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Elon Musk and Tesla Model 3
Elon Musk shows off one of the first Tesla Model 3 electric cars, plus a graph showing how he expects the production rate to rise. (Tesla via YouTube)

As thousands of employees and fans cheered, Tesla CEO Elon Musk drove a red Model 3 electric car onto the stage at the company’s factory in Fremont, Calif., tonight – and then handed over the first 30 cars to customers.

The glitzy ceremony marked a milestone in Tesla’s campaign to produce an electric car targeted at a mass market, with a base price as low as $35,000. It also marked the start of what Musk called “production hell … for at least six months, maybe longer.”

“As the saying goes, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going,'” he joked.

Musk repeated his pledge to boost Model 3’s annual production rate to 500,000 next year, but acknowledged there’d have to be a sharp ramp-up to meet that target. Musk said Tesla made 50 Model 3’s during the first month of production, with 20 held back for engineering validation and the rest going to the first 30 customers.

He asked for patience from the estimated half-million customers who have put down $1,000 refundable deposits to reserve a Model 3. “We’re building the cars as fast as we can,” Musk said.

Eventually, two varieties of the Model 3 will go on the market. The “standard” version has a base price of $35,000. It has a 220-mile range, goes from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds and can go as fast as 130 mph, Musk told the crowd. The “long range” version will sell for $44,000, and boasts a range of 310 miles, zero-to-60 acceleration in 5.1 seconds, and top speed of 140 mph.

Tesla Model 3 vehicles
The first 30 Tesla Model 3 production cars are arrayed for delivery. (Tesla via YouTube)

Both varieties, like Tesla’s more expensive Model S and Model X, will have all the hardware needed for fully autonomous driving. “A lot of people don’t realize that,” Musk said.

The Model 3 is smaller than the Model S, with a 15-inch touchscreen console panel that’s oriented horizontally rather than vertically. Another design difference is that the Model 3 lacks the Model S’s trademark “T” grille.

Tesla’s new model is the key to the company’s future, and the reason why its share price has nearly doubled since December. Business analysts will be watching closely to see how close Model 3 production comes to Musk’s projections.

Tesla interior
A touchscreen dominates the console of the Tesla Model 3. (Tesla Photo)

But the Model 3 isn’t the only project on Tesla’s radar screen. Musk said the company would lift up the curtain on a heavy-duty, electric-powered trucking vehicle called the Semi in September, and roll out a Model Y crossover SUV by 2020.

And Musk isn’t forgetting about the S and the X. He made sure to thank the buyers of those more expensive models. “In doing so, you make the 3 possible,” he said. “The money that we make with the S and the X all goes into building the Model 3.”

Musk also made sure his fans got the joke about S, 3, X: “Those letters can be combined however you like,” he said. Adding the Y will round out what may well be the automotive industry’s most elaborate gag.

Update for 12:15 a.m. PT July 29: Check out a few of the video clips and fan videos that Tesla tweeted (and that Musk showed during tonight’s ceremony):

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