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Tesla's mass-market Model 3 stands poised to shake up the industry

It's all been leading to this. From the early, somewhat awkward Roadster to the refreshingly great Model S to the troubled but impressive Model X, everything has been laying the foundation for the car we see here. It's the Tesla Model 3, and it's finally been unveiled to the world.

The Model 3 marks the beginning of Tesla's mass-market assault, and the first attack comes from the price. The Model 3 will be available for just $35,000 -- before federal and state tax rebates. Yes, most of you will be able to get this car for somewhere less than $35,000, even at launch. Unlike the Model X and Model S before, there won't be a pricey, premium launch edition Model 3. If you want the bare-bones EV experience you're welcome to it from day one.

The other aspect of mass-market appeal? Range, and the Model 3 will do at least 215 miles on a charge for the base model. If that weren't good enough, the Model 3 will have access to all of Tesla's increasingly convenient spate of Supercharger stations for battery top-ups that are both fast and free. In fact, Tesla CEO Elon Musk promises to double the number of Superchargers from the current 3,600 to 7,200 in the next year. At a Supercharger, a Model 3 will be able to get an 80 percent charge in less than 30 minutes.

Of course, none of that matters if the thing doesn't look and drive well. While we haven't had a chance to get inside the car yet, from the outside it looks more or less like you'd expect: a three-quarter-sized Model S. Instead of three rows of seating there are only two, the cabin now optimized for a maximum of five passengers.

There's a bit more to it than that, though. The nose has received the Model X treatment, so it's cleaner and simpler than the Model S. The Model X's flush sonar sensors are here, too, getting rid of the annoying little bumps on the leading edges of the Model S.

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Will these swoopy, center-lock wheels make production?

On the inside, things are familiar but also radically different. Like the Model S the interior is dominated by a single touchscreen, but this time it's oriented horizontally, unlike the large portrait units on the S and the X. Interestingly, this unit handles all duties for things like speedometer and all the various warning lights. There is no traditional dash behind the steering wheel -- everything is there in the middle. All the various driver safety and autonomy features we've seen in the S and X will come standard in the Model 3, including hands-off highway cruising and lane-changes.

But the most radical change is actually the roof. There's one, continuous sheet of glass that runs from the windscreen to the rear. It takes the effect of the Model X to the next degree, and has the added benefit of adding more rear headroom -- but I have to wonder how hot it's going to be on a sunny day.

I was lucky enough to get a quick ride in a Model 3, sadly from the passenger seat, and the effect of that glass roof is pretty spectacular. Even at night it really opens things up. That center touchscreen is positioned much closer to the driver. In the front you're seated far closer to the front axle than in the Model S, which gives a compelling sense of motion. It's difficult to get much of a feel for performance in such a short ride, but this Model 3 accelerated very quickly indeed -- far faster than a six-second 0-to-60.

As of now, the biggest remaining question is when can you get one. The answer there, sadly, will require some patience.

The Tesla Model 3 is currently scheduled to go into production toward the end of 2017. Yes, that's about 18 months away -- assuming everything goes according to plan. If Models S and X are anything to go by, it could be a fair bit longer. That's plenty of time for the Chevrolet Bolt to sweep in and upturn the market, another EV with 200 miles of range available for around $30,000 after rebates. But, where the Model 3 appears to be a low, dramatic performance car, the Bolt is very much a practical economy car.

Only time will tell which machine will have more impact on the market, or indeed, whether another competitor will sneak in between, but there's no doubt the long-term success of Tesla is directly tied to the near-term success of the Model 3. With its mass-market appeal and necessarily tighter margins, the next 18 months must go smoothly. Delays or production hiccups will drastically cut into the bottom line.

Tesla has the makings of a breakout hit here. Now, it just needs to get the thing out the door.

 

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