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Tesla Model 3: Should you buy Elon Musk's first mass-market electric car?

The Tesla Model 3 electric sedan is reaching its first buyers in July, but the line to get one is already at least a year long.

Tesla's most affordable option, the highly anticipated Model 3, can do 0-60 in under 6 seconds and get at least 215 miles per charge.

Tesla Motors unveils the new lower-priced Model 3 sedan.(Photo: Justin Pritchard, AP)

The Tesla Model 3 electric sedan's long-awaited release in July poses a novel question to motorists: Has the time finally come to consider ditching the gas pump in favor of a plug?

Until the Model 3 and General Motors' Chevrolet Bolt electric car, that question was irrelevant to most because there were no long-range, battery-powered vehicles with a price anywhere near the industry's mainstream cars.

Tesla's first electric vehicles were the Model S sedan and Model X crossover, but those ultra-luxury offerings can cost more than $100,000. Let's just say buyers weren't taking the plunge for the sake of saving a few bucks per day on gasoline.

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But the Model 3 starts at $35,000 before a $7,500 tax credit and travels at least 215 miles on a single battery charge, making the compact sedan a serious option for many American families. 

Tesla has released few details about technical specifications, interior design and financing options, and the company declined to comment for this story. But many of the factors to consider are already well known about the Model 3, which will reach a few customers later this month before manufacturing quickly accelerates later this year.

One important factor is lack of availability. If you haven't already placed a refundable $1,000 deposit, it will take at least a year to get the Model 3.

That's because the company received nearly 400,000 refundable deposits, and those people are first in line to buy the car when it's available. The Model S, by contrast, arrives within 30 to 60 days after ordering.

"If you’re in the market for a new car now, can you wait another year or 18 months? You’ve got to give some thought to that," said David Bennett, manager of automotive programs and car-buying expert for AAA. "Anytime you’re buying a car, are you expecting any life changes within the next year, three, five years? And if so, you want to plan ahead thinking of those."

Here are several key things to keep in mind when deciding whether to place an order.

•You can buy the car online or at a Tesla store. Tesla does not operate traditional car dealerships. Instead, the company sells vehicles directly to consumers. You can customize your car on the website or in the store with help from a Tesla employee.

•There's no haggling. Unlike most traditional dealerships, there's no negotiating on price. It's fixed. But few people will pay only $35,000 because optional features are expected to add costs.

"What I tell people is don’t think $35,000 is all you need to buy the car," Kelley Blue Book executive publisher Karl Brauer said. "That’s the base price. If you want more options it will go up from there."

Tesla shares are lower in Wednesday's trading session after the company's shareholder meeting revealed that not every Tesla car owner will have free access to the company's Superchargers. Video provided by TheStreet Newslook

•Make sure you understand the tax break. Many buyers will qualify for the $7,500 federal tax credit on electric cars and possibly state incentives, such as credits available in California. 

But it's important to understand that you must still pay the full price up front. The tax benefits come on your next return. Plus, some buyers won't qualify for the full credit if they don't owe the full $7,500 in taxes that year.

•Budget for the insurance and consider gas savings. AAA's Bennett said many new-car buyers forget that their new vehicle will likely be more expensive to insure than their older model. 

On the other hand, Model 3 owners are likely to save on fuel costs by switching to electricity, which is typically much less expensive than a tank of gas.

Drivers should consider the "total cost of ownership over any period of time for any new model," Bennett said, including depreciation and maintenance.

What's vexing about the Model 3, however, is that it's so new that no one can predict with certainty how the car will hold up over time. Which leads to the next point.

•Consider your service options . With hundreds of thousands of new Tesla vehicles set to hit the road over the next few years, the automaker is adding 100 new service centers and 350 new mobile vans to provide service where owners are living or working.

But Brauer warned that many Americans live far away from service centers and may not be easily reachable by mobile technicians. For now, the company has no service centers in about half of the states.

"Confirm where you’re going to be in relation to the closest service center," Brauer said. "Having mobile service options and vans isn’t like the panacea to the limited service facilities problem."

Tesla said earlier this month that its service expansion includes plans to add 1,400 technicians, "all of which allows us to service more cars at a faster rate and to offer a great customer experience as we prepare for many new Teslas to hit the road."

•Don't forget you'll have to pay to use Tesla's charging network. Charging up at Tesla's growing network of thousands of supercharging units throughout the country will cost per use.

Most Model S owners can charge for free. Anyone who charges at home will pay the cost of locally generated electricity, which could come from fossil fuel sources.

•Initial quality might be lacking. Tesla has acknowledged missteps in early manufacturing processes, including with the Model X, which the company said "has been fairly criticized" for the "production quality and field reliability."

With the Model 3, Tesla is "shortcutting the durability and quality testing" procedures that typical manufacturers carry out, Brauer said. Instead, the company is conducting digital tests.

With CEO Elon Musk planning a rapid ramp-up to 20,000 units per month by December, Tesla's Fremont, Calif. factory is under intense pressure to quickly iron out any engineering flaws or manufacturing defects.

"There's potential issues there," Brauer said.

Tesla's first production Model 3.  Tesla

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Tesla Model 3.  Tesla

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Tesla Model 3.  Tesla

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Tesla's forthcoming Model 3 is an entry-level electric sedan that the automaker hopes will greatly boosts its sales volumes.  AFP/Getty Images

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Tesla Motors unveils the new lower-priced Model 3 sedan at the Tesla Motors design studio in Hawthorne, Calif., on March 31.  Justin Pritchard, AP

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Customers wait in line to put a USD 1,000 deposit on the as yet unseen Tesla Model 3, outside the Tesla store on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, on March 31, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECKROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: 550501250  ROBYN BECK, AFP/Getty Images

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Rides are given in the new Tesla Model 3 for media and guests at its unveiling in Hawthorne, Calif.  Chris Woodyard-USA TODAY

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The Model 3 will go 215 miles or more per charge  Tesla

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General Motors CEO Mary Barra reveals the new Chevrolet Bolt concept to the media at the 2015 North American International Auto Show  Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

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A 2017 Chevrolet Bolt.  Geoff Robins, AFP/Getty Images

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General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra introduces the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV during the Consumer Electronics Show.  Steve Fecht for Chevrolet

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•It will get you most places on a single charge. The Model 3's battery allows the vehicle to travel about 215 miles, though actual performance varies based on driving patterns and weather. 

That's about double the mileage of the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle, which starts at $30,680. It's short of the Chevrolet Bolt's 238 miles.

Just don't forget that unlike a plug-in hybrid vehicle, which uses battery power or gasoline, the Model 3 will run out of juice if the battery is drained. Industry experts call fear of this happening "range anxiety."

•The Model S is more luxurious. Apparently concerned that enthusiasts will view the Model 3 as a step up in luxury — much like Apple typically improves the iPhone with each new version — Tesla has taken steps to differentiate the two vehicles.

The Model 3's trunk opens manually, while the Model S gets a powered rear liftgate.

The Model 3 has one 15-inch center touchscreen console, while the Model S gets a 17-inch touchscreen console and a digital instrument panel.

The Model S has a high-efficiency particulate air filtration system, sophisticated suspension design, "auto-presenting" door handles, optional 21-inch performance wheels. The Model 3 does not have any of those features.

Consider alternatives. Right now the Chevy Bolt is the only other similarly priced option with similar range.

The Bolt starts at $37,500 before the tax credit.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.

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