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Tesla Model 3: Will it Be a Good Family Car?

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 14/05/2016 Motor Trend Staff, Austin Lott
Tesla Model 3: Will it Be a Good Family Car?

We knew the Tesla Model 3 would make a splash when it was introduced. Pretty much every Tesla has. But when nearly 400,000 people plunked down $1,000 (totally refundable) to reserve one, we were floored. Elon Musk said, "100,000 would have been an impressive number. Now, with some 400,000 pre-orders, the number is almost unbelievable The Model 3 was probably the real wake up call for the rest of the industry." That's $400 million Tesla didn't have a month ago: this is serious interest. At Motor Trend HQ we wondered how many of those 400,000 might be families (or starting families), which led us to ask the question: Is the Model 3 the family friendliest EV soon to be on sale? In terms of both features and ownership intangibles, the Model 3 makes a compelling purchase case as a family friendly EV.

Let's talk about numbers first, specifically price. Tesla says the Model 3 will start at $35,000 before incentives. We're told that for that price, it will be Supercharger compatible (previously an extra-cost feature on the Model S), have an EPA rated 215-mile range, and hit 60 mph in less than 6 seconds, which is slightly quicker than a Toyota Camry V-6. Also included on every Model 3 will be "Autopilot Hardware," which seems to suggest that the software, and thus the convenience features, will be available at an extra cost.

We're betting the $35,000 Model 3 will be a single-motor model, with dual-motor all-wheel drive models and performance models (think P90D, with a Ludicrous Speed mode) available for more money. The same can be said about battery sizes: taking into consideration Tesla's current battery technology, and the 215-mile range, we think the battery will be in the 55-60 kWh capacity range. Our best estimate, given the dimensions and what we know about the Model S, suggest the biggest battery available with the Model 3 will be an 80 kWh unit, giving it a potential 250-mile range. Price will increase with the larger batteries, but Tesla is striving to make sure that even the base Model 3 is a compelling value proposition. 

One very important thing to remember in this discussion about battery sizes and prices is that it's a bit of a moving target: as battery technology improves the density increases (same space, more "juice") and cost decreases. Tesla has already demonstrated that it's willing to integrate technological advances into its product lineup far faster than traditional automakers do, which suggests that by "late 2017" when Model 3 deliveries are slated to begin, breakthroughs could lower the cost of the battery, allowing Tesla to deliver a larger battery pack for that same $35,000.

But what else can you get for $35,000? (To be conservative we'll forget the potential tax credits, which will expire for Tesla during the Model 3's run.) A family looking at a Model 3 is hardly looking for the cheapest thing to haul little Jonny around in, but for that same $35,000 it's possible to get a nicely optioned Ford Fusion Hybrid, Toyota Prius V, or even a Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. To drive a Tesla Model S 100 miles it'll cost you about $8 (based on 0.21 cents per kW here in Los Angeles) while driving a Toyota Prius V will run you just about $6 (based on $2.50 per gallon of regular gasoline, also in L.A.)The Prius V splits the difference between the more efficient, upcoming 2017 Accord Hybrid and the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. Operating a hybrid and charging your Tesla purely at places you have to pay for are in the same cost ballpark, though if you have a Supercharger that falls into your regular routine you can probably reduce that figure a bit, as those "fill ups" are free of charge.

While Tesla has been bragging up a few numbers, when it comes to official dimensions and measurements, they've been pretty quiet. A recent exclusive look at the Model 3 gave us an opportunity to make a SWAG of the car's basic measurements: 184.1 inches long, 74.2 inches wide, and 56.5 inches tall. That's within half an inch of a Mercedes-Benz C300, but almost 3 inches wider. Also consider that the Model 3 is built on an all-new platform that allows the passenger space to be pushed farther forward than typically possible with a traditional internal combustion engine powered vehicle. We fitted two car seats in the Model 3: a rear-facing unit for toddlers and infants and a front-facing one for very young children. Both fit well, and still leave the seats in front of them in a comfortable position.

While the full-electric vehicle segment has plenty of competition, the Model 3 is unlike anything else that's on sale today. The closest all-electric competitors include the Nissan Leaf, Kia Soul EV, Ford Focus Electric, the Volkswagen e-Golf, and the forthcoming Chevrolet Bolt. What do all of these have in common with each other, but not with the Model 3? A hatchback body style and overall dimensions that put them a lot closer to the "compact" segment than "midsize."

