Three hundred ten. That’s the electric range of a $44,000 version of Tesla’s Model 3, unveiled in its final form Friday night. It’s a jaw-dropping new benchmark for the cheap range in an electric car, and it’s just one of several surprises Tesla had in store as it handed over the keys to its first 30 customers.
Tesla has taken in more than 500,000 deposits at $1,000 a piece, Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk told reporters ahead of the event. That’s created a daunting backlog that could take more than a year to fulfill — even before Musk took the stage in front of thousands of employees, owners and reservation-holders to lift the curtain on the company’s most monumental achievement yet.
“We finally have a great, affordable, electric car — that’s what this day means,” Musk said. “I’m really confident this will be the best car in this price range, hands down. Judge for yourself.”
Here’s some of what Tesla disclosed at its plant in Fremont, California:
Two battery versions
Tesla has simplified the manufacturing process “dramatically,” Musk said. In the same factory space where Tesla can build 50,000 Model S or Model X cars, it will soon be able to produce 200,000 Model 3s. Part of that is due to a simplified package of options.
The car comes in two battery types: standard ($35,000; range: 220 miles) and extended range ($44,000; range: 310 miles). Only two other electric cars in the world have broken the 300-mile range barrier: the most expensive versions of Tesla’s Model S and Model X, which are ultra-luxury cars that cost $100,000 or more. The long-range Model 3 has cheaper range availability than the current record holder, the $37,500 Chevy Bolt, which can go 239 miles on a charge in a package that’s significantly outclassed by the Model 3.
The $35,000 standard Model 3 version won’t be available until Fall. The longer-range version is available now for the thousands of Tesla employees who placed reservations last year. A $5,000 premium options package includes an all-glass roof, open-pore wood decor, premium sound, heated seats and premium seat materials.
Unlike previous cars, Tesla didn’t disclose the size of its two battery packs. All cars will be identical from the outside, with no additional badging indicating battery size or premium options. The plan is for the Model S and X to eventually do the same.
We drove the Model 3
The Model 3 is elegant inside and out, and in ways that are difficult to appreciate from the photos. I was allowed to drive one before the event. It’s not as fast as the more expensive Model S — the quickest production car in the world — but the steering is tight and it feels somewhat lighter on its feet because of its smaller footprint and lighter battery. The glass-roofed interior feels like a mini-atrium, and the touch screen is bright and intuitively laid out.
There were a few technological surprises. The ventilation system is a marvel, stretching in one long strip that spans the front seat. The touch screen allows both the driver and the passenger to instantly direct a wide flow of air wherever they want it. The scrolling dials on the steering wheel move in all four directions and allow you to adjust everything — from the side windows to the music playlist.
Some of the executives responsible for the Model 3 have been there from the beginning, leading Tesla from a tiny upstart to an icon of automotive desire. Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel was the battery architect behind the original Tesla Roadster. Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausen designed the company’s three most vaunted accomplishments: the Model S, Model X, and Model 3.
“The interior is nothing like any other car out there,” said von Holzhausen. “When you get in the car, how does it feel? When you see the car, how does it make you feel? When you drive the car, what does it inspire in you?”
Curse of the S Curve
Despite these achievements, Musk sounded grave about the road ahead. “The biggest challenge that we face here is ‘S Curve’ manufacturing,” he said, describing a ramp up of production that starts slow, then increases dramatically before tapering off. “That ‘S’ portion is us going through hell, basically.”
The Model 3 is an all-new auto platform for Tesla, with a new motor technology and a new battery architecture. The car is designed for ease of manufacturing, and even the dashboard is completely void of knobs, dials and gauges. Almost everything is controlled with the car’s single 15-inch touchscreen, which accepts inputs from voice commands and the two control knobs on the steering wheel.
Musk reiterated his projections of a very slow start in the next few months and then ramping up rapidly to a rate of 20,000 a month by the end of the year, and 50,000 a month by the end of 2018. It’s an aggressive schedule that will more than double Tesla’s total production rate in six months, and then quintuple it by the end of next year.
“I have high confidence that we’ll get to the end of the ‘S Curve,’ but it is impossible to predict the shape of it,” Musk said.
The key challenge, of course, is making all of these cars quickly enough and without the problems that plagued the launch of its more complicated Model X. Tesla aims to make 500,000 cars a year in 2018 and is counting on its battery factory under construction near Reno, Nevada, to drive down battery costs. Both the Gigafactory and the Fremont factory have showers, and some employees have sleeping bags, in anticipation of the long nights ahead.