Tesla revealed to the world the first prototypes of its affordable electric car, the Model 3 on March 31, 2016: two Alpha prototypes (one silver and one black), and a 1:1 scale model painted in red. This model was presented as the final phase of the first “Master Plan” that Elon Musk had initially designed for Tesla.
The first phase of this plan consisted of creating an electric sports car (Roadster), the second in the creation of a more affordable electric vehicle (the Model S sedan) using the profits obtained with the Roadster, and the third in creating an even more affordable electric car – the Model 3 – using the gains from the Model S.
Internally known as the “BlueStar” project, the vehicle was originally to be called Model E, but Ford registered that name, and Tesla had to change it to Model 3. Probably due to the price target of $35,000 announced by Elon Musk, just 24 hours after the presentation of the prototypes. The brand reported that it had received a total of 180,000 orders for its new model, a number that rose to 232,000 after two days.
A week after its presentation, Tesla already accumulated 325,000 orders. The previous record of reservations for a car belonged to the legendary Citroën DS “Tiburon,” which in 1955 managed to reach 80,000 deposits during the ten days of the Paris Motor Show in which it was presented.
Given the flood of reserves, in May 2016, Tesla decided to double its production targets for Model 3: 100,000 units for 2017 and 400,000 units for 2018. Intending to make the model’s production as cheap as possible, in January 2017, the company acquired Grohmann Engineering, a company specializing in automated manufacturing. This is how Tesla Advanced Automation Germany emerged, dedicated to the development of the highly automated production processes of the Model 3.
The Model 3 final design was completed in late July 2016, and in August, Tesla commissioned parts for 300 Beta prototypes to develop the model’s production line. Manufacturing began in early February 2017. The first Model 3 unit left the Fremont factory on July 7, more than a year after the presentation of the prototypes.
The production Model 3 differed from previous Alpha prototypes in nuanced details such as a more rounded bumper design, brand new wheels, a three-spoke instead of the two-spoke steering wheel, and a wider cargo mouth. However, the controversial and spartan interior devoid of instrumentation behind the wheel remained the definitive model. Thus, all the information was brought together on a 15-inch touchscreen in landscape format that presided over the cabin, from which the vast majority of the car’s functions were also controlled.
Initially, Tesla began manufacturing the Long Range RWD variant of Model 3 (499 km EPA, later updated to 531 km EPA); that is, the one with the highest capacity battery and a single motor (rear-wheel drive), as it was a simpler version to manufacture than the Dual Motor with all-wheel drive and more expensive than the Standard Range.
The first 30 units of Model 3 were delivered on July 28, and in August, Tesla confirmed that it had accumulated 455,000 reserves. Tesla’s initial goal was to exceed 5,000 units produced per week in the fourth quarter of 2017, reaching 10,000 units weekly at some point in 2018. However, problems soon began: during the third quarter Tesla only produced 260 units, while in the fourth quarter it barely reached 2,425 units.
This slow pace was due to problems in scaling production due to the high automation of the model’s manufacturing lines. During the “production hell,” all sorts of bottlenecks arose on the assembly line, and Tesla was forced to create an extra production line under a tent outside the Fremont plant.
The first units of the Model 3 had an upgradeable construction quality, with problems in the alignment of the body panels, tolerances between the parts that were too large, and defects in the pain. Over the months, Tesla polished various aspects of the vehicle: Replaced the windshield to reduce aerodynamic noise, installed more comfortable tare suspensions, replaced the rear seat bench seat with a higher and better-cushioned bench seat, updated the response of the high-speed brakes using the software after criticism from Consumer Reports, etc. According to some reports, the assembly quality of the vehicle also improved over the months.
The company reached 5,000 units produced weekly on July 1, 2018. However, on the way, it was forced to dismantle some of the machines that were part of the assembly line, replacing them with human operators, more efficient in certain specific tasks than the original robots.
