Tesla unveils its electric SUV, the Model X, at its design studio in Hawthorne. (Tim Rue, Bloomberg )
Tesla Motors Inc. has yet to deliver the much-touted Model S — the electric sedan it is making at its auto factory in Fremont, Calif. — but that didn't stop the automaker from taking reservations for a sport utility vehicle it doesn't expect to begin selling until 2014.
The Palo Alto, Calif., maker of electric vehicles unveiled the Model X, an electric-powered SUV, and said interested buyers could put down a $5,000 deposit to reserve one, though the vehicle's price hasn't been set yet.
The Model X looks more like a crossover than a traditional utility and features unusual gull-wing doors that lift up and out. Tesla plans to start manufacturing the vehicle at the end of 2013, with sales to begin the following year.
"Tesla is certainly taking a different approach from the established car manufacturers," said Thilo Koslowski, an auto analyst at research firm Gartner Inc.
In announcing plans to produce the SUV, Tesla is leveraging the work it has done developing the sedan to produce other vehicles, analysts said. Both models will share a platform, components and technology, greatly reducing the cost of producing a new vehicle.
"The more vehicles they can build on the platform, the more they can get the cost down," said Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "But they have not even gotten the first car built on that platform into production."
Tesla has produced its $100,000 Roadster sport car in very small numbers — just 2,500 — with the help of British automaker Lotus, and it has yet to prove it can develop a complex vehicle from the ground up and bring it to market, analysts said.
"It is a real challenge going from producing a few thousand cars to making 50,000 or 60,000," Koslowski said.
Investors are showing confidence in Tesla, which has yet to earn a profit. Although shares of the company fell $1.48, or 4.5%, to $31.10 on Friday, Tesla's stock has risen 82% since its public offering in June 2010.
The company is investing heavily in an auto factory it bought in 2010 from a venture controlled by Toyota Motor Corp.
The Model X, designed at Tesla's studio in Hawthorne, will fit seven adults in three rows of seats, the automaker said. It will feature Tesla's flat battery pack, positioned on the underside of the vehicle. That clears space in the cabin and also allows for a second trunk under the hood.
The automaker plans to start producing its Model S electric sedan in July. It says it will make about 5,000 of the cars by the end of the year and already has orders for more than that amount, according to spokeswoman Khobi Brooklyn. The price of the Model S ranges from $49,900 to $97,900, depending on its mileage range and options, after a federal $7,500 tax credit for electric vehicles.
Tesla's move to let potential customers put down deposits on the Model X even though the earliest delivery date is two years in the future will raise some cash but could eat into the success of its sister sedan, which will be first to market, said Amir Rozwadowski, an analyst with Barclays Capital.
He said it raises the risk of "cannibalization" of Model S customers.
That could be trouble in an environment where sales of electric vehicles are barely measurable. Nissan's Leaf sold just 9,674 units last year, and Chevrolet sold only 7,671 Volts in a market in which Americans purchased bought nearly 13 million vehicles.
Nonetheless, Tesla appears to be the only start-up auto company with a chance of surviving in a competitive industry dominated by much larger, established players, analysts said.
After a recent tour of the Tesla factory, Rozwadowski said the company "has made progress in ramping up its Fremont facility" and has begun manufacturing parts for the production cars.
Meanwhile, Coda Automotive Inc., the Los Angeles electric vehicle firm that missed multiple production launch goals over several years, said it was finally assembling vehicles under contract at a Northern California facility but declined to say how many cars it will produce or when they will reach the market.
This week, Fisker Automotive Inc. stopped work at a former General Motors auto plant in Delaware, where it plans to build Project Nina, a family-size plug-in hybrid expected to sell for about $50,000.
The Anaheim auto company laid off 26 workers at the plant and let go 40 contract employees working at its headquarters. That leaves Fisker with about 600 employees working on automotive development in Anaheim.
"Out of all of them, I think that Tesla has the greatest chance of surviving more than a couple of years. They make vehicles and they also make components that other automakers will want," analyst Bragman said.
Tesla has contracts to provide electric drivetrains and installation work for Toyota and Daimler and is likely to gain more of that work as established automakers explore electric vehicle production, he said.
"I also think that they will produce a vehicle," Bragman said. "They are about 90% ready to make cars. I am just still a little skeptical of their timeline."