The Tesla Model S is riding high as the poster child of the EV movement. It’s the fastest production car in the world with the introduction of the P100D, it has the slickest self-driving system that you can actually use and it stands head and shoulders above the crowd.

But there are dark clouds on the horizon. The big guns like Mercedes, Chevrolet and VW are getting their act together. Then there’s another, more intriguing problem.

The Tesla Model 3 looks a bit like a Model S, it promises a good deal of the performance, all of the range, and most of the technical drama that marks the Model S apart. Crucially, all at a much lower price.

Read: Everything you need to know about the Tesla Model 3

Read: Everything you need to know about the Tesla Model S

So could the biggest challenge to the Tesla Model S come from within? Let’s find out as we compare the Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3.

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3: USP

The Tesla Model S has broken down all kinds of barriers. Before this car, Tesla was a minor diversion, an entertaining sideshow with the Roadster. The Model S turned it into a serious car company. It was the first EV that we could really use and it was arguably the driving force for the whole EV movement.

This was the car that made us believe we really could have electric cars, right now, without any major sacrifice. It also brought us Autopilot, which is another revelation that has forced the entire automotive world to up their game and bring their own systems to the table.

It’s flawed and the development has pretty much caught up with the car. Like software, the early adopters were beta testers and there have been growing pains. When we look back on the Tesla story, though, the Model S will be an icon that changed the world.

Tesla Model S P90D

It’s the flagship, the range topper and a luxury car that can decimate supercars off the start line with total zero emissions. When you think about it, it’s more than a towering achievement.

When the Model 3 arrives, the Model S simply may have to evolve. It can’t just be faster, it has to be better in every way. So the Model S might follow the concept of the S Class Mercedes and become a technical showpiece where the high-end tech trickles down to the other cars in the line-up.

The Model 3 is the car that Elon Musk always had in mind. It’s the volume seller, the car that will cement his legacy and it looks like a baby Model S. The high-tech Model S changed the world, but the Model 3 could take it over. It’s the electric car that anybody can own, or not if ride hailing schemes find a footing.

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If Musk has his way, they’ll be as common a sight as Fords or Chevys in the years ahead and the Model 3 will become his calling card. It will take Tesla to a million sales a year, compared to the 200,000 it sells right now and it will turn the company into a big fish in the big auto manufacturers’ pond. Right now it’s the biggest name in the EV world, but it’s a small niche and Musk has bigger ambitions.

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3: Price

This is the big one. It’s the main reason why the Model 3 could well cannibalize Model S sales and why Elon Musk might just want it to. The Model S starts at $69,500 for the 75 model and runs all the way up to $134,500 for the almighty P100D. That’s a serious range that means the car is dangerously close to a model line-up on its own.

Here’s the thing. We don’t know the full stats just yet, but we do know the Model 3 will run the base Model S seriously close in its base form and it starts at around $35,000. That’s just too big a difference, you could almost have two Model 3’s for the price of that 75 and the bottom of the range car suddenly looks so utterly redundant that you wonder if it will survive.

The 60 model has already been killed off. The Model 3 could easily be the executioner of the 75.

Model 3 could easily be the Model S 75's executioner

The P100D is an entirely different animal, but then there will be stronger and faster Model 3’s as well. So it’s going to get seriously confusing and we think that if the Model 3 comes loaded with most of the same tech then the Model S could become little more than a lifestyle statement for the rich and ostentatious.

That’s a puzzle that Musk and his men are going to have to crack. Loading up the S with features seems the way to go.

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3: Design

There’s really not much to say here. The Model 3 is almost a shrunken version of the Model S, although its near-hatchback rear looks a touch awkward from some angles. The Model S looks more fluid, more elegant and it looks like its design has been adapted for the smaller car. That’s because it is, there’s no getting away from the fact.

Tesla Model S

The advantage of that is that the Model 3 punches well above its price tag. It is really competing with the likes of the Chevrolet Bolt and VW’s new electric hatchback, but it looks like a scaled-down luxury car.

A lot of buyers will decide it looks good enough for them and that means Tesla will lose Model S sales, but it should also mean that it destroys the likes of the Bolt when it goes on sale. So Elon Musk won’t lose too much sleep over the folks that downgraded to the 3.

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3: Performance

The Tesla Model S P100D is the stuff of legend. It will do 0-60mph in 2.5s and we know that only the electronic limiter stops it smashing through the 155mph mark.

It is the fastest production car on the planet, it’s the first sedan to come anything close to these numbers and it’s a benchmark in so many ways we just don’t know where to start. It comes with more than 530 bhp and easily in excess of 713 lb/ft of torque, but just between us we think it has a lot more than that for short bursts. But it seems unfair to put the flagship into this battle.

That’s because it costs up to four times as much as the base Model 3 and we already know that there will be faster, more powerful versions of the entry-level car to come.

So right now we’re going with the Model S 75, the rear-wheel-drive option with 285 kW (382 bhp) and 325 lb/ft of torque. That takes it from 0-60 mph in just 5.5 s and on to a top speed of 140 mph.

Now Elon Musk said it himself: Tesla doesn’t make slow cars. The base Model 3 will hit 60 mph in less than six seconds and the insider gossip suggests the top speed will exceed 140 mph. Remember, that’s the first car.

We’ve already see leaked documents that suggest the all-wheel-drive range topper will scorch from 0-60 mph in less than four seconds and it should make 155 mph with ease. We’re not quite sure of the power figures yet, but we can take a guess that the base model will have something similar to that 285 kW output that would drive the lighter car to 60 mph in shorter order.

