If mind-boggling growth projected in the next five years happens as planned, Tesla’s pivotal $35,000, 200-mile-range Model 3 may the most important and society changing electric car of all time – that no one has yet seen.

Anticipated for years, a bit late to the party at this point, when a pre-production prototype is finally shown, it’s intended as the third stage of Tesla’s three-phase plan to blast EVs into the forefront of public consciousness.

Enabled by the world’s largest battery plant now being built to supply cost-effective energy, the Model 3 is to be the ”volume car” central to 15-times higher projected production for Tesla than last year’s 32,000 vehicles to one-half million cars annually by 2020.

The Model X is the car more eyes are on at the moment, and both its and the Model S' design were known years in advance of their launch. The downright elusive Model 3 – that the most jaded have called "vaporware" – could be the one to shift the paradigm when we do get to see its design.

The Model X is the car more eyes are on at the moment, and both its and the Model S’ design were known years in advance of their launch. The downright elusive Model 3 – that the most jaded have called “vaporware” – could be the one to shift the paradigm when we do get to see its design.

Stage one was the proof-of-concept but necessarily pricey Roadster, stage two is the mid-level Model S (pictured above) – which ironically can sticker for more than the original Roadster in fully kitted P85D trim. The Model X, now believed to be in beta stage could also be lumped in with the Model S as a car Tesla head Elon Musk – and many thousands of reservation holders – have a deep personal interest in.

And stage 3 – Model 3 – is the car for “the masses” – the promise for everyone else without necessarily deep pockets, and this one really has to be priced to sell.

The plan is just that, though it’s not without skeptics. But aside from direct sales of the Model 3 – whether substantial or less than planned – its influence as a goad to major automakers means this one as-yet-unseen car could be considered most responsible for accelerating EVs to the next level from today’s $30,000, 80-some-mile first-generation cars.

Presently the EV landscape has as many limited-market “compliance cars” from automakers some have said are dragging their heels to develop, but Tesla is not one of these. It is sink or swim for this electric-only startup, and since the announcement of the mystery car’s specs, it’s believed Chevrolet, Nissan, and as of today possibly Ford have been spurred to meet its 200-mile mid-30s price point and 2017 time frame.

SEE ALSO: Is a 200-Mile EV the Next Automotive Benchmark?

In September 2013, Former General Motors CEO Dan Akerson – who in summer 2013 had tasked a Tesla watch team – indicated a car of this spec was in the works in response to Tesla. Reports last year and this year have since said Nissan’s CEO said it would match GM. And Ford reportedly says it will match GM. But let’s not forget GM is matching Tesla, so could we speak of a domino-effect?

“Am happy to hear that GM plans to develop an affordable 200-mile range electric car,” tweeted Elon Musk in response to Akerson back in 2013. “Right target. Hope others do same.”

Following are some highlights on the car Tesla needs to succeed to nail home its EV agenda – an agenda that’s already underway before the star of the show has even been revealed.

Cheaper Than Chevy Bolt*

Once codenamed “BlueStar” when but a gleam in its parent company’s eyes, then later called Model E, Tesla tweeted last July the new entry level EV will be called Model 3.

While the Model S was well-stacked with pre-orders before its June 2012 arrival, and Model X is pre-ordered to the hilt, Tesla has not started taking pre-orders on Model 3, but one might presume it could open a floodgate if and when it does.

*Bolt could be priced around $37,500. Model 3, says Elon Musk, could be $2,500 less. Both woudl be subsidy eligible.

*Bolt could be priced around $37,500. Model 3, says Elon Musk, could be $2,500 less. Both woudl be subsidy eligible.

But all is quiet on the western front. Instead of Model 3 being revealed in Detroit this January as had been predicted two years prior, news was Chevrolet’s BMW i3-like Bolt had beaten Tesla to the punch.

Characteristically not dissuaded, Musk fired back that the Model 3 could be priced a couple thousand dollars less than the Bowtie brand’s best shot.

Both are expected to get 200 miles range, and Musk said $35,000 for the Model 3 is less than maybe $37,500 for the Bolt which would net at $30,000 or so after a $7,500 federal credit.

Assuming this is the case, a Tesla EV for $27,500 after tax credit – and cheaper in California and states where state credits could also be applied – would be quite an alternative to today’s top EV, the 84-mile, $30,000 Nissan Leaf (around $22,360 after credit).

Of course by 2017, there will be a new Leaf, reportedly a purpose-built Ford, the Chevrolet, possibly others, but the Model 3 has Tesla watchers hoping a lot of trickle-down cool factor from the Model S and X will be baked in.

