With as much anticipation as the original Apple iPhone, Tesla has unveiled the most affordable car in its electric vehicle portfolio, the Model 3.

With a starting price of $35,000, before federal and state tax incentives, the Model 3 is predicted to have an EPA-rated range of at least 215 miles, plus 0-60 mph times for the base-model, single-motor car of under six seconds. A higher-performance, dual-motor car is also in the works.

"We don't make slow cars," said company founder Elon Musk at the unveiling event, held at the SpaceX headquarters near Los Angeles, California. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in late 2017, although we expect volume production won’t occur until 2018.

Though the Model 3 is the newest Tesla, it has been part of Musk's strategy for years. A decade ago, the company outlined a three-stage assault on internal-combustion vehicles dubbed the “Secret Master Plan.” First, a low-volume car that would prove that electric vehicles could be compelling: the Tesla Roadster. Next, a slightly-higher-volume, premium car that would prove that an electric sedan could be among the best cars in the world. That was the Model S. (Musk calls the Model X SUV "step two-point-five.")

The final step: An affordable high-volume car, the Model 3. 

2018 Tesla Model 3 Electric Cars

Musk promised that even base Model 3s would be well equipped, with Tesla’s Supercharging fast-charge system and Autopilot safety systems as standard. Further, the car will include the hardware for driver-assist features, which could be activated later as an extra-cost option, as demonstrated with the Model S, through over-the-air software upgrades.

Still, Musk left out some critical details such as charge times, power outputs, battery capacity, and precise performance figures. Pricing for the faster dual-motor cars was also not disclosed.

At the event, the Tesla crew offered journalists a chance to take a brief ride in the new Model 3. We rode shotgun as VP of Engineering Doug Field took us for a spin in the dual-motor, all-wheel-drive version. With four people on board and the accelerator pedal kissing the floorboard, our car rocketed to 60 mph, with the smooth, quiet, hurtling rush of power that is a characteristic of electric cars. In our experience, it felt like the Model 3 performed this feat in less than five seconds. If so, that is blazingly quick, though slower than the 3.5-second sprint the larger Model S P85D managed in our tests.

We were surprised at how much of a departure the Model 3's cabin is from other Teslas. Like its bigger siblings, the Model 3's dashboard is dominated by a large screen, but mounted horizontally rather than vertically, as with the Model S. The spare, stark layout of the Model 3’s cabin makes the touch screen look tacked on, rather than neatly integrated.

Here, the screen represents the bulk of the Model 3's instrumentation and controls: There's a small display of speed at the upper left-hand corner. The bulk of the screen is taken up by a moving map, with stereo and climate controls occupying a strip at the bottom. There's no conventional instrument panel ahead of the driver. Instead, there is a small, squared-off steering wheel, then nothing but windshield and a view of the road ahead. The dashboard itself is barren, with a thin decorative strip, giving the Model 3 the austere look of concept cars one sees at auto shows. But Field assured us that the car we experienced is no concept, and it is very close to what is intended for production.  

2018 Tesla Model 3 Electric Car interior

Tesla has designed the cabin to order to maximize interior space. The front seats are positioned further forward than those of the Model S, though the distance from the windshield doesn't feel much different from most mainstream cars. The rear window is a giant pane of glass that extends up and over the occupants’ heads clear to the middle of the car, yielding enough headroom for six footers to sit comfortably. Rear legroom is good, although not especially generous. The Model 3's front windshield doesn't wrap into the roof as it does on the Model X, but a large sunroof gives the illusion that the car's top is made almost entirely of glass. There are no sunshades to be found; instead a UV coating shields passengers from the sun's rays. We’ll be interested to see if this is enough to keep rear occupants from getting too hot on sunny days.

It was difficult to evaluate the handling from the passenger's seat, but we were driven through a makeshift slalom course that revealed the Model 3's flat cornering stance. With the battery and motors mounted so deep in the chassis, the Model 3 has an extraordinarily low center of gravity, as seen with all Tesla models.

That low center of gravity contributed to the excellent performance ratings the Tesla Model S P85D earned in our road tests. But the Model S has also demonstrated worse-than-average predicted reliability in our surveys, with owners reporting problems such as squeaks and rattles, leaky sunroofs, unresponsive screens and door handles, and powertrain woes that sometimes required complete replacement. Yet owner satisfaction is very high—97 percent of Model S owners reported they’d still buy a Model S if they had it to do all over again.

Why such high satisfaction despite below-average reliability? The Model S ownership experience is rather unique. The company will pick up problem cars at an owner’s home and return them after repairs have been performed. And many Model S owners have other vehicles in their stable, so having a car out of commission for a few days may not be a hardship.

Tesla plans to ramp up production of the Model 3 to as many as 500,000 cars per year, which may make it difficult to maintain the sort of high-end, one-on-one customer service with the Model 3 that it delivers to owners of the Model S. And Model 3 owners will presumably be more dependent on their cars for daily transportation.

But those concerns don’t seem to be dissuading the company’s fans, who have been lining up at Tesla stores nationwide to place an order. As of the unveiling, 115,000 buyers put down a $1,000 deposit—before even seeing the the car. Now that it has been revealed, orders are certain to continue. (If you didn’t wait in line, don’t feel bad. Often it is best not to be the first on your block with an all-new car, as our surveys have shown reliability for the first cars built tends to be compromised.)

Will the production Model 3 live up to the hype when it hits the showrooms? We intend to find out. Consumer Reports will anonymously purchase a Model 3 to evaluate at our track—in fact, we've already put in our order.

2018 Tesla Model 3 Electric Car driving