For the sake of the argument, let's call the new Tesla Model 3 the "2018 Tesla Model 3," even though, somehow, the Silicon Valley-based company tends not to play the model-year game. Instead, it treats its cars like software-dependent hardware platforms and continuously updates the software to achieve the vehicle it wants.

But that's not the news -- the real news. The real news is that Tesla is in production with its new 4-door all-electric car, and it's a fresh-looking and affordable entree into the hippest quarter of the alternative-fuel galaxy: the electric cult of Tesla and Elon Musk. Now Elon (seems like everybody knows him mostly by his first name) and company have just delivered 30 of the first full-on-production Model 3s to Tesla employees -- sort of user testing within the family.

The newest member of the Tesla family

The handover event on July 28, marks the starting gun for delivery on Tesla's (Elon's) boldest promise: A mass-market affordable electric car. As Musk told us, "The Model 3 is the thing we've been working toward since the beginning of the company." He acknowledges that the Tesla Model S and Model X are much more high-buck zoot than the Model 3, but says that it is the car's simplicity that makes it possible to (a) keep the price down and (b) quintuple the efficiency/capacity/output at Tesla's Fremont, California factory. Tesla says it expects to be able to ramp up to building 500,000 Model 3s a year at the plant, without missing a beat building 50,000 of the Model S and however many Model Xs buyers want.

At Tesla, however, that "Simplicity" seems like a pretty relative term. At one extreme, Musk told journalists that every Model 3 would be equipped with the hardware to achieve full autonomy (same as the Model S and X). All the Model 3 hardware requires for 100% drives-itself autonomy are the software updates necessary to wake it up. At the other end of the simplicity spectrum, Elon Musk admits that he fully expects "six months of manufacturing hell" as the factory finds its feet building half a million cars a year.

Two power levels will be available with the new Model 3, which starts out rear-wheel drive though a dual-motor all-wheel-drive setup with eventually be available. The Standard version (available this coming fall) will start at $36,000 -- including destination fee -- which is lower than the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt. It has a 220-mile range on a full charge and a 0-60-mph time of 5.6 seconds. At launch (meaning right now), all Model 3s come with the $9,000 "Long Range" battery. This up-powered version of the Tesla Model 3 gives you a full-charge range of 310 miles and sprints to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds.

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A quick drive

Much to our surprise and satisfaction, Tesla let us take the new Model 3 on a quick trip around the block (and on the highway). Leaning into to throttle of the Long Range Model 3, we were struck by how much of the satisfying Model S performance DNA and throttle ease got translated into the Model 3. Whether being driven in Comfort or Sport mode, the car feels substantial and it's easy to feel that you are driving a smart, silent, finished piece of work and play that tracks smartly through traffic. For the enthusiast audience, our hot-driving impressions will come when we have more time with the Model 3, but for the everyday driver, the quiet, comfort, response and style all found a place in the plus column.

Likewise, the Model 3 interior is impressive in its directness and simplicity. The 15-inch touch-screen display, mounted floatingly in the center of the dash. Save for two simple stalks on the steering column -- turn signal and "transmission" selector -- and a pair of thumbwheels on the steering wheel, the touch-screen is the sole instrument/controls/infotainment/etc. display for the whole car. It's easy to get used to not having an instrument panel being blocked by the steering wheel, and the variations available when your fingers and that touch screen meet -- like being able to exactly control where the air flows from vents that cross the entire dash area -- feel both innovative and (more important) useful.

The Model 3 seats are firm and supportive (my lower back never needed lumbar support), and for the driver, the outward view is panoramic. Tall-torsoed rear seat passengers have giant-size headroom and legroom enough for the 6-foot-plus crowd. Like the Model S -- and another advantage to battery packs versus having to pack in an engine and transmission -- the newest Tesla gets trunk space both front and rear.

Tesla's other electric vehicles -- the Roadster, the Model S and the Model X -- made the company famous, but it's Elon Musk's everyman car -- the Model 3 -- that is going to give the company its enduring reputation. Tesla reports that around half a million people have put their money down and reserved a Model 3. How Musk's vision of a Voltswagen -- an electric car for the people -- is delivered will mean everything.
 

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Tesla employees cheer and record the moment as Elon Musk delivers on the promise of a Model 3.
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