Tesla in an interesting place in the automotive market: The brash Silicone Valley company has been known for its internal squabbles, yet they've managed to succeed where so many new automakers have failed. Even former GM head Bob Lutz admitted that he was inspired to start the Volt project by the resounding success of Tesla's Roadster. With the Model S sedan being prepped for production, the next step for the company will be their newly revealed crossover, the Model X.
Part of Tesla's trickle-down approach to vehicle production, the X is the next step toward paying off the development of the company's EV technology, allowing for cheaper models. The eventual goal is the "BlueStar," an affordable family car due to hit the market in 2015.
Tesla's first product was the Roadster, a Lotus Elise-based sports car that exchanged its traditional four cylinder for an electric motor and over 6,800 off-the-shelf Lithium Ion laptop cells. Although the mix of parts and the newness of the company suggested a kit car level of quality, critics were amazed that the Roadster felt and drove like a regular production vehicle. Sales were brisk despite its $100,000-$120,000 retail price, ending only because Lotus stopped production of the Elise. 2,400 Roadsters were built during its four year run.
The company's next car is the Model S luxury sedan, due to enter production this fall. The laptop cells are gone, replaced by battery packs co-developed with Panasonic specifically for EV use. With an electric motor producing 362 hp and 306 ft-lbs. of torque, the car can reach 60 mph in 5.6 seconds: That's about three tenths of a second faster than a Mercedes E350. A four inch thick battery pack below the seats and a drivetrain no bigger than a traditional axle keep the center of gravity low enough to provide handling that far exceeds what would be expected from its conventional suspension. With an MSRP starting at around $57,000, the car is a respectable entry into the segment, although many drivers will probably spend an extra $20,000 to get the car's battery pack upgraded to an 80 kW unit, boosting range from 160 miles to 300 per charge.
The next step is the much-rumored Model X. Hints about the vehicle came via rumors of government agencies asking Tesla to build an electric SUV for service duties. A recent partnership with Toyota to build electric RAV4s suggested the X may share some parts with the Japanese automaker in an attempt to build a small high-end crossover. However, when the prototype was finally revealed, it turned out to be something else entirely: It's not simply an electric-powered crossover, it's an entirely new type of vehicle that could only be built using an electric platform.
The prototype looks like the Model S's styling has been stretched over a crossover coupe. However, while the Acura MDX and BMW X6 are well known for their lack of space, the X's tall stature and low-mounted drivetrain gives the vehicle space more in line with a minivan. At the press release, Musk emphasized that the vehicle holds seven people "plus cargo:" His own Audi Q7 was used as a benchmark, and the X's front trunk alone holds as much as the Audi does when filled with passengers.
Its most striking feature is the "falcon wing" rear doors. While they open upward from a center roof hinge like gull wing doors, there's a second hinge between the roof and door panel. The result is a door that swings up and then out, moving only a foot away from the car while providing ample room to get in and out of the vehicle. When open, the door is high enough that someone under six feet tall can stand upright on the footwell.
Like most show cars, the prototype on display doesn't have rear view mirrors. However, that doesn’t mean its rear view free: Small bumps at the corners of the front doors shroud small cameras that display a rear view on a massive screen inside the cabin. While this would be a major boon for aerodynamics, current Department of Transportation rules require traditional mirrors; whether or not this feature reaches production will depend on regulation changes.
The X will have optional all wheel drive courtesy of two electric motors, one powering each axle. Although there was no word on whether the system will be able to vary torque between the left and right sides of the vehicle like most top-end AWD systems, the near-instantaneous response of the electric motors should provide excellent traction in bad weather. With both motors installed, 0-60 mph will take just 4.4 seconds, pulling ahead of the segment-leading Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG. A performance version is in the works that will be even faster.
Early testers say the Model X drives almost exactly like the Model S, without the sluggish responses and body roll normally associated with an SUV. Again, the electric design is helpful as the underseat battery pack and low-mounted motors give the vehicle a very low center of gravity for a crossover.
60% of the Model X's parts are shared with the Model S, including the battery pack. Total weight is about 10% greater than the S, which Musk says will equate to a 10% reduction in range -- around 200-210 miles per charge with the 60 kWh battery pack, or 260-270 miles when equipped with the 85 kWh pack. MSRP will start at $57,400, with fully-optioned versions reaching $90,000. Like the S, the Model X should come well-equipped with the large price difference linked directly to the battery size. All models should be eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit.
A handful of Model X's should hit the streets sometime in 2013, with full production starting the following year. With amazing acceleration and a massive amount of interior room, the Model X will be a serious competitor in the segment even without its green credentials.