Some have also already opined that a “$30,000” before subsidy EV today is a lot less to this price-sensitive segment than the projected “mid-30s” cars. This is true, the “benchmark” is going up, but the crop of 2017 EVs is expected to offer double the nominal range, something many may be willing to pay up for. Further, Nissan, Chevrolet and Ford have made substantial cuts to their first-gen plug-in products, have offered cut-rate leases, but not before offering them for more at first.

We’ve never seen Tesla drop its price, but manufacturer incentives, discounts, or other cost savings passed on could at least conceivably happen for the majors, if not also Tesla, to alleviate sales resistance if needed, but these speculations are really too early to settle.

Late But Not That Late

In 2013, head of Tesla design Franz von Holzhausen – who once said BMW’s i3 is like something that Ikea would have made – made statements to German magazine Autobild leading to reports the Model 3 would be shown by the 2015 Detroit auto show.

As mentioned, that show came and went in January where instead we had the surprise Chevy Bolt.

More recently, Musk told the Reno Gazette-Journal – the paper covering its nearby Gigafactory under construction – that the Model 3 will not see as many delays as did the Model S or Model X.

The Model X has been delayed a couple times, and was hoped to be here by 2013. As the Gigafactory battery plant intended to make its li-ion batteries goes up, the priority is to get Model 3 built and ready too.

“We don’t want the delays that affected the Model X to affect the Model 3 so we’ve been quite conscientious about that,” Musk said. “We want to have super high volume.”

What Will it Look Like?

If von Holzhausen sneers at BMW’s $43,000 purpose-built EV, one would surmise the Model 3 will be pretty cool, but your guess may be as good as any.

Early reports had von Holzhausen and others saying this would be a BMW 3-Series fighter – or, for that matter, an alternative to any mid-level internal combustion sporty sedan, such as an Audi A4 or Mercedes C-Class.


In October 2014 Auto Express did one of its artist conception photos of a shrunken Model S like car to plant that idea into peoples’ heads, but that may have been misleading.

von Holzhausen also said to Autobild in Germany the Model 3 will not just be a 20-percent smaller little brother to the Model S.

“The model leads Tesla to a new level. The car will show what we are about: to build electric cars for the masses,” he said. “It is not a small Model S, we do not want a unit face like Audi.”

No photos or drawings of what to specifically expect are known to have been circulated by Tesla. Considering it will cost half of a base Model S, Tesla will need to find all the cost savings it can, while delivering enough sizzle beyond the spec sheet.

Musk also told the RGJ Model 3 will be less “adventurous” at first than the Model X has been.

“We got quite adventurous with the [Model] X,” Musk said during a financial call on Wednesday. “We won’t go super crazy with the design of the initial version of the (Model) 3.”


What this may mean is a rear-wheel-drive only base-level Model 3 intended to make good on that all-important price and timing target.

“It makes more sense (at first) to go with something people love that’s functional and an amazing car and then innovate … on that platform with future iterations,” Musk said. “We’ll have different versions of the Model 3.”

Later, suggests analyst Alan Baum – in addition to Musk’s own statement – we might see all-wheel drive, bigger batteries, other fancy trimmings – and sticker prices to match.

Worth noting is the original 40-kwh base Model S was supposed to net for just under $50,000 after federal credit but that car was canceled due to low orders. Perhaps a packed Model 3 may wind up being close to that same neighborhood?

More questions than answers remain. Whether it will be auto pilot capable from the start or later is just one of many unknowns that keeps the Tesla forums busy.

An analysis by Barclays following Tesla’s fourth quarter earning announcement and shareholder documents suggests an alpha version of the Model 3 is “probable of achievement.”

Gigafactory Dependent

The Gigafactory is going up ahead of schedule, and this is the means whereby Tesla hopes to sell $35,000 U.S. built EVs and launch its company to stage three.


Barclays’ analysis notes also that spending on the Gigafactory and Model 3 has only been $107 million to date on the factory that could cost around $5 billion.

Tesla is spending ahead of demand, and will need to amp up spending as it aims to bring its paradigm-shifting mystery car to market in the next couple of years.

SEE ALSO: Gigafactory Could Open Ahead Of Schedule In 2016

The enterprise, its stock price, and media buzz all reflect this and the massive potential of the Model 3 that – if it succeeds – could already be said to be be altering the EV world as once did Ford’s Model T before it’s even gotten here.