Thirty-six hours before Elon Musk hands the keys to the first 30 purchasers of the new Tesla Model 3 electric car, we are waiting at a gravel parking lot at the corner of Mullholland Highway and Old Topanga Road in Malibu. "What time is it?" somebody asks. "8 a.m." replies videographer Cory Lutz as he and Travis Labella ready an arsenal of GoPros. Everybody—photographers Brian Vance and William Walker, me, the video guys—are taking turns shooting glances up Old Topanga. We're watching for a red car.
8:05: "There he is," I hear somebody say. He is Franz von Holtzhausen, chief designer for Tesla. And the red car is not only his, but it's also one of the most awaited and speculated-about automobiles in years—the Tesla Model 3, a car I've overheard relatives talking about who don't know how many cylinders their Camry's engine has. The scene felt a little like Hollywood paparazzi staking out Justin Bieber again, but this time it wasn't a hijacking. In a somewhat intimidating coup, Franz is going to let me tear up and down nearby Stunt Road in it (and what better name for a test route, eh?).
Franz emerges. Although he's a pedigreed car designer after deployments with VW, GM (Pontiac Solstice), and Mazda, the guy's seemingly Hollywood-cast for the Tesla taste-meister part, in black jeans, back T-shirt, and aviator sunglasses. And his car appears remarkably similar to the prototype. "We softened the nose's frown a little, and these proximity sensors are new, of course," he says with a shrug. At the back, the parting lines do elegant double-duty as air-separation creases, the charging port's flap flips upward now, and there's no external badging at all, besides the Tesla logos. Franz climbs into the passenger seat as I slide in on his left. "Drive it like you own it," he commands. "Like you own it," I correct him with a crooked smile.
Anyone familiar with the Model S will quickly feel oriented with the smaller Tesla Model 3. There's the shifter stalk on the right (reverse up, drive down, depress for park), but now with extra taps once under way, it doubles as the cruise-control lever. All of the car's infographics reside on a 15.4-inch, landscape-oriented multitouch screen that's perched on an austere, sweeping, almost Scandinavian-simple, dash. And being a Tesla, it's an hors d'oeuvre tray of software delectables. Interior air (from subtle vents) is aimed by moving spots around on the display, even dividing the airflow to send it past each ear. There's a wallet-able security card that plugs in, acting as a valet key. Other coolnesses? Franz' car is a loaded version—a Premium (add $5,000), meaning better-grade materials, wood-veneered dash, 12-way front seats, 12-speaker sound, heated rear seats, side-by-side inductive phone chargers, and that panoramic glass ceiling that nevertheless protects like SPF 90 sunscreen. A detail that tickled me: One of the assignable functions of the twin thumb scrolls on the wheel spokes is tilting and telescoping the steering column. Cool. You adjust the wheel with your hands right where they should be. It'll take a lot more miles than this to decide if the single off-center screen completely substitutes for a conventionally located gauge cluster, but I'm already adapting to it. At least I can always see the mph display near my right hand position (upper left corner of the screen) versus it being often half-hidden behind spokes.
Tesla worked hard to increase interior space, and subjectively it succeeded. For a compact car, the Model 3 feels incredibly light and airy. The dash is pulled ahead and pressed down, but cleverly, the touchscreen is apart from that, close to your right hand. (It was embedded into the Model S' dash, constraining them to be equidistant.) The Tesla Model 3 has a trunk opening instead of a Model S-like hatch to delete the hatch-required crossmember, which shaves rear headroom. The prototype's trunk opening was criticized as too small; now it's yawning. And at 15 cubic feet, with a very low lift-over and 60/40 folding rear seats, it looks hungry for a surfboard or a bike. (Franz assures me of this; he's a cyclist.) Up front, the frunk is precisely sized to hold a carry-on suitcase. "If it's too big here," Franz says, "you're going to have to check it." I tap the stalk down into drive, and we arc out onto Mulholland.
