Payne: Why I’m all in on Tesla’s Model 3

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Apple’s Steve Jobs made a career of re-innovating familiar products (the music player, the cellphone, the newspaper) for the digital age with sleek models (the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad). Tesla’s Elon Musk is walking in Jobs’ footsteps with the automobile.

Taking a page from the Apple genius and his “Stevenotes,” Musk likes to introduce his creations on stage before thousands of adoring fans. But unlike silver-tongued Jobs, the geeky Musk’s “Elonnotes” are halting, disjointed affairs. The products, however — Model S, Model X, Model 3 — are no less spectacular.

Almost 18 months ago I put down a $1,000 deposit to buy an electric Tesla Model 3. I was intrigued not only by its Model S-on-a-budget performance but by the most audacious auto startup since the Ford Model T. Friday night I watched with anticipation as Musk rolled on stage and introduced the first Model 3s into the wild.

Am I ready to write the balance of the check? You betcha.

Like the iPhone, the roomy Model 3 is a premium (read more expensive than you think) product with sleek, minimalist design, excellent performance and a different user experience. Unlike the iPhone, it enters a highly competitive auto market where it will stand out in some areas and lag in others.

Billed as a sports sedan, the Porsche-lookalike Model 3 lives up to its promise. I have driven the rear-wheel drive Model S in everything from its base trim to its full blown, all-wheel drive P90D “Ludicrous” drag-racer mode. It is a uniquely capable automobile worthy of its reputation.

I will test drive the Model 3 later this fall, but a handful of media peers got some time with the Model 3 last week before Friday’s “Elonnotes,” and have confirmed to me that the 3 is the S Junior.

You already know that electric means 100-percent torque off the line, and big-battery EVs like the 75- to 100-kWh Model S and 60-kWh Chevy Bolt showcase neck-snapping acceleration. In the case of the Model S P90D that acceleration is so violent as to cause inner ear dizziness. The Model 3? Motor Trend’s Kim Reynolds and CNET’s Tim Stevens both tell me the acceleration to 60 mph is quick — at low-5 seconds, somewhere between the Bolt EV and base 75-kWh Model S.

But the real revelation of electrics is their handling.

With battery mass under the floor of the car, they have a very low center of gravity. Indeed, the Model S has the lowest CG — along with the Subaru BR-Z sports car — in autodom. This means I can drive it around cloverleafs like a mad man on rails.

The 3 goes one better than the S: It weighs a whopping 600 pounds less at 3,814 pounds (or about the same as a similarly sized V-8 Chevy Camaro SS but with a lower CG).

“I was surprised at how nimble it was,” says Motor Trend’s Reynolds, who tested the car hard through mountains of Malibu, California. “It has little body roll. The harder I pushed it, the smaller the car felt.”

That’s what we reviewers say about Camaros and BMWs, too.

I enjoy the hot-rod, hot-hatch Chevy Bolt. But with rear-wheel drive, the Model 3 puts down the power better and is easier to rotate through corners. That’s a key attraction to gearheads like me who has been looking at, say, a BMW M2. Model 3 will carry a similar, $50,000 price tag, too.

The 3 may be Tesla’s first 200-mile-range-for-under-$40,000 car, but the “Long Range” Model 3 I reserved Saturday (just after the news conference) will cost me at least $49,000 after adding $9,000 for the 310-mile-range battery and $5,000 for leather seats and tinted, permanent sun roof. That, and Tesla won’t start delivering base models until the middle of next year.

How many of the 500,000 customers who have put down $1,000 deposits will turn to a Bolt EV in the meantime? After all, at just $43,510 a fully loaded the Bolt has better range than the base 3 (238 miles vs. 220) and more features like Android CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone app connectivity and leather interior.

Car guys will pay the 3’s premium.

And not just for performance; what is really transformative about the Model 3 is its interior. Again taking a page from Apple, Tesla has created a minimalist interior space with no gauges, and a big, 15-inch horizontal (the Model S goes 17-inch vertical) touchscreen. Others have tried this — notably another startup automaker named Saturn (Detroiters may remember) with its Ion model — but Tesla is a brand designed for the iPhone age.

But isn’t Tesla swimming against the trend to head-up, driver-centric displays? Yes, and when I’m eating up twisty roads in Hell, Michigan, that could be a distraction. But both Reynolds and CNET’s Stevens say they didn’t find it an issue since EVs don’t require a tachometer — just a digital readout for speed.

One gauge that will require checking in the screen, however, is battery range. At 310 miles, my $50,000 Model 3 will get to Lansing-and-back with plenty of room for a detour through Hell for some misbehaving. But take it 180 miles to Gingerman Raceway on Lake Michigan with my buddies for a track day and I’ll suffer. Where do I find a Supercharger (or even a fast DC charger) to get back? And will the Model 3 — like the Model S at Car and Driver’s Lightening Lap test last year — go into limp mode?

Those are questions for extreme use, of course. But for now, they are not disqualifiers. Just as BMW laid down the benchmark for entry-luxe performance with its 3-series, so has Model 3 set the bar for EVs.

Mine should arrive first-quarter 2018.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.