Elon Musk has been promising to build an affordable, 200-mile electric car for the masses since before the first Model S was ever delivered to customers. Over the next few years, Musk has dropped a series of hints about the Model E, which then became the Model III, saying the battery will be about 20% smaller and it will be made mostly from steel, rather than aluminum.
With Musk tentatively planning an unveiling of the Model III next year, you can expect the rendering mill to churn out more Tesla concepts, some of which look good, others that, well, don’t. But when you get right down to it, we really don’t know much about the Tesla Model III at all.
I am a huge Tesla and Musk fan, but let’s bring it all back to Earth here for just a moment, and leave the hype aside. Remember when Musk’s plan was to build a $50,000 electric car? I do. When the Model S launched, Musk made a big show about how, after tax credits, you could drive away in a Tesla for about $50,000. Of course that was only for a bare-bones version with cloth seats and a 60 kWh battery pack limited to just 40 kWh of power and about 150 miles of driving. This cheapo version of the Model S was so unpopular, that Tesla cancelled it altogether after just a few months.
While it didn’t sell well though, it did let Musk legitimately claim to have achieved his goals.
What if the same thing happens with the Model III? Musk may technically deliver the 200-mile, $35,000 electric car he promised, but if it comes without standard features you’d expect on a $35,000 vehicle? Keep in mind that even in the $75,000 Model S, leather seating trim is an option, not standard. What if Tesla does that with the 17-inch touchscreen, or holds other features hostage in a bid to keep costs down? $35,000 is right on the cusp of affordability for a lot of new car buyers (the average new car sells for about $31,000). If a few must-have features push the price up over $40,000, can Musk still really claim to have build an “affordable” electric car? Some analysts think a Model III can’t be built for any less than $48,000. Keep in mind, the $7,500 federal tax rebate may not be available for buyers by the time the Model III is for sale, so that $35,000 won’t be discounted much, if at all.
One also can’t discount just how important aesthetics are to car sales. If the Tesla Model S looked like the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, would it have sold half as well? Probably not. Musk has said the Model III won’t look like the Model S, and that he thinks cars should be beautiful, so I’m not worried that it might look bad. But on the other hand, one cannot simply dismiss aesthetics as not mattering, and while some renderings look good, others are just awful. The Edsel, Pontiac Aztek, and MINI Paceman were all designed by people who thought the vehicles looked good, though consumers vehemently disagreed.
There are other matters we know nothing about either. Will it be a hatchback or sedan? Will there be a defining feature, like the falcon-wing doors on the Model X? Will it get all-wheel drive standard? Will Musk build a balls-out performance version like the P85D? When will it actually go on sale? Will it really come with a coupe or wagon version? Hell, it might even be a crossover for all we know right now.
As a Tesla enthusiast, I feel it’s keenly important to remain grounded in reality. Musk has done some amazing things for electric vehicles, and the Model III is the best hope for a lot of people to permanently replace their gas guzzler with an EV. On the other hand, there are so many unanswered questions about not just the Model III, but the soon-to-be-released Model X, that it’s intellectually dishonest to say we know much of anything about it.
Hell, we don’t even know if Musk can make his self-imposed 2017 deadline. If the Model III gets pushed back 6 months or a year, that could totally change the playing field. I know it’s rare for an auto writer to admit they don’t know something, but besides a few nuggets of information, we really don’t know much at all.