First things first: what is Tesla and what is this the third model of?
Tesla Motors is an electric vehicle manufacturer based in California, headed by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. Tesla's headquarters is in Palo Alto (the same Silicon Valley city that's home to HP, neighboring Stanford University and Google), while their sole manufacturing facility is across the San Francisco Bay in Fremont (the factory was formerly a joint venture between GM and Toyota). Tesla is currently building a so-called "Gigafactory" outside Reno, Nevada, that will produce the lithium ion batteries needed to power cars like the Model 3.
Wait wait wait... batteries?
Yep! The Tesla Model 3 is an all-electric car. That's not exactly something new — it's Tesla's third original vehicle (and fourth overall — the first, the Tesla Roadster, was an electrified Lotus Elise). Unlike a "hybrid" vehicle, which relies on a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine to power a generator that sends electrons to an electric motor, all Tesla vehicles are pure electric drive — Model 3 included.
That means there needs to be a battery involved. Traditional vehicle manufacturers have adapted their current architectures to support electrification, which leads to compromises. The battery of a Toyota Prius is housed under the second-row seats, while a Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid puts the battery in the trunk. Underneath all that is a traditional drivetrain, which takes up a tremendous amount of space.
In a Tesla, there is no driveshaft and no traditional transmission. The battery pack makes up the floor of the vehicle, stretching essentially from axle to axle, while the motors are placed between the wheels with a basic reduction gear transmission. It's a much simpler and more efficient design than the complicated mechanics of a gasoline-powered car, and it opens up a huge amount of space and flexibility while allowing for improved performance and handling.
But aren't electric cars small and don't they have terrible range?
A Nissan Leaf the Model 3 is not. Tesla's unique approach to electric vehicles means that even the base Model 3 will get a range of at least 215 miles per charge. Granted, that's not as far as you'll get with a gasoline-powered car, but it's far better than you'll get from any non-Tesla electric car — the closest available competition is the Kia Soul EV (bet you didn't know Kia made that), which gets a pitiful 93 miles per charge.
The upcoming 2017 Chevy Bolt EV is expected to get at least 200 miles of range, but its starting price will be higher than the Model 3 (though GM appears to have learned a lot from the way Tesla builds electric cars).
Tesla's model for selling the Model S and the Model X (a larger electric sedan and SUV) revolved around varying range options — you can pay more for a larger battery pack with increased range and performance. A Model S 70D comes equipped with a 70 kilowatt-hour battery good for 240 miles range, while a $13,000 upgrade to a 90 kWh battery extends that range to a comfortable 294 miles.
So the Model 3's range will start at 215 miles per charge, but we fully expect that Tesla will offer the option of a larger battery for increased range.
So batteries are expensive... how much is the Model 3 going to cost?
The starting price for the Tesla Model 3 is set at $35,000, though the average cost once options are factored in is expected to be around $42,000. So it's the Model 3 is not a cheap car, though it is both the cheapest Tesla and the best bang-for-your-buck when it comes to an EV.
When it comes to the base cost and range, the Tesla Model 3 will be hard to beat. A 215-mile-range $35,000 Model 3 comes to $162.79/mile, while the 200-mile-range $37,500 Chevy Bolt is not just more expensive from the get-go, it's 15% more expensive per mile of range at $187.50/mile.
So, sure, the Model 3 is going to be more expensive from a base level than a base model Honda Civic (a car that's roughly the same size as the Model 3), but it's going to be one of, if not the, most affordable EV options available.
When you factor in options — including an extended range battery, dual motor performance package, autopilot software, and an upgraded sound system — we wouldn't be surprised to see a fully-equipped Model 3 pushing $60,000.
There's one more thing to factor into the price: tax incentives. Tesla's not going to be baiting you with dealer incentives, discounts, and the like. But governments around the globe want to encourage electric vehicle purchasing, and they're doing so with your taxes. Buyers of new hybrid and electric cars in the United States qualify for tax credits (i.e. money you get back regardless how much you actually paid in taxes) up to $7500. The credit scales based on the type of vehicle and how many electric cars that manufacturer has sold — and Tesla's sold a fair number of electric cars, so to get the maximum tax credit you'll want to get your Model 3 order in as soon as you can.
My phone takes hours to recharge — how am I going to charge a Model 3?
Well, you could charge it the same way you recharge your phone, but as you might imagine, it will take hours. There are three basic options when it comes to recharging a Model 3, each with their own advantages and drawbacks.
Option 1: Plug into a household outlet. There are actually two options here: a standard 120v outlet (like the one your phone charger plugs into) or a 240v outlet (like your clothes dryer). While we don't recommend the 120v option, it is an option — and you'll get about 3-4 miles per hour of charging, so to top off the base 215-mile battery will take a mind-numbing two days. The better household option is the 240v charger, which outputs at a much higher amperage and should be good for about 29 miles per hour — now you're down to a 7-hour recharge.
