Tesla is getting ready for its biggest reveal yet: The Model 3, the $35,000 sedan designed to take electric cars mainstream.
As the fateful date approaches, the company has been dropping hints about what to expect from a project that has been a decade in the making. With just a few days left before the big show, here’s everything we know, as well as a few things we’ll be watching for Thursday:
1. It Will Be Roomy, Like an Audi A4: The Model 3 will be about 20% smaller than the Model S, or roughly the size of an Audi A4, CEO Elon Musk said. The A4 is a five-seater that feels a bit roomier than some of its rivals in the compact luxury category. (The Model 3 will compete with BMW’s 3 series in the class of entry luxury cars). Backseat riders might gain some leg room because an electric drive-train obviates the need for a transmission tunnel, the hump in the middle of the floor. There’s also no engine in an electric car, and Tesla likes to use that empty space for a “frunk” — a front trunk — for extra storage. Will that feature survive in the smaller Model 3?
2. It Will Be Ready to Ride: The Model 3 is now the company’s top priority and is “going to be probably the most profound car that we make,” according to Musk. At this week’s event, a working prototype will be ready onsite to take reporters for “a quick spin,” according to invitations sent out March 15. Musk had previously indicated he might not show the full car, which won’t officially go on sale until late 2017. It will be interesting to see how “finished” the prototype is and determine how much is still being worked out.
3. But Will It Be a Mini Model S?: The biggest unknown about the Model 3 is its look. Will it have the distinctive oval front end of the Model S or the tight-lipped mouth of the Model X? What about those huge windshields? Tesla may have given a clue with the invitations, which feature pictures of the Model S, the Model X, and a silhouette in place of the Model 3. As some Tesla watchers have pointed out, the silhouette is a perfect match for the Model S. So was the image just a Photoshop trick, or will the Model 3 look very much like a shorter version of the Model S? When asked via e-mail if the company would like to clarify, a Tesla spokesperson simply replied: “Ha.”
4. Call It a Reservation for 3: Tesla is reportedly already taking reservations from employees looking to buy the Model 3 and will offer the rest of us the same chance at its showrooms on the morning of March 31, before the unveiling. Online reservations at the newly acquired domain Tesla.com begin at the start of the event — 8:30 p.m. West Coast time. A deposit of $1,000 is required up front, but it’s refundable at any time.
5. Get in Line: Even if Tesla’s late 2017 delivery goal is successful — a big if, given the company’s record of missing deadlines — it could still be a while before production ramps up. Whenever deliveries start, reservations from previous Tesla owners and those buying highly-optioned versions of the car will be first in line. In other words, get those deposits in as soon as you can if you want a Model 3 in the near future.
6. No Signature Series: Unlike Tesla’s premium luxury cars, the Model 3 won’t come in a souped-up Signature Series. Don’t worry, though. The carmaker will still be happy to take your money for upgrades, possibly including a bigger battery, all-wheel drive, autopilot, and ludicrous speed. In February, Musk expressed regret over how a hefty $140,000 Signature Series price tag became associated with the Model X SUV before the rollout of the $80,000 base version. Tesla has been careful to brand the new Model 3 as a $35,000 car and will want to keep it that way, even if the average bill ends up closer to $50,000.
7. Free Range: Tesla promises a range of at least 200 miles per charge. If it offers the same 60 kilowatt hour lithium-ion battery pack planned for the 2017 Chevy Bolt, its range could beat that mile-marker considerably, based on the Model 3’s small size and the performance of other, larger Teslas. It’s even conceivable that Tesla could meet its 200-mile goal with a cheaper 50 kWh pack. On the flip side, upgrades could allow for batteries as big as the 90 kWh pack currently available on the Model S.
