In 2006, Elon Musk published a blog post outlining his long-term vision for Tesla. At the time, Tesla was still two years away from delivering the first Roadster, the company’s first product. “The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium,” Musk said. “Then, we’ll drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model.” At the time, the seemingly improbable realization of Musk’s vision would require the success of two very expensive high-performance luxury vehicles—and significant advancements in battery cost and efficiency.
In the following years, Musk continued to hint at a future Tesla model that would compete at a similar price point as small entry-level gas-powered sedans from Audi, BMW and Mercedes. By the time the Model S was released in 2012, it was widely known that Tesla was planning a small sedan with an electric range of about 200 miles that would start around $35,000 before government incentives. In March 2016, Tesla finally revealed a pre-production version of the Model 3 and began taking deposits from interested customers.
Tesla said the pre-production version of the Model 3, revealed in March 2016, will be very similar to the final version due in late 2017. The relatively small sedan is not simply a downsized version of the Model S. If anything, the Model 3’s design language is more aggressive: the curves are more dramatic and the angles are sharper.
These departures are particularly noticeable from the front, where the headlights and wheel wells jut out and a grille-less front fascia abruptly falls off the hood. It’s as if a designer sliced off the front tip of a clay model and no one noticed the error. (Musk has since tweeted that this area of the design is still a work in progress.)
The Model 3 also departs from its older sibling above the cabin, where curved glass extends from the windshield all the way to the trunk, interrupted only by a single roof support pillar. (Tesla first deployed this feature in the Model X SUV.) Inside the cabin, the expansive glass adds a panoramic sense of space that makes the roomy small sedan seem bigger than it is.
Perhaps the most radical design decision for the Model 3 though is its dashboard and console configuration, which takes minimalism to a new level among mass-market consumer vehicles. The pre-production Model 3 has no instrument cluster and no climate control knobs. You won’t even find visible air vents.
All controls and instrument gauges are located on the car’s large touchscreen—and this has led to speculation that Tesla plans to deploy a standard heads-up display that will allow the driver to view speed, range and other crucial information directly on the windshield. In a series of missives, Musk explained that the sparseness of the cabin will make more sense after “part 2” of the unveiling, promising that the final interior will “feel like a spaceship.”
The base-level Tesla Model 3 will come standard with a rear-mounted single motor capable of launching the car from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in about six seconds. A high-performance dual-motor AWD configuration will also be offered, though Tesla has offered little in the way of performance stats for the car. Journalists who were offered the opportunity to ride in the car reported a high-performance feel that would be familiar to anyone who has been in a Tesla.
Only the dual-motor version of the Model 3 was used for the test rides, but it’s unlikely that the base model will disappoint. The car’s smaller size, low center of gravity and the inherent torque advantage (from electric propulsion)—combined with Tesla’s determination to beat the performance numbers of its gas-fueled competitors—all but guarantee that the Model 3 will be one of the fastest, most engaging drives in its class.
Tesla announced the driving range in the Model 3 to be “at least 215 miles.” Achieving a 215-mile range will require a pack, most likely, of about 50 kilowatt-hours. Some analysts believe that Tesla is already approaching a cost of $200 per kWh, which would put the Model 3’s pack at around $10,000. Tesla’s long-term goal is to use mass production at its Nevada-based factory to bring the cost well below this level.
Thanks to the its smaller size and advancements in motor and battery technology, it’s not a stretch to assume the Model 3 will be the most energy-efficient Tesla vehicle. The most efficient of the Model S variants—even with its hefty curb weight and aggressive performance numbers—gets a 101 MPGe rating from the EPA. Expect the single-motor Model 3 to easily beat this metric.
A 240-volt Tesla home charging station costs $750, not including installation. We expect the Model 3 to use an on-board 10 kW charger, like its sibling vehicles. This means owners can add 30 or more miles of range for every hour of charging at home. With its sizable battery pack providing more than 200 miles of driving range—and the average commuter traveling about 40 miles per day—most drivers will find they have plenty of energy reserves on a daily basis.
In terms of longer distance highway trips, Tesla offers its current vehicle owners free access to around 400 Supercharger sites in the United States. These high-speed fast-chargers are capable of bringing a Model S battery pack to 80 percent of capacity in about 40 minutes. This opens up new possibilities for interstate travel for many EV drivers.
The main charging question for future Model 3 owners is whether access to the network will be standard for the vehicle or a cost option. If the car becomes as popular as Tesla hopes it would likely place an added strain on the existing network and eventually necessitate a further build-out of the network. Some buyers may not see a need for Supercharger access and might be willing to forgo it to save a few thousand dollars off the starting price. Though Musk claimed free supercharger access for Tesla third-generation vehicle in an interview two years ago, it may make sense to go back on that pledge.
