What’s this then?
This is the Tesla Model 3, Elon Musk’s first foray into proper mass production and his company’s most affordable car yet. Priced at $35,000 (P1.76 million) in basic form it costs half as much as its bigger Model S brother, and could be the car that starts the charge from internal combustion to EVs in the mass market. That’s certainly what Musk and the Tesla team are hoping—they’re aiming to go from a current annual production of 80,000 cars in 2016 to 500,000 by 2018, a ramp up that Musk described as looking like "a lot of pain."
Is it just a shrunken Model S, or more than that?
The Model 3 (which Musk wanted to name the Model E, to give him a range of S E X) is about 20% smaller than the S, so think of it more as a BMW 3-Series/Jaguar XE alternative. Initial deliveries will be of the RWD model offered in two specifications. The standard car starts at $35,000, will do 354km on a charge, hit 96kph in 5.6 seconds and top out at 209kph. The long range version which starts at $44,000 (P2.21 million), is good for 498km, 96kph comes up in 5.1 seconds, and it has a 225kph Vmax. Dual-motor AWD versions will follow later in the year with performance derivatives some time in 2018.
Whereas the Model S and X are predominately constructed from aluminum, the 3 features greater use of steel but still weighs in at 1,609kg (in standard spec) in comparison to the base Model S at 1,961kg.
The exterior design is in line with the rest of the range, and with aesthetics being largely subjective I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Personally I’m not 100% sold on the looks as it feels like it’s lost something in translation from last year’s concept to production. There are some nice design features though, the roof and rear screen are one continuous piece of glass providing greater headroom in the back seats. More important, the lack of cooling intakes in the front and the overall simplicity of the design (batteries requiring less cooling than any internal combustion engine) make the Tesla very aerodynamically efficient with a drag coefficient of 0.23 which should help eke the most out of the range.
Give me some ludicrous numbers.
With the early cars being rear-wheel-drive, non-performance derivatives, the usual Tesla Internet fodder of supercar-slaying performance figures aren’t that evident. More staggering are the numbers of people queuing up to buy one. In the first 24 hours following the announcement of the Model 3 last year, Tesla had taken 115,000 reservations. By the first week, the number hit 325,000, which will deliver potential sales revenue of $14 billion. Musk says the current order bank sits at "over 500k and that’s without us really trying to sell it, we don’t advertise."
Can it drive itself?
Yup, like the rest of the Tesla range the Model 3 features the Autopilot system which is capable of fully autonomous driving. But to benefit from the full capability you’ll need to tick the Enhanced Autopilot ($5,000) and Fully Self Driving Capability ($3,000) options. Do that and the latest iteration of Autopilot fitted to the Model 3 will have the ability to handle motorway intersections, Autosteer+ will pilot you down more complex country roads, and Smart Summon will allow the car to leave your garage and navigate its way round to your front door. But while the Model 3 is clearly capable of keeping Tesla at the forefront of the autonomous revolution, legislation and software approval are holding it back.
Does it still have a steering wheel?
Yes, for now the interior still features all the conventional controls you’d expect. The Tesla team went to lengths to explain that the Model 3 has been designed to simplify everything from its construction to its operation. Gone are the Model S's projecting door handles in favor of nicely crafted aluminum ones which project like those on an Aston. Open the door and slide in and the interior is incredibly simple and uncluttered. The steering wheel features two buttons which adjust everything from the traditional (volume, radio frequency) to the more unique (door mirror adjustment and steering wheel positioning). It’s a smart approach and highlights the thought that’s gone into the simplification of the cockpit, but not at the expense of functionality. The main focus of the interior is the configurable 15-inch horizontally mounted LCD screen which displays all information, from speed, gear selection and autonomy functions on the left to large scale navigation and connectivity on the right.
The car we drove was a long-range model with all the options list ticked, including the Premium Upgrade Package. It featured leather seats and a wooden dash inlay panel that spans the width of the cockpit, and the aforementioned glass roof that provides the interior with a huge feeling of light and space. It’s all simple, elegant, uncluttered and nicely crafted. There's plenty of room in the back for three adults.
So, did you get to drive it and or did it drive itself?
Well both actually. We were sent out in batches of four for a limited drive on the roads around Tesla’s Fremont factory. My co-pilot was Jerome Guillen, who was the project lead on the Model S and whose actual car we were driving. The Model 3 is rapid and the acceleration is delivered with a lovely linearity and unwavering torque that EVs deliver. The overall feeling of peace and quiet is helped by the uncluttered interior, and the sound deadening and insulation of the Model 3 is impressive. The steering is meaty and positive, but beyond that the overall impression was that it stays true to previous product dynamics.
Our brief excursion also allowed us to test the Autopilot, a system that still feels like witchcraft. The levels at which the car is capable of processing information are staggering and, if we’re honest, it’s clearly concentrating a lot harder than most of us after a hard day at the office. It will happily allow you to take your hands off for as long as it knows what’s going on and can read the road, if it doesn’t it warns you to place your hands back on so it knows you’re not asleep.
Anything else I should know?
Having spent some time in the Tesla bubble, what’s clear is that the radical thinking and desire to disrupt the automotive landscape remains undiminished. With the handover and presentation of the first Model 3s done, now the hard work begins as they try to ramp up to delivering half a million cars a year. The Model 3 is a significant milestone in the Tesla story and could leave others trailing in its wake if they can deliver against the insatiable early demand for it.
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.