What It Is: Tesla’s more affordable, more mainstream all-electric sedan. The Model 3 will start at around $35,000 before incentives and will likely make its debut before the end of the year as a 2017 model, as Tesla generally assigns those based on the calendar year in which a car goes on sale. The smaller sedan will emulate the Model S in some respects—styling, for instance—while forging new paths for the Silicon Valley automaker in other areas, such as the driver interface. There will be seating for up to five; no third-row jump seats here. The car will have front and rear luggage compartments and versatile folding seats said to be able to accommodate a seven-foot surfboard. Overall size will be in line with the BMW 3-series, the Mercedes-Benz C-class, and the Audi A4. It’s also going to be fundamentally simpler than its bigger brother and offer fewer options, according to Tesla.
Although exterior styling changes are rather minimal at first glance versus the earlier design prototype Tesla showed last spring, in this gallery we see the first shots of the Model 3’s completely revamped, production-ready interior. Here, a horizontal screen replaces the big vertical unit in the Model S and Model X. And, as anticipated, the Model 3 carries through to production with no conventional instrument panel in front of the driver.
Why It Matters: The Model 3 is perhaps the best hope for battery-electric vehicles to catch on outside their current narrow niche, one that for most non-luxury entrants has been largely dependent on incentives. Tesla would seem to be the brand to bust EVs out of that space. Even without a franchised dealer network—or legal sales channels in some states—the company’s Model S and Model X were the two best-selling EVs in the United States last year. Overall, Tesla has managed to sell more EVs here than any other automaker. And it generated enough buzz around the Model 3 to land more than 400,000 money-down (although refundable) reservation deposits.
However, Tesla has no experience with high-volume manufacturing and is skipping some of the steps that other automakers might carry out in preparing a vehicle for its market launch. This means critics, investors, and those thinking about making the jump to an electric vehicle all will be watching this rollout closely.
Platform: The 2017 Tesla Model 3 will be built using a new body structure—to be shared with the upcoming Model Y compact crossover—that employs more high-strength steel than the aluminum-intensive architecture used by the larger Model S and Model X. It has been engineered to accommodate the Model 3’s pièce de résistance: its (optional) glass roof, which extends from the windshield header to the base of the rear window in one continuous piece. Tesla’s proprietary architecture will be used to connect components and allow over-the-air upgrades, as in the brand’s other models. Full Autopilot self-driving-capable hardware will be included with all Model 3s, and the features themselves will be enabled with future software releases.
Powertrain: Tesla hasn’t yet released specs, but it targets a zero-to-60-mph time of less than six seconds for the base version, which will be rear-wheel drive with a direct-drive AC induction motor. CEO Elon Musk has said that there will be room in the lineup both for more powerful all-wheel-drive versions and for Ludicrous-mode performance. The Model 3 is expected in base form to have a range of at least 215 miles, while some more expensive versions will top 300. Because of packaging constraints (and likely cost), the Model 3 won’t offer a battery pack larger than 75 kWh for the foreseeable future. The Model 3 also marks the debut of a new, higher-energy-density battery format, with the cells supplied by Tesla’s own Gigafactory in Nevada. Because the Model 3 is a bit lighter and leaner, we wouldn’t be surprised if its upper range limit nears the 335 miles currently offered by the top-of-the-line Model S 100D.
Competition:Chevrolet Bolt EV, BMW i3, Hyundai Ioniq.
Estimated Arrival and Price: Tesla still targets mid-2017 for the Model 3’s production start, but we expect few deliveries until later in the year, with the West Coast as the first priority. The starting price is $35,000, but considering how the Model S and Model X have been sold, the actual transaction prices could be significantly higher.