What the Model X Tells Us About Tesla Motors' Strengths and Weaknesses

As Tesla's website says, "Whoa": The execution of the Model X's falcon-wing doors is very impressive. Source: Tesla Motors.

Tesla Motors took the wraps off of the production version of its all-new Model X SUV last week -- and it's a most impressive vehicle.

"The X sets a new bar for automotive engineering," CEO Elon Musk said before the new SUV was revealed. Musk (like any other tech or auto CEO) is prone to a bit of hyperbole when showing off an important new product, but there's some real truth to what he said .

The Model X builds on the strengths that have made Tesla's Model S sedan a critical darling, in a package that seems ideal for (affluent) families with children. It has great range, a slew of safety features, and a long list of eye-popping innovations, starting with those "falcon-wing" doors.

(The doors are really, really spectacular.)

The Model X tells us a lot about what makes Tesla such an appealing technological powerhouse. But it also tells us some things about Tesla that could be thought of as weaknesses -- weaknesses that will need to be overcome if Tesla really wants to be a mass-market automaker.

Tesla's strength: It doesn't think like a big automaker

Can you see General Motors doing something like the Model X's falcon-wing doors?

No chance. GM's conservative crew would nix that idea before it got past a designer's drawing. (And the designer would probably be taken aside and given a dose of reality.)

But Musk was free to tell his engineers to perfect the doors, and the other new technologies in the Model X, without worrying quite as much about the added time and cost.

That's not a knock on GM specifically. (GM these days is actually pretty innovative by big-auto-company standards.) The same would hold true at any of the global automakers. They just can't make that kind of technological leap all at once: They're not set up for it.

That's where Tesla has a huge advantage. It isn't bound by the constraints (real and imagined) that rein in that kind of innovation at big automakers.

Musk knows that. In fact, I think in his mind, that's the whole point of Tesla: It can lead the way, technologically, creating a path that the bigger, slower, stodgier automakers can follow. (And sure enough, some of the big companies are starting to slowly move in Tesla's direction.)

But there's a flip side to that.

Tesla's weakness: It doesn't think like a big automaker

The Model X is loaded with impressive new technology. But -- and when it comes to mass-market vehicles, this will be really important -- it's also two years late and priced higher than a lot of people expected.

Tesla first announced the Model X early in 2012. At that time, the plan was to have it in production by the end of 2013. It's now nearly the end of 2015, and although Tesla has delivered a token number of Model Xs, it's not expected to hit full-speed production for several months.

If you order a Model X today, Tesla says you'll have to wait about a year to get it.

Production is ramping up so slowly in part because those impressive doors are apparently really hard to get just right. It's said that those doors are a big part of why it took so long to get the Model X into production. But Musk insisted on doing the falcon-wing doors and doing them right -- in part because they're really cool.

Another view of the new Tesla Model X. Image source: Tesla Motors.

They are really cool. But there are good reasons why GM or its rivals would have nixed the idea of falcon-wing doors on an important high-volume model right from the start.

GM engineers know, from long experience, that the doors would need a lot of research and development effort (and dollars) to get right, and then a lot more time (and dollars) to come up with a way to mass-produce them that allowed the finished product to meet very high quality and durability standards.

At GM, and other big automakers, a new vehicle has to be designed, engineered, and put into production on a set schedule, at a set cost. The schedule and budget are carefully determined: The resulting new vehicle has to be able to repay its investment (with a profit) over its lifecycle.

A two-year delay to develop a new feature that would be crazy-expensive to produce (at least at the kinds of production volumes GM would need on a new SUV) is a no-go.

But Musk can (and apparently did) tell his team that the delay and cost didn't matter: Make the doors, and make them great. With the caveat that we don't yet know how well they'll hold up in real-world use over time, it looks like they did make them great.

They also made the Model X two years late. And apparently, Tesla is only going to sell the Model X in fully loaded versions for a while, probably to help recoup some of the costs. Those versions start at $132,000 .

That's a lot of money for a family car.

The Model 3 will have to be different, and that depends on Musk

Much of the investment case for Tesla's stock hangs on the promise of its next new model, the upcoming Model 3. The Model 3 is expected to be a sedan that is smaller than the Model S -- and priced a lot lower: Around $35,000 after various rebates and tax incentives, Musk has said. Tesla has promised to show it in concept form early next year, and to start production by the end of 2017.

But the cost and timing of the Model X leads to this question: Will Tesla be able to deliver the Model 3 on time and on budget? Or put another way, will Tesla's CEO be able to resist his urges to stuff the Model 3 full of cool, ground-breaking features -- if they delay its production and add to its cost?

Musk is obviously exceptionally smart, and more self-aware than the average CEO. I think he understands he'll have to back off his cool-at-almost-any-cost approach with the Model 3, which by nature will be a much more constrained product.

But if the Model 3 doesn't hit the market until 2019 and has a starting price of $60,000, will it really be surprising?

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The article What the Model X Tells Us About Tesla Motors' Strengths and Weaknesses originally appeared on

John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days . We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy .

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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