Reporter’s Notebook: Test-driving Tesla's new mass-market Model 3

Tesla’s Model 3 was unveiled last year but is only hitting showrooms now.

ByABC News
January 15, 2018, 7:40 AM

— -- Tesla’s Model 3 was unveiled in March of 2016, but it’s only hitting their showrooms now.

The company’s first foray into mass-market cars, the base-level Model 3 starts at $35,000, and that has customers excited. In the company’s Palo Alto and Los Angeles showrooms Friday night, interested onlookers lined up to see the entry-level Tesla for themselves.

While production delays limited Tesla to only 2,425 Model 3 cars produced in the last three months of 2017, the company says they are now producing 1,000 cars a week and estimating 2,500 cars a week by the end of March. They say full capacity is 5,000 cars a week, and have targeted June of 2018 to hit that number.

A Tesla Model 3 is seen in a showroom in Los Angeles, Jan. 12, 2018.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Offering ABC News the first test drive for television, I headed down to the Fremont, California, Tesla factory and jumped into the sedan.

The initial models off the production line have a bigger battery, longer range and a bigger price tag. The 310-mile range of the car I’m driving adds $9,000 to the price tag. Plus, the model I’m driving has autopilot activated (we’ll get to that in a second), which adds another $5,000 to the price.

ABC News' Becky Worley test-drives the Tesla Model 3, which is the company's first foray into mass-market cars.

They say people decide to buy a car if they like the cup-holders; the interior and creature comforts of a car seem to make a huge impact on how we interact with our cars.

Boy, is that a factor in the Model 3. It’s really different from traditional cars. There is a turn signal stalk on the left, and on the right the shifter stalk (I’m not a car-enthusiast so I had no idea that the turn-signal-thingys off the steering columns were called stalks -- now I know).

ABC News' Becky Worley test-drives the Tesla Model 3, which is the company's first foray into mass-market cars.

There are two scrolling buttons on the steering wheel itself, but those are the only controls, except for the ginormous tablet on the center console.

Almost every single interaction with the car is done through that tablet. There are no instrument displays at all.

It takes a second to get used to it, but the upside is revolutionary in the car industry: the entire car and its functionality can be updated like a computer. In fact, Tesla regularly offers over-the-air updates just like a cell phone to tweak a feature or improve on an algorithm. They did this a few weeks ago to make the windshield wipers auto-sensing and turn on by themselves instead of manually starting. This is a car that is constantly evolving.

ABC News' Becky Worley test-drives the Tesla Model 3, which is the company's first foray into mass-market cars.

The car is a true sedan: lots of headroom, a glass ceiling that goes all the way into the back seat, and lots of legroom in the front and the back. It has a huge back trunk with a second storage compartment below the trunk and a front trunk too.

While the Model 3 is a few inches narrower and shorter than Tesla’s luxury sedan, the Model S (which starts at $68,000), I didn’t feel a significant difference between the two cars as I sat in the driver’s seat looking at the interior.

ABC News' Becky Worley test-drives the Tesla Model 3, which is the company's first foray into mass-market cars.

When you drive the car it also feels very similar to the Model S. The ride is smooth, the seats comfy, and as my son’s friend exclaimed from the backseat as I hit the gas, “Oh wow, it’s peppy!”

Elon Musk famously said, “We don’t make slow cars.” Ludicrous mode in the Model S sedan has your glasses flying off the top of your head when you punch it, and while acceleration on the Model 3 was not “ludicrous,” it was darn impressive. I had to make a quick acceleration on the freeway and it was indeed peppy, way more than any of the cars I currently own (which isn’t saying much because I drive a mini-van and a light SUV).

The auto-pilot features on the car are incredible. It’s not totally autonomous by a long shot, but the driver assistance takes the edge off in traffic. The car reacts to stop-start traffic, braking and accelerating for you. It also assists during highway driving using cameras and sensors to do advanced “lane-keeping,” steering you in between the lines on the road. Much has been written on this topic, but for me, the auto-pilot aspect of the car is a total game changer for anyone who commutes in traffic.

While production delays and high demand may pose issues for potential buyers, the car itself is a lot of fun to drive while lowering emissions and radically changing the driver’s relationship with the car. Two thumbs up while the car steers for me!

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the announcement date for Tesla's Model 3 from March 2017 to March 2016. The company's full production capacity for the model is 5,000 per week, not per month, as originally stated.

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