As Tesla enters its third calendar year of sales for its Model 3 without having kept its promise of a base model starting with a price of $35K, we put our minds to determining exactly what such a car might be if Tesla ever decides to keep its promise to fans and those who placed pre-orders for one.
First up, what makes Tesla special? There is no single answer to this question. We've covered Tesla closely here since the Model S was revealed and I can't speak for the other writers who have moved on since that time, but as the first of our group to drive the Model S, and one of the longest-running EV journalists in America, I can give my personal impressions.
A Tesla Is All-Electric - So by that measure, any vehicle that Tesla produces will be a Tesla in some sense.
A Tesla Has High Performance - Here we think there is a debatable point that a $35K Tesla Model 3 may not live up to the company's standards. We'd guestimate that the 0-60 MPH time for the car would be about 6 seconds. That is fine by me personally. A small sedan with that much performance is great. But not special. Certainly not what any enthusiast would consider a performance car. The Camry, Accord, Malibu, and Fusion top trims are all faster than that. There are $35K Civic trims quicker than that. This one's a toss-up.
A Tesla Has Long Range - Would a Tesla with less than 225 miles of range be considered long range? Not anymore. That bar has been raised since Tesla started teasing out info on the Model S. The new Leaf can do better than that (226). As can a Kia Niro EV (239) and the Bolt (239). Tesla's medium-range Model 3 with its 264-mile range rings in with zero options and all black at over $45K including delivery charges. What exactly is Tesla going to take out to save $11K?
A Tesla Can Be Charged Free At Any Supercharger - Tesla has already diminished its brand strength by changing this policy as every new Tesla buyer knows. Paying to charge at a Supercharger means Tesla's new Model 3 is just bit less special than it could have been.
All Teslas Are Black On Black In Color - Of course not. But every $35K Tesla would have to be. Tesla charges for any other color combination, so a $35K Tesla is likely to be one color. Black with black interior. Not exactly the top choice in areas with road salt and the hottest possible color combination in hot climates.
Teslas Have Autopilot - Well, at least to this Tesla fan they do. Who in their right mind buys a Tesla and does not get Autopilot? Why select a Tesla with the same driver aids as come standard on every Toyota (even the ones under $20K)? Without Autopilot a $35K Tesla is just another compact EV sedan.
With production, 1st you need achieve target rate & then smooth out flow to achieve target cost. Shipping min cost Model 3 right away wd cause Tesla to lose money & die. Need 3 to 6 months after 5k/wk to ship $35k Tesla & live.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 21, 2018
Elon Musk tweeted last year that building a $35K Model 3 at that time would kill the company. Well, it's been eight months since Tesla first produced 5,000 Model 3s in a single month. Yet, still no $35K base model. He's a genius, and maybe a bit of a drama queen at times, but we think he's right that a $35K Model 3 could kill Tesla. Not because it would break the bank. That seems to be impossible with legions of loyal fans propping up the stock price even in the worst of times. What could really kill Tesla is producing a cheap car that does not have the ingredients that make Tesla's product special. And a $35K Tesla Model 3 does not sound very special after you look closely at what it might be.
-Postscript - For Tesla to actually sell a $35K car to a buyer it would need to be priced in the high $33K range because the Tesla delivery and destination fees tack on over $1,200. Remember, Tesla isn't selling through a dealer network. It is the manufacturer and does not have to charge a delivery fee. Tesla opts to do so.