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Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk at long last launched the Model X SUV at the company’s Fremont, Calif., factory Monday evening — which, true to Tesla tradition, itself started nearly an hour late — bringing to an end three and half years of delays, false starts, reports of malfunctioning “falcon” doors and speculation that the car would never come to market.
Musk got his usual rockstar’s reception from the packed audience of hooting Tesla owners and Model X purchasers, some of whom had put down $40,000 deposits as long as three years ago on the Model X Signature, a $132,000 premium version reserved for early adopters.
Musk said that the company’s mission had always been to bring zero-emission transportation to the world as quickly as possible. “We did it with a sedan” — Tesla’s Model S — “and now we’ve done it with an SUV.”
During a demonstration of the car’s safety features, Musk pointed out that it had received uniform five-star ratings for collision protection and had far less propensity to roll over than other SUVs because of its low center of gravity created by the battery pack slung beneath the passenger cabin. The Model X also includes as standard equipment automatic emergency braking and side-collision avoidance, which take control of the car when stereoscopic cameras sense a collision is imminent.
“We’ve created the safest SUV ever,” Musk said.
Demonstrating the car’s upward-opening falcon doors, Musk said that sensors automatically adjust to the height and width of the space in the car’s garage and that the doors “also look cool.”
Musk said the standard Model X will have a range of 257 miles, all-wheel drive and go from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. A more advanced model with “ludicrous mode” will reach 60 mph in 3.2 seconds with a top speed of 155 mph.
“This goes so fast, it’s wrong,” Musk quipped.
The Model X is a crucial vehicle for Tesla in its quest to become a mainstream automaker — Musk has pledged Tesla will sell 50,000 cars in 2015 and 500,000 cars a year by 2020, and it can do so only by selling multiple models to differing market segments.
Since 2012, Tesla has manufactured a single car, the Model S, a favorite among Hollywood players like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg that proved there is market for luxurious, long-range pure-electric vehicles.
The Model S has been showered with accolades as a history-making, game-changing vehicle — the latest iteration famously “broke” the Consumer Reports rating scale by earning a better-than-perfect score — and is now the best-selling electric car in the U.S. Sales worldwide surged 52 percent in the second quarter of 2015.
With the Model X, Musk hopes to expand Tesla’s hold on luxury buyers by entering the SUV market, where premium brands Porsche, Mercedes and BMW have racked up record sales, and women make up more than half the buyers. Porsche was transformed by the Cayenne SUV, which doubled its market share among women and is now the company’s best-selling car by a large margin. (Tesla specifically consulted with prospective women buyers during the Model X’s development.)
The Model X already has more than 20,000 preorders, and the automotive industry is watching Tesla carefully to see if it can keep up with demand for both the Model X and Model S, while gearing up for the Model 3, a mass-market sedan set to debut in 2017 that will rely on batteries to be derived from Tesla’s $6 billion gigafactory currently under construction in Nevada.
For now, Tesla has both the luxury electric sedan and SUV market to itself, but not for long. Badly rattled by the left-field success of the Model S, car companies BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Audi are deep in development of long-range electric vehicles of their own. At the Frankfurt Auto Show earlier this month, Audi showed a prototype of its etron Quattro SUV that will compete directly with the Model X, and Porsche unveiled its Mission E concept, which could be among the first to challenge the Model S. Meanwhile, Apple has apparently green-lighted its secret Titan electric car, which could hit the road by 2019.
The Model X unveiling Tuesday capped a remarkable two weeks in the auto industry during which Volkswagen admitted it had deliberately rigged the software in 11 million diesel vehicles so that they could pass emissions tests but spew pollutants in actual driving. The resulting litigation, recalls and public relations blowback has the potential to ruin the brand, which also owns Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti, and hobble the sale of diesel cars, especially in the U.S.
Ignoring for the moment VW’s almost-surreal hubris, it’s been pointed out that the company pulled this stunt because it would have been otherwise impossible for its TDI diesels to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions standards and still deliver the performance buyers expect. And that, Musk implied in interview earlier this week, is the point.
“What the [Volkswagen] scandal is really showing is that we’ve reached the limit of what is possible with diesel and gasoline,” Musk said.
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