Electric-car maker Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) reports fourth-quarter results on Feb. 11. The high-profile company will undoubtedly be under the spotlight. While a number of metrics will be closely watched, reported vehicle sales may be subject to the most scrutiny. As Tesla's earnings date approaches, here's some background on the important figure.

Model S. Image source: Tesla Motors.

Tesla's biggest quarter yet
The expectations for the quarter are high, and this isn't necessarily because analysts are getting ahead of themselves. Tesla is raising its own bar. With the company guiding for 33,000 vehicles in 2014, it would have to deliver about 11,200 vehicles in Q4, up 63% from the year-ago quarter, and 44% higher than any quarter's deliveries yet.

Before Tesla announced Q3 results along with Q4 guidance, the expectations for this quarter were even higher; going into 2014, Tesla predicted it would deliver 35,000 vehicles. But a production blip in Q3 set the company back, as Tesla wrote in its most recent quarterly letter to shareholders: 

Production for the full year is expected to be about 35,000 cars, despite entering Q4 with a deficit in production of 2,000 units from Q3. However, the loss of these cars in Q3 means fewer available to deliver in Q4 and our ability to ramp up production in Q4 is constrained by the complexity of launches related to dual motor and autopilot hardware. Consequently, we expect to deliver approximately 33,000 vehicles for 2014. This is 50% above 2013 deliveries, but 5% to 7% below prior estimates for 2014.

Can Tesla deliver?
There's little reason to believe Tesla can't live up to its quarterly guidance. The company has beat its own quarterly guidance for deliveries for the last seven quarters in a row. Furthermore, when Tesla reports quarterly guidance, it has significant vision into the next quarter's results. For instance, Tesla reported Q3 results on Nov. 5, more than a month into Q4.

For what it's worth, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas, who is bullish on Tesla over the long haul, expects the company to fall short in Q4 (see StreetInsider). The firm said it expects Tesla to deliver only 9,993 vehicles in Q4. In the note to investors, Morgan Stanley cut its 12-month price target on the stock from $290 to $280. If Morgan Stanley's prediction for Q4 deliveries were to hold true, Tesla would deliver 31,814 vehicles in 2014, well below its guidance for 33,000.

Tesla store.

In the grand scheme of things, whether Tesla reports Q4 sales of 10,000 vehicles or 11,200 is probably insignificant. What will ultimately determine the prospects of Tesla stock is the company's ability to continue to ramp up sales significantly year over year. Sure, in the near term, quarterly sales could play a key role in where the stock goes next, but investors will be more interested in seeing whether Tesla can truly increase vehicle sales by 50% annually over the long haul, as Tesla has predicted it will. Looking out even further, the success of Tesla's Gigafactory and its lower-cost Model 3 will be absolutely crucial.

Still, investors should keep an eye on how well the company delivers in the near term. The greater Tesla succeeds today, the more gross profit it has to fund its future, and the more confidence investors can have in its ability to execute on its ambitious aspirations.

Stay tuned at The Motley Fool for more pre-earnings Tesla coverage and, of course, a Foolish take on the company's fourth-quarter results.