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Google co-founder Sergey Brin gets Tesla’s 4th Model X, CEO Musk takes first for himself as fans gush over speed, falcon doors

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 October, 2015, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 12:01pm

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, an early investor in Tesla Motors, was one of the first customers to take delivery of Tesla’s all-electric sport utility vehicle, said people familiar with the matter.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk handed over the first Model X SUVs before more than a thousand enthusiasts at an event late Tuesday in Fremont, California, where the automaker has its factory. Musk kept the first Model X for himself; venture capitalist and Tesla investor Steve Jurvetson got the second.

READ MORE: Tesla is letting drivers in Hong Kong trade in their used cars for a new Model S sedan, but no one else in Asia can

Brin was spotted in the VIP seating area near the stage at the crowded event. As Musk announced No. 4 and a white SUV rolled onto the stage, a woman took delivery.

"Stand in for Sergey?" Musk said and chuckled. "All right."

Brin, the co-founder of Google and president of parent company Alphabet, has been involved in Google’s driverless car efforts. He’s also a Model S owner and a friend of Musk’s.

Tesla spokesman Ricardo Reyes declined to comment. Google, in an e- mail, also declined to comment.

Tesla handed over just six vehicles Tuesday - including Musk’s - after highlighting the manufacturing and production challenges facing the country’s youngest publicly traded automaker.

READ MORE: s China's shift to EVs still hamstrung by lack of infrastructure, one company in Hong Kong is busy building a national network

Musk has been candid about the challenges of equipping the Model X with complex features, including double-hinged falcon wing doors that open vertically, independently operable second- row seats and an enormous front windshield. All were difficult to engineer and dependent, in part, on several components and suppliers.

The first Model X’s are limited-edition Founders Series that typically go to board members and close friends of the company. Those are followed by the Signature Series models, which are fully loaded, require a US$40,000 deposit from customers and start at US$132,000. A lower-priced base Model X will be released at a later date.

Elon Musk spent an hour explaining the new model to a crowd of cheering media, VIPs and tech geeks Tuesday.

The car is certainly impressive: It gets 257 miles on one charge and can hit 60 mph in 3.2 seconds in Ludicrous mode. Plus, it has those stunning doors.

It's not cheap - nearly twice the cost of the base Model S sedan - and considerably more expensive than the comparable-in-size Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid, which costs US$77,200.

But when you compare its performance numbers and power with similar crossovers, the price tag gains some clarity.

For instance, that Porsche E-Hybrid is far slower than the Model X. It goes from zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, has a top speed of 151 mph, and gets 416 combined horsepower between its electric motor and conventional engine.

Meanwhile, the Model X has that 3.2-second sprint time plus 259 horsepower in the front and 503 horsepower in the rear, with a top speed of 155 mph. 

READ MORE: Tesla shares down after electric car maker posts losses as Elon Musk says more cash needed

There’s not a lot of daylight between those two top speeds, but it doesn’t matter - you’re not driving that fast in your SUV. For day-to-day manoeuvrability, it’s the pickup that matters; that quiet whoosh of power somehow never seems to get old.

And it would take a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S to approximate the X’s acceleration: That car gets to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds. And costs US$157,300. 

What’s more, Tesla estimates a California customer would pay US$112,000 on the Model X after federal and state tax incentives and five years of gas savings.

OK, that’s a lot of asterisks, but company executives also say the soon-to-come base model of the Model X will cost far less than the Signature line we saw this week, a mere US$5,000 or so more than the US$75,000 Model S.

If that happens, an US$80,000 Tesla SUV will sit on a par with the price of other crossover SUVs in the luxury market.

According to Edmunds.com, the average transaction price for a large mainstream SUV is US$52,497 - US$20,000 higher than a large sedan—and US$82,900 for luxury rigs such as the Cadillac Escalade.

In the luxury field are plenty of options that cost less than even the future base-line Model X. They just don’t perform as well. Porsche’s US$58,300 base-level Cayenne, Audi’s US$52,500 Q5 Hybrid, the US$57,700 BMW X5 Diesel, and the US$52,500 Mercedes GLE 300 Diesel are all far less quick (by as much as 1.5 and 2 seconds) than the Model X, with less horsepower.

Bentley, of course, has an SUV far more expensive than any of those; its Bentayga will run US$230,000 before upgrades.

The big gilded carriages from Land Rover, Rolls-Royce, Maserati, and Lamborghini are and will be, as the case may be, far more expensive. They’re part of the pricing upswell that has flooded the luxury SUV market, thanks to American, Asian, and Middle Eastern buyers starving for indulgently large and increasingly cosseted conveyances.

But the Tesla is going to win or lose in America, and luckily for Musk, the odds there are in its favour. Sale of all SUVs in the US passed 1.5 million last year for the first time since 2007, when automakers sold 2.2 million, according to AutoData. That is a 64 per cent increase over their all-time low, in 2009, of fewer than 1 million sold.

Last year, Porsche alone sold 16,205 Cayenne SUVs in the US, double what it sold in 2010. 

Prices are rising, too. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average transaction price of a compact SUV/crossover this month was US$27, 316, up 2.5 per cent over September 2014. For midsize SUVs from luxury brands, that price was US$52,288. For large luxury SUVs, the price was US$66,555.

More than ever, once wealthy individuals identify a car they want, they have no problem paying dearly for it.

Thing is, despite the luxury trappings, innovative design, and performance numbers that earn Tesla’s higher-end variants a slot in the same category as Porsche and even Lamborghini, Musk has said his Model X is meant for mass consumption.

Company executives have said it was designed to appeal