The 240v option is also how an installed Wall Connector Tesla charger works. And if your car is equipped with dual chargers (not a double charge-port connector), it can take power from the wall and put it into your battery at up to 58 miles an hour — or under 4 hours for a full recharge.
Option 2: Public EV charging stations. For most people on most days, 215 miles range will be more than enough to get them around where they need to go. The average daily work commute distance in the United States is just 25 miles. But if you're out-and-about and running low on juice, there are public charge stations all over. They'll need an adapter (your Tesla will include one), and most will provide about 20-30 miles per hour of charging. Tesla's also partnered to install "Destination Charging Stations" throughout North America that run off the same 240v system as a home Wall Connector charger.
Option 3: Superchargers! And then there are these. The Tesla Supercharger network is, quite simply, the fastest way to charge your Tesla. There are more than 600 Supercharger stations currently installed across North America, Europe, and China, Japan, and Australia, with hundreds more planned over the next few years.
Superchargers are fast. Absurdly fast. 170 miles of charge per half-hour fast. That half hour is important — Tesla cars charge smartly, dumping power in at high rates when empty and then slowing down the charge as the battery gets towards full to prolong the lifespan of the battery. Tesla is building out the Supercharger network such that a 30-45 minute charge should be enough to get you to the next Supercharger station. Superchargers are positioned in areas where you should have something to do — shopping, dining, or at least just stretching your legs.
The Model 3 is being touted as "Supercharger capable", which is important wording. Model S and Model X owners have free access to the Supercharger network, but use of Superchargers will not be free for the Model 3 — instead there will be a "package". While we don't know what form that package will take, Tesla has in the past charged $2,500 for hardware upgrades for early Model S cars that did not come with Supercharger-capable hardware. It's also possible that Supercharger access will be a pay-per-use of subscription model, although Musk revealed that the cost will be "far cheaper than gasoline". We've still got a long while before the first Model 3 cars will be in owners' driveways, so there's plenty of time for Tesla to hash out exactly how they'll manage Superchargers and the Model 3.
Regardless of how you charge, it won't cost you much. The average cost per kilowatt-hour in the United States is just $0.12, so recharging a top-end Tesla Model S P90D costs roughly $10 for 294 miles of range, or $0.034/mile. The average personal vehicle in the United States gets about 25 miles per gallon of gasoline, or $0.08/mile at $2/gallon gas. So even if you have to start paying for electricity, it'll still cost less than the equivalent in gasoline — you'd have to be getting nearly 60mpg to come close.
What's it like to drive a Model 3?
We'll preface this by saying that we have not driven a Model 3, nor has anybody else outside of Tesla. Some people have ridden in a Model 3, but we can only speak to our experience in driving other Tesla vehicles and what's been unveiled about the Model 3 so far.
In a word, we expect that driving the Model 3 will be fun, and a lot of that comes down to its electric nature. Electric cars are fast, the accelerate like nothing else, and they've got great handling.
Let's talk about fast first. The Model S has a top speed of 155mph, and that's software-limited — which means that parts of the car are technically capable of going faster. The Model S is also twice as expensive as the Model 3, but Musk did say during the Model 3 unveiling that the car will be fast though, because Tesla doesn't make slow cars.
As far as acceleration is concerned, the Model 3 will go from zero to 60mph in 6 seconds. That's nowhere near as fast as a 2.8 seconds of the top-end Model S P90D with the Ludicrous Speed Upgrade (yes, that's a real thing — a $10,000 upgrade option that will be available for the Model 3). But a Model S 70D will do 0-60 in 5.2 seconds, which isn't that far off from 6 seconds. And it stands to reason that just as there are faster versions of the Model S and X that we'll see faster versions of the Model 3 as well. That snappy acceleration comes courtesy of the electric motor — unlike a gas engine, electric motors have 100% of their available torque from the first spin, so pressing the accelerator is a true launch experience with steady acceleration and linear speed gains.
The structure of the electric car also lends itself to excellent handling. The battery floor is both heavy and wide, bringing the center of gravity down lower than in a standard car and spreading out the weight at the same time. This means the Model 3 will experience less body roll when cornering. There is a check in the cons column for that heavy battery, though: all of that battery weight makes for a heavy car that's harder to bring to a stop.
The base version of the Model 3 will be a rear-wheel drive vehicle, with a single motor between the two rear wheels. There will be an optional upgrade to a dual-motor all-wheel-drive design, which will provide better handling, acceleration, and speed. All new versions of the Model S and X are dual-motor (it's the 'D' in the trim indicator, e.g. P90D), but early years of the Model S were only the single rear-wheel-drive.
You said something about autopilot? That sounds awesome.