Long-range Dual Motor and Long Range Dual Motor Performance all-wheel-drive versions were introduced in July (499 km EPA in both cases, later updated to 518 km EPA). Both arrived half a year behind the initial forecasts; Also, they did not do it by the hand of an air suspension system as initially planned due to the need to simplify the production line as much as possible.
With these versions came a new optional black and white interior, more eye-catching than the original with black upholstery and a wooden insert. Besides, the sports version Performance received Track Mode in November, a driving mode that thanks to electronics significantly improved the performance of the car on the track. In October 2018, Tesla discontinued the Model 3 Long Range RWD, which was replaced by the more affordable Model 3 Mid Range RWD (418 km EPA, later updated to 425 km EPA), pending the arrival of the expected access version. Standard Range.
In the first quarter of 2018, Tesla delivered 8,182 units of Model 3, in the second 18,449, in the third 55,840, and the fourth 63,359. In October 2018, the 100,000th unit of the Model 3 was delivered, being the fastest car to reach this figure in the United States. With a total of 146,055 units sold in 2018, the Tesla Model 3 was crowned the best-selling electric vehicle in the United States and the world in 2018. Besides, in its native market, it was the best-selling premium vehicle of the year, taking essential advantage from rivals, such as the Audi A4, the BMW 3 Series, and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
In February 2019, Tesla began deliveries of the Model 3 in Europe and China, the other two major global markets for electric cars. The Access versions Standard Range RWD (354 km EPA) and Standard Range Plus RWD (386 km EPA, later updated to 412 km EPA) were presented in March; In parallel, the Mid Range RWD version was removed, while the Long Range RWD made a brief comeback (it was discontinued again in June 2019).
After more than a year and a half from the start of production, Tesla had finally released the Model “$35,000” for sale. However, the brand never built the Model 3 with the stark interior of the Standard Range version, only delivering units of the Standard Range Plus. To encourage sales of the latter, more profitable from an economic point of view, Tesla announced that all those who bought a Standard Range could not unlock its autonomy afterward; On April 12 it was no longer available in the brand’s online configurator, and could only be requested by telephone. Therefore, for practical purposes, the access version of the Tesla Model 3 is the Standard Range Plus.
In June 2019, the first units of the Model 3 with right-hand drive began to be delivered, first in the United Kingdom, and a month later in Australia and New Zealand. The model ended 2019 as the best-selling premium car in the United States; as the ninth best-selling tourism in the United States (excluding pick-up and SUV), the best-selling electric car in Europe, the United States and the world, and as Europe’s best-selling premium D-segment sedan.
In December 2019, Tesla began operating the Gigafactory 3 in Shanghai, whose brilliant construction had begun in January of that same year, with the first local Model 3 Standard Range Plus deliveries beginning among the brand’s employees. That same month Tesla announced that it had reached the 448,634 Model 3 units sold. In January 2020, the American sedan surpassed the Nissan LEAF as the best-selling electric car in history, even though the Japanese compact had been on sale since 2010 and the Tesla model since 2017. In March 2020, the Model 3 Performance received Track Mode V2, even more advanced than its predecessor.
Tesla is currently preparing to begin production of the Long Range versions of the Model 3 at Gigafactory 3 in Shanghai, a move that will allow the firm to avoid the high tariffs on vehicles produced in the United States. Also, certain rumors suggest that next year the model will receive a restyling to adopt some of the improvements introduced in the new Model Y, such as the heat pump, the wireless charging platform for smartphones, and the USB-C sockets, besides of a hypothetical adaptive air suspension.
As a final note, it should be added that, over the years, there have been several independent parties that have tested the safety of the Tesla Model 3: in EuroNCAP, it achieved a total of 5 stars, as in the Australian ANCAP, while NHTSA considers it the safest car ever tested in its crash tests. The IIHS, for its part, awarded it the highest award that can be granted to a vehicle, the Top Safety Pick +, which makes the Tesla Model 3 one of the safest cars on the market.