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Tesla Model 3
The Model 3 electric car, due to go into production in 2017, will become Tesla Motors’ most affordable model. (Credit: Tesla Motors)

Tesla Motors’ Model 3 electric sedan may be geared for mass-market affordability, but CEO Elon Musk made it clear at tonight’s unveiling that he doesn’t intend it to be a third-rate car.

“It will be five-star in every category,” Musk told a standing-room-only, occasionally raucous crowd at Tesla’s warehouse-sized design studio at Hawthorne, Calif.

The $35,000 Model 3’s promised capabilities were arguably the biggest surprise of the evening: Musk said the scaled-down sedan would still have ample room for five people, thanks to a design that moves the instrument panel farther forward than the panel in the $70,000 Model S.

Elon Musk and Tesla Model 3
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk talks about the design of the Model 3 during its unveiling. (Credit: Tesla Motors)

Even the base model will go from zero to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds, Musk said. And the driving range will be at least 215 miles on a charge.

“These are minimum numbers,” Musk said. “We hope to exceed them.”

The car will have front and rear trunks, and “more cargo capacity than any gasoline car with the same external dimensions,” Musk said.

Would there be room to carry a 7-foot-long surfboard on the inside? “The answer is yes,” Musk said.

The only cloud of uncertainty hanging over the evening had to do with the fact that the Model 3 isn’t anywhere near ready for production. The day before, Musk said tonight was only “Part 1” of the car’s unveiling. “Part 2, which takes things to another level, will be closer to production,” he tweeted.

The cars should start rolling off the assembly line in Fremont, Calif., by late 2017, with delivery soon afterward. “I feel fairly confident that it will be next year,” said Musk, indirectly referring to his propensity for letting schedules slip.

The Tesla faithful were confident as well: Musk announced that 115,000 orders for the car were received in the first 24 hours, backed up by $1,000 deposits.

To juice up all those cars, Musk said that the number of fast-charging stations around the world would rise from 3,600 to 7,200 by the end of next year, and that there’d be 15,000 standard “Destination Chargers,” set up in cooperation with hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and other locales. That expansion is aimed at reducing the range anxiety that’s typically associated with all-electric vehicles.

“You will be able to go virtually anywhere,” Musk said.

Previously: Buyers throng to sign up for Tesla Model 3, sight unseen

The Model 3 is a key part of what Musk calls Tesla’s “secret master plan” to bring electric cars into the mainstream and reduce fossil-fuel emissions for the environment’s sake.

“It’s very important to accelerate the transition to sustainable transport,” he said.

The new line is also a key part of Musk’s not-so-secret plan for Tesla’s profitability. He acknowledged that the $100,000-plus Tesla Roadster, the $70,000 Model S and the $80,000 Model X SUV were priced to bring in the money necessary to develop the Model 3.

“The Model 3 is happening because of you,” Musk told the crowd, many of whom were already Tesla owners.

After the big reveal, the meeting was quickly adjourned for a series of test drives that went late into the night.

Update for 9:58 a.m. PT April 1: Musk reports that the tally of orders amounted to 180,000 in the first 24 hours. He also indicates that a lot of folks will be buying those cars for more than $35,000, due to added options:

For a level-headed first look at the Model 3, including the unresolved questions about issues ranging from delivery schedules to the suspension system, check out Alex Roy’s review for The Drive.

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