Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk often seems to be looking at Germany's storied Porsche sports-car brand as a model. Certainly, Porsche, with a carefully protected premium image and profit margins that have long been among the industry's leaders, can serve as a good model for Tesla in some ways.
But lately, it has become clear that Porsche's leaders have been looking at Tesla, too. And they're clearly intrigued by what they see, because it's starting to look like the first direct competitor for Tesla's hot-selling Model S will have a Porsche crest on the nose.
A few leaks have drawn an intriguing picture of Porsche's future product plans
A short report in Gerrmay's Auto Motor und Sport broke the surprising news: Porsche's long-planned midsize sedan, often referred to as the "Pajun," will be offered as an all-electric car -- and only as an electric car.
The Pajun is expected to be a midsize sedan, smaller than Porsche's current Panamera. (The name comes from "Panamera Junior"; the production version will almost certainly be called something else.) It was originally planned for 2015, and originally intended as a sportier (and presumably pricier) alternative to cars like BMW's 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz's E-Class.
But last summer, the British magazine CAR reported that the Pajun had been delayed until "at least 2019" as part of a larger reworking of the Porsche brand's future product plan by corporate parent Volkswagen Group (NASDAQOTH:VWAGY). According to the report, Porsche's product plan was scaled back significantly as other VW Group products were seen as more urgent.
At the time, CAR reported that the Pajun would likely be powered by Porsche-tuned versions of the 3.0-liter gasoline V6 used by corporate sibling Audi in several models.
But that plan seems to have been modified again. Now, Porsche is gunning for Tesla.
A change in strategy to confront Tesla rather than German rivals
Details are still scarce -- and officially, Porsche isn't saying anything. But Auto Motor und Sport says that Porsche executives think that the midsize luxury sports sedan segment is already crowded, and an electric entry offers a clearer advantage.
That's a fair argument. The midsize luxury sedan segment has gotten a bit crowded as lately, with new entries like Fiat Chrysler's Maserati Ghibli and General Motors' Cadillac CTS putting added pressure on long-battling segment stalwarts BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi.
And while several of those brands are offering or planning hybrids in this segment, nobody but Tesla -- so far, at least -- has emerged with an all-electric luxury sedan.
So does Porsche have a chance of "disrupting" Tesla here?
Will Tesla welcome Porsche -- or fight it fiercely?
It's impossible to say without knowing more about Porsche's plans. The report did say that Porsche expects its car to have 350 to 400 kilometers of range, or roughly between 200 and 250 miles. And it's fair to expect that any car wearing a Porsche badge would have extremely competitive acceleration, braking, and handling prowess.
Tesla has already established a reputation for quality and performance with an undeniable "cool" factor. But Porsche has had its own reputation for quality and performance firmly established for decades, and a "cool" factor of its own, backed by thousands of racing victories over more than half a century.
It's also possible, given Porsche's corporate siblings, that its electric sedan will have an Audi sibling -- and that Tesla might get two competitors wearing German luxury-brand badges. (In fact, I think this is pretty likely.)
With about 10 million sales a year, the VW Group plays in a much bigger league than Tesla, and has vast resources and scale to throw at this battle that Tesla won't be able to match for years, if ever. On the other hand, Tesla has Silicon Valley know-how -- and a big head start. We'll see how it shakes out.