De­sign Surge

Automobile - - Contents - By Robert Cum­ber­ford

Tesla’s first foray into true vol­ume pro­duc­tion, the Model 3 has be­come a sym­bol of hope for pro­po­nents of an elec­tri­fied au­to­mo­tive fu­ture. It has also be­come a van­guard for elec­tric ve­hi­cle de­sign and styling, and it is our lat­est De­sign of the Year. EVs from Honda re­ceive con­cept de­sign hon­ors, the Lexus LC gets some recog­ni­tion, and Cum­ber­ford also out­lines his highs and lows from the past year of au­to­mo­tive de­sign.

OUR SE­LEC­TION OF the Tesla Model 3 as Au­to­mo­bile’s De­sign of the Year might come as a sur­prise, given some of the shots the com­pany has ab­sorbed when it comes to its un­real stock mar­ket val­u­a­tion and founder Elon Musk’s pen­chant for over­promis­ing. Yes, the Model 3s on the road now have been cob­bled up with a lot of hand­work mak­ing up for de­fi­cient man­u­fac­tur­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and skills. But ig­nore the com­mer­cial drama and the com­men­tary from the Musk haters and naysay­ers and take a good look at the car it­self. It’s nei­ther spec­tac­u­lar nor shock­ingly in­no­va­tive. It’s just a re­ally nice-look­ing, clean de­sign that is in­stantly ac­cept­able, de­spite the to­tal ab­sence of a tra­di­tional grille or rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the same—as seen on the first Tesla sedans. The Model 3 is quite ev­i­dently an elec­tric car, and its de­sign­ers made no ef­fort to dis­guise that fact.

For sev­eral years now I’ve said the Tesla Model S is the best sedan I’ve ever driven. That’s no longer true. It’s not that I found re­cent Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Rolls-Royce sedans su­pe­rior. Rather, I’ve done a few miles in the Model 3, which now holds the ti­tle of best four-door I’ve ever driven. What­ever the price point, her­itage, styling, rep­u­ta­tion, or pres­tige of its ri­vals, the Model 3 is qui­eter and quicker, and it rides bet­ter than any­thing else we might have con­sid­ered for our De­sign of the Year award. And as a plus, it’s a much hand­ier size than the Model S, far more prac­ti­cal for daily use in cities and sub­urbs.

For the Model 3 to suc­ceed, Tesla must build it in large num­bers out of sheet steel, not the alu­minum used for the Mod­els S and X. That’s no spe­cial trick for any of the tra­di­tional car­mak­ers, and al­though some of Tesla’s ex­ec­u­tives do have ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in the tra­di­tional “tin box” in­dus­try, it’s all new for the fac­tory team as a group. To build this car in big num­bers at a profit re­quires a lot of ad­vanced robotic op­er­a­tions that are, to date, not work­ing as planned or as they should. But we be­lieve those prob­lems will not hold them back for a long time, as long as the com­pany doesn’t run out of money.

Musk said the cabin would be “like a space­ship.” That has turned

out hap­pily to be in­ac­cu­rate, at least if we com­pare it to the or­bital craft we’ve seen so far.

Ul­ti­mately, none of this has any­thing to do with the virtues of this BMW 3 Se­ries-sized car. It has a longer wheel­base, more per­ceived cabin vol­ume, and a bet­ter, flat­ter, and more com­fort­able ride, and it’s a lot faster than most vari­a­tions of the Ger­man car that has been the class stan­dard for decades. The op­tional two-piece glass roof en­hances the sense of space for up to five oc­cu­pants, as does the ul­tra-sim­ple trans­verse panel in front of the driver and pas­sen­ger, punc­tu­ated by a huge screen in the ex­act cen­ter of the car. But that po­si­tion­ing does not mean a driver must turn his or her head to see vi­tal driv­ing data; there is a head-up dis­play on the wind­shield that pro­vides all the in­for­ma­tion you need to drive safely. A year ago when the car was first re­vealed with­out an in­te­rior we could see, Musk said the cabin would be “like a space­ship.” That has turned out hap­pily to be in­ac­cu­rate, at least if we com­pare it to the or­bital craft we’ve seen so far. The cabin’s style and pre­sen­ta­tion is more mod­ern Scan­di­na­vian than Soyuz, and it’s invit­ing.

