Pared-down electric experience: Driving one of the first Model 3s off the line

FREMONT, Calif.—On Friday at Tesla’s factory, Ars got behind the wheel of one of the first Tesla Model 3s off the factory line. It was a quick, 5-minute guided drive around the factory, but it gave a quick impression of what may be Tesla’s most important car.

After all, Tesla has been working up to the launch of the Model 3 for years. CEO Elon Musk’s dream has been to build an affordably-priced electric vehicle for mass production, and he’s consistently framed the the Roadster, the Model S, and the Model X  as luxury vehicles destined to subsidize a lower-priced electric car for the masses.

The $35,000 electric vehicle’s interior is more spartan than the Model S or Model X. Air ducts are hidden and there’s no instrument cluster directly in front of the driver. All the information you need about the car is found on a single, horizontal screen mounted in the center of the dashboard. The side mirrors and steering column are adjusted with two marble-sized trackballs where your thumbs might rest on the steering wheel.

As for the drive, the car is just as responsive as any other electric vehicle—that is, far more so than those with internal combustion engines. It won’t go as fast as a Model S or X (130 mph is the top speed in the Standard model, and if you purchase the newly announced Long-Range battery for an extra $9,000 you can get up to 140mph). It also only has one motor instead of the dual-motor system you find in the older cars. Although we didn’t have much time to put the Model 3 through the paces, steering was tight and didn’t feel cheap. That said, you can feel the road in the Model 3 more than in an Model S. Tesla’s challenge will be managing the expectations of people who only associate the marque with high-end vehicles.

Specs at a glance: Tesla’s Model 3
Standard Long-Range
Price $35,000 $44,000
Range 220 miles (EPA estimated) 310 miles (EPA estimated)
0-60 5.6 seconds 5.1 seconds
Top Speed 130 mph 140 mph
Home Charging Rate 30 miles of range per hour (240V outlet, 32A) 37 miles of range per hour (240V outlet, 40A)
Battery Warranty 8 years, 100,000 miles 8 year, 120,000 miles
Deliveries Begin Fall 2017 July 2017

But Musk is getting better at managing expectations. The Tesla CEO has a habit of making dramatic, reaching promises and then spending the next year, or years, fending off prying questions from reporters and investors and trying to meet the farthest-reaching goals. But with the Model 3, Musk’s not making any wild promises.

“We’re going to go through at least six months of manufacturing hell,” the CEO said in a meeting with press on Friday afternoon. “I would certainly advise that you consider prior production ramps, past stories will tend to fundamentally not appreciate that manufacturing is an S-curve.”

Manufacturing is the key

Musk has spent the last several months saying that his company is trying to specialize in manufacturing as much as it’s trying to specialize in electric cars. Tesla has even gone so far as reorganizing the company’s Fremont factory to accommodate the Model 3. “In the same amount of space that it takes to build 50,000 Model Ss, we can build 250,000 Model 3s,” Musk said on Friday.

Tesla hit manufacturing speed bumps getting its previous S and X models up to 20,000 units a year (and this year, to 50,000 units a year). The company battled engineering issues, quality control issues, and problems with suppliers in learning how to build their luxury models. (Musk called Tesla a “drama magnet” compared to his other endeavors like SpaceX in a recent investor call.) But both luxury cars benefitted from smart branding and a huge cult following—meaning unmet demand is the major frustration for new customers.

With the Model 3, Tesla has a double challenge—the car maker has to not only manage expectations for the speed of the cars off the production line, but it has to make buyers understand that these $35,000-$44,000 cars will not be as nice as the Model S and X.

Which is maybe why Musk spent so much time “sandbagging,” as he put it.

“There’s 10,000 unique components in the car, and production will move as fast as the slowest one,” he said. Musk turned to a slideshow image of a world map, showing cities around the world with lines drawn to Fremont. “This is an ICBM strike on Fremont,” Musk said, with deadpan humor. Actually, the image depicted component factories that supply the Model 3 and how far they travel to the Fremont factory. About 70 percent of those components come from NAFTA areas, and the other 30 percent come from elsewhere around the world, Musk said.

Part of this challenge is that the Model 3, like the S and X, will be sold with all the hardware required for full autonomy, although the base-price Standard option only has a few such features engaged like emergency braking. For an extra $5,000, customers can purchase Autopilot with the same features you’d find in the Model S—matching speed to traffic conditions, lane-keep assist, automatic lane-changing, and self-parking. Eventually, people who’ve purchased this package will be able to add full self-driving capability for an extra $3,000 (that’s $8,000 total). That option is subject to “extensive software validation and regulatory approval,” the company warned on a press sheet circulated on Friday afternoon.

Eventually, Musk said on Friday, Tesla wants to put out 500,000 Model 3s a year, although he predicted about 50,000 Model 3s will hit the streets next year. At the factory on Friday evening, the first 30 vehicles were delivered to Tesla employees. Deliveries will be made slowly over the next year, starting with customers that already own Model S or X vehicles.

Another thing of note is that the Standard Model 3 and the Long-Range Model 3 have two different batteries, so you can’t upgrade your Standard to a Long-Range vehicle when you find an extra $9,000 down the line. But both cars use 2170 cells in the battery—that is, the cells are slightly bigger than those found in the Model S and X at 21mm by 70mm, and they can deliver almost twice what the current 18650 cells deliver to the Model S and X in terms of current. The pack itself is also more integrated with the charger and the rest of the car in its build.

The car is also a mix of steel and aluminum, compared to the mostly-aluminum Model S.

Other small details: the Model 3 doesn’t have automatically extending door handles (you have to push the handles in on the left, and pull from the right, which might be an issue for people with small hands). There’s also no key. The car will open with a compatible Tesla app, or, if you don’t have a smartphone, a keycard that you can put in your wallet to help the car recognize you.

Selling the car

Tesla also went to great lengths on Friday to express that if you have the means to buy the S or X, the company thinks its higher-priced cars are still better than the Model 3. After Ars drove the Model 3, the company offered rides in some Model S vehicles on the factory’s private test track just to remind the press that the more expensive vehicles are better.

Musk also bristled at a question about reservations for the Model 3, saying that it was “aggravating” to keep hearing the question. “We do everything we can to unsell a car,” Musk said. “Have you ever seen an ad for a Model 3?” The CEO then went on to say the net reservation number was currently “over half a million.”

An additional challenge now is that the Model 3 is six months behind Chevrolet’s Bolt, which Ars drove in February. That base-price EV starts at $37,495, and has a range of 238 miles. But enthusiasm for that car is reportedly lukewarm compared to the devotion of the Tesla faithful.

Listing image by Tesla

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