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Tesla Gears Up for Its Assault on the Luxury SUV Market with Electric Model X

By Chris Boylan

[Editor's note: this is a bit of a departure from our regular coverage of consumer electronics gear but I thought our tech-savvy readers would probably be interested in the topic]

I had the opportunity to attend Tesla's Model X launch event this week in Freemont, California and I'm hear to tell you, Tesla Motors is one giant step closer to dominance of the luxury automotive market. Their first offering in the CUV/SUV category is sure to turn some heads, and not just for its distinctive Falcon Wing Doors or its 100% electric drive train. The Model X SUV (or more aptly, CUV - Crossover Utility Vehicle) seats seven adults, can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a little over 3 seconds, travels up to 257 miles on a full charge and can tow 5,000 pounds. And it does all this without using a drop of gas. Just plug it in overnight and you'll wake up to a full charge every morning, for a fraction of what you'd pay for a tank of gas. And if you're heading on a long distance trip, you can top up your charge pretty quickly at a growing network of Tesla super charger stations world wide which are free to Tesla Model S and Model X owners for life.

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Tesla Model X CUV/SUV in white, Falcon Wings poised to take flight.

For those who don't follow Tesla's every move, the Model X was first unveiled in February, 2012, when the company had only one car on the market, an all-electric sports car, the Roadster. The Roadster proved that you can make a compelling high-end sports car with zero emissions and zero compromises. But it was seen as a novelty by many "industry pros" and only sold around 2,400 units. At the time, Tesla had also shown a prototype all-electric sedan (the Model S) but this car had not yet made it into general production.

When the Model X was unveiled, CEO Elon Musk announced that it would begin shipping in late 2013, after the Model S was widely available. But alas, bringing the Model X from concept to reality was a much larger task than the ever-optimistic CEO had expected. And Musk is known for his perfectionism. He will ship no car before his time. In Musk's own words, "Really hate it when companies bring out an awesome show car and then you can never actually buy it. So lame." Musk vowed that any production car would be better than the prototype. And doing that with a car as unusual as the Model X took some time.

Those Doors, Those Crazy Beautiful Doors

The most distinctive feature of the Model X - and also one of the greatest design challenges - is the so-called "falcon wing doors." Unlike earlier gull wing doors, which open out and up, taking a fairly large amount of horizontal space, the falcon wing doors on the Model X have dual hinges and are motorized so that they open mostly upwards, then slightly outwards. If you're worried about bumping the car next to you in a parking lot, you'll be happy to hear that falcon wing doors actually take less space than traditional doors to open. The doors also incorporate proximity sensors to keep them from crashing into objects (like other cars) or low ceilings. And because the doors move completely out of the way, rear passengers can easily access the second or third row of the car without having to do any contortions. Also, the vast amount of entry space makes it easy to get children into and out of car seats quickly and easily, something that any parent of young children will appreciate.

Musk demonstrated the falcon wing doors in action at the launch event, and I have to say, they are impressive. As a demonstration, they parked a minivan and an Audi on both sides of a Model X, leaving less than 12 inches on each side. They pressed the open button and the doors opened slowly but precisely, without touching the cars on either side. Without obstructions, the doors open and close in about 5-6 seconds. But when the sensors detect objects in the way, the doors adjust their opening arc to avoid the obstructions, and this takes a little longer to open.

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Boxed in, in the parking lot? No problem for the Model X Falcon Wing Doors.

After the main presentation, I spent some time with a Model X on stage (Elon's own), and found that the Falcon Wing Doors worked reliably. The proximity sensors kept them from hitting onlookers or closing on stray body parts. Also, during the hundreds of test rides, it looked like the doors were opening and closing reliably.

