HAWTHORNE, California - Tesla Motors Inc. on Thursday showed off a prototype of its Model X, a battery-powered SUV that represents the company's bet that consumers will buy a range of electric vehicles spun from a common platform.
The Model X, which features what the company calls "falcon-wing" doors and faster acceleration than a Porsche 911 — it goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds — will start production late 2013 and begin delivery in 2014.
Tesla begins taking reservations at noon on Friday for the characteristically sleek vehicle resembling a taller version of its Model S sedan, but with a folding door hinged on the roof.
CEO Elon Musk touted his latest electric vehicle as cramming in more space than a typical sport utility vehicle. It seats seven, with ample storage.
"Minivans and SUV have been trying for years to overcome these problem," the entrepreneur told a rowdy crowd. Musk didn't lose his cool even when the front trunk — or "frunk" — stubbornly refused to open in the middle of his demonstration.
Tesla — which has never made a profit — hopes to create a buzz with Thursday night's event, which featured a smattering of lesser-known celebrities, a buffet spread and an open bar, with hundreds of guests milling across a hangar-sized space at the company's California design engineering offices.
The well-heeled guests were offered a chance to be first in line for the Model X, sales of which will follow a reservations-and-delivery template much like the preceding sedan.
While flashy car debuts are a staple of the auto industry, nine-year-old Tesla tracks and reports the number of reservations for upcoming models as a benchmark for investors.
The company went public in June 2010. Its private backers range from venture-capital firms Draper Fisher Jurvetson and VantagePoint Capital Partners to Silicon Valley heavyweights such as Sergey Brin and Larry Page, founders of Google Inc. It also won a $465 million loan guarantee in 2009 from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Its shares were trading on Nasdaq on Thursday at $32.58, well above their June 2010 IPO price of $17.
The Model X is important for the company because it is the second model to be based on a platform purpose-built by Tesla for electric drive vehicles. The first was the Model S, a sedan scheduled to go on sale in the middle of this year.
Musk has bet that development costs for the Model S and the Model X can be recouped as more models are introduced on the same platform. Two more Tesla models are in the works, the company has said.
Tesla has said between 10,000 and 15,000 of the Model X vehicles will roll off its Fremont, California assembly lines in 2014, priced close to the $60,000-plus Model S.
The Model X — whose falcon-wing doors recall a design made famous by the DeLorean sports car in 1985's "Back to the Future" — will compete with Toyota Motor Corp's electric RAV4, a crossover SUV that will sport Tesla's electric-drive technology.
Musk did not detail pricing or specifications for the Model X, which will have dual-motor all-wheel drive — a motor in front, and another in the rear, which he says vastly improves grip, handling and turn radius.
For now, Tesla is scrambling to meet a July deadline for delivering the first Model S cars. Musk hopes to have delivered 20,000 of the cars by 2013, yielding a gross margin of 20 percent or more.
The Model S, which goes for a base $57,000, is Tesla's entree into the mass consumer luxury market, going downscale from the $100,000-plus Roadsters that it made its name on.
While the base version of the Model S will sell for $57,000, few cars are expected to be sold for that little. The average price for a car sold in the U.S. market in 2011 was around $30,000.
Tesla autos have captured the public imagination and helped spur Detroit to work on its own electric vehicles. General Motors Co in 2010 started selling its plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt.
California governor Jerry Brown was on hand on Thursday to join Musk in touting the Model X. The wealthiest U.S. state approved aggressive new rules in January to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by requiring automakers to put many more electric and hybrid vehicles on the roads by 2025.
(Editing by David Holmes)