By Dana Hull
San Jose Mercury News.
SAN JOSE, Calif.
When Tesla Motors’ long-delayed Model X, designed to blend the best of a sport utility vehicle with the benefits of a minivan, starts deliveries to customers in late 2015, Tesla will gain entry to two critical and overlapping markets for the auto industry: SUV buyers and women.
Tesla does not release demographic information about its customers, but ownership of its all-electric Model S sedan skews decidedly male.
In 2013, men accounted for 85.8 percent of Model S registrations, according to IHS Automotive, which tracks new vehicle registrations by gender. But the all-electric X could change all that. Smaller SUVs are wildly popular among female drivers, and Tesla designed the X with women in mind.
At Tesla’s shareholder’s meeting in June, a woman advised CEO Elon Musk to make the vehicles “a little bit more women-favored.”
“That’s a good point,” said Musk. “We’re certainly paying more attention to the needs of women in the Model X, and I think you’re right, we probably got a little too guy-centric on the S. So, we’re hoping to correct that with the X.”
That is what Lisa Merkord is counting on. Merkord lives in a rural area and drives her 11-year-old son to school and band practice in her Chevy Volt.
But for her 52nd birthday last year, her husband gave her a surprise gift: a reservation for the Model X.
“We really need more seating,” said Merkor. “We live 15 miles from school, and for any kind of socializing it means schlepping kids around. This is definitely going to be my car. I’m thinking we’ll get it in September, but I’m willing to wait forever.”
The X is also critical to Tesla’s ambitions as an automaker. Trucks and SUVs now account for a larger share of the market than sedans: in November, pickup trucks and SUVs accounted for 54 percent of new auto sales, while cars were just 46 percent, according to Edmunds.com.
At the recent Los Angeles Auto Show, smaller sport utility vehicles like the Honda HR-V crossover and Mazda CX-3 generated a lot of interest.
“If you are a serious automaker, you have to be in the SUV market,” said Renee Stephens, vice president of automotive research at JD Power and Associates. “In the past three years the compact SUV segment has really grown and Tesla is saying, ‘Hey, this is a market for us. We need to get in there.'”
Stephens noted that female buyers make up roughly 39 percent of the market for new cars, but 44 percent of the SUV market.
Tesla’s website stresses that the X is a “family vehicle with performance roots” and that “you can finally live a big-car lifestyle without living at the pump.”
To make sure the design team was on the right track with the Model X, Tesla invited a dozen Palo Alto-area women to its headquarters for a freewheeling, three-hour focus group led by Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer.
There’s been a lot of buzz about the Model X’s “Falcon Wing” passenger doors, which have hinges on the top and open up and out of the way, making it easier to navigate narrow parking spots.
“While earning serious style points, they’re functional first,” says Tesla on its website. “You easily step, not climb, into Model X.”
The large trunk is deep enough to fit bags of groceries or camping and sports equipment. The second-row seats slide all the way forward, even with a baby’s car seat installed, which makes it easy to access a third row of seats.
The falcon wing doors hold big appeal for Maggie Brown, who has four kids ages 9, 7, 4 and 2. That means two schools, two drop-offs, two-pickups, countless errands and a lot of time behind the wheel of her Honda Odyssey minivan.
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“We get in and out of the car 20 times a day,” said Brown, 36, who put down a reservation for a Model X in the spring. “I love the idea of the falcon wing doors. I heard that Elon Musk has five kids, so this is a man who is personally living this problem of the doors. And let’s face it: even the nicest minivan you’d ever buy is not very nice.”
Brown, a librarian, did her research, she talked to friends who own a Model S, then poked around on Tesla’s website.
“I sat and watched the video of Musk unveiling the X in 2012, and I was sold,” said Brown. “Usually if there’s good interior seating there isn’t any cargo space. We need both.”
Tesla has not disclosed the number of reservations for the Model X but has said that “demand has been intense and orders are continuing to come in at a rapid rate.”
Tesla has not revealed pricing of the Model X, but it is expected to be similar in cost to a Model S, which starts at roughly $70,000.
Some customers put down reservations for a Model X in early 2012. But not everyone is willing to wait.
Peggy Noonan, 66, was interested in a Model X but never put down a reservation.
“I gave up on a Tesla Model X as they kept pushing out the delivery date, and I needed to acquire a new car,” said Noonan. “I purchased an all-wheel-drive Maserati. I’m very happy with it, but it’s not electric.”
Retired flight school manager Gabrielle Adelman and her husband, Kenneth, are huge electric vehicle advocates who already own a Roadster, a Model S and a Toyota RAV4 EV. Gabrielle Adelman put down a $40,000 deposit to get an X “Signature” series, a limited production model. The Signature series are the first 1,200 or so Model X’s to be made; Signature reservation holders tend to be the Tesla faithful.