Though the Model X has been shown in prototype form in a few different iterations, the company has kept many aspects of the final design secret and promised to only show the car when it was ready to be delivered to its first customers. That moment came at the launch event on Tuesday, September 29th. Accompanied by pumping techno music, technology and automotive journalists and thousands of adoring fans (most of whom were also Model X reservation holders), Musk handed out the keys (or an electronic key fob anyway) to the first five customers, including Google's Sergey Brin (who sent a delegate to pick up the car) and investment banker Steve Jurvetson.

These early customers get the so-called "Founders" version of the car. Early investors and other special friends of Tesla are now the first people outside the company to take the Model X out for a spin in the real world. The next batch of customers to get the car will be the Signature reservation holders who are expected to begin taking delivery before the end of this year. These folks put down a $40,000 deposit (some over three and a half years ago) based solely on what they saw at the original unveiling in 2012. After the Signatures come regular production models. There is already a waiting list of over 20,000 worldwide for the model X (all who have deposited at least $5,000) which may take up to 6 to 8 months to fill. If you reserver a Model X today, you can expect it to be delivered in the second half of 2016 (at least in the United States).

The Surprises

For those who have been following the Model X development religiously, there were few big surprises at the event. The coolest new feature we saw was a self-opening driver door. The car detects the driver's approach, opens the door automatically, then once the driver is seated, closes the door automatically as well. The feature can be turned off, but it sure will be handy if you have your hands full when approaching the car. Another seemingly innocuous but cool feature is the car's advanced air filtration system. The air conditioning system in the Model X has three modes: circulate air from outside, re-circulate inside air, and a "bioweapon defense mode," a true HEPA filter which is effective at filtering out bacteria and even most viruses. This mode also cranks the fan to 11 for maximum effectiveness.

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Tesla's true HEPA cabin filter enables a new Bioweapon Defense mode on the display. The fan goes to 11.

For a good part of the presentation, Musk highlighted the Model X performance on safety tests and bragged that the Model X is the first SUV to pass the standard suite of accident safety tests with 5 stars in each category. He even showed the results of a side impact test of a Model X compared to a competitor and showed several slides comparing the results to other cars and SUVs on the market. The only car to approach the Model X crash test results was Tesla's own Model S. After that, the next closest competitor wasn't even close. Since the Model X is positioned as a family car, an emphasis on safety is probably a wise move. It's important to note, however that these results have not yet been certified by the NHTSA, though the Model S did achieve very high scores on those tests.

Although the towing function of the Model X has been previously announced, it was impressive to see them drive a Model X on stage towing a rather large Airstream trailer. When they stopped, out popped a family, accompanied by a massive amount of luggage, including a couple of packages and a full-sized stroller which were stored in the front trunk (or "frunk"). The Model X is the first fully electric production vehicle with this type of towing capacity and this much cargo space. Really its own direct competition is Tesla's own Model S sedan (which does not have a tow hitch option).

Another distinctive feature of the Model X is the enlarged windshield, which has been previously noticed on the beta test mules that have been spotted in Silicon Valley in the past few weeks. But seeing it for real is impressive. It makes the driving experience feel more like flying in a tour helicopter with full visibility even above your head. Sun visors are stored on the sides and can rotate into position when needed.

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The oversized Model X windshield makes driving a more enveloping experience.

One potentialy negative surprise has actually been known to those who frequent the Tesla Motors Club forum since early September. It was then that the earliest signature deposit holders were invited to configure their cars for final production and got access to the Model X Design Studio. In addition to the "Vegan-friendly" non-leather seat material options, the design studio revealed that the middle row of seating does not actually fold fully flat when not in use (something that had been possible in the prototypes).

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When you need to transport a lot of gear, the rear row of seats fold flat and the second row nestles up against the front row to maximize storage.

If you don't need rear passenger space, but do need a lot of storage space in the back, you can move the middle seats up very close to the first seats, and fold the rear row of seats flat, but it's not possible to create a fully flat bed from the rear of the front seats backward.

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The Tesla's tow hitch supports popular mounts for transporting skis and bikes.

