Have Tesla Model S and Model X electric-car sales plateaued?

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Tesla Model 3 teaser image with Model S and Model X, March 2016

Tesla Model 3 teaser image with Model S and Model X, March 2016

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Is there no middle ground in discussing electric-car maker Tesla Motors?

The challenge of reading large volumes of Tesla coverage is that it tends to be either rabidly positive or sharply negative.

And the company's stock is so obsessively analyzed both by supporters and detractors that sober analysis is often hard to come by.

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Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk are also extremely adept in issuing interesting or positive new developments on top of less favorable news.

The headline from its recent full-year 2016 financial results last week, for example (including on Green Car Reports), was that production of the Model 3 remains on schedule.

An interesting story on a different topic is contained in the actual numbers released in the company's Q4 Shareholder Letter and accompanying financial results, however.

Tesla Model 3

Tesla Model 3

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That would be the pace of ongoing sales for the company's current Model S sedan and Model X crossover utility vehicle—which could well have plateaued.

Looking back at the last two quarters, Tesla's global deliveries were 24,821 from July through September, and 22,252 in October through December.

Those deliveries were the final half of a year in which Tesla delivered 76,230 Model S and Model X vehicles, missing its lowered guidance to financial analysts of 80,000 units.

WATCH THIS: Tearing down the Tesla Model S battery pack (video)

(The company also noted that its total 2016 production was 83,922 vehicles.)

In the most recent shareholder letter, the company only offered guidance for first-half deliveries from January through June of 47,000 to 50,000 cars.

If you take the high end of that range and split it evenly, you get 25,000 vehicles for each quarter.

Tesla Motors, Palo Alto, California

Tesla Motors, Palo Alto, California

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That gives the following delivery pace for July 2016 through June 2017:

  • Q3-16: 24,821
  • Q4-16: 22,252
  • Q1-17: 25,000
  • Q2-17: 25,000

In other words, Tesla expects to be selling the same number of Model S and Model X electric cars four months from now as it did last summer.

CHECK OUT: Tesla Transparency On Orders, Sales, Production Fades: Do Owners, Investors Care? (Jan 2015)

That's far from unusual; the Model S is now in its sixth model year, a time when virtually every vehicle's sales fall off.

A styling update last April, along with continual changes to battery capacities and driver-assistance features, ensures that today's Model S differs significantly from the 2012 original.

Still, a conventional car company would be cuing up an entirely new Model S by now, likely to be unveiled within the next year and launched as a 2018 or 2019 model.

2017 Tesla Model S

2017 Tesla Model S

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Tesla Motors, of course, is anything but a conventional car company.

For the next few years, it will focus on expanding its lineup with the more affordable Model 3 sedan, followed by a Model Y crossover utility derivative. 

Considering the company's sales plateau, however, it's also worth noting that early expectations for the Model X seem to have fallen somewhat short.

Musk once suggested that its electric SUV might come to outsell the Model S, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

Still, in its shareholder letter, the company offered some positive news: it said its net orders for the Models S and X were 49 percent higher than the same period last year.

The company gave no actual numbers, leaving the claim unsupported. But there's important context missing there.

2016 Tesla Model X with 2011 Tesla Roadster Sport, photographed by owner Bonnie Norman

2016 Tesla Model X with 2011 Tesla Roadster Sport, photographed by owner Bonnie Norman

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The Model X struggled into production late in 2015, and by early 2016, many buyers who had put down deposits for the electric crossover were faced with a purchase decision.

By that time, full information on Model X features, specifications, and pricing had been released.

The lack of fold-flat second-row seats and various other concerns appear to have produced quite a few cancellations among that pool of depositors.

Tesla stopped releasing deposit numbers more than two years ago, but its 49-percent year-over-year growth statistic is likely compared to a base number that reflected some or many of those cancellations.


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