Payne: Why I’m buying a Tesla Model 3

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I think the new all-wheel drive Ford Focus RS will run rings around the Tesla Model 3 for the same price. I don’t believe the gasoline engine is the Fifth Horseman of the Climate Apocalypse. I don’t think Uncle Sugar should hand out $7,500 checks to buy electric cars.

So why did I put down $1,000 to buy a $35,000 electric Model 3 last week?

Because it’s the most intriguing auto story since the Model T, and Elon Musk is the boldest America auto entrepreneur since Henry Ford. In short, I want to be along for the ride.

In 1908, Henry Ford introduced his $950 Model T to a customer stampede. “It was an overnight success,” says Matt Anderson, transportation curator for The Henry Ford museum. “With a lightweight, steel chassis and sophisticated engine, it was the first good, affordable car.” Sound familiar?

By 1917, Ford was selling a staggering 785,433 Model Ts a year for $360 a pop, hitting a peak of 1.8 million a year by 1923 at a price of just $260. The Model T single-handedly created a national network of gas stations. It spawned the Rockefeller Standard Oil empire.

And it buried the battery-powered cars made by competitors. Until now.

Late Thursday I signed into Teslamotors.com to report on the live webcast of the Model 3’s unveiling. I bypassed a form to reserve my own Model 3. At midnight, Musk introduced the 215-mile-range, $35,000 Model 3 to the world and autodom witnessed something new: Within 24 hours, 180,000 customers had signed up to buy it. It was no April Fool’s joke. By Saturday, that number had climbed to 232,000.

I talked with fellow auto writer Aaron Gold on the ground in Los Angeles. He said he hadn’t seen anything like the around-the-block lines at Tesla stores since the iPhone’s launch.

“We are simply awestruck by the demand surfacing for the Model 3,” wrote one auto analyst. Even Musk admitted he was surprised.

Saturday afternoon I was back at Teslamotors.com (Michigan, ahem, doesn’t allow Tesla stores) to drop my own grand for fear Tesla would shut down orders. After all, “in May 1909 Ford actually stopped taking new orders,” says Henry Ford’s Anderson, “because every car it could build had already been claimed.”

Why would I make a deposit on an untested car? With a featureless face that’s creepier than Voldemort? That I may not get until the end of the decade?

Because I already know what the Model 3 is capable of. It is, after all, the $70,000 Tesla Model S’s “mini-me.” And the Model S is unlike anything on the road (and, based on Tesla design sketches, I suspect that face is going to get more interesting).

The Model S, introduced as a 2012 model, has blown away the luxury car segment. Last year it outsold the iconic BMW 7-series and Mercedes S-Class. The reason is simple — it’s a high-tech rocketship. I have driven everything from the base 70-kilowatt Model S to the $139,000 P90D in “Ludicrous” mode. (The P90D goes from 0-60 mph in a dizzying — literally, its instant torque briefly unsettles the inner ear — 2.8 seconds.)

The Model 3 is to the Model S what the BMW 3-series is to the 7-series. It has the same DNA in a smaller package. The same aluminum chassis. The same batteries-in-the-floor design, which creates best-in-class passenger space and best-in-class center-of-gravity (for wicked-good handling).

Tesla confirmed my order immediately on Saturday afternoon.

Musk promises first deliveries by late 2017, though I’m dubious given past delays. Full production at Tesla’s Fremont, California, plant is not slated until 2019. California customers will be first in line with deliveries, which then roll eastward by region.

“Reason initial cars are delivered close to factory is to have rapid turnaround on early issues,” Musk tweets (imagine Henry Ford tweeting). And there will be “issues,” no doubt. The Model S has been plagued with quality problems, as might be expected from a startup manufacturer

The Model 3 is hardly perfect and neither is its maker. Like the controversial Mr. Ford — who meddled in employees’ private lives and beat up unions — Mr. Musk is famously intemperate and has disingenuously claimed his cars produce zero emissions (in truth, auto electrification will require a massive expansion of centralized, carbon-powered infrastructure). Auto genius, it seems, breeds eccentrics.

It also breeds underdogs. And like Ford, Musk’s big, risky bets have made him an instant American folk hero.

The wait for my Tesla will be trying, no doubt. Especially since I have a lot of other cool cars on my wish list. Take Mr. Ford’s latest offspring — the 2017 Focus RS, which I will soon test.

The Focus RS, a $36,605 five-door, AWD hellion will never run out of charge on track days. It will spit snow in Detroit winters and stomp the Model 3 from zero-60 (4.6 seconds vs. a claimed sub-6 for the Tesla). A similarly equipped dual-motor, all-wheel drive Model 3 (like that tested by colleague Gold after the LA launch) will reportedly post an RS-like zero-60 time. But it will likely sticker north of $50,000. What’s more, the Ford’s face is a pet bulldog vs. the Model 3’s blank mug.

With a battery gigafacory still to build and billions in tooling still to assemble, Tesla may see half its buyers defect to the similarly capable Chevrolet Bolt due this fall.

Tesla is what inspired the 200-mile-range lickety-split Bolt. Musk’s vision has forced every serious automaker into the performance electric car space, from Chevy to Porsche (the Mission E) to Audi (the Q6 eTron). With the resulting volume in metro areas, the Model 3 & Co. will likely change energy infrastructure just as the Model T did. To paraphrase “Field of Dreams”: Sell them and the charging stations will come.

The Model 3 may not be the Model T. But it’s the auto story of the 21st century. And its mad genius creator will be tweeting every step of the way.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Reach him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Or Twitter: @HenryEPayne