Tesla's "affordable" Model 3 brings technology questions

  • 04-Apr-2016 07:15 EDT
Model 3 reveal - front 3qtr.jpg

Baby Model S? Model 3's styling with blunt, sans-grill nose fits nicely into Tesla's growing portfolio. (Photo by Tod Mesirow) 

The ravenous feeding habits of the 24-hour news cycle rarely turn toward automotive transportation, and usually only when a disaster has happened, such as Toyota’s acceleration mess or Volkswagen’s diesel cheating. Recently it was Tesla Motors’ turn to feed the beast with the unveiling of its long anticipated Model 3, the compact electric sedan which had successfully remained under cover because Job One is still almost two years away.

Automakers don’t normally lift their skirts quite so early in the development process, when the mules are still circulating as taped-together Frankensteins with shear-cut holes. But here were three glossy Model 3s, perhaps the only driveable examples in existence, giving rides to the 650 or so attendees at a boisterous launch party behind the headquarters of SpaceX, Tesla’s sister company in Hawthorne, CA.

The car that Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised will arrive late in 2017 as the company's volume play looks like a blunted and bob-tailed Tesla Model S. It offers five seats and both a conventional trunk and a “frunk” (front trunk) situated above a choice of batteries that will deliver, said Musk, at least 215 mi (346 km) range on the EPA cycle.

Analyzing the early details

With a base price of $35,000, but with pricier and faster variants in the pipeline (almost assuredly using 2-motor drivelines), the Model 3 is claimed to be a sub-6-s 0-to-60 mph sprinter. It’s also a fashionable way to carry a 9-ft surfboard—a design attribute highlighted by Musk.

Other notable features: a giant pane of rear glass that curves up and over the heads of the rear-seat passengers; a single, center-mounted 15-in (381-mm) touch screen that replaces all conventional dash gauges and controls, SAE Level 2 fast charging via the company's Supercharger network, and Tesla’s Autopilot self-driving capability as standard equipment. Technical details at the unveiling were slim as expected; the platform is said to be an evolution of the Model S and the body materials described as a “mix of aluminum and steel.”

During the brief test ride, in which patrons were rocketed up and down a nearby street that was sealed off by the cops, we touched a magnet to various places on the car, including the structural B-pillar, and got no “stick”—either these early prototypes were made of fiberglass or there’s very little steel in the body top-hat.

While Tesla engineers have previously talked about a potential mixed-materials strategy as they push future product development down the retail-price ladder, the prospect of an aluminum-intensive Model 3 raises the question of how profitable a $35,000 EV will be when it carries 60-80% of the battery capacity of the basic $71,200 Model S 70.

And yet to be confirmed is the car’s battery-cell form factor. Will Model 3 be the first Tesla to abandon the 18650-type “laptop” lithium battery cells used in Model S and X packs, in favor of the prismatic or pouch-type form factors that are increasingly becoming the automotive standard?

Musk promises a car that will have more cabin and cargo space than anything its size, which is roughly that of a Mazda3. The Model 3 is indeed wide, but the high, flat floor and the imposing front seat shells create a shortage of legroom in back. He might be right about the interior volume number, but only because there’s a trunk where most cars have an engine.

The Model 3 seems unlikely to weigh under 4000 lb (1814 kg), given Tesla’s current size/mass ratio in which the Model S weighs about 4800 lb (2177 kg) and the Model X closer to 5500 lb (2495 kg). That will make it a very heavy compact car indeed.

Riding on charisma

The Model 3, asserted Musk, is the affordable electric car that he got into the car business to build. “For all those who bought an S or an X,” he told the Hawthorne crowd, “thank you for paying for the 3.” Tesla marches to its own beat, and unlike the Model S and X unveilings which have been chaotic cheer-fests attended by thousands, the head-count at Hawthorne was limited and the security was air-tight. As usual, Musk had gathered his acolytes to both dazzle them with another product “leap” and also warn about the perils of climate change and the need to reform carbon-based transportation.

Tesla's CEO spoke for barely 20 minutes, without a prompter and completely improvised, stuttering a bit and sometimes breaking thought to go in a different direction or answer a call from the crowd. Perhaps no person in American public life today connects with a crowd using so many multi-syllable words. And no other car company depends so heavily for its future survival on the charisma of its chief.

The attendees we spoke with at the unveiling had traveled on their own dime from as far away as Europe with barely two-weeks’ notice after responding promptly to a mass email invite. They repeatedly stated their confidence that Elon Musk “does what he says.” He will deliver the Model 3 in 2017, it will be $35,000 (to start), and it will do all the things Musk says it will.

However, many of the Telsanauts also see completely different charm points in the Model 3. For example, Jaff Toth and Cindy Stevenson, a Model S-owning couple from Toronto, are keen on the EV’s environmental angle, noting that with Niagara Falls contributing to Ontario’s clean power percentage, an electric car has a definite green sheen. Meanwhile, Will and Jessie Harris, who came from Denver, were all over the Autopilot function. They are eagerly waiting for the day when they can send deliveries from their two pizza restaurants via self-driving vehicles. 

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