IF you’ve ever driven Tesla’s flagship vehicle - the US$140,000 (RM600,000) Model S P100D - you’ve experienced an unparalleled version of driving power.

Zero to 100kph in 2.3 seconds punches you back in the seat while making the stomach turn somersaults. Some people live for that feeling. I’m not one of them.

Sure, driving a fully-loaded electric beast is as thrilling as the fiercest roller-coaster - but not everyone wants their daily commute to be the ‘Kingda Ka’ (the world’s tallest and North America’s fastest roller-coaster). After taking one of the first drives of Tesla’s new Model 3 last week, I came away thinking that chief executive officer Elon Musk has finally delivered an electric car for the everyday road tripper like me.

The Model 3 still has plenty of pickup, effortlessly jumping from zero to 100kph in 5.1 seconds in the upgraded version I test drove, which gets a stunning 310 miles (500km) on a charge. It’s nimble, comfortable, and has tight steering that’ll keep you grinning. The seats embrace you in a gentle hug that feels a bit more geared for road trip than racetrack. It’s the Model S on a diet, making up in practicality what it loses in extravagance.

And I haven’t even come to the good stuff yet.

The fact that this car still looks, drives, and feels like a Tesla - at a starting price of US$35,000 (RM150,000) -shows how far the Silicon Valley automaker has come. It’s still an expensive vehicle for many of Tesla’s biggest fans, and compelling options packages will drag a lot of stretch spenders into uncomfortable territory. But at current battery prices, Tesla is setting a new standard for value in an electric car - which, of course, was Musk’s plan all along.

The minute you approach the Model 3, you realise you’re in for a new sort of car experience. The auto’s elegant, flush door handles swivel into your palm with the light press of a thumb. The ethereal swoop of metal feels surprisingly solid.

The car doesn’t have a key, or a key fob. Instead it syncs to your phone through a Bluetooth connection and will automatically unlock as you approach. The backup in case your phone dies or you need to hand it off to a valet is a thin key card that you can keep in your wallet. Swipe it on the car’s B pillar to unlock it, and place it on the centre console to turn the car on.

Stepping inside the cabin, I quickly realised that my assumptions had been all wrong. I’ve seen a lot of spy shots of Model 3 prototypes online, and the interiors always appeared to be flat, spartan, and lifeless. Not so. The lack of gauges on the narrow dash is refreshing. The solid strip of open-pore wood gives the space warmth, and the glass roof makes the cabin feel like an atrium. The forward field of vision - uninterrupted by knobs, lights, and levers - is expansive.

Tesla is getting better at building cars. Unlike early versions of the Model S and X, the Model 3 is built to be a daily driver, with plenty of cupholders, door pockets, and console storage. The materials of the arm rests and doors feel ready for abuse. And the stitched synthetic material used for the premium seats is different than leather, but not inferior.

Shots Fired

BMW and Mercedes should be concerned. This automobile is clearly targeting its market. Since Musk handed over keys to the first 30 cars on Friday, I’ve heard a lot of people trying to compare the Model 3 to GM’s all-electric Chevy Bolt (known as the Opel Ampera-e in Europe). Even though they’re similarly priced and both run on batteries, the parallel ends there. The Bolt is an economy gasoline car that’s been electrified; the Model 3 is - something altogether different.

Tesla aims to sell 500,000 electric cars next year. In order to succeed, it will have to tear down the artificial distinction between a “car buyer” and an “electric-car buyer” and go straight at the heart of the US$35,000 sedan class: the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The Model 3 is Musk’s missile for this target.

“We finally have a great, affordable, electric car - that’s what this day means,” Musk said as he unveiled the Model 3. “I’m really confident this will be the best car in this price range, hands down. Judge for yourself.”

Two Battery Versions

The Model 3 comes in two battery types: standard and long range. In a break from the past, Tesla wouldn’t disclose the size of its two battery packs. Instead, going forward, the vehicles will be identified by the miles they can drive on a charge, and the cars will lose their exterior badges that indicate battery size and premium performance options.

From the outside, a US$35,000 Model 3 will look no different than a $57,000 (RM244,000) fully loaded version. The company plans to make the same transition with its Model S and Model X platforms later.

The bigger battery is a gamechanger. Only one other electric car in the world has broken the 300-mile (480km) range barrier: the most expensive version of Tesla’s Model S, an ultra-luxury car that starts at $97,500 (RM417,000). The new Model 3 has cheaper range for the money than the current record holder, the $37,500 Bolt (RM161,000), which is outclassed by the Model 3 in virtually every category.

The Model 3 has a lot of room for a car its size, and the space is put to good use. With my legs fully extended in the passenger seat, a six-foot tall man still had room to sit comfortably behind me.

As I hit a gently twisting road near Tesla’s factory, where the launch party for employees would later be held, I briefly flipped on Tesla’s Autopilot. The road lanes were poorly marked, but the car had no problem smoothly tracking its course and slowing when traffic demanded it.

Tesla made an interesting choice to add Autopilot to the car’s main shifter. Flick it down twice, and Autopilot engages. It feels more integrated with the regular flow of driving. Autopilot has come a long way in recent weeks, but still has a long way to go for Tesla to justify the US$8,000 it’s been charging since October for Autopilot and a set of yet-unseen features called “Full Self-Driving Capability.”

Ready for Camper Mode

Last year, I wrote about a subculture of Tesla drivers who go camping in the back of their cars. It sounds crazy at first, but the car’s massive battery can maintain perfectly controlled climate all night while only losing about seven per cent of the car’s range. With the glass canopy overhead and the view of the stars, it’s a great way to enjoy national parks without the bother of a campsite. I tried it myself and loved it.

With the new Model 3, there’s great news for those Tesla campers and others who like to haul long cargo. The seats of the Model 3 fold completely flat, and with the front seats in their most forward position, the back bed measures an impressive 6 feet 9 inches long (206cm). This is a car that’s dying to be slept in.

Though being able to camp in your car is fun, staying safe on the road is of significantly greater importance. Tesla aspires to be the world’s safest automaker, and the Model 3 is no exception.

Despite all of these achievements in range, technology, and safety, Musk sounded grave about the road ahead. “The biggest challenge that we face here is ‘S Curve’ manufacturing,” he said, describing a ramp-up of production that starts slow, then increases dramatically before tapering off. “That ‘S’ portion is us going through hell, basically.”

Musk reiterated his projections of a very slow start in the next few months and then increasing rapidly to a rate of 20,000 a month by the end of the year, and 50,000 a month by the end of 2018. It’s an aggressive schedule that would more than double Tesla’s total production rate in six months, and then quintuple it by the end of next year.

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