Tesla (Nasdaq: TSLA ) makes cars that look and drive like sports cars. But is it really a sports-car manufacturer, or is it a wishing well down which you pour hundreds of millions of dollars and wish for a viable company to appear?
Betting the house on a battery-powered sports car with electrifying performance and a shocking price tag takes quite a leap of faith. At $109,000 each, the Tesla Roadster is not a car for the masses, even if it could seat more than two people. Yet the company has raised $554 million in equity since its 2003 founding, and it just announced that it will add another $196 million from proposed share offerings and private sales of stock. On top of that, Tesla has received a $465 million low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. That totals about $1.2 billion, and that's a lot of faith.
The ability to raise that kind of money certainly stems from the increase in oil prices that's finally bringing home to Americans that the time is now to seriously consider alternative forms of transportation. So Tesla plans to use its financing to broaden the appeal of its high-powered all-electric vehicles to more than just cash-happy celebrities and performance-car enthusiasts. It will expand its lineup with the $50,000 (after tax incentives) Model S luxury sedan and the SUV-like Model X. So far, Tesla has sold only 1,650 of its sports cars and has 4,300 reservations for the upcoming Model S. The Model X won't start selling until late 2013.
Blueprint for bankruptcy
But the company has lost $574.8 million since its inception, and development and manufacturing needs for the new models would rapidly increase its expenditures. Coming up with an electric-powered niche-market sports car based on an already existing vehicle -- the Lotus Elise -- is one thing. Designing a brand-new vehicle from a clean sheet of paper to compete with the likes of Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura, as well as changing the world's driving paradigm, is, I think, an improbable dream.
Compounding the odds against the Model S's mid-2012 introduction is that as of the end of this past March, the company did not yet have a final design for the car -- nor even an outfitted manufacturing facility. This will certainly not help Tesla reach its stated profitability goal of selling 20,000 cars a year, at least in the near term.
To put this in perspective, the only other all-electric vehicle available in the United States, the Nissan Leaf, has sold only about 1,000 units domestically this year. And that's with the backing of one of the world's major automobile manufacturers. It doesn't appear that consumers trust the Leaf's purported 60-to-130-ish mile range. There’s something about the "-ish" factor that doesn't inspire confidence in a battery powered vehicle.
On the other hand, notice that I haven't yet mentioned the Chevy Volt from GM (NYSE: GM ) . The Volt is not an all-electric vehicle. But it's also not quite a hybrid vehicle like the Toyota (NYSE: TM ) Prius or the Honda (NYSE: HMC ) Insight. It is an evolved hybrid. It can be plugged in like an electric, but its onboard gasoline-powered generator can extend its 40-mile battery-only range to about 400 miles. Yet even with that advantage, the Volt has sold only 1,700 units this year.
Step away from the vehicle
J. Pierpont Morgan would have put it this way: Tesla's shares, like its cars, are for those who believe that if you need to ask the price of something, you can't afford it. But Foolish people must know the value of things, and Foolish people really should step away from Tesla.
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Editor's Note: The technology publication Fast Company reported today (Friday) that Tesla Motors plans to discontinue its Roadster sales in two months.