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3: Interior

This one is going to be tough for Tesla. That’s because the control system is essentially the same for all its cars. The tablet has become as much of a calling card as the electric powerplant and we already know the Model 3 will get a landscape version to slot into its relatively slimline dashboard.

At the launch, journalists did get a look inside the Model 3 and something was noticeable by its absence. There was no instrument screen. There are rumors it will get a gesture-controlled Heads Up Display, which is pretty much the only way this car can work.

It will get the same panoramic glass roof, the same style of seats and the only real thing that the Model 3 cannot compete on is storage space. It also can’t fit in two more rear facing seats.

But Tesla owners that spend double the money will need to see where those extra dollars have gone and that can only come from the tech and the materials. So Tesla is almost going to have to willfully hobble the Model 3 to make a reasonable pricing structure for the line-up, which goes against the company’s cutting-edge philosophy.

Alternatively, they can deck the Model 3 out in cheap plastic or tartan velour seats made from offcuts, but it just won’t do that either. It’s potentially a chance for a serious upsell, with base level materials that nobody really wants and optional Model S-grade leather. But this is guesswork, we haven’t even seen an official picture of the Model 3 interior as yet and we’re limited to spyshots of the prototype.

Read: Model 3 interior leaked images

Getting the interior right is a trickier job than it sounds, though. Tesla may simply decide to put all the bells and whistles on the Model 3 and let the chips fall where they may. If it does, then this will be all the car most people need and the Model S will become a luxury car for the select few that want to flash the cash.

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3: Handling

This is where the Model 3 should score big, but we have to contend with unknowns. A smaller battery pack would mean it weighs significantly less than the 4,469 lb Model S 75, but Tesla already went to town with the weight saving measures in the frame of the flagship to compensate for the weighty drive train. So we really don’t know what to expect in terms of the final weight of the Model 3.

We do know that a lighter weight will give the smaller car a real advantage on a winding road and that real enthusiasts want a lighter car they can throw into bends and have some fun with.

Tesla Model 3 design

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3: Range

Again, the Model S P100D has a 315-mile range, but that isn’t the right comparison right now. The 75 has a range of 280 miles. Now compare that the base level Model 3, which will have at least 215 miles of range and the company reckons on 250 miles of normal use.

The one thing we cannot account for is time. Tesla still has time to boost the ranges across the board, and by the time the Model 3 hits the street then even the base Model S could easily have another 50 miles of range under its belt. But then the Model 3 could go further when the development is all done, too, so we can only work with the figures we have right now.

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3: Specs

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Of course the Model S started out with just one flavor and blossomed into an entire line-up that ranges from the homely 60 to the fire-breathing P100D. The Model 3 will do the same and the Performance line is basically the Palo Alto equivalent of BMW’s M cars and Mercedes’ big-engined AMG specials. So there will be an economy Model 3 and there will be a sportscar that can leave black lines on the road and legends in its wake.

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3: Self driving

This is an interesting point. One simple way to differentiate the Model S and the Model 3 would have been to take away the self-driving features. If Tesla had sold Autopilot as a luxury feature then that would be the obvious move. But it hasn’t, Tesla has repeatedly and emphatically sold Autopilot as a safety feature. That means he cannot leave it off the base model, to do so would risk lives if we follow Elon Musk’s logical and legitimate argument.

We already know the Model 3 will come equipped with Autopilot and it will have the hardware for Level 4 control. By the time it is released, Tesla should have the system perfected, although it then has to battle with the regulators to get clearance. Either way, both cars will be fitted with the system and there will be little or nothing to choose between them in the way that it operates.

Tesla Model S vs Tesla Model 3: Safety

Again, there will simply be nothing to choose between the cars. The CEO simply does not sacrifice on safety, despite what his outspoken critics say. The Model S and the Model X both received five-star ratings across the board for their crash protection and the Model 3 will do the same, you can take that to the bank.

Apart from the basic crash protection, most of Tesla’s safety equipment is active and incorporated into the Autopilot system. As we already know this will be on the Model 3, it’s going to be as safe as a Model S.

Wrap up

Even in its most base form, the Model 3 is so close to the bottom end of the Model S line-up that there’s a real danger of overlap. In that sense, the Model 3 is a natural rival and a real threat to the cheaper examples of the flagship model. Tesla will cannibalize its Model S sales with the Model 3, but Musk already knows this. He’s possibly counting on it.

By the time the Model 3 arrives then autonomous ride hailing schemes could be just round the corner. That is a world without prestige, without speeding, without badge envy. At that point the lower end of the Model S line-up could be turned into seven-seat taxis, or simply removed from the Earth if the Model X or the upcoming minibus make a more convincing case.

Model 3 is a natural rival and a real threat to the cheaper examples of Model S

As the Model 3 line grows then some of the bigger names in the Model S line could start to sweat, too, but simple market economics shows us there’s a space for them all. BMW’s 5 and 7 Series are still going strong, despite the competence of the 3 Series. The Mercedes S-Class, meanwhile, is still revered even though most people buy a C-Class.

That’s what’s going to happen here. The Model S will lose sales. It has to. Until now it was the only real choice for zero emissions motoring and attractive lease deals meant people were prepared to stretch the budget. When there’s a cheaper option, 80% of the car for 50% of the money, that’s what the majority will buy.

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So absolutely, the Model 3 will have a huge impact on the Model S sales, but it will also help Tesla evolve into a top 10 car manufacturer. The two steps forward are more than worth that one step back that will come.

The Model S and Model 3 will both be among the best electric cars on the market for years to come. As to which car is best? Take your pick, it really is that simple.

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