The third row of seats do fold completely flat (and for many folks, will be left that way), leaving a rear storage compartment that is about 50 inches deep, front to back, with plenty of seating room in the second row. If you do need to transport long items (like skis or long pieces of wood) inside the car regularly, you can opt for a six seat configuration instead of seven. This leaves the center of the middle row wide open for skis or other long items, or leaves space for a between-seats console.

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The Signature Model X is being offered with a Vegan-friendly artificial leather material in bright white. (screen cap courtesy of Mark Z on Tesla Motors Club forum).

The benefit to not folding the middle seats flat is that this does open up a really tall storage area behind the middle seats, extending from floor to ceiling. Also, unlike traditional cars which have a massive gas-powered combustion engine in the front, the Model X offers that spacious front trunk, which can store generous quantities of luggage, groceries, sports gear - even two full-size golf bags. The model X'es two motors are so small that they tuck in under the floorboards along the car's axles, taking up a fraction of the space of a traditional ICE motor and drive train.

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Available in black, white and tan, the Model X interior has seating for up to seven adults (or three dozen minions).

The highlight of the event for me was actually getting a test ride in the Model X. Because of the massive torque, launching the Model X is akin to riding a roller coaster, or what I imagine it feels like to ride a rocket. You're pinned to your seat as the Model X chews up road at an alarming pace. The Model X we were in was a performance model (P90D), equipped with "Insane Mode" for a 0-60 MPH time of 3.8 seconds. The "Ludicrous Speed" upgrade would tack another $10,000 onto the price tag, shaving the 0-60 time to a remarkable 3.2 seconds. But even the lowly 90D base model is rated for a 0-60 time of 4.8 seconds, making it one of the quickest production model SUVs on the market today.

Our driver also took some pretty tight turns at high speed to show just how sticky the car is. It stuck to the road like glue, thanks to its low center of gravity. And the panoramic windshield really opened up the view, even for those in the back seat.

Exact pricing and delivery dates have not yet been revealed for the regular production Model X, though Musk has said the X should be "about $5,000 higher" than a comparably equipped Model S. This would put a base model with the longest range 90 kWh battery (Model X 90D) at about $93,000. If Tesla offers the entry-level 70 kWh battery pack as an option, then the entry price of the Model X will be around $80,000. The Signature version of the Model X, which includes the Performance motors and drive train (with "Insane Mode"), upgraded audio system, 22-inch wheels, air suspension and many other options is approximately $132,000. Adding in the winter weather package, tow package and "Ludicrous Speed" upgrade gets you up to an all-in price of $144,000.

All in all, though it started late and was extremely crowded, the Tesla Model X launch event didn't disappoint, and the Model X itself looks well poised to take a large bite out of the luxury SUV market, just as the Model S has been dominating the high-end luxury sedan market. With the battery gigafactory in Nevada on schedule to bring the cost of lithium ion batteries down, and the affordable Tesla Model 3 on the horizon, the future looks bright for Tesla Motors.

More Information:

Here are a few more pictures from the event:

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Elon and a couple thousand of his closest friends came out to Freemont to see the first Model X production vehicles get handed over to customers.

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To demonstrate towing and storage capacity, a Model X drove on stage pulling an Airstream trailer. Then out popped a family of seven and a whole lot of luggage.

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The Model X cup holders disappear under sliding armrests when not in use.

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Another angle on the Model X Falcon Wing doors, which enable entry or exit even in tight spots.

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The Model X is stunning in blue.

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The Model X also looks pretty nice in red.

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The Model X is available with either a six-seat (pictured) or 7-seat configuration. At the launch event, one of the test ride models had six seats with a prototype center console between the 2 middle seats.

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Elon's Model X (VIN #00001) on stage at the Model X launch event.

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Black on black. Elon left his personal Model X on stage for us to play with.

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Where you'd find an engine in a gas car you find a spacious "frunk" (front trunk) on the Model X.

What did you think?

View all articles by Chris Boylan
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