At $35,000, the Model 3 Is Tesla’s Leap to Your Garage

The tesla model 3
The Tesla Model 3 starts at $35,000 and has many of the features of its older siblings. Tesla

Tesla is just 13 years old. That may seem like a lifetime when you consider the Silicon Valley startups that spring into billion-dollar companies in what seems like months, but if you measure Tesla's age in auto industry time, it's an infant. Thursday night, the company took another huge leap, one that the rest of the auto industry hasn’t been able to make, with the Model 3, its fourth production car and the first that will be marketed not as a luxury vehicle but as a car for the average driver.

The Model 3, like all Tesla’s cars, has attracted a lot of hype even before hitting the road. Telsa founder and CEO Elon Musk says preorders have already passed 115,000.

At just $35,000, the Model 3 will still pack lot of the zip of its older siblings, the Model S, Tesla’s luxury sedan, and the Model X, its SUV, the sales of which drove the financing needed to develop the Model 3's technology, Musk says. The 3 will do zero-to-60 in less than six seconds, comes with Tesla's autopilot feature standard and will also be able to access Tesla’s superchargers, which can charge the car in minutes instead of hours.

It promises to be roomy for a sedan, seating five adults comfortably. “Can you fit a 7-foot-long surfboard on the inside? The answer is yes,” Musk said to cheers at the unveiling.

But the biggest number Musk pronounced was 215—a conservative estimate of the car’s range, he said. The 200-mile range has long been considered the barrier electric cars would have to cross before consumers really adopted them in full force. Chevy might have gotten there first with the Bolt, which is due out at the end of this year (the Model 3 will deliver “next year”), but Tesla's newest entry will almost certainly push the market for electric cars toward the more affordable range.

Model 3 preorder line Tesla fans line up to preorder the Model 3 in Pasadena, California. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

To get an idea of how fast Tesla moved compared with the rest of the auto industry, you need only have a conversation with anyone else in cars. In this industry, planning and building a new model can take the better part of a decade; in that same time frame, Tesla has built factories, designed three cars and built the auto that broke the Consumer Reports rating system. It’s also branched out, manufacturing home electric grids. And it’s done it all before it’s legally old enough to drive.

“Software speed” was a phrase that popped up over and over again with automakers at the Consumer Electronics Show this year. Tesla has forced industry players to try to think more like startups—and that means shaking off the funk that left our cars fundamentally unchanged for decades. When you take your first self-driving car ride, even if it’s a different make, you’ll have Tesla to thank for biting at Big Auto’s heels.

Tesla has nearly killed conversation of hydrogen cars (although they’re still out there) and forced the whole industry, from GM to Ford, to chase them in electric vehicles. In an era of Prius jokes, Tesla took a low carbon footprint from nebbishy to cool—as cool as Musk, who found time to revolutionize space technology and possibly dream up the future of public transportation while he was at it. Tesla doesn't seem to shoo away comparisons between its enigmatic founder and Marvel Comics’ Tony Stark, the brilliant inventor inside the Iron Man suit.

Despite all this, there’s no shortage of doubters. Tesla shows on the Wall Street Journal’s board of biggest short positions, the company's stock has been up and down, and it still has not approached the black. In fact, Tesla may be hemorrhaging money, losing about $4,000 for every Model S it sells. It’s also propped up by $4.9 billion in government subsidies, which could change with a new president. It lost $114 million last quarter.

But it’s a brand that’s become part of America’s—and the world’s—conversation. It's already changed the car industry, and it did it again on Thursday night. The big question is if Tesla can find some profit in changing how we all drive.