I drove my first Tesla many years ago in Los Angeles. I was appalled.

Model 3 prototype.

The Roadster, a modified Lotus stuffed with little lithium ion batteries, was quick and nimble, but comfortable as a straightjacket, hot as a sauna and crude as a high school science project.

For me, Tesla looked like a scam and its CEO, Elon Musk, a stock promoter. Then George Clooney’s Roadster burned to the pavement. That seemed it for Tesla.

It wasn’t. Give Tesla its due. Friday, with the official arrival of the much-hyped Model 3, Tesla will take a huge step. Kudos. No other start-up car company has managed to survive and thrive from a valuation standpoint.

Tesla has a market cap of nearly $57 billion (US), more than BMW and General Motors. Institutional investors have been propping up Tesla for years; that’s what is behind the strong share price.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk (right) and actress Amber Heard.

Indeed, Fidelity owns some $8.0 billion of Tesla, Baillie Giifford nearly $5.0 billion, T Rose Price $3.5 billion and Vanguard nearly $2.0 billion (all figures in U.S. dollars). The Chinese internet Giant Tencent has purchased 8.2 million Tesla shares, too – about one-third of what Fidelity holds. When a small handful of very large investors own the majority of a company’s shares, the potential for stock manipulation is high.

Still, Tesla seems on the verge of doing something quite unimaginable nearly a decade ago: start deliveries of a mass-market electric vehicle (EV).

We won’t know details until 7 p.m. PST Friday, but we do have Elon Musk’s tweets and promises. The starting price is $35,000 (US) and it will be available with few configurations. Range will be at least 344 km/215 miles. Many believe the battery pack will be 55 kWh, allowing Tesla to say it offers less range than the Chevy Bolt because it has a smaller battery.

The Model 3 prototype looks similar to the Model S and it will be a sedan, not a hatchback. The Model 3 will be offered with standard rear-wheel drive or optional dual-motor all-wheel drive. It will seat five. The prototype’s central dashboard display screen is unlikely to find its way into the production car.

Musk sees the Model 3 as a rival for the expected onslaught of EVs from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi – and a current challenge to the likes of the current BMW 3-Series and Audi A4. He is less interested in positioning the Model 3 against the Bolt and Next-generation Nissan Leaf.

The Model 3 will use Tesla’s DC fast-charging capability, using Tesla’s own Supercharger – though owners will have to pay for the privilege. Surely the car will be nimble and fast.

Musk says Tesla will build 100 cars through August, followed by 1,500 or more beginning in September, and 20,000 starting in December. Most who paid deposits will wait for their ride.

Tesla, then, is about to transition from promising startup and stock play to a real car company producing, delivering and servicing huge numbers of cars each year. Such a leap forward will be extremely difficult. We have arrived at Tesla’s make-or-break moment.

If you believe in omens, consider: Consumer Reports just named the Model S its top-rated luxury sedan after the automaker updated its software. On the other hand, the Model X remains near the bottom of its category.

The marketplace will digest all this and come to a conclusion. We’ll have an indication of what that might be next week, when Tesla reports earnings and Musk is asked direct and probing questions from analysts and the like.

This fast-moving story is now becoming very interesting and very real.





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