Market News

 April 30, 2013
Tesla Model S Tops GM Volt in North American Plug-In Race

 Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA), the luxury battery-car company run by billionaire Elon Musk, is North America's rechargeable auto sales leader so far this year as its Model S sedan passed General Motors Co. (GM)'s Chevrolet Volt.

Tesla expects to report at least 4,750 deliveries of the electric Model S in the U.S. and Canada when it releases first- quarter results on May 8, said Shanna Hendriks, a company spokeswoman, reiterating a March 31 estimate. That compares with 4,421 Volt sales in North America and 3,695 deliveries of Nissan Motor Co. (7201)'s Leaf, based on data provided by the carmakers.

The sales ranking for Model S is a first for the Palo Alto, California-based company's flagship model and coincides with Tesla saying it would report a first-quarter profit, the first in its 10-year history. The plug-in hybrid Volt, which uses both batteries and a gasoline engine, led regional sales in 2012.

"Any success for a company in this space is helpful for all other makers of plug-in vehicles," said Jim Cain, a spokesman for Detroit-based GM. "The single most important thing we can do for plug-ins, to encourage sales, is to have them on the road."

Tesla began selling the Model S, with a $69,900 base price, in mid-2012 and hasn't begun shipments beyond North America. It goes as far as 300 miles (483 kilometers) on a charge, according to Tesla. Musk has set a target of delivering 20,000 of the cars, built in Fremont, California, this year.

GM and Nissan each sold about 30,000 of their respective rechargeable models worldwide last year, the companies said. Both have declined to provide current-year volume targets. The Leaf, like the Model S, is an electric model.

'Interesting Trivia'

While Tesla's quarterly lead is "interesting trivia," Volt will see higher volume over time, said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst based in Boston.

"The Volt is the one that makes sense out of that whole group of plug-ins, because you can use it like a regular car when the battery runs out," Wolkonowicz said yesterday.

Tesla's small size, relative to GM and Nissan, will keep the electric-car maker under financial pressure, he said.

"The auto business is all about capital intensity, you have to spend money to keep improving your products and develop new ones," Wolkonowicz said. "A small little auto company like Tesla, I just don't think they can do it."

GM Production

The Volt can go 38 miles on electric power before its gasoline engine engages to recharge the battery. Plug-in hybrids can also be recharged by plugging into an electrical outlet. Nissan's 2013 model Leaf averages 75 miles per charge, the company said this week.

GM built about 9,000 Volts and plug-in Opel Amperas, which are sold in Europe, in the first quarter, said Cain, the company spokesman. The largest U.S. carmaker sold 4,244 Volts in its home market in the year's first three months.

Leaf deliveries dipped early this year after Yokohama, Japan-based Nissan moved production of the hatchback for North America to its Smyrna, Tennessee, plant, said Brian Brockman, a company spokesman. Leaf sales hit a record 2,236 in March in the U.S.

Separately, Tesla is adding a loaner fleet including new Model S sedans and older Roadster sports cars for customer use when their vehicles are serviced, Chief Executive Officer Musk said yesterday. The company is also adding a "no fault" battery warranty covering all damage, "even if you never followed or read the manual," he said on a conference call.

"As long as you don't set out to intentionally destroy the battery pack, it's going to be covered," Musk said.

Tesla slid 1.5 percent to $51.20 at the close yesterday in New York. The stock has gained 51 percent this year, compared with an 11 percent increase for the Russell 1000 Index.