The front seats are com­fort­able, as are the two outer rear seats, but the cen­ter one ac­com­mo­dates only a small per­son. I sat in the outer back seat and found head­room ex­cel­lent, but I did not ride there. Given the very flat ride, even bet­ter than the Model S, the weight of the bat­ter­ies in the floor and the car’s lack of body roll, I’m in­clined to be­lieve the Model 3 will be per­ceived as a kind of magic car­pet for four adults, not five. Still, that nar­row per­son in the mid­dle of the back seat will ben­e­fit from the high com­fort level as well. And ev­ery­one ben­e­fits from the ex­cep­tion­ally agree­able in­te­rior am­bi­ence.

In semi-au­ton­o­mous mode al­ready avail­able on all Tesla prod­ucts, the car will, if cruise con­trol is en­gaged, slow to a new speed limit by it­self. It’s slightly dis­con­cert­ing but quite easy to come to terms with. The same is true of its re­gen­er­a­tive brak­ing. All re­cent elec­tric cars I’ve driven of­fer the driver


An ad­van­tage of the Model 3’s elec­tric driv­e­train is the abil­ity to uti­lize both the front and rear of the car for stor­age

to the tune of 15 cu­bic feet of to­tal cargo ca­pac­ity.

a choice, a set­ting in which the car will slow down at about the same rate as a nor­mal au­to­matic-equipped car when you lift your foot off the ac­cel­er­a­tor and an­other mode in which the ac­cel­er­a­tor is al­most the only pedal you need touch. You mod­u­late the rate of re­tar­da­tion by the speed of lift­ing your foot, and in well-judged sit­u­a­tions bring the car to a halt be­fore touch­ing the brake pedal to hold it in one spot. This solution is much more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient than let­ting the car feel more like a con­ven­tional ve­hi­cle. Tesla has an op­tional “creep” func­tion that al­lows the car to move slowly if the brake pedal is re­leased.

The Model 3 is not lux­u­ri­ous in an os­ten­ta­tious, op­u­lent sense. It’s much like the clas­sic Eames chair or the deceptive sim­plic­ity of Ap­ple prod­ucts: Func­tion is em­bod­ied in a min­i­mal­ist man­ner, pro­vid­ing el­e­gant sim­plic­ity rather than some “plain pipe rack” aes­thetic like the orig­i­nal Citroën 2CV or some­thing ro­coco like a Vic­to­rian sil­ver tea set or some over­done Ja­panese sedans with “Tokyo by night” decor. We have the im­pres­sion that the stud­ied sim­plic­ity of both in­te­rior and ex­te­rior will let this car age ex­tremely well, that in 10 years it will still look con­tem­po­rary and beau­ti­fully un­der­stated, not old and ir­rel­e­vant.

There are a few unattrac­tive as­pects, as noted in our By De­sign col­umn in Oc­to­ber 2016. The in­te­grated spoiler, how­ever ef­fec­tive it might be, does look like an add-on and some­what ru­ined the pu­rity and relative el­e­gance of the pumped-up fast­back pro­file that pro­vides such good head­room for the rear pas­sen­gers. But all told, the Model 3 re­minds us of some clas­sic Pin­in­fa­rina de­signs of the 1960s: sim­ple and straight­for­ward, per­fectly pro­por­tioned with min­i­mal ex­tra­ne­ous de­tail­ing. It has all been done with un­mis­tak­ably good taste. That’s a pretty good recipe for long-term suc­cess, whether for a fancy GT car or a fam­ily sedan. AM

The Model 3 re­minds us of clas­sic Pin­in­fa­rina de­signs of the 1960s: sim­ple and straight­for­ward, per­fectly pro­por­tioned with min­i­mal ex­tra­ne­ous de­tail­ing.

By ROBERT CUM­BER­FORD pho­tog­ra­phy by BA R RY J. H O L M E S

There’s noth­ing over the top about the Model 3’s in­te­rior save its op­tional all-glass roof, which dra­mat­i­cally opens up the cabin.

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