Tesla is struggling to be 2 different car companies at the same time

• Tesla is attempting to be both a luxury and a mass-market automaker.

• Most auto-industry analysts aren’t surprised that the company missed its guidance for production and deliveries of its new Model 3.

• Tesla continues to produce and sell its older, more expensive vehicles in line with expectations.

Tesla announced its third-quarter delivery numbers on Monday, and they were a study in contrasts.

As my colleague Danielle Muoio reported, the focus was rightly on a big miss for Model 3 deliveries: 220 official sales, with just 260 vehicles produced.

CEO Elon Musk had predicted total production of 1,500 for September.

On the other hand, the company delivered 26,150 of its Model S and Model X vehicles, putting it on track to deliver around 100,000 cars for 2017 without hitting Musk’s ambitious targets for the Model 3, which is supposed to ramp to a production target of 5,000 per week by the end of the year.

The markets seem to have priced this in, as Tesla’s stock hasn’t fallen off a cliff. In pre-market trading on Tuesday, shares were sliding, but only about 2%, to $US333. Year-to-date, Tesla is up 55% and at times has pushed toward $US400. The company’s market cap, at $US57 billion, is neck-and-neck with General Motors.

The auto industry has long been simultaneously sceptical of Tesla’s ability to become an effectively mass-producer of cars while admiring Musk’s impact. The 500,000 pre-orders Tesla has booked for the Model 3 are no joke, nor is the vaunted level of brand loyalty that Tesla has engendered in its owners. Major carmakers worldwide are intensifying their electric-car strategies, and that’s thanks to Tesla’s success.

An unsurprising miss

Model 3 eventScreenshot/TeslaTesla’s Mode 3 handover event in California.

The miss on Model 3 for September was hardly a surprise; going from 30 deliveries in July to more than a thousand in September was unlikely. The 260 cars that Tesla did manage to build, despite self-confessed production bottlenecks, seemed about right given the pace from July and August. And Musk has a long history of overpromising and underdelivering — with good reason.
Musk has also often talked about Tesla’s Model 3 production in terms of an “S Curve,” with production low at the beginning and increasing rapidly later. Believe it or not, the company’s goal on 500,000 deliveries in 2018 isn’t out of reach, but it does now look more hopeful than it did a few months ago.

The real issue is that Tesla is now fighting through an awkward period: it was a luxury carmaker, but based on numerous comments from Musk and his team over the years, it sounds as if the company is at the upper bound of its manufacturing capacity for the Model S and Model X. Going forward, production at its factory in Fremont, CA should level off at about 100,000 per year of the more expensive cars while expanding well beyond that for the Model 3.

This is actually an odd arrangement. Most auto brands serve either the mass-market or the luxury market. If they serve both, they do so as holding groups. The VW Group, for example, manages the VW brand, but also Porsche and Audi. GM is Chevy, but also Cadillac.

Brands such as BMW sell vehicles across a range of price points, but they aren’t trying to hit the numbers that Tesla is. In 2016, one of the most advanced and established automakers in the world sold just over 300,000 vehicles in the US.

Tesla is trying to do it all

Tesla S CurveTeslaThe S curve.

Tesla is trying to do everything itself under the Tesla brand — and to be as vertically integrated as possible, designing and engineering everything from its own seats to its sound systems. The results on the luxury side have been impressive, as Tesla has taken the lead in electric-vehicle sales.

But rather than developing additional vehicles for the luxury market, with appropriate levels of production, Tesla has decided that to get electric cars to a critical mass, it has to be both Ford and BMW (and Mack trucks — a big rig is slated to be revealed at the end of October). Tesla isn’t even taking much time to consolidate its luxury position. Just four years after the Model S hit the streets, it’s diving into the Model 3.

This isn’t going to be easy, and in any case Tesla is somewhat hedging its bets by selling the earliest versions of the Model 3 for $US44,000 rather than $US35,000 — that’s near-luxury pricing, whereas true mass-market cars typically keep it under $US30,000, really closer to $US20,000 for the kind of big-time volume sales that the Hondas and Toyotas require to make cheap cars profitable.

So the road ahead for Tesla is going to to be rough. And we shouldn’t be surprised by future disappointments.

Get the latest Tesla stock price here.

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