Elec­tri­fied by a short ride in Tesla’s Model 3

The in­tu­itive na­ture of the car’s minimalist de­sign is cap­ti­vat­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY PETER HOL­LEY peter.hol­ley@wash­post.com

The rau­cous crowd had dwin­dled to a few dozen hang­ers-on. The in­ter­na­tional re­porters had re­turned to their ho­tels, and Tesla’s bil­lion­aire chief ex­ec­u­tive, Elon Musk, had dis­ap­peared into his Fre­mont, Calif., fac­tory about an hour ear­lier.

Tesla’s Model 3 roll­out was es­sen­tially over, but in a nearby park­ing lot where the first test rides of the elec­tric car were be­ing of­fered, the night’s en­thu­si­asm had yet to wane.

In al­most any other cir­cum­stances, a silent, three-minute ride around a poorly lit fac­tory park­ing lot that barely cracked school-zone speed lim­its would have been a laugh­ably un­der­whelm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But for many rid­ers, my­self in­cluded, this time was dif­fer­ent.

One spin in the Model 3 just wasn’t enough. Jour­nal­ists, fac­tory work­ers and fam­ily mem­bers, and ran­dom rev­el­ers on hand to cel­e­brate, re­turned to the back of the line over and over again as if the un­der­stated elec­tric sedan were a fu­tur­is­tic car­ni­val ride.

“That was fan­tas­tic,” one man said as he got out of the car. “Can we take pic­tures?”

“Can we do it again?” a woman asked.

It is likely that the ef­fu­sive re­ac­tions were at least partly in­flu­enced by Tesla’s flashy PR cam­paign. Com­pany han­dlers had been force-feed­ing at­ten­dees a diet of Model 3 ex­u­ber­ance for sev­eral hours with mes­mer­iz­ing videos, splashy lights, up­beat dance tracks and free drinks — giv­ing peo­ple the feel of hav­ing an ex­clu­sive back­stage pass to the au­to­mo­tive fu­ture.

“This is the world’s first mass­mar­ket elec­tric ve­hi­cle,” we were told. “You, my friend, are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing his­tory!”

From the mo­ment you sit in­side the Model 3, you do sense that you have en­tered un­charted ter­ri­tory. What made the ex­pe­ri­ence unique, how­ever, is the equally im­me­di­ate sense that this un­charted ter­ri­tory is fa­mil­iar. Call it driv­ing deja vu. I at­tribute that feel­ing to the in­tu­itive na­ture of the Model 3’s minimalist de­sign. But it also has to do with how the car seam­lessly in­cor­po­rates tech­nol­ogy that is al­ready sec­ond na­ture in many peo­ple’s ev­ery­day lives. In­stead of peer­ing into a clut­tered dash­board, for ex­am­ple, you see crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion about the ve­hi­cle arriving via a clean, 15-inch dis­play that will look in­stantly rec­og­niz­able to any smart­phone user.

That said, the door han­dles may take a few tries to get used to. I got car­ried away and waved my hand over them ex­pect­ing the Tesla ge­nie to open the door for me. Alas, the year is 2017, not 2117.

“We aimed for a very sim­ple, clean de­sign, be­cause in the fu­ture — re­ally, the fu­ture be­ing now — the cars will be in­creas­ingly au­ton­o­mous,” Musk said Fri­day. “So you won’t re­ally need to look at an in­stru­ment panel all that of­ten. You’ll be able to do what­ever you want: You’ll be able to watch a movie, talk to friends, go to sleep.”

With the dash­board de­void of but­tons and the typ­i­cal in­stru­ment clus­ter in the driver’s line of sight, your eyes are drawn in­stead to the road ahead. The wind­shield wipers, head­lights, map­ping, tem­per­a­ture, mu­sic and steer­ing wheel can be ad­justed with a few taps on the hor­i­zon­tal dis­play. The speedome­ter is also promi­nently dis­played here, in the up­per left cor­ner, a fea­ture that our driver said ini­tially caught him off guard, but which now seems safer and more in­tu­itive than glanc­ing be­hind the wheel to check your speed.

The Model 3 — touted as the first “mass-mar­ket” elec­tric car — will start at $35,000, go from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 sec­onds and reach up to 130 mph. It has a range of 220 miles to 310 miles and is de­signed to “have the high­est safety rat­ings in ev­ery cat­e­gory,” the com­pany said.

“This car feels like an au­to­mo­tive tip­ping point, a sign that elec­tric ve­hi­cles — and hope­fully, the in­fra­struc­ture that sup­ports them — have fi­nally come into their own,” Wired’s Jack Ste­wart ob­served.

To be fair, Tesla, for all its revo­lu­tion­ary rhetoric, is hardly the first auto to en­ter this space. Prospec­tive buy­ers are al­ready com­par­ing the Model 3 to the Chevy Bolt, Mo­tor Trend’s 2017 Car of the Year and the 2017 North Amer­i­can Car of the Year. The Bolt’s 240-mile bat­tery range is slightly longer than the Model 3’s base range.

One ma­jor dif­fer­ence be­tween the ve­hi­cles, how­ever, is price. With in­cen­tives, the Bolt is avail­able for less than $30,000. With in­cen­tives, the base Model 3 is com­pa­ra­bly priced, but pack­ages and op­tions can nearly dou­ble the price tag. A Model 3 with ev­ery pre­mium op­tion would cost about $60,000, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est de­tails re­leased by the com­pany.

The com­pe­ti­tion, it seems, is on.

“This is a di­rect chal­lenge for Tesla to make the Model 3 any­thing near the Bolt EV for the same price,” Mo­tor Trend ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor Mark Rechtin said. “Chevro­let has made af­ford­able, long-range elec­tric trans­porta­tion avail­able to the masses. Elon Musk should be afraid. Very, very afraid.”

TESLA VIA REUTERS

Tesla Model 3 cars at Tesla’s Fre­mont, Calif., fac­tory, where the com­pany handed over its first 30 Model 3 cars to em­ployee buy­ers Fri­day.

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