The Model 3 represents the culmination of a years-long strategy by Musk to stimulate a huge shift in global car culture that emphasizes sustainability. Back in 2006, Musk laid out this vision in a blog post on Tesla's website:
The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model.
In other words, this is the endgame. Although the company had focused first on high-end cars — the Tesla Roadster, the Model S, and the Model X — the ultimate goal was to bring the electric car to the masses. So for Tesla to have reached this point is going to be, naturally, a very big deal in the company's history. But that's not the only reason the Model 3 is significant.
Tesla's new car is important in a very immediate sense because it offers Tesla a big chance at reversing some of the headwinds facing the company. You may recall that in October, Consumer Reports dinged the Model S for reliability problems, even though the same publication had otherwise issued a glowing review of the vehicle. Meanwhile, Tesla sales may have been affected by low oil prices that could be suppressing demand for electric vehicles, even as internal production issues hindered the company's supply.
Not all of that is Tesla's fault, but it has prompted analysts to sour on Tesla's stock. Over the latter half of 2015, shares of Tesla fell roughly 15 percent from about $280 a share to $240. (It's now hovering at $230.)
The Model 3 could be Tesla's opportunity to regain momentum. Although it won't begin manufacturing until 2017, and other car makers such as Chevrolet and Hyundai are trying to beat Tesla to market with lower-cost electric vehicles of their own, Tesla will perform well if it can successfully produce a high-quality product for the average driver.
If it takes off, Tesla's new car could also accelerate the spread of electric charging stations that would make electric vehicles of all kinds a more realistic alternative. And in that respect, the Model 3 could do for electric cars what the iPhone did for smartphones, igniting demand for a whole new class of technology.
But unlike Tesla's traditional, high-earning clientele, the target demographic for the Model 3 may not be so patient in the face of delays, analysts say. That's because many would-be mainstream buyers who are considering a Tesla will need the vehicles immediately to replace an aging car or for daily commuting. Gaps in delivery could convince some consumers to move on to another brand.
"They need to do it right, and they need to do it on time," said Tony Lim, an industry analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "If they don't do it right, I don't think they're going to have another shot at it."
A Tesla spokesperson didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.