With Model 3, it's make or break for Tesla

On Thursday night, at an invitation-only, Hollywood-style premiere on his SpaceX campus in Hawthorne, Elon Musk and his Tesla team will unveil their latest creation: the Model 3, Musk's long-awaited electric car for the masses.

Few details have been revealed so far, but the car is essentially a scaled-down, half-priced version of Tesla's $70,000 Model S. The newest product from Musk's Fremont, Calif., car factory represents Musk's dream of bringing affordable, pollution-free transportation to a world he sees choking to death on its own fumes.

Tesla has said the car will travel up to 200 miles on a single, plug-in electric charge, and will retail from as low as $35,000. Qualified buyers could receive up to $10,000 in federal and state sales incentives, rebates or tax breaks.

The car, which has not been shown to the public nor reviewed by the automotive media, is not yet in production. Early adopters who plunk down cash to reserve the first models won't receive them until at least December 2017 — and it could be a lot longer than that. Tesla's exotic "falcon wing" Model X had production difficulties that delayed its delivery more than 18 months. Several analysts are expecting the same to happen with the Model 3.

But customers eager to be the first on their blocks to own the new vehicles declared their intention to form lines outside Tesla showrooms hours before the first orders were to be taken Thursday morning, like teenagers queuing for a rock concert or technophiles waiting for a new iPhone.

Tesla has indicated it expects to get tens of thousands of pre-orders. Some estimates have suggested the company could receive 100,000 orders in the first 24 hours.

Despite that, critics say, the Model 3 may arrive too late to beat other equally affordable long-range plug-ins coming from major manufacturers, and it will be competing for a stubbornly small share of the car-buying public interested in plug-in electric technology.

And there are doubts that the company can even get the car on the road in a timely fashion.

Teaser images released by Tesla hint at a vehicle that is shorter and slimmer than the Model S and considerably less bulky than Tesla's SUV-like Model X. Automotive experts assume the car will be sold in single-motor, rear-wheel-drive and dual-motor, all-wheel-drive versions, as is the Model S. The 3 would probably be outfitted with a 44-kilowatt-hour battery with a range of about 200 miles, or a larger 66-kilowatt-hour battery capable of more than 300 miles.

It would be, like the S and X, priced accordingly — with base models starting at $35,000 and luxury, performance models costing twice as much.

The industry publication Green Car Reports has said the success or failure of the Model 3 "will almost certainly make or break Tesla as a car company."

Analysts bullish on Tesla believe the mass-market car could be a massive success.

"If they can do it at that price point, and with that range, they have the potential to pull in a lot of people," said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Rebecca Lindland. "They already have captured some of the wealthiest car buyers [with the Models S and X]. This could be the car they bring to the masses."

Tesla faces one great challenge in doing that: the Chevy Bolt. General Motors last year announced its intention to have a 200-mile-range plug-in electric car on the market at about $37,500 by the end of 2016. Though the company now will say only that the car will be in production this year, it is generally assumed that the Bolt (from a company that has already had success with its hybrid plug-in electric Volt) will be on the market before Tesla's Model 3.

And other plug-in electric cars with longer ranges are said to be in the works at Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Volvo and other companies.

David Reichmuth, senior clean vehicles engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, gives Musk and Tesla credit for making electric cars cool and forcing mainstream manufacturers to pay attention to a technology that, so far, they've had trouble selling to the general public. Electric vehicle sales represent less than 3% of all new car sales in most markets.

"Tesla has been great at selling electric cars, highlighting their quick acceleration and their quiet ride," Reichmuth said. "That is pushing other companies along."

Tesla faces other challenges as well.

Consumer Reports recently added certain model year Model S's to its "Worst of the Worst" section on its list of "Used Cars to Avoid," as Tesla has struggled with reliability and dependability issues.

The company's stock price has been on a roller-coaster the last year. After hitting a high of $280 in July 2015, shares sunk to $143 in February after unexpectedly large fourth-quarter losses.

Though the stock closed down $3.24, or 1.4%, to 226.89 on Wednesday, Tesla critics believed that bubble must soon burst.

"Model S sales have flattened, and Model X is turning into a disappointment, and now nothing is going to happen until the Model 3 comes out — probably not until mid- to late-2018," said hedge fund manager Mark Spiegel of Stanphyl Capital Management.

Given the fourth-quarter losses, Spiegel said, the success of the Model 3 may not even help Tesla's bottom line. The company sold more cars than ever but experienced greater losses than ever.

"The Model 3 will not save the company," Spiegel said. "The Model 3 is going to speed up the end of the company."

A further complication is the likely end of some electric-vehicle rebates. California is already debating whether to disallow such tax breaks for wealthy consumers. And some state and federal rebates will expire after the manufacturer has sold 200,000 individual cars.

According to data compiled by the research firm Polk and by the industry publication Inside Evs, Tesla to date has sold about 67,000 vehicles that qualified for rebates. If the company hits its stated sales target of 80,000 to 90,000 vehicles this year, analysts said, those rebates could expire before the first Model 3 leaves the factory floor.

Such naysaying means nothing to true Tesla believers. Some said they intended to be first in line when Tesla's retail showrooms begin taking first-come, first-served deposits for the new car.

Online deposits will start Thursday night, Tesla said, and "existing customers will get priority." (Tesla has said that deposits are "fully refundable" and can be applied to the purchase of a Model S or X at any time, if buyers are concerned about the long wait for a 3.)

Motivated buyers will be asked to deposit $1,000 to reserve a Model 3 — down from the $5,000 buy-in Tesla requested for the Model X.

Paul Scott, 63, of Santa Monica is one such fan. An early electric car adopter who once worked as a Nissan Leaf salesman, Scott said the Model S and X — and even Tesla's first vehicle, the now-discontinued Roadster — were too expensive. But the Model 3 appeals to him.

"I am going to order a fully loaded one, since I understand those are the models they will build first," Scott said. "And I'm fully prepared to buy it even without the tax credit."

Scott, who says he'd go as high as $50,000 for the option-laden car, has owned a plug-in Toyota Rav-4 and two Leafs in the past, but now relies only on his Zero S electric motorcycle to get around.

He has a unique plan for his Model 3. He's going to buy it, then find an Uber or Lyft driver to lease it from him. The driver will have to insure the car and find a place to park it. The driver will also have to be Scott's personal chauffeur.

"This will pay for the car, and I'll have it whenever I need it," Scott said. "It's kind of like a free car."

charles.fleming@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 31, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "HIGHWAY 1 - Make or break for Tesla with Model 3 - Firm will unveil its electric car for the masses, with tens of thousands of pre-orders expected" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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