Few companies have quite the public following of electric-car company Tesla (TSLA 3.17%). Under the leadership of Elon Musk, its pioneering electric cars have changed the game so much that California has even set a future ban on the sale of gas-powered cars. Yet that world-changing innovation as brought with it the expectation of even more greatness to come, and that could present a problem for today's investors.

Tesla's recent $862.7 billion market capitalization is more than 12 times the company's trailing revenue and more than 90 times the company's trailing profit. That makes it still look pricey, even in today's generally downward-trending stock market.

This raises a key question for potential investors. Which is more important: Tesla's innovation or its valuation? In other words, if you're looking to invest in stocks as the market swoons, which looks like a better buy, Tesla or the entire Nasdaq?

Electric car charging in front of a house.

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for Tesla

According to data collected by InsideEVs, Tesla is still registering more all-electric cars than any other manufacturer, with more than 564,000 vehicles registered in the first half of 2022. In addition to its market share lead, Tesla expects that its investment in its Gigafactories will dramatically lower its costs when it comes to batteries. Since batteries are such an important component of both an electric car's cost and its range, that investment should help Tesla have a cost advantage over other manufacturers.

In addition, since Tesla has always been an all-electric vehicle manufacturer, it doesn't have the legacy costs and structures that traditional gas-powered-car companies have in place. Those structures were built up over decades to optimize for manufacturing gas-powered cars. While that helps with scale and efficiency, those same factors often get in the way of helping a company be more nimble and change with the times. That may hinder other car companies' ability to play catch-up with Tesla on electric cars.

A cost advantage on batteries plus a business model built from the ground up for electric vehicles certainly puts Tesla in a great spot as the world shifts to a higher proportion of electric cars.

The case against Tesla

Of course, Tesla faces challenges in the electric-vehicle space as well. First, it is losing its early mover advantage. While that InsideEVs report still had Tesla in the lead when it came to electric-vehicle registrations, it also indicated that Tesla's market share of EVs was 19% -- and shrinking. That means competition is getting a stronger foothold -- and gaining their own economies of scale to improve their ability to effectively operate in the electric car space.

Second, according to the JD Power Initial Quality Survey for 2022, Tesla's initial quality is below average in the automobile industry. It scored 226 problems per 100 vehicles, versus 180 problems per 100 vehicles for the typical car. In a world where electric cars are premium-priced to gas-powered ones to cover those battery costs, having below-average initial quality makes it tough to command a premium price. That'll be especially true as consumer choice continues to increase as competition intensifies.

Then, of course, there's Tesla's valuation. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, worldwide car sales were around 74.9 million units in 2019, up from an average around 71 million throughout the 2010s. Tesla's $862.7 billion market cap gives it a price tag of around $11,500 per car sold by all manufacturers in 2019, worldwide. To justify that kind of valuation, Tesla would need to become a dominant player across the entire industry, not just a fast mover (and one losing share) in just a segment of it.

Is it possible that Tesla could get there? Maybe, but its shares are trading as though that has already happened. As a result, I'm not sure where future shareholder returns would come from, even if the company does reach that pinnacle of success.

What about the entire Nasdaq?

On the flip side, the Nasdaq as a whole currently trades at about 22 times the trailing earnings of its constituent companies, thanks to a fairly substantial market decline in 2022. While a little higher than a value investor would like to see, it's not that far out of whack with its pre-pandemic trends .

In addition, the Fidelity Nasdaq Composite Index ETF (ONEQ 0.91%), which attempts to track the Nasdaq, offers investors a chance to buy the index for a reasonably low 0.21% expense ratio. That makes buying shares in the entire Nasdaq about as easy as buying shares in Tesla, without having to sacrifice a huge part of your overall potential return to overhead fees.

Which is a better buy?

At a lower valuation -- 22 times for the Nasdaq composite, versus 90 times earnings for Tesla -- the Nasdaq wins out as a better buy on valuation. When it comes to business prospects, Tesla clearly has room to grow as the electric-vehicle market does. With its stock price already reflecting the anticipated success from that growth, however, it's hard to justify paying the premium price over the overall index.

Overall, the decline in the overall market has opened up an opportunity to where the entire Nasdaq looks like a better buy at the moment than Tesla does. You get broader diversification by owning an index, a better value and, as a result, a higher likelihood of being rewarded from any business growth that may take place in the underlying companies.