Tesla's given us a glimpse of its latest Model 3, and it's packed with slick improvements. The sensational ride handles itself quite well on all types of terrain. The interior matches Tesla's exceptional style. USA TODAY
FREMONT, Calif. — The new Tesla Model 3 sedan has impressive older siblings, the Model S and X which can run upwards of $100,000.
But after a short drive in this spartan yet sprightly vehicle on roads surrounding the company's massive factory here Friday, it's clear the Model 3 has inherited a lot of its family DNA from those machines while cutting back on enough bells and whistles to bring the starting price down to $35,000.
Stab the accelerator and the car sprints like an Olympic 100-meter champion, thanks to the instant torque provided by its battery-powered electric motor. Launch into a turn and the steering feedback provided by the thick, sporty wheel is direct and measured. Lift off the throttle and that familiar regenerative braking starts slowing the car before you hit the brakes.
Visibility fore, aft, and up is ample, thanks to a massive two-pane glass roof that also serves to make the more compact rear seating area feel larger.
The Model 3's center console has modernist touches, smooth surfaces that pivot and pop, revealing a variety of storage areas as well as a place for two smartphones to charge side by side.
The trunk is conventional — no massive automatic lift-gate that reveals optional rear-facing seating as in the S — but large enough to stow the luggage of your best friend and his family after picking them up at the airport.
The exterior is not a surprise, since Tesla long ago teased the car. But while it largely borrows successfully from the svelte Model S, there's something a bit off with the front grille. Whereas the S and X offer a serious and simple face, the Model 3's divoted front end seems to be trying to smile.
The car shouldn't try to be cute. it's not its vibe.
Self-driving car enthusiasts will be pleased to hear that the Model 3 will come packed with the same dense array of cameras, radar and other sensors that are critical to autonomous driving, but activating them requires purchasing the Autopilot package.
The fit and finish of this Model 3, which was among a few dozen handed over to employees at a ceremony Friday led by CEO Elon Musk, was tight. Panel gaps were perfect. Doors open and closed with a solid thunk. Now, Musk just needs to, as promised, make 499,999 more a year to the same standards.
So where are the compromises? If the Model S and X scream high-tech science experiment, Model 3 whispers it.
The dashboard highlights this difference the most. Unlike the S and X, there is no instrument gauge of any kind in front of the driver. Instead, a lone 15-inch horizontally arrayed display seems to hover in front of the long wooden dash.
One of the most ingenious parts of the Model 3 that represents a true departure from automotive tradition is the inclusion of a single thin opening in the dash. That's for air, hot or cold, to blast into the cabin (no more individual vents) and it's all rather simply and ingeniously controlled by touching your fingers to the screen and swiping over the part of the car where you want most of the AC or heat to be directed.
There's another bonus of the single screen for Tesla. Engineers explained that beyond simplifying the driver experience — all of the car's functions are accessed here, with some features controllable by thumb-dials on the steering wheel — this solution also simplifies assembly. It makes producing left- and right-hand drive versions of the Model 3 easier.
The Model S and X's snazzy door handles are small blades that anticipate your arrival (thanks to an app on your smartphone) and greet you by automatically extending outward. You're on your own with the Model 3, whose cleverly flush handles manually lift out when you press down on one end.
The test model we drove actually was sticker priced at half of a plusher Model S, or $49,000 — $44,000 for a Model 3 with a 310-mile battery range and zero-to-60 mile-per-hour time of 5.1 seconds, plus extra for aero style wheels, an upgraded sound system and a few other goodies (the $35,000 base model comes with a 220-mile range). Those seem like logical upgrades, ones that help ease range anxiety and offer a slighter more enjoyable ride.
While the Model 3 may be an entry-level Tesla, there remain a few tech features that make you feel part of a hip club. For instance, once your smartphone is connected to the car, your Model 3 will be alerted to your arrival or departure, unlocking or locking the car accordingly. If your phone isn't on you, a custom credit card touched to the car's center roof pillar does the honors.
Ultimately, the success of the Model 3 will not rely on the whiz-bang factor. This is a car that CEO Elon Musk wants to use to convince the mass market that electric cars are viable and in fact superior, no-compromise alternatives despite the continued presence of low-cost gas.
Can he do it? Nearly 500,000 early adopters have put down $1,000 deposits for a Model 3. That's a good start, but true success will require a zero to be added to that figure.
At first glance at least, the Model 3 could have a shot where the Chevy Bolt and BMW i3 tried and failed. Make mine silver.
Tesla Model 3
What stands out
Design: Derivative, in a good way
Price: Right on target
2017 Tesla Model 3
What? Tesla's first long-range electric mass-market sedan
When? First 30 delivered to employee-customers with limited deliveries through the end of the year. Full production next year, but Tesla has about 500,000 waiting to buy one.
Where? Made in Fremont, Calif.
What makes it go? Batteries connected to electric motors. Tesla is yet to divulge more specifics but the upscale version is capable of zero-to-60 miles per hour in 5.1 seconds.
How much range? 220 miles and 310 miles in the upscale version
How much? $35,000 for the base; $44,000 for more range
Overall: "Spartan yet sprightly"
Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava @marcodellacava