When families are looking at affordable cars, they want one that can grow with them and their little ones. The hatchback arrangement so prevalent in the EV segment is versatile, but when it's time to load a stroller, Pack-N-Play, and day bag in the narrow/tall cargo area of a compact hatchback you might start to have doubts, like we do. This writer's personal vehicle, a 2007 Nissan Versa SL sedan, easily accommodates the aforementioned items despite being a "compact" with only 14 cubic feet of cargo space. What about the e-Golf? When packing the same stroller in Motor Trend's long term Volkswagen GTI the "40" section of the 60-40 split rear seat had to be leaned forward to accommodate the wheels without disassembling the stroller. What gives? The EPA rates the Golf at 16 cubic feet and the e-Golf at 17 cubic feet. The EPA measures volumes in hatchbacks, wagons, and SUVS by multiplying length, width, and height dimensions, while sedan trunks get "real" luggage placed in them, the official volumes of which are added for the number. 

Even the Ford Focus Electric, which is the biggest of "the rest" at 172.9 inches long, 71.8 inches wide, and 58.2 inches high, is still 11.2 inches shorter than the Model 3. The non-electric Ford Focus, which boasts identical passenger interior space measurements as the Electric, is challenging to fit a rear-facing child seat in, requiring at least one of the front seats to be moved forward significantly. What about that Chevrolet Bolt? At 164.0 inches long, 69.5 inches wide, and 62.8 inches tall it's far smaller than the Model 3.

The Tesla Model 3 has a leg up on the current crop of electric vehicles, but what about similarly sized hybrids? The Honda Accord Hybrid, Toyota Prius V, and the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid occupy a similar footprint (within a few inches in length and height) and are established "family friendly" players in the fuel-sipping segment. The RAV4 Hybrid combines 35.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the efficiency of a compact car, and it accomplishes baby-related duties with ease.

Car seats are relatively easy to install, and the taller ride height of the crossover means less bending and crouching when loading/unloading the little ones. The Toyota Prius V boasts many of the same perks as the RAV4 Hybrid, but is more efficient and starts at a much lower price. When you consider cost of operation, in addition to upfront purchase cost, a few establishment hybrid players are practical alternatives to the Tesla, albeit less stylish ones.

One of the "ownership intangibles" that comes with a Tesla is that Supercharger network. Tesla's Supercharger stations have the ability to replenish 170 miles of range in just 30 minutes of charging (plus time you might occasionally spend waiting for an open station), which is typically more than enough to get to the next Supercharger or your destination. Buyers could theoretically commute or even travel across the lower 48 States and up into Canada, free of charge. A road-trip without a fuel cost is one that's far easier to take on a whim, which would be a welcome boon for families with young children.

Here in Los Angeles we've become incredibly accustomed to a fast paced way of life, and through that lens the reality of range and recharging has kept many people from jumping to EVs. With a 200+ mile range, even commuters with long drives and errand-runners would likely have plenty of range left over at the end of the day. The big caveat with any EV (even a Tesla), one you wouldn't encounter with one of the hybrids mentioned earlier, is an inconvenient, yet mandatory, recharge wait time. It's not too difficult to imagine losing track of your car battery's state of charge as you go through a hectic day. When you're nearing the end of the day, out of diapers, out of snacks, and out of patience the last thing you'll want to do is take a detour and a 30-minute pit stop just to make it home. It's not likely to happen often, but we'd be remiss if we omitted that possibility.

When you consider that road trip along the Supercharger network, perhaps visiting out-of-town relatives, the drive-charge-wait-drive-charge-wait rhythm of driving a Tesla fits a bit better with the pace of travel we associate with happy young children. It takes a little more than 2.5 hours to go 170 miles, and then another 30 minutes to replenish that range at a Supercharger. You won't be cannonballing across the countryside, but the enforced rate of travel is the sort of thing that slows us down. Traveling via the Supercharger network harkens back to the days when it wasn't all about the destination, but when getting there was half the fun. There are historical landmarks and lots of signs on the side of the road that need to be read by a new generation.

Instead of just turning the industry on its head with such unprecedented interest, the affordable Tesla Model 3 may get more travelers to think about the journey and not only the destination. We're thinking the little ones will have plenty more to look at during that journey too, especially with that cowl-to-trunk all-glass roof that will afford them a front row view as planes, clouds, cityscapes, and star-filled night skies drift past.

2017 Tesla Model 3
BASE PRICE $35,000 (excluding applicable tax credits)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Rear- or front/rear-motor, RWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
MOTOR(S) AC induction, 221-hp/244 lb-ft front; 235-hp/317-ft-lb rear*
TRANSMISSION 1-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 4,200-4,350 lb*
WHEELBASE 113.0 in*
L X W X H 184.1 x 74.2 x 56.5 in*
0-60 MPH 5.9 sec (mfr est)
ON SALE IN U.S. Late 2017
*MT estimates based on image scaling, best intelligence.


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