FREMONT, California — Tesla has been promising a great electric car for the masses since its founding, and on Friday that car finally arrived.
Before a handoff of the first 30 Model 3's to owners at Tesla's factory in California, I got to spend about 15 minutes behind the wheel of the latest car of the future (I had also been given a short ride in a prototype Model 3 in March 2016 when the vehicle was revealed in Los Angeles).
I've driven all Tesla's vehicles, from the original Roadster to the flagship Model S P1 00D. They've all impressed.
But the Model 3 is something else.
I drove a well-optioned car: a premium version with 310 miles of range, a zero-to-60 time of 5.1 seconds, and a lovely minimalist interior, all leather and open-grain wood, with tasteful brushed metallic accents, a 15-inch center touchscreen, and no instrument cluster, and a roof made almost entirely of glass.
The midnight silver Model 3 I took for a spin had aerodynamic aluminum wheels and looks a lot like a smaller Model S, echoing the bigger sedan's sloping fastback rear roofline. It's a sharp car, and unmistakably a Tesla.
When you slip into the driver's seat, you're immediately presented with ... not much in the way of distractions. There's no key. Instead, you lock and unlock the car using your smartphone and an app. There's a credit-card-sized backup that can be swiped over the exterior near the door handle, which itself is recessed and chromed, but not self-presenting as in the Model S.
The steering wheel has a pair of multifunction, customizable, toggling thumb wheels that can be used to adjust mirrors and control audio functions (the sound system is quite good, by the way, with music streaming and the usual radio, but also USB and Bluetooth connectivity if you want to go that route). There are two control stalks, one controlling P-R-N-D — sort of like a smaller version of the old column shifter — the other handling turn signals.
Everything else happens on the screen: climate control, driving dynamics, navigation, communications, speed, turn signals. It takes a bit of getting used to, but only a bit. I was basically agog at how pleasant it was to contemplate an unspoiled expanse of dashboard. You don't even really have vents for heated and cooled air. There's one long, thin slot running from one side of the dash to the other, and using the screen, you can literally move the airflow around.
This all looks very cool, but it also makes the interior less complicated to build — and that's a boon to Tesla, because they have to build enough Model 3s to satisfy what could be over 500,000 preorders.
The seats are comfy and supportive without being overly snug. If you really need a serious, sporty seat in your car, the Model 3 might disappoint. But it will be fine for most folks.
On the road, the Model 3 is snappy, with all that juicy torque we know and love from Tesla and other electric cars. I piloted a rear-wheel-drive vehicle (all-wheel-drive dual-motor cars will come later) and enjoyed the speed, which wasn't head-snapping like Ludicrous Mode in a P100D, but more than peppy enough to keep my attention and get me to stop looking at the dashboard.
The handling was crisp — and crisper when I adjusted the electric power steering to Sport mode, which took away any vague lightness and added just the right amount of heft. The brakes are regenerative, which always takes a bit of re-familiarization, but they stop the car from going fast very capably. There's also a surprisingly big trunk, and a "frunk," giving the Model 3 enough cargo capacity to challenge some compact crossover SUVs.
The bottom line is that the Model 3 is as compelling in its own right as the Model S was before it. No, it's not as nice a vehicle as the Model S, and CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly noted this. But it's extremely nice. At its price point, about $45,000 for the fancier version, the Model 3 is going to blow many, many minds. This is easily the most attractive entry-level luxury, all-electric car on the market.
I drove it for no time at all, but I've driven pretty much every other all-electric car you can buy, and I can safely say that the Model 3 has no competition.
But it's more than that. Even though it's a small four-door and the market is moving away from this type of vehicle to embrace crossover and SUVs, there isn't anybody who's going to sit in the driver's seat of this car and not want it, if only briefly. The Model 3 stokes immediate desire, and the lust lingers. That truly changes everything.
Now all Tesla has to do is build half a million.
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