 215 miles of range, standard Autopilot hardware, and a 0-60 time of under 6 seconds for the base car, but beyond that, anything is possible.
I wish I could say "we’ll know more soon," but in this case, we won’t know for quite a while. Then again, we’ve been waiting for the Model 3 for ten years — another year and a half probably won’t hurt.