The Jeff Spicoli of Electric Cars
Admit it, when you first saw the Lotus-based Tesla Roadster way back in 2008, you thought it was another flare-up company that was going to have trouble meeting regulations and production targets, and run out of money in a few months. Yeah, we did too. Turns out we were right BUT unlike the majority of car company startups, Tesla managed to stay afloat thanks to a steady diet of subsidies, VC funding and early adopters plunking down deposits. Frankly, we’re glad they did. Now, with two models in production and the electric car for the masses on the way after having been debuted last night in Tesla’s Hawthorne, California design center, we think it’s time to take a look at the American company that is almost singlehandedly changing the way the world looks at electric cars.
Tesla’s master plan is an interesting one when you apply it to cars. Start with a flashy, exciting high cost/low volume product (aka Tesla Roadster) and use those sales to finance further development on your next tier, mid-cost/mid-volume product (Model S). Take your Model S profits and reinvest them in technology and manufacturing which allows you to bring your low cost/high volume product to bear on the market. If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s how most technology companies work. So now that we’ve had Phases 1, 2 and 2.5; what will Phase 3 bring us? How can Tesla make their affordable car exciting? Well, after watching South African Tony Stark’s keynote at the Model 3 launch, it seems they’ve figured out how to do just that.
The Model 3 immediately looks like a Tesla which is to be expected considering that it was penned by the same guy who did the Model S and Model X, Franz Von Holzhausen. In fact, it looks like a scaled down, more elegant version of the decidedly “Pontiac Aztek from the future” Model X. The proportions work better on the smaller car and the more delicate front end design makes the car seem sporty and less truck-like. Speaking of the front end, Tesla’s crusade against the front grille continues on unabated. Look guys, we get that an electric car has vastly different cooling needs than an internal combustion car and that having a closed front end is no doubt better for the purposes of reducing drag, but our eyes and minds just aren’t there yet. We want to see a face on the front of our cars still. That said, the front does have a little Porsche Panamera vibe going on and that’s not a terrible thing, also it kind of looks like the Predator with his mask on.
The side profile features the same gorgeous front fender design that we’ve seen on the S and the big greenhouse and hatchback/coupe/BMW 5-series GT thing even kind of works. The door handles are gorgeous and the doors themselves seem well designed and should allow easy ingress and egress for both front and rear seat passengers. The rear is a little featureless. There are a few character lines there, it just isn’t enough to really get us excited. Say what you will about the Panamera or the Audi A7’s backside, they at least get you talking. The cars that they brought out at the debut had three different wheel options, all of which were interesting. We especially liked the turbine style wheels on the red car.
Details on the interior are a little thin on the ground right now. What we do know is that the engineers say that they are fairly close to what we can expect from the production model. The Model 3 tosses out the Model S’ more traditional gauge cluster and huge 17” vertical touch screen center stack in favor of no gauge cluster and a horizontally mounted 15” touch screen. We see what they’re trying to do but really, it just makes the interior feel a bit cheap and overly spartan. The seats look to be carried over from the Model S and Model X and will no doubt be lovely. An interesting feature of the Model 3 is the way that the designers have moved the dash further forward which in-turn allows a more forward seating position for front seat passengers and copious amounts of leg room for rear seat passengers. Musk insists that the Model 3 will seat five adults in comfort. This is a claim that this author, at 6’4”, would like to investigate more closely. Like all 2nd generation Teslas, the Model 3 will have both a rear cargo area and a “frunk” and supposedly will allow any potential Spicoli’s to fit a seven foot long surfboard in the vehicle’s interior. Radical.
In terms of performance, Musk tells us that the base Model 3 will be able to reach an EPA certified 215 miles on a charge and will hit sixty in less than six seconds. All Model 3s will support Supercharging and will have free lifetime access to the Supercharger network. All Model 3’s will also be equipped with Tesla’s fancy pants Autopilot feature which allows semi-autonomous driving and parking abilities. It works pretty well now, we can only imagine it will improve further in the time it takes for the Model 3 to come to production which will supposedly be at the end of 2017. Given the fact that Tesla has pushed back the release of basically everything it’s ever made, our hopes for that aren’t high.
Tesla hopes to sell a half million cars per year across all its models and given that they received over 180,000 deposits in the first day, 115,000 of which were placed before the car had even been revealed, it seems like that target may be well within reach. The Tesla factory in Fremont, CA was upgraded recently to allow for an increase in production and in its heyday as the NUUMI plant, it was cranking out 500,000 cars in a year quite easily. This massive upswing in production will also require Tesla’s Gigafactory to be cranking out lithium ion batteries. According to Musk, his volcano lair… crap, we mean Gigafactory, is already operational. The Gigafactory will have the largest footprint of any building on Earth and an internal volume second only to Boeing’s factory in Washington State.
What does all this mean? It means that those of us who finally got excited about electric cars with the success of the Model S can finally have a chance to own one. Living in Southern California goes a long way toward highlighting the benefits of electric cars. The price of gasoline here is horrendous and with such a significant portion of our commutes being in traffic, the idea of sitting in comfortable silence, not contributing to air quality problems is pretty appealing. Throw in that we have a pretty well developed network of vehicle charging stations and even people in apartments can make an electric vehicle like the Model 3 work for them. This could finally be the sea change that we, as a society, have been looking for. We love combustion powered cars. There is nothing as exciting as the sound of a carbureted V12 or a flat six howling away at 9,000rpm, but if switching to an electric vehicle as our daily driver helps keep our thirsty toys topped off for a while longer, then we’ll happily buy in and offer tribute to our new semi-benevolent Bond villain overlord.
Photos Courtesy of Tesla Motors