The Palo Alto automaker on Friday introduced three new versions of the Model S, offering a new base model and launching improvements of higher-end models that will increase their speed and range.
The features Tesla Chief Executive
Musk said that deliveries of the Model X would begin in two months and that the company would start selling the Model 3 in a little more than two years.
The changes in the Model S range include a more powerful 90 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery pack that will extend the vehicle's range, measured at a steady 65 mph, to about 300 miles, Musk said.
It's a $3,000 upgrade from the 85 kWh, which was the automaker's largest battery pack and has a range of about 285 miles between charges.
The larger battery also will be offered to existing Tesla owners as an upgrade, but Musk suggested that they wait because "we expect to increase pack capacity by about 5% a year." Owners should wait until they get at least a 15% gain in their range before moving to the larger battery, he said.
Tesla also will begin selling an all-wheel-drive P90D Model S, which will have the available "ludicrous" mode as a $10,000 option to a car that starts at $108,000. The "ludicrous" option will be sold as a retrofit to existing P85D cars for $5,000 plus the installation cost.
A version of the Model S already comes with an "insane" driving mode that accelerates from zero to 60 mph in just over three seconds.
"Nobody was asking for 'ludicrous' mode because it is too ludicrous," Musk said. "It is just incredible fun. It is like having your own roller coaster."
Tesla also will introduce a rear-wheel-drive base model of the S with a 70 kWh battery and 230-mile range. It will be $70,000 before any federal and state incentives for electric cars.
Investors liked the announcements. Tesla shares rose $7.98, or 3%, to $274.66 on Friday.
Analysts said the Model S improvements would catch consumer interest but were not important to the unprofitable automaker's future.
"At the end of the day, it is all about Model X ramp-up and the development of Model 3," said Dan Dolev, an analyst at Jefferies Equity Research. "That's the upside at this point. What Musk was talking about with the Model S is just variations on the same theme."
Dolev has an optimistic view of the company and believes that Tesla's stock will hit a $360 price target. But that depends on Tesla's ability to produce a broader range of vehicles and more affordable cars.
Other analysts were more skeptical. Karl Brauer of auto information company Kelley Blue Book noted that the new base model Tesla is priced about $5,000 less than the previous lowest-cost version, the 70D.
"Nobody cuts the price of a car because it is selling too well," Brauer said.
Tesla sold 8,950 cars in the U.S. through the first half of the year, according to Autodata Corp., about a 2% decline from the same period last year.
"The improvements generate excitement, but they are minor components of the larger challenge for Tesla, which is to make money and increase sales volume," Brauer said. "They are not going to do that with the 'ludicrous' mode or a $5,000 price cut or a 15-mile range extension. They need the Model X and the Model 3."
Tesla originally said it would start manufacturing the Model X at the end of 2013, with sales to begin last year, but the program is behind schedule. Part of the delay was because Tesla could not use the same parts for both the X and the S.
"Our focus right now is on the X and getting that done," Musk said. "In order to make the X great, we had to go to the point where maybe 30% of the parts are in common between the S and the X."
The Model X, designed at Tesla's studio in Hawthorne, will fit seven adults in three rows of seats, the automaker said. It will use 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 Model X looks more like a crossover than a conventional sport-utility vehicle and features falcon-wing doors that lift up and out.
The crossover also will get a "ludicrous" mode option, but its speed will be about half a second slower and the car's overall range will be about 5% shorter because it weighs about 10% more than the Model S, Musk said.