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Model S boosts Tesla, but mass market electric cars still elusive

View of the interior of the Tesla Model S at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 15, 2013. REUTERS/James
View of the interior of the Tesla Model S at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 15, 2013. REUTERS/James

By Deepa Seetharaman

DETROIT (Reuters) - Kevin Baillie, co-founder of a visual effects company that works on major motion pictures, had never been in a car like his new Tesla Model S electric sedan, but somehow it looked familiar.

"When I got into my car, I thought, 'Wait a minute, this looks like something from the movie I just worked on,'" said Baillie. "It's like Star Trek."

The ringing endorsement of car enthusiasts like Baillie has given Tesla Motors Inc a much needed stamp of approval in a "green" car industry that has seen high-profile failures and struggles over the last year.

The Model S is ten-year-old Tesla's first attempt to reach a mainstream audience for electric cars. Sales of the five-passenger sedan have outpaced expectations since its launch last year, and on Thursday, Consumer Reports magazine awarded it with a near-perfect rating.

The review coupled with Tesla's first-ever quarterly profit boosted the company's shares 36 percent to an all-time high of $75.77 - more than quadruple its 2010 initial public offering price of $17.

The stock's surge came as a surprise to a number of investors betting on Tesla's decline. Tesla is more heavily shorted than 98 percent of the roughly 4,200 companies tracked by Thomson Reuters StarMine.

Many industry experts and analysts celebrated Tesla's fortunes, but warned that the Model S - which starts at around $70,000, before a federal tax credit - remains a niche offering available to only the wealthiest 10 million U.S. households, at best, even with the help of Tesla's new financing deal.

"Have we read the final chapter on Tesla? No. But at this point, you get measured on what you've accomplished to date, and they've done a damn good job," said Tim Leuliette, president and CEO of auto parts supplier Visteon Corp , in an interview.

For Tesla to reach a broader market and silence electric car naysayers, the company must successfully deliver its Model X crossover next year as well as a third-generation car by 2017 that will cost between $30,000 and $35,000.

"One good car does not a car company make, unfortunately," said Tom Gage, the former CEO of AC Propulsion, which developed the drive train for Tesla's first model, the Roadster.

"They have to continue to grow by orders of magnitude before they become a real car company," he said.

COSTS THE SAME AS LUXURY GAS CARS

Tesla said it expects to deliver 21,000 Model S cars worldwide, up 5 percent from its earlier target of 20,000. Many investors had believed the 20,000 target was out of reach.

"My hat's off to them," Ford Motor Co Executive Chairman Bill Ford said at a press briefing after Ford's annual meeting in Wilmington. "It's really hard to start up a company, particularly in the auto business, and be successful."

The strength of demand for the Model S has surprised industry experts, investors and analysts. Limited driving ranges, high prices and relatively spartan interiors have hobbled demand made by other car makers like Nissan Motor Co Ltd <7201.T> and General Motors Corp.

Edmunds.com predicts electric cars will account for 0.1 percent of the U.S. market this year, 1.1 percent in 2017 and 2.3 percent by 2020.

"A lot of people just never believed that electric cars would ever happen or that it would ever be anything desirable," said Jefferies analyst Elaine Kwei, who has a "buy" rating on Tesla shares. "Most of them are not. I can't see why someone would want to pay double for a car because its electric."

But unlike its rivals, the Model S costs about the same as similarly-styled gas-powered luxury cars.

Russ Sands, 72, the retired chief executive of an insurance brokerage firm, said the vehicle is on par with the BMWs, Mercedes and Corvettes he has driven in the past.

"At times I feel like the smartest guy in the class as I drive along the freeway, looking at cars that cost more, that I've owned," Sands said.

"SHE COMPLETES ME"

Tesla is able to afford a more well-appointed interior than other electric cars partly because of its decision to use conventional lithium-ion battery cells, which are widely used in consumer devices.

These cells can cost less than $200 per kilowatt hour, a fraction of the large-format cells used by automakers like GM and Ford, which can deliver more power in a compact package.

The high cost of the battery, which can make up about half the cost of an electric car, remains a challenge in keeping vehicle prices low.

Consumer Reports gave the Model S a score of 99 out of 100, far ahead of electric and gas-powered rivals, including the Porsche Panamera sports car.

The magazine said the car "performed better or just as well overall as any other vehicle, of any kind, ever tested by CR."

The magazine said it achieved a range closer to 200 miles on the Model S, compared to 80 miles and 75 miles on the Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf, respectively.

David Cowan, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley who owns both a Model S and a Nissan Leaf, said he has driven from the San Francisco Bay Area to Sacramento and back - about a 200-mile trip - on a single charge. He has owned his Model S since late last year.

"I just don't have to think about range at all," Cowen said, adding that he could not do such a trip in his Nissan Leaf.

"She completes me," Cowan said of his Model S. "And I've never been a car person."

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit and Nichola Groom in Los Angeles and Tom Hals in Wilmington; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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