SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Tesla Motors says its upcoming all-electric Model X, scheduled to hit the highways in 2014, combines "the functionality of a minivan with a design as cool as an SUV."
And though the seven-passenger Model X is gender-neutral -- there's nothing overtly feminine about the car -- it was built with families and female drivers in mind: Think moms who regularly haul around young children, their friends, groceries and sports equipment.
The Model X is described on Tesla's website as being an automobile "built around the driver -- and six of her friends."
To make sure the design team was on the right track, Tesla last year invited a dozen Palo Alto, Calif.-area women to its headquarters for a freewheeling, three-hour focus group led by Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla's chief designer. Also, several of the designers who worked on the Model X are women, including Nancy Holman, Susanne Neuhauser and Kimberly Marte.
Since Tesla unveiled the Model X last month, more than 500 people have placed reservations for the car, including men, who say they are buying the Model X for their wives, and women who reserved the car for themselves.
Neither the car's price nor its expected range between charges has been announced, but Tesla says it will be comparable in range and price to its upcoming all-electric Model S luxury sedan, which will have a base price of US$57,400.
There's been a lot of buzz about the Model X's "Falcon Wing" passenger doors, which have hinges on the top and open upward, rather than sliding sideways like the doors of typical minivans.
The large trunk is deep enough to fit bags of groceries, camping equipment or a stroller, and there's additional storage in a front trunk that Tesla calls the "frunk." The seats are leather, ideal for cleaning up crumbs and spills. The second-row seats slide all the way forward, even with a baby's car seat installed, which makes it easy to access the third row of seats.
"My sister has kids, including two in baby seats, and she drives a minivan," said von Holzhausen, who oversees about 100 employees at Tesla's design studio in Hawthorne, Calif., near Los Angeles. "I had to climb over the car seats to get into the back seat, and it seemed ridiculous to have to do gymnastics to get in and out of the car."
At the women's focus group, Tesla asked the participants, most of whom drive minivans and SUVs, to talk about their cars -- how they use them and what they like and don't like about them.
Safety was a big issue for all the women, as was ease of getting kids in and out of car seats and access to the third-row seats. Some cared a lot about how the car looked; others focused more on functionality. Many of the SUV drivers said they didn't like having to climb up into their car.
Tesla surveyed the market niche, which includes the Cadillac Escalade and Honda's Odyssey, with an eye towards creating a vehicle that combined functionality with style. At the same time, it wanted to create a car men would be excited to drive as well.
"The focus group was great because it validated a lot of our own thinking," said von Holzhausen. "Women don't want an overly feminine vehicle -- they want to feel secure. But it has to be aggressive enough for a guy to feel confident as well. We didn't want to make a 'Hello Kitty' edition."
It costs $5,000 to reserve a Model X, or $40,000 for those who want the limited edition "Model X Signature."
Tesla also recently announced a deal to provide the powertrain for a new Mercedes-Benz vehicle. Tesla will provide the battery packs, motor, gearbox, inverter and all related software. It will start to record sales for the contract starting in the second quarter.
Mercedes has not released details about the new vehicle. Tesla has previously provided Daimler with battery packs and chargers for its experiments with electric-car production.
Tesla says it expects revenue to roughly triple this year, when it will begin selling the Model S sedan, its first ground-up design. The company is about to launch production of the Model S at its factory in Fremont, Calif.
As expected, Tesla has continued to pile up losses as it prepares to produce the Model S, the first vehicle it will make in any volume. Tesla posted a net loss of US$81.5 million in the fourth quarter and $254.4 million for 2011. Fourth-quarter revenue rose nine per cent to $39 million from the same period a year earlier. Full-year revenue in 2011 rose 75 per cent to $204 million.
With an expected delivery of 5,000 Model S cars this year, growing powertrain sales and the sell-down of the last of the Tesla Roadster sports cars it developed with British automaker Lotus, Tesla expects $550 million to $600 million in revenue this year. Most of that will come in during the second half of 2012, the company said.
-- San Jose Mercury News / wire services
Tesla Model X
-- Seats seven in three rows; second row slides forward for easy access to third row
-- "Falcon wing" doors open upward
-- Comes with choice of two battery packs: 60 kWh or 85 kWh (range between charges yet to be announced)
-- Equipped with the "Tesla touch screen," a 17-inch, in-dash display that includes driver controls, vehicle apps and web connectivity
-- On the web: http://www.teslamotors.com/modelx