Surprise: The $35,000 Tesla Model 3 That’s Finally Shipping? Not Any More

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If you can’t believe the auto industry, who can you trust? In the 21 months since Tesla announced the Model 3, there have been approximately zero $35,000 entry-level Model 3s sold. Now, six weeks after Elon Musk said the stripper Model 3 was becoming available, it isn’t. Not any more. Tesla this week announced on its blog that the least expensive Model 3 you can buy will cost $39,500. Plus a $1,200 destination & documents fee.

It’s unclear how many $35,000 Model 3s were sold before Tesla pulled the plug. If any. An annoyed — skeptical? quizzical? resigned? — Car and Driver headlined its story, “The “$35,000″ Tesla Model 3 Is No , and It Seems That It Never Was.” Tesla says if you want to find a $35K Model 3, go to a sales office or call Tesla on the phone, but don’t use the website.

Standard Range: Standard Plus with Software Lockouts

We are not amused: Car and Driver headline.

Before we beat up too hard on Tesla, we should note that the rest of the auto industry has a base trim line for most every model it sells. That gives local dealers — of which Tesla has none, just factory-operated sales centers — the ability to offer you a $19,999 car of which there might be two on the dealer lot. The buyer probably doesn’t want it, either. It’s a quaint dance of fiction, but we’re used to it. Tesla is supposed to be different. Certainly, the direct sales model means Tesla has more ability to set standards of conduct for the sales, ah, advisers. What’s happening is this:

The cheapest Tesla, with rear drive and 220 miles of range, called the Standard Range, has been removed from online ordering. Also, its base price is increasing by $3,000 because Tesla is now making AutoPilot standard. If you want ye olde Standarde Range, go see a sales center. Or call in.

The cheapest Tesla you can order online will now be the Standard Range with a software limit on battery capacity and it will cost $40,700 with a — euphemism alert — Partial Premium Interior, comprising power front seats, leatherette upholstery, an upgraded audio system, and navigation. This new Standard Range will have 10 percent less range — reduced by software — than the Standard Range Plus. That interpolates to 226 miles, close enough to the original-maybe-it-existed Standard Range’s 220. Software guardians of the pecking order will also block out the heated seats, navi, and online music streaming. They can pay a fee to upgrade to the Plus’  higher range, and features. Car and Driver said buyers of the Standard Range were getting calls from Tesla reps asking if the buyers didn’t maybe want to upgrade to the Plus after all.

Tesla is also adding a lease program for the Model 3, with a twist. Now that the Model 3 comes with AutoPilot, whether enabled or not, Tesla will not make the cars available for end-of-lease buyouts. Instead, Tesla will put them into a self-driving vehicle fleet. Color us skeptical. Tesla is not so far ahead of the rest of the auto industry that it will be able to turn cars loose for hands-off driving in three years. Even if cars are technically capable of high-level self-driving — in 2030, maybe, but not in 2022 — odds are government regulators will not be ready to grant approval. If we thought so six months ago, six simple characters suggest the feds will be cautious about highway autonomy. The letters: 7-3-7-M-A-X.

The least expensive lease will be about $500 a month with $4,200 down and a cap of 10,000 miles per year. That’s for an options-free Standard Range Plus. A loaded Model 3 Performance with $4,700 down and 15,000 miles of driving will cost $1,000 a month.

How Tesla Explains the New Order

Tesla explained on its blog:

Last quarter, we introduced two new Model 3 variants with more competitive pricing than ever before – Standard and Standard Plus. Since then, Standard Plus has sold at more than six times the rate of Standard, far exceeding our expectations.

Given the popularity of the Standard Plus relative to the Standard, we have made the decision to simplify our production operations to better optimize cost, minimize complexity and streamline operations. As a result, Model 3 Standard will now be a software-limited version of the Standard Plus, and we are taking it off the online ordering menu, which just means that to get it, customers will need to call us or visit any one of the several hundred Tesla stores. Deliveries of Model 3 Standard will begin this weekend.

Its range will be limited by 10%, and several features will be disabled via software (including our onboard music streaming service, navigation with live traffic visualization, and heated seats). Similar to other software-limited vehicles produced in the past, Standard customers will have the option to upgrade to a Standard Plus at any time. Similarly, anyone who has already bought Standard Plus and wants to convert to Standard is welcome to do so, and we will provide a refund for the difference in cost.

To further simplify our line-up, beginning today customers will also need to call or visit a Tesla store to get Model 3 Long Range Rear-Wheel Drive. We’re making these changes to ensure that our online order process is focused exclusively on the three Model 3 variants customers want most.

The continual changes in what’s available, or maybe never was available, plus CEO Musk’s battles with the feds over his misleading tweets, plus layoffs at a company that’s trying to grow, plus sales that fell 31 percent worldwide in the first quarter of 2019, make Tesla an easier target for critics. All this comes at a time when more and more automakers, such as Audi with the e-tron, are mounting serious competition.

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