WE TALKED WITH Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer, about the Model 3, his third Tesla car, and briefly about the Tesla truck and the new Roadster II—a surprise during the truck unveiling late last year. Von Holzhausen, a born American despite his Teutonic-sounding name, has deep industry experience, having created the Pontiac Solstice and heading Mazda design in California before being headhunted by Musk for Tesla. He is familiar with his company’s products, owning one of each model. “My kids love the Model X, especially the falcon-wing doors,” he says. “They’re 5 and 3 years old and think it’s fun.”
What was the design brief for the Model 3?
FVH: It was essentially customer-driven. They saw the Model S as a great car, but there was a desire for something 10 to 20 percent smaller, BMW 3 Series or Audi A4 size. We thought the $35,000 price point would work. We wanted five seats, more interior space, and to keep the fastback silhouette.
What was the timeline on the project?
FVH: From initial sketches to production launch was about two years. We made three prototypes, two of them operating vehicles. Once the mission was defined, our orders were to hurry.
But you were late in terms of the announced dates.
FVH: We’re actually pretty close to the dates initially announced.
What’s particularly special about the Model 3?
FVH: To keep the fastback profile, we eliminated the liftgate and used a normal trunklid. To keep a faster profile, we moved the structure ahead, to make sure the [head impact criteria] were all met. The big backlight is something we had experience with on the Model X windshield.
What else did you bring forward from the S and X?
FVH: For instance, we knew that flush door handles were important, but we simplified the mechanism, so they are not as costly. We kept good aerodynamics for range as well as to make the car sporty. Not silliness, just clean and sporty.
The $35,000 price point is exciting, but your own car you let us drive is more like $55,000.
FVH: Yes, with the premium interior package and 15-speaker audio system, 19-inch wheels, and other options, the price is higher, but the base cars will be really nice without any options.
When did you decide to totally eliminate the grille and front trim?
FVH: That was a long time coming. We made the early cars less distinct from rivals but slowly came to this solution of how to keep a premium sports feel friendlier and happier than the luxury S. We changed that car, too, modifying 200 to 300 parts when the S was restyled without the painted “shield.” AM