Chinese Tesla Inc fans expecting to get the new, locally built Model 3 on the cheap have been dealt a surprise.

Tesla yesterday said that its China-made vehicles would start at US$50,000 in the nation, only about 3 percent less than what the most basic imported models have been selling for after the US company decided to include the Autopilot driver-assistance software in each vehicle.

Variants without Autopilot are to be phased out in China.

The first vehicles to be produced outside the US are part of Tesla chief executive Elon Musk’s efforts to expand in Asia and take on local electric-vehicle upstarts.

The pricing suggests Musk is trying to maintain Tesla’s premium image in the world’s largest auto market, leaving local competitors to compete for buyers of cheaper vehicles.

“It might affect the choices of some potential customers, but not much,” consultancy AutoForesight founder and chief executive Yale Zhang (張豫) said. “The product’s target group is not that price-sensitive compared with those choosing much cheaper ones.”

Tesla is nearing the launch of its China-made models just 10 months after breaking ground on its facility near Shanghai. It would be the first time a wholly owned foreign automaker has made a vehicle in China.

Deliveries of the locally made variants with Autopilot are to begin in the first quarter of next year, the company said in a statement.

The cheapest imported Model 3s, without Autopilot, have been selling for about US$51,500 in China, while in the US the model’s starting price is about US$39,000.

Chinese rival NIO Inc (蔚來汽車) charges US$47,800 in China for a basic version of its ES6 sport utility vehicle after state subsidy.

Electric vehicles from other local contenders such as BYD Co (比亞迪) typically go for much less.

Tesla could also sell some early versions of China-made Model 3s that do not have Autopilot, though it has not disclosed the exact timing or pricing for those.

The company said it plans to phase out models without Autopilot in China and no longer takes orders for such variants.

The company is also to stop selling the most basic imported Model 3 in China, meaning customers who want a US-made Tesla would need to pay at least US$62,000, which buys an all-wheel drive variant without Autopilot.