The Model 3 is a five-seater, but it won’t be quite as comfortable a ride for the rear passengers as the Model S or Model X. Few sedans are. Nevertheless, at the unveiling, Tesla promised the small sedan will have the most interior volume in its class. This accomplishment is made possible by car’s lack of an engine, as well as the placement of its battery pack beneath the floor. This allows Tesla to move the front seats closer to the nose of the car and adds leg room in the back.
Added roominess is just another in a long list of features that are unique to Tesla EVs. Another one of those features is the so-called “frunk,” which opens additional cargo storage underneath the hood of the car, where an engine would otherwise be. In the back, Tesla adds a conventional trunk, which despite being relatively spacious for its class, could present difficulties in loading bulkier cargo. The Model 3’s radical rear windshield design means that the trunk must open by sliding up rather than popping open. Early reviews speculated that this could be a source of frustration for some owners.
Independent testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) awarded the Tesla Model S a 5-star safety rating, not just overall, but in every subcategory without exception. Elon Musk has promised to repeat this feat with the Model 3 and given Tesla’s track record with the S and X, it doesn’t make sense to doubt him on this account. Approximately one percent of all cars tested by the federal government achieve 5 stars across the board.
Most items on the expansive list of safety features for Tesla’s current offerings will likely be available in the Model 3 as well, though it remains to be seen which will be standard. Tesla says that the Model 3 will come outfitted with with all of the sensors and wiring needed for it to operate in a manner similar to a fully autonomous vehicle. That doesn’t mean that the feature will be available in 2017. Most likely, it will be an aftermarket upgrade that will emerge once the technology has improved and regulators and insurers figure out how to handle one of the most important technological leaps in transportation history.
Tesla’s Elon Musk continues to express a firm commitment to delivering the Model 3 with a purchase price of $35,000, before any incentives. Of course, only one of the Model 3 variants needs to be at this price for Tesla to make good on its goal.
As a point of reference, the base MSPR for the Tesla Model S is $69,900—but the average transaction price, according to Morgan Stanley, is nearly $105,000. Adam Jonas, auto analyst with Morgan Stanley, believes the average transaction price of the Model 3 will be between $55,000 and $60,000. Elon Musk has said recently that he pegs that number at around $42,000.
Unlike with the Model S and Model X, Tesla will not be launching a pricey Signature Series line of the Model 3 months or years before it begins selling the base model.
It’s important to note that if you aren’t among the first names on the pre-order list there’s a good chance you won’t be eligible to take advantage of the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. That credit could bring the final starting price of the Model 3 to less than $28,000 for some lucky buyers. Unfortunately, with the limit for the federal credit capped at 200,000 vehicle sales per manufacturer and Tesla having already recorded in the neighborhood of 300,000 refundable deposits for the Model 3, it would require an unlikely act of Congress to extend this credit to a significant number of Model 3 buyers. Tesla has already delivered more than 100,000 Model S vehicles and has a backlog of about 30,000 Model X reservations. At Tesla’s current sales clip, it’s possible that there will be few if any full $7,500 credits remaining by the time the first Model 3 is delivered.
The good news is that once Tesla reaches the 200,000-unit mark, the federal government will still provide a $3,750 refund for the next six months, which should provide added relief to as many orders as fill in that period.
Comparison with Similar Vehicles
The gas-powered cars most often cited as Model 3 competitors are the highly regarded BMW 3-series, which has a starting MSRP of about $33,000, the Audi A3 which starts near $31,000, and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, with its base MSRP of $42,650. While Tesla is interested in matching the Bimmer and Benz for performance, handling and comfort, those cars are internal combustion—and therefore are not really in the same category.
The Chevy Bolt won’t have the same cachet (or innovative features and design pizzaz) as a Tesla, but it will start around $30,000 after federal incentives and enter production roughly a full year ahead of the Model 3. The Bolt will also have 200+ mile range, but the comparisons pretty much end there. Whereas the Model 3 is a compact luxury EV likely to offer a number of unique upscale features, the Bolt is a subcompact styled to more closely resemble the cheapest cars on the road than the most expensive.
The Model 3 is slated to begin production in late 2017, but chances are you’ll be in for a much longer wait if you didn’t put down a $1,000 refundable deposit in the first hour after Tesla began accepting pre-orders. In just two weeks, Tesla registered more than 300,000 pre-orders—a level of interest that is truly unprecedented for a car that nobody has driven yet and barely seen.
It remains to be seen just how many of these pre-orders will translate into actual sales, but suffice it to say that if the Model 3 even comes close to living up to expectations, it will take quite a while for Tesla to ramp up production to the point that it starts making a major dent in that waiting list. Still, if you’ve got your heart set on owning a Model 3, the fastest way to get your hands on one would be to visit Tesla's website and put down your $1,000 deposit today.
Elon Musk’s stated goal is 500,000 deliveries by 2020, though many analysts doubt this projection in light of how long it has taken to for Tesla to reach peak production capacity in the past—as well as the company’s dependency on reaching full production at its battery factory.