And then the foot goes down. How does it drive? The gush of torque clearly indicates DNA shared with the Model S. Yet it's a new motor specific to the 3; Franz is coy about its horsepower, but Tesla's claim of 0-60 in 5.1 seconds seems right when paired with this car's $9,000 long-range battery. Yes, there's a choice of two batteries. Tesla's trying to change the vocabulary we're using to describe it, from "kilowatt-hours" to "range." Franz says the standard one (while still doing 0-60 in 5.6 seconds) will travel 220 miles, but his provides 310 miles of range. (Supercharging is available but at a fee that's attractive compared to filling with an equivalent amount of gasoline.)
What's blanching, though, is the car's ride and handling. If anybody was expecting a typical boring electric sedan here, nope. The ride is Alfa Giulia (maybe even Quadrifoglio)–firm, and quickly, I'm carving Stunt Road like a Sochi Olympics giant slalomer, micrometering my swipes at the apexes. I glance at Franz—this OK? "Go for it," he nods. The Model 3 is so unexpected scalpel-like, I'm sputtering for adjectives. The steering ratio is quick, the effort is light (for me), but there's enough light tremble against your fingers to hear the cornering negotiations between Stunt Road and these 235/40R19 tires (Continental ProContact RX m+s's). And to mention body roll is to have already said too much about it. Sure, that battery is low, way down under the floor. But unlike the aluminum Model S, the Tesla Model 3 is composed of steel, too, and this car's glass ceiling can't be helping the center of gravity's height. Nearly-nil body roll? Magic, I'm telling you. Magic. And this is the single-motor, rear-wheel-drive starting point. The already boggled mind boggles further at the mention of Dual Motor and Ludicrous.
The photographers stare, looking bummed they haven't gotten everything they wanted, but Franz has got to go. He's heading up to that same key handover in Fremont. Handshakes, then the red car silently whooshes out of sight around a corner, leaving a vacuum that's instantly filling with questions: Have I ever driven a more startling small sedan? I haven't. At speed, it gains a laser-alertness I haven't encountered before. By happenstance, associate road test editor Erick Ayapana had penciled me into a 2.0-liter Alfa Romeo Giulia to get here, and it feels like a wet sponge by comparison. Technological fascination? Besides what I've already described, the Tesla Model 3 is available with Enhanced Autopilot ($5,000) and for another $3,000 what's called "Full Self-Driving Capability" in the future. A lot of money, sure—but how many $35,000 cars offer that? Or for that matter, standard over-the-air updatability?
But of course, Franz's car isn't $35,000. A quick summing of its features puts it at about $59,500 before incentives—including $1,500 for the larger 19-inch wheels (18 inches are standard), and a grand for the red multicoat paint. (You can have any no-extra-cost color as long as it's black. Seriously.) And it'll be a while before $35,000 versions are built, but reservation holders can place an order for an upgraded Model 3.
As we pack up, I'm thinking. Recently I've been spending some time in Motor Trend's long-term Chevrolet Bolt EV and with every mile edging closer to calling it The Automobile 2.0. With its affordability, stress-free range, and delightful driving qualities, I'm thinking that maybe this is where the second era of the car commences. Pause that thought. With the Tesla Model 3's performance, slinky style, fascinating creativity, and, critically, its Supercharger safety net, I think this is truly where it begins. Here at the corner of Mulholland Highway and Old Topanga Road.
|2017 Tesla Model 3|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Rear-motor, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|MOTORS||AC induction, 235-hp/317-ft-lb rear (MT est)|
|BATTERY TYPE||60-85-kW-hr lithium-ion battery (MT est)|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,550-3,800 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||184.8 x 72.8 x 56.8 in|
|HEADROOM, F/R||39.6/37.7 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.7/35.2 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.3/54.0 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||15.0 cu ft|
|0-60 MPH||5.1-5.6 sec (mfr est)|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||8 yrs/100,000 miles (120,000 miles with long range)|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||105/110/107 mpg-e (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB RANGE||220-310/225-315/222-312 miles (MT est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||27/26 kW-hrs/100 miles (MT est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|
|*Before potential federal and state tax rebates and including the $1,200 delivery fee on the Model S **At vehicle|