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Tesla Model 3 first drive: this is the car that Elon Musk promised

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Photo: Tesla

I felt like I was driving in an Eames chair. That was my first impression as I climbed into the driver’s seat of the Tesla Model 3 at the Fremont Factory on Friday afternoon. It took a moment to orient myself — no gauges, no speedometer, no airplane cockpit cues. Instead, one continuous smooth line between myself and the road ahead, offset by natural, unfinished wood. The premium model of the Model 3 caught me off guard. After hearing so much hype about this car, I was surprised that my first reaction was a profound sense of delight. It wasn’t bland, nor sterile, nor cheap feeling. Here was something different. Here was an exercise in minimalism. Here was the car Elon Musk promised to make 14 years ago.

The premium model of the Model 3 caught me off guard

Much has been made of the tall order that Tesla has to deliver on to manufacture an electric car for the people, but first the young car company had to prove the most essential aspect: finishing a product that people would want to drive, fulfilling the dream that makes it the company that has shaken up the auto industry.

Can Tesla make a $35,000 car that feels like a Tesla?

Yes, and they have.

Photo: Tesla

Air filled the cabin, but no vents were in sight. The car has a single air vent in the back seat that I noticed, but none are needed in the front. Surfaces in the front seat are simple and smooth. I began to fiddle with the piano black console. I opened up one closest to the dashboard and discovered a rubbery charging pad for my phone, no wires required. In the second console I found a storage bin, where someone had left behind a Boring Company baseball cap. Welcome to Fremont; I was in Tesla territory.

Welcome to Fremont, Tesla territory

My eyes drew to the natural focal point. The single screen, a 15-inch display, at the center of the car, where all of the essential information is presented. I could scroll through the buttons using two singular buttons on either side of the steering wheel, or the touch pad. A small icon of the car popped up on the left of the screen. I didn’t have to turn my head from the windshield.

I didn’t have much time to play with the screen. It was time to go. Others were waiting to drive. Foot on the brake, I attempted to shift the car into gear using the lever next to the steering wheel. But the screen said “hold.” Hold, as I understand it, is a function that keeps the car from rolling when idle at a stoplight. Now it was really time to drive.

Photo: Tesla

Foot squarely on the accelerator, I was surprised at the jolt when I pulsed the throttle. Elon Musk said the car accelerates from 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds. I turned onto a small stretch of open road, and I was off and running. Yes, the Model 3 has a glee factor. All too soon I had to brake, which in this short sprint, felt like a confident, firm exercise, not carbon fiber ooh la la, but enough to do the job. I drove in a large square around the boundaries of the campus. While it’s not ludicrously fast, it certainly feels capable.

I walked away with a glimpse into what Tesla is thinking

Cornering was decent, and when I turned the wheel, I saw no sign of understeer. I made only right turns, and most of the roads that I drove on were crowded with other cars or construction, so I wouldn’t describe my experience as a conclusive test drive, but what I walked away with was a glimpse into what Tesla is thinking.

And the best part: when I pulled into park, I asked about the key. The car doesn’t have one. You control the car through the Tesla app on your phone. Tesla has succeeded in making a car for gadgeteers, and for forgetful people like me that sometimes leave their phones behind. (It does have a small credit card key to hand off to valets, for people that will stunt in their 3.)

Photo: Tesla

I spent a few moments checking out the rest of the car — the back seat had ample room for my long legs, and plenty of room for a car seat. Yes, there were car seat hooks included on this production model, and a flip-down armrest with a cupholder — a sign that Tesla is actually an American car company. The back seat folds down, though I didn’t try this option, nor did I get a chance to open the trunk to check for golf club room.

Will the production cars maintain this same sense of good carness? It’s hard to say if Tesla can deliver on its ambitious promises, but it certainly surprise delivered on making a good impression on me.