8. There Will Only Be One (For Now): Despite some speculation to the contrary, only one car is to be unveiled this week: the Model 3 sedan. Rumors circulated that Tesla might also announce a crossover vehicle, but the company says this event will focus exclusively on the Model 3. The Model 3’s skateboard chassis will be used for additional models later, beginning with the popular crossover class, according to the company. (One person not likely to be seen at the Model 3 unveiling: Tesla’s former chief spokesman, Ricardo Reyes. He left the company just two weeks before the unveiling; neither Reyes nor the company has offered an explanation.)
9. All-New Platform: This will be Tesla’s third auto platform: the Roadster, the Model S and X, and now the Model 3. To make the Model 3 affordable and adaptable, Tesla had to start from the ground up. ”For better or worse, most of Model 3 has to be new,” Chief Technology Officer JB Straubel said in October. “It’s a new battery architecture, it’s a new motor technology, brand new vehicle structure. It’s a lot of work.” Straubel, Musk, and Jason Wheeler, Telsa’s new chief financial officer, have stressed how much the Model 3 has been designed for ease of manufacturing in order to move quickly and cheaply into mass production numbers. Question: How much of the car will be made of lightweight aluminum vs. cheaper steel?
10. About Those New Batteries…: The new battery’s composition will particularly interest electric vehicle watchers because it accounts for a third of each car’s price tag. Any significant improvements in cost or energy density could help push the entire industry forward. In a February earnings call, Musk assured investors that Tesla’s massive battery factory in Nevada is on schedule and will be producing both battery cells and finished packs by the end of this year. “You shouldn’t worry about the Gigafactory as a constraint,” Musk said.
11. But At What Price?: The basic Model 3 will cost $35,000 before government incentives, which in the U.S. range from $7,500 to more than $13,000, depending on the state. Tesla’s federal incentives will begin to phase out when the company reaches 200,000 in cumulative U.S. sales — probably in 2018, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That could reduce the chance of anyone getting their hands on a Tesla for less than $30,000, as initial deliveries will be for pricier versions of the car.
12. Expect Fewer Whistles (and Fewer Bells, Too): In addition to being “a slightly smaller version of the Model S,” Musk said in Hong Kong in January, ”it won’t have quite as many bells and whistles.” Will the company keep its standard 17-inch dashboard touchscreen? Brake assist? Cupholders? What new tricks might Tesla have up its sleeve?
13. New Factories, Coming Soon: In addition to the flagship Fremont Factory in California, which the company has been building at a rapid clip, and the battery Gigafactory in Nevada, Tesla aims to open additional Model 3 factories in China and Europe as soon as 2018.
14. It Will Be Autonomous-Ready: The Model 3 will probably come equipped with sensors for autonomous driving, even if Tesla will require additional fees to activate them. In January, Musk predicted that in 10 to 15 years, all new cars will be autonomous. He also said that roughly a third of people will forgo car ownership in favor of shared car services such as Uber, or the Tesla equivalent.
15. With a Long Warranty: The Model 3 will have a warranty similar to that for the Model S, including an eight-year, infinite-mile, transferable warranty on the battery pack and drive unit, Musk said on Twitter in August 2014. That’s important because Consumer Reports dinged the company last year for reports of excessive drivetrain problems.
16. Don’t Call It the Model III: The car’s logo may be three parallel bars, but don’t call it the Model III, Musk told followers on Twitter. The bars should be horizontal, similar to the stylized “E” in the Tesla logo. That’s no mistake: Musk originally wanted to call it the Model E, which would spell out “SEX” with his full lineup of Model names. He had to settle for ”Model 3” because Ford wouldn’t give up the trademark it owns.
17. Still, a Reason for Skepticism: The Model S is now the best-selling large luxury vehicle in the U.S. With the Model 3, Tesla will be competing in a much larger, better-established category. No matter how much some electric car enthusiasts care about reducing pollution, good intentions don’t sell category-winning cars. The Model 3 will need to compete on its merits: drivability, reliability, safety, cost, convenience, comfort, and style. Tesla has a good record, but so does its new class of peers.
By Tom Randall