Next week, electric-car maker Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) will come into the spotlight as it reports its fourth-quarter results. The update comes at an important time for the company, following a period of record Model S and Model X deliveries and ahead of an expected sharp ramp-up in Model 3 production.

For investors to assess the health of Tesla's business and its progress on management's aggressive production targets, investors will want to look at financials for the current quarter, any news on Model 3 production, and guidance for vehicle delivery growth.

Tesla Model 3 interior and 15-inch touch display

Model 3. Image source: Tesla.

Expect revenue growth and a wider loss

For Tesla's fourth quarter, investors can expect two things with near certainty: revenue will soar and profitability will take a hit.

A big jump in fourth-quarter revenue will be driven by Tesla's record vehicle sales during the period, which were announced several days after the automaker's fourth quarter ended. Excluding 1,550 Model 3 deliveries during the quarter, vehicle deliveries jumped 27% year over year. Including Model 3 deliveries, vehicle deliveries were up 34% year over year.

A bar chart showing Tesla's growth in quarterly vehicle deliveries by model

Data source: Tesla quarterly SEC filings and quarterly vehicle delivery updates. Table by author.

When adding in Tesla's fast-growing sales of energy storage systems, year-over-year revenue growth of about 40% to 45% is likely in Q4.

The outlook for Tesla's profitability, on the other hand, isn't pretty. Higher per-unit vehicle production costs, thanks to costly early production Model 3 units, is driving the automaker's automotive gross profit margin significantly lower. This trend was clear in Q3, when Tesla's automotive non-GAAP gross margin declined more than 600 basis points year over year and sequentially to 18.7%.

"The gross margin declined primarily because of a significant increase in Model 3 manufacturing costs to support the limited initial level of production," Tesla said.

Unsurprisingly, third-quarter non-GAAP earnings per share plummeted, falling from a profit of $0.71 in the year-ago quarter to a non-GAAP loss per share of $2.92 in the third quarter of 2017.

For Tesla's fourth quarter, automotive gross margin will fall even lower to about 15% before it begins recovering in Q1, management forecast its third-quarter shareholder letter. But with Model 3 production lagging behind Tesla's targets outlined in its third-quarter earnings release, Model 3 production's impact on profitability could be even worse than this guidance suggests.

Tesla will likely report a non-GAAP loss per share around $3.00 to $3.70 -- much worse than its year-ago loss of $0.69 per share. 

Of course, investors should look for management to reassure investors there's still a path to improved profitability on the horizon.

About that production ramp-up

For Tesla to turn its profitability around in 2018, it will need to begin delivering on its aggressive promises for Model 3 production.

So far, investors have little to get excited about when it comes to the new vehicle's production ramp. Tesla has whiffed on its near-term targets twice. Initially, it expected to end 2017 with a weekly Model 3 production rate of 5,000 units a week. But this target then slipped to the end of Q1 and eventually settled on the end of Q2.

A white Model 3

Model 3. Image source: Tesla.

Fortunately, Tesla is now saying that it's on track with its most recently revised production targets for the vehicle, which include a production rate of about 2,500 Model 3's per week by the end of Q1 and a weekly rate of 5,000 units by the end of Q2. But investors should look for management to reaffirm that it will still achieve these targets when it reports its fourth-quarter results.

Investors should also consider any guidance management provides for Model S, X, and 3 deliveries in Q1 and beyond. Though Tesla reported record Model S and X deliveries in Q4, management said total Model S and X production was lower in Q4 as the company reallocated some of its manufacturing workforce toward Model 3 production. This means Model S and X deliveries in Q1 will likely dip slightly. But investors should look for Tesla to reassure investors that any dip in Model S and X deliveries is only temporary.

Of course, any guidance for Model 3 deliveries in Q1 and beyond should reflect a steeply rising production curve. With Tesla saying it ended its fourth quarter producing Model 3s at a weekly rate above 1,000 units, and in light of Tesla's target to end its first quarter quarter at a production rate of 2,500 Model 3s per week, investors should look for management to guide for first-quarter Model 3 deliveries of 13,000 to 15,000 units.

Tesla reports its fourth-quarter results after market close on Wednesday, Feb. 7.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.