I know, right? The Model X and recent editions of the Model S have included autopilot hardware which is enabled through a $3,000 software update after delivery. The autopilot features enable highway speed and stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, automatic lane changing, and automatic parallel parking. Additionally, the "summon" feature allows you to, well, summon your parked car — it can even open your garage door and bring itself to you.
It's clear from the layout of the cabin with a large center screen and no instrument cluster in front of the driver that Tesla expects this car to be driven frequently on autopilot, and that it'll likely be far more capable than the current edition. They've been testing more advanced autopilot hardware. While we expect the Model 3's autopilot capabilities will at least match the Autopilot capabilities of the Model S and X, Musk says that Tesla is "going to do the obvious thing" with part two of the Model 3 unveiling, all but confirming that the car will be fully self-driving.
So, yes, the Model 3 will be able to drive itself, and maybe entirely from point A to point B.
Let's talk styling
Sure! Unlike the extended hatchback design of the Model S or the SUV-style Model X, the Model 3 is a sedan, "seating five comfortably" according to Tesla. The Model 3 has something of a "fastback" design, with a roofline that slopes all the way to the rear of the car, but it is not a hatchback — it has a traditional, if small, trunk opening on the back end. Up front it has a large windshield over a somewhat duckbilled front end that's proving to be a controversial design element — the look is something like a traditional sedan that's been shrink-wrapped. Musk says that the Model 3 examples we've seen are not final styling and that there's still "some tweaking" to be done before they're released.
The design lineage from the Model S to the Model X to the Model 3 is clear, however — this is definitely a Tesla. And where the Model X innovated by having a windshield that extends all the way into the center of the roof, the Model 3 will have an optional rear window that extends all the way into the center of the roof. Other roof options will include a body-color metal roof or a panoramic glass moonroof (ala Model S).
The interior of the Model 3 takes a turn for the unique. While the Model S and X have very similar interiors — widescreen instrument cluster behind the steering wheel and a tall 17-inch touchscreen in the center of the dash, the Model 3 turns that on its head.
There's no instrument cluster at all. The center screen is in a traditional horizontal layout, but its still quite large at 13 inches and extended on a stalk from the dash. It's a very futuristic layout, and it only reinforces the autopilot-centric design of the Model 3. Said Musk on Twitter about the layout: "It will make sense after part 2 of the Model 3 unveil.", which will come by the end of 2016.
Sounds great, I want one now!
Hold up, not so fast. The Model 3 isn't for sale yet.
Alright, fine, can I pre-order a Tesla Model 3 instead?
Yes! Well, technically, it's not a pre-order. You're reserving one, or at least your spot in line for one, and the privilege will cost you $1,000. You can reserve a Model 3 online or at a Tesla Store.
Going to the Tesla Store has some benefits. For one, you can pick up some Tesla swag while you're there. But you can also take a Model S for a test drive and get a feel for what a Model 3 will be like (just smaller, less expensive, and not quite as fast). It'll help tide you over until the Model 3 starts production in late 2017.
Wait, late 2017?!?!
Yep. Sorry. Tesla's Fremont factory technically has enormous capacity — when it was co-run by GM and Toyota, the factory was putting out more than 500,000 vehicles a year. It's enormous — roughly 88 acres — and includes facilities for constructing the electric motors, cutting and pressing aluminum body panels, and assembling the entire vehicle.
The big hang-up is battery production. Tesla hopes wants to be pumping out 500,000 cars a year by 2018, but their current manufacturing capacity is sitting at roughly 10% of that. If Tesla were to ramp up production today in Fremont to their desired levels, they would require the entire world's production capacity of lithium ion batteries to keep up — and those batteries go in everything from smartphones to drones to cameras to medical equipment.
So Tesla is building their Gigafactory in Nevada purely to produce batteries. Construction started in 2014 and the factory is expected to start producing battery cells for vehicles by 2017. The Gigafactory will be enormous — once it's fully completed in 2020 the 13.6-million-square-foot facility will be the second largest single building in the world. Only Boeing's Everett, Washington, factory is bigger, and they build 747 jumbo jets. Even though it's partially complete, the Gigafactory is already producing batteries for Tesla's PowerWall and PowerPack energy storage solutions.
Tesla has already received more than 373,000 Model 3 reservations, with more rolling in every day. So once production starts up at the end of 2017, it might be a while before your car is ready to be delivered — these early reservations will take a while for Tesla to work through, possibly well into 2018. The sheer number of pre-orders was enough to give Musk pause, saying that Tesla was "definitely going to need to rethink production planning.".
Complicating matters is the geographic roll-out that Tesla is planning for the first Model 3 deliveries. West Coast North America customers will get first access, followed by a staggered roll-out across the United States and Canada, and then eventually expanding internationally to Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. Additionally, previous Model S and Model X buyers will be given precedence in the Model 3 line.
If you were waiting to place a reservation for a Model 3... you should probably stop waiting and reserve your Tesla Model 3 now. The list isn't getting any shorter.