We first heard about BlueStar in 2007. It was the third — and biggest — step in Elon Musk’s plan to bring EVs to the masses. Think about it: Barack Obama was the junior Senator from Illinois, the iPhone was brand new, Twitter was less than a year old, Tesla’s only model was the Lotus-based Roadster, and the best-selling vehicle in the America was… the Ford F-150. A lot has changed since then (except the F-150 bit), but that third step in Tesla’s program has remained the most crucial one: a pure EV for the masses. The company’s whole future depends on its success — the cars, the Powerwall, the Gigafactory, everything. And that’s been the plan all along.
But since 2014, once we found out BlueStar was going to be called Model 3, we haven’t known much more than what Tesla was willing to tell us — and it wasn’t willing to give up much. It would have a range of 200-plus miles, it would take on premium entry-level cars, it would start at $35,000 (though it could end up being much cheaper if EV tax credits are extended), it would bear the brunt of the company’s ambitious 500,000 car a year production goal for the 2020s, and it would be here by 2018.
So last night, as over 115,000 people flooded Tesla Stores and its company site to plunk down their $1,000 deposits on a car they’d never seen, Musk gave the presentation of his life at sister company SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, unveiling the single product that will decide the future of the world’s highest profile EV company. And after the years of hype, the frustrating delays of earlier products, the years without profit, the talk of “Tesla’s unlimited potential” — everything — the night was his. It worked. The Model 3 is here, and it is good.
Amid cheers of “You did it, Elon!” from the crowd, Musk refreshed what little we already knew, and dropped a few new key details. The Model 3 will arrive with a range of at least 210 miles. It will hit zero to 60 in single motor spec in under six seconds — Mustang EcoBoost territory. It will have the company’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system standard. It will have a five-star safety rating. And according to Musk, it will have the best interior room in its class, thanks to a forward cabin with shallow dashboard, high, gently sloping greenhouse, and enormous thin panoramic glass roof. And like the S and X, it will have a front and rear trunk for plenty of storage.
Outside, the Model 3 perfectly seems to split the difference between S and X design while having a look all its own. Perhaps most noticeably, Tesla has continued the trend set by the X and done away with a front grille altogether. While it may take some getting used to for some customers, it’s also an important step in EV car design: It means the cars are becoming accepted enough to begin differentiating them from their gas-powered counterparts. More importantly, it also means that people aren’t afraid to buy them anymore.
The aforementioned tall greenhouse is a welcome change from the current gun-turret styling that seems to make so many current cars so dreary from the inside, and the shockingly low front fenders and Porsche-esque front end are way sexier than they need to be — but then again, since Tesla is officially peddling “S-3-X” now, it’s more than appropriate.
Inside, the interior is shockingly, concept car-level minimalist. If Tesla showed the base $35,000 models last night (Musk didn’t specify), then competitors like BMW, Audi, and Mercedes could be in serious trouble. Like some of the greatest mass-produced icons of the past (Volkswagen Beetle, original Mini), the only instrumentation is center-mounted on the dash. But unlike those cars, the Model 3’s is a powerful 15-inch touchscreen that controls every function on the car. The seats look similar to the space-age thrones found in the Model X, and combined with that unbroken and expansive view from the driver’s seat (plus all that overhead glass) we imagine the 3 will be a fine place to spend some time.
Having a visual reference for the Model 3 clears up a lot, but some key questions still remain. What are the battery options? Will the 3 be made of cheaper steel, or will Tesla use more expensive aluminum like in the bigger S and X? What’s the top end of the model range? And (perhaps most importantly to gearheads) will there be a performance version to augment Tesla’s bonkers 762-horsepower P90D? At the launch, Musk said “I do feel fairly confident that it will [start deliveries] next year,” which may give the thousands who are still recovering from the myriad of Model X delays flashbacks. But he also added: “I want to emphasize, that even if you buy it with no options at all, this will still be an amazing car. You will not be able to buy a better car for $35,000 – or even close – even if you get it with no options.” If what we saw last night is what we’ll get for that price, we’re inclined to believe him.
So there could still be delays. And Tesla’s ambitious scaling up to meet Model 3 demand could prove troublesome for the still-small automaker. Or — worst case scenario — car buyers just don’t take to the Model 3. A lot can still happen, but after years of rumors, hints (or lack thereof), and plans, the Model 3 is finally here. And from this early point, it looks a lot like the car Elon Musk promised nearly a decade ago looks like it really could deliver as promised. It isn’t easy to make us think a single car model could actually change the automotive world. But in the afterglow of Tesla’s big night, the Model 3 looks like it has a real shot.