Design

By Design: Tesla Model 3

A satisfying design for a four-door fastback

No one knows Tesla’s fate, but we all realize an electric-only car company is an extremely risky endeavor and that those involved, whether makers or users, are admirably brave. The Model S—the successful follow-up to the ill-advised Roadster—is an extraordinarily good luxury sedan that accelerates quicker than a supercar, is as spacious and comfortable as anything comparable, and very good-looking. It’s even better after its face-lift now that its painted grille simulacrum is gone.

The Model S has character and refined simplicity, which is surprising for a fastback four-door; they’re nearly impossible to do well in terms of design, as opposed to styling. The gorgeous Aston Martin Rapide is a bad design because there’s no rear headroom, and the ugly first Porsche Panamera is a bad design because there’s too much. Harley Earl’s 1949-’51 Chevrolet Fleetline fastback four-doors are successful designs because their upper structures taper in plan as well as profile; Bill Mitchell’s late-1970s B-body fastback sedans were unsuccessful because their roofs stayed at full width, like the awkward Rolls-Royce Wraith today. So it’s much to the credit of the Tesla design team led by Franz von Holzhausen that the smaller and much shorter Model 3 manages to be strikingly attractive while retaining the overall appeal of the bigger Model S.

We can’t say much about the Model 3’s interior for the simple reason that it doesn’t really exist yet. Sketches and mock-ups do, but the final choice has not been made. All we know for sure is there are five seats, that company boss Elon Musk says it will look “like a spaceship” (hopefully cleaner than a Soyuz), and it will likely have a large, high-definition infotainment screen completely dominating the dash.

We can, however, talk about the very successful front-end design and the blunt, carefully delineated, near-vertical shield in the center of its nose. There is a lot of equally carefully considered and beautifully executed sculpting ahead of the front-wheel centerline. An unobtrusive little crease in the front fascia skin just below the headlamp openings gives some direction to the plain surface, with more thrust provided by the headlamp covers ending in a point inboard and forward.

The really clever stuff is seen in the shield form and the way a large radius at its base directs air to flow around the sedan’s sides. I suspect there is a soft cushion of high-pressure air in front that smooths out at higher speeds, making air effectively part of the vehicle surface. That’s common in aerospace, and both Ferrari and Aston Martin are using air as a tangible but invisible aerodynamic element. The Tesla Model 3 is an excellent design.

By Design Tesla Model 3 front three quarter

1. The bottom of the fixed quarter-glass has two almost-imperceptible inflection points, giving the pentagonal window’s baseline three distinct elements.

2. The roof profile is graceful, a pure arc without any relaxation of the tension in the line.

3. The windshield is huge and round, though it is not truly spherical.

4. This sharp profile peak line is a crisp element visible to the driver, always an agreeable feature.

5. Controversial but brilliant, this near-vertical plane leaning slightly forward produces a shadowed effect infinitely superior to the painted surrogate grille of the original Model S.

6. Presumably there needs to be some cooling-air intake in front, and this bottom-feeder mouth is unobtrusive.

7. A hard transverse line all the way from one front wheelhouse to the other provides a solid visual base for the front end, emphasizing its roundness.

8. This second hard horizontal line leads the eye into the lower corner scoops, where the lamps lead into the defining profile line for the “grille.”

9. Probably the best front-end surface detail is this subtle horizontal crease that both increases visual length and reduces perceived height.

10. This rising line that defines the base of a side indent is simple, but it is used on all current Teslas, providing a family identity mark that is not too obvious.

11. This peak line allows a narrow strip inclined inward to the base of the doors, acting as a virtual trim strip while slimming the perceived side view.

12. Essentially contained in the door skin panels, this crease and those below separate the body sides into seven horizontally oriented sections to reduce visual height.

By Design Tesla Model 3 rear three quarter

13. A fender peak coming off the headlamp assembly defines the surface running around the side glass and makes the fenders seem more discrete without disturbing visual flow.

14. Simpler than the Model S door pulls, these “hockey stick” handles remain flush when not in use.

15. The black-painted B- and C-pillars allow the side-glass profile to seem much longer than would be the case with body-color posts.

16. No doubt this spoiler, resembling a blade pushed into a flexible membrane from inside the rear volume, is effective, but it looks like an add-on.

17. As on the front, a single side-to-side horizontal crease line defines the squared-up plan view, putting all surfaces below it in shadow …

18. … except for this tiny protruding surface that catches some sky reflection and makes the car seem wider.

19. Integrating the rear reflectors in dedicated apertures provides a bit more visual entertainment on the elegantly plain rear volume.

20. The ubiquitous perimeter band around the wheel openings has become an every-car feature.

21. The straight sill has an element of simplicity and provides a solid base for the entire body.

By Design Tesla Model 3 interior

22. This is a big, heavy piece of glass, unless it is cellphone thick, which it might be. We can see there are five seats but not much else.

23. The blunt front allows a much longer hood and keeps overall proportions under control, making the car look bigger and more spacious than it really is. Mercedes-Benz did
the same thing with its latest S-Class models to make a big car seem bigger still.

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