There it was, finally real and sitting in the North Austin Tesla showroom, and all I could think was, “Wow, that’s shiny.”
Tesla’s Model 3 electric car, the Tesla for the rest of us who haven’t been able to afford the pricier offerings to date from Elon Musk’s company, is suddenly very real for customers who put down $1,000 two years ago on the dream that he’d deliver.
I was one of those dreamers. So was my brother. We both put our deposits down in March 2016 right after being wowed by Musk’s unveiling of the slick sedan. The idea of a $35,000 all-electric car that would offer a kind of futuristic luxury experience comparable to Tesla’s other products was hard to resist for us early tech adopters. It was like an iPhone launch presentation from the Steve Jobs heyday.
Certainly, $1,000 is not nothing, but it was money I knew was just going to sit in the bank anyway and that was refundable if I changed my mind. The launch date of the car was supposed to be 2017, but since more than 115,000 people had already placed reserves before the car was even showed off on March 31, 2016, it seemed safe to assume the car wouldn’t even be available to me until at least 2018. Maybe later. Probably later. Even in 2016, Musk already had a reputation for production delays on Tesla’s vehicles. Today, he’s still combative and seems to be taking the criticisms personally.
Putting money down on the Model 3 felt like a fun bet on a distant future, like a Kickstarter project that I’d check in on occasionally without any real hope that it would be here anytime soon.
Last November, I got an email from Tesla that said: “Thank you again for your Model 3 reservation. We’re making significant progress clearing early production bottlenecks but, as we continue to work through them, your estimated delivery timing will now be slightly later than we originally expected.” In February, another email alerted me to another delay.
Every few weeks, my father would email me an online article about more Model 3 production delays, or early reviewing pointing to software or production flaws that Tesla promised to fix.
By the time it was ready for me, I’d be ready for the Model 3, my fairly new 2014 Prius ready to be traded in. Maybe I’d win the lottery by then. I didn’t think much about it, to be honest.
It’s funny how the future too often gets here before you’re ready for it.
For me, it happened on April 13, when I got a surprising Tesla email, one I wasn’t expecting at all: “It’s time to choose your options and place your order.”
Panic! at the shopping cart
The process for placing an order for a Model 3, then, becomes ridiculously easy. I’ve bought board games online that took longer to choose options for than placing the Tesla purchase might have been.
But right there, in one of the first steps on my path to getting a Model 3 in three to six weeks, was the first indicator that this might be trouble for me. The $35,000 mass-market vehicle that Musk promised doesn’t yet exist. As of today, you can only order a version of the Model 3 that includes a long-range battery (which adds $9,000 to the base price) and a $5,000 package of premium upgrades. Minus the $1,000 reservation cost, the $35,000 car becomes a $48,000 vehicle, before the financing cost if you take out a loan and other options.
A $35,000 base model of the car is due on “Late ’18” according to Tesla’s site; an option was available to hold my place for that one. That would mean a car with less battery range (220 miles versus 310 miles on the $9,000 upgrade) and without some “Premium” amenities such as heated seats, a better audio system and a tinted glass roof.
I began to get really nervous about the price.
Then I looked at the other options available. For an extra $1,000, Tesla will sell you a Model 3 in a color other than “Solid Black.” I had my heart set on “Deep Blue Metallic.” It was going to cost me. I could probably forego the $1,500 price for the 19-inch sport wheels, but I was unlikely to get a Tesla without “Enhanced Autopilot” mode, which helps with parking, lane changes and summoning the car from it’s parking spot. That costs $5,000 more. And a future-proofing feature that adds full self-driving capabilities is $3,000 more.
Tesla’s $35,000 everyman car starts to look more like $58,000, with a 72-month loan that leaves you with an $827-a-month car payment after putting $5,000 down, according to Tesla’s website.
And if that isn’t enough money, there’s also the matter of charging the Model 3. Tesla has charging stations in places that would be convenient to me, including San Marcos (I live in New Braunfels, halfway between Austin and San Antonio). But to charge the car in my garage would require me to have an electrician either install a high-powered outlet that provides much faster charging than a traditional electrical outlet, and most likely to set up one of Tesla’s own Wall Connectors, at a cost of $500, plus installation. Depending on the labor involved, that could be a garage setup cost of more than $1,000.
Tesla counters that a $7,500 federal tax credit can offset some of that cost. But it’s unclear how long that tax credit is going to last; Tesla has been cagey about how many vehicles it has sold by region in the U.S. and once it hits 200,000 cars sold, the tax credit drops.
Check out a photo gallery of Tesla’s Model 3 in Austin
I’m lucky not to be struggling financially right now. Earlier this year, I paid off the loan on my Prius in anticipation of the Model 3 coming down the road sometime in my future. But it’s nice to drive a car that’s paid off. It’s nice not to have a car payment for a while. And the gas savings going from a hybrid vehicle such as a Prius to an all-electric Tesla is not nearly as dramatic as switching from a gas guzzler.
I also work for a publication that has new owners and we all are wondering what changes might be coming. I’m dealing with a change in health-care premiums, a 401(k) account to roll over to a new company and lots of other hassles. A new car with a huge loan began to feel like bad timing. I called Tesla and asked what would happen if I simply didn’t order the car right now. The helpful phone rep said it was fine; my spot in line would be held.
But over the next few days, as I started crunching numbers and giving it more thought, it started becoming clear that not only could I not afford this car now, but that I might not be able to afford it even next year, when I planned to pick the reservation back up.
Even as I was finalizing my decision to wait, or perhaps to cancel the reservation entirely, I got an invite from Tesla at my job to come check out a Model 3 in person at The Domain. When I mentioned to the public relations person that I had one on reserve, they seemed surprised. Yep, not a lot of us journalists are waiting in line on these, probably.
At the showroom, would-be buyers on a Friday afternoon had the chance to sit in a Model 3, to examine its redesigned fuel connector (it’s not for gas, don’t forget!) and to play around with its large touch screen, where most of its dashboard controls exist as software.
You can’t test drive it from the showroom, but you can at least see the car’s curves, bask in its roomy interior and blast some streaming music on its Internet-connected entertainment system.
I felt a little bit of envy as I snapped photos and jotted down notes.
Then I called my brother, whose Tesla reservation came in about a week after mine. I asked him if he was worried about the cost. He is, to some degree. He paid off and sold his Honda to make way for the Model 3, which he went ahead and ordered, despite the added costs.
He lives in a nice Austin apartment building, but one that doesn’t have charging spots available. He plans to ask apartment management if they might consider adding some and to use electrical charging spots around town. His commute’s much shorter than mine (he mostly works from home) and he’ll be able to go several days without a recharge.
I hear the Model 3 is ridiculously fun to drive, a breathtaking car that packs a lot of power and style into its movement. But the added costs of owning one took my breath away a little more. I couldn’t justify the purchase and had to Adult my way into a decision to simply say no. Certainly for now.
But, on the bright side, I’m hoping my brother will let me take his for a drive sometime soon.