Tesla Launches The Model X, And Even The CEO Thinks It's Outlandish

·Managing Editor
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When it first announced plans to build an electric SUV in 2012, Tesla Motors showed off a taller version of its Model S sedan with gullwing doors and production planned for 2013. Two years after its original launch date, the first Model X finally left Tesla’s hands Tuesday night, and quickly made a claim for one of the most exotic, expensive vehicles on the road —a status that even Tesla co-founder Elon Musk thinks may have gone too far.

“We got a little carried away with the X. I’m not sure anyone should make this car, really,” Musk told reporters. “There’s far more there than really necessary to sell the car…all these things together make the car amazing. It’s next level.”

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With the Model X, America’s lone start-up automaker attempts to launch its second act, a bridge between the luxury-but-niche Model S sedan and a truly mass-produced electric car to be built within a few years. Yet Musk admits that instead of simply modifying the Model S, the engineers on the Model X found their own ludicrous mode that goes far beyond the 713 lb-ft of torque from its electric motors.

Start with the shape, a long hatchback dominated by the rear gullwing “falcon” doors and a panoramic windshield that covers the entire front passenger compartment, the largest such glass in the automotive world. The doors are filled with sensors front and back; an “invisible chauffeur” senses when a driver approaches with the key fob, and can automatically open the front doors.

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Those rear gullwing doors felt like an exotic piece of car-show puffery when they were first revealed, and in production form, they’re science fiction come to life. Each door is hinged in the center, and guided by four different sensors that measure the distance to obstacles around them, slowly cantilevering themselves skyward. (Musk said he made the engineers study ballet dancers to make the doors open with the proper grace.) Tesla says the doors need only 11.8 inches of clearance to open, and lift themselves until they clear the roof of the car next to them.

Inside those doors lies the most complex seats ever installed in a vehicle. Instead of sliding on tracks, the “monopost” seats glide on a single pole in six- or seven-seat configurations. Unlike other SUVs, the second row doesn’t fold flat, but slides forward and separates until its squished against the front row. Tesla says between the third row that folds flat, the extra cargo space created by the electric drivetrain and the seats, the X will have more hauling space than most competitors.

The dashboard is an evolution of the Model S layout, complete with requisite 17-inch touch screen, but with a few additional features, including an HEPA air-filtration system so extreme Musk says the car has a “bioweapons defense” mode; the air coming through is comparable to a hospital.

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All of this required engineering work that would tax an established automaker, let alone a 12-year-old start-up. Musk calls building the X “very difficult, super difficult, extremely difficult” with a few parts like the seven-layer windshield with a fading gradient “excruciating.” Musk vows the Model X will get five-star safety ratings across the board, but meeting that goal with the monopost rear seats required going to “the edge of physics.” Even the sun visors required a new approach; they fold out of the A-pillar and attach to the roof with a magnetic post that telescopes from the edge.

And Musk, who gets compared to a real-life Tony Stark and in another of his day jobs wants to build rockets to take humans to Mars, says Tesla might have been better off building a simpler SUV.

“I think the X really sets a new bar for automotive engineering,” Musk told reporters before revealing the X to a crowd of enthusiastic Tesla fans in California. “There’s nothing like it in the world. There’s never has been—I’m not sure there should be.”

The X relies on the same power setup as the high-end versions of the Model S; a 90-kWh battery pack and a pair of electric motors, with 259 hp available to the front wheels and 503 hp to the rear. In its fastest setup (the P90D with “Ludicrous” mode) the 5,441-lb. Model X can hit 60 mph in 3.2 seconds, or exactly as fast as a manual-shifted Chevy Corvette Stingray. (Non-Ludicrous models do it in 3.8 seconds, still Ferrari-like territory.) Thanks to a slippery drag coefficient of 0.24 and low-rolling-resistance tires, the Model X has a range of up to 257 miles, with a slightly lower rating for the high-performance edition.

Yet building impossible cars sounds like a slogan Tesla would use in its marketing, if it had any to speak of. At the moment, it doesn’t seem to need it; the six Founders’ Edition cars delivered Tuesday night cost in excess of $140,000, to buyers who put down deposits up to three years ago, yet Musk says the company has 20,000 to 25,000 pre-orders for the X, enough to fill the production line until the middle of 2016.

The complexity of the Model X has set off some worries on Wall Street, which wants to know how fast the money-losing Tesla can ramp production on the X and start bringing in the cash to pay for the smaller Model III. Musk says the X production will ramp quickly, but declined to go into deep details aside from repeating a goal of building 800 cars a week, saying the figures could change too rapidly.

At the moment, Tesla only offers a “Signature” full-boat version of the Model X starting at $130,000; the regular 90D models will start around $100,000 and Musk said eventually the company would produce more affordable editions with smaller battery packs. For now, Tesla has the cash to meet the initial orders for the X; the challenge will be luring enough buyers and assembling what may be the most difficult vehicle to build in the world.

“This is a car from the future.” Musk said, adding: “This accrues to the benefit of the buyers of the X. They’re going to get an incredible car that does things no other car does.

“It didn’t need to do so many things.”