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Would a $35K Tesla Model 3 Be a REAL Tesla?

As Tesla enters its third calendar year of sales for the Model 3 without the promised base model "starting at $35K," we ponder whether a model that cheap from this luxury automaker would be a "real" Tesla.

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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.

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.

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Kumar (not verified)    January 9, 2019 - 5:53PM

"Well, it's been eight months since Tesla first produced 5,000 Model 3s in a single month."

Yes, but his tweet referenced 5,000/week. Re-calculate and you'll find he's not really off schedule yet.

Martin Winlow (not verified)    January 10, 2019 - 6:00AM

Um... What makes any Tesla *special* is primarily the fact that it is electric-powered. Sure, there is now at least *some* sort of competition but not really when you factor in that Tesla doesn't make ICEVs (at all!) and all the competition still do and they *really* don't want to makes EVs, you know? It's a paradigm-shift thing that people like the author of this article probably simply will never understand.

John Goreham    January 10, 2019 - 10:00AM

In reply to by Martin Winlow (not verified)

Thank you, Martin. Excellent addition to the things that Makes Tesla special - it only makes EVs. Interestingly, the company, Tesla, owns and operates ICE vehicles. Its Solar City division uses small, affordable ICE cars in my area instead of using EVs for its sales and other operations. Maybe that will change when Tesla makes an affordable EV.

DeanMcManis (not verified)    January 11, 2019 - 3:03AM

You make some good points John. But most of the issues that you mention are common among all automakers, and the out-the-door, optioned prices rarely match MSRP. But even though those features are synonymous with today's higher priced Tesla models, the real question is whether Model 3 buyers would be willing to trade off those features to save an extra $9,000. BMW makes an entry level model that starts at just over $35,000. Their 230i Coupe. Similarly, it is available in only flat black or white, with only a black or tan interior without adding pricey trim fees to the bottom line. The impressive turbo 6 engine pulls a 5.3 sec 0-60 time, which is roughly the same as the base model 3. I suspect that the entry Model 3 probably would offer the same performance as the base RWD model. Most Model 3 owners will charge up at home, so even though the supercharger is a nice perk, the occasional vacation trip would cost a little more. A gas car would also be paying more for driving longer distances in gas costs. The BMW 230 certainly doesn't include autopilot for free, or even as an option. The base Leaf adds $1600 for a quick charge port, and $2200 for their Pro Pilot Assist package, which is not available on the base model. The estimates for a base price on the 200mile+ range Leaf are around $36K before any other options, so starting around $42K for the SL version. Which is fairly close to the current base Model 3 price. 200+ miles range is certainly more than enough for most owner's daily/weekly needs. With the Model 3's great sales numbers at it's current price, I'd say that the combination of features and options are seen overall as a reasonable price to pay for what you get. We won't really be able to say if saving $9K is worth it for a future base Model 3 until there is one available to buy.

John Goreham    January 11, 2019 - 10:45AM

In reply to by DeanMcManis (not verified)

(What follows is not an argument against your points, just to be clear) Good points, and I've never been a big fan of any manufacturer advertising a "Starts at" price. How many base BMWs have you seen in a showroom? I've never seen any and I have shopped for BMWs. I've never seen a base BMW media fleet car (and other brands do have them, notably Toyota, Mitsubishi, and VW). In my reviews here and at other outlets, I never include or highlight the "Base Price" of the vehicle unless required to do so by the publication. Even then, I am always careful to include the as-tested price to give the reader the real truth on the cost, and I always include destination and delivery. MSRP stands for Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price. In the case of Tesla, the "Suggested" part is moot, since the seller IS the manufacturer and Tesla does not discount. I agree with you entirely on your last sentence. Only a real test of the vehicle, coupled with an actual buy-price to the consumer will be the way to tell what a "$35K" Model 3 would really be. I appreciate your comments, please keep them coming.

Lawrence (not verified)    January 28, 2019 - 8:25AM

In reply to by DeanMcManis (not verified)

Your assumptions are already proven contrary to reality. No, the base Model will not be able to do 5.3 0-60 like a base BMW. The mid range already is incapable of doing that.

DeanMcManis (not verified)    January 11, 2019 - 8:44PM

Yeah John, MSRP is always a misleading game. It is nice that there are car searching websites that sort through the models (and features) and include extra fees in their comparative estimate of car price. Hotels list their rates, but then you can do a Priceline search for the best, REAL deal, including extra fees. This is likely going to be the future of car buying too, where the savvy buyer can cut through the added fees, trims, and adjustments to get at the true sales price that the buyer needs to fork out.

John Goreham    January 12, 2019 - 11:34AM

In reply to by DeanMcManis (not verified)

I hope so. I wish the lamestream automotive media would stop promoting "Starting At" prices when it does any sort of review or story and always include the mandatory destination and delivery fees. Furthermore, I'd like them all to stop drawing any conclusion on the base trims in their reviews of the top trims unless they themselves have driven that base trim.

mcopanzani (not verified)    January 24, 2019 - 3:29PM

"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."

Are u off ur meds John? - Model 3 without Autopilot is just another EV sedan?
How many of these "EV sedan"s are u talking about exactly?
Leaf is a Hatch, as is the Bolt, so is the Niro, ditto Kona.
Please remind us which current "another compact EV sedan." at $35K (when they come) HAS or will have fast acceleration, access to a nation wide fast charge infrastructure that's actually logically located by the highway without the need for a dozen crappy access cards that don't work 90% of the time.
Design & packaging that people actually want ('cause Bolt is doing soooo well, that it dropped 40% this year in world sales), Over Air updates that actually work (like the breaks issue).
Oh and please remind us which 'another compact EV sedan' that sell currently for 49-50,000usd on avg sold 139K worth of units in a year?
Please tell us,
cause we're all dying to know about these magical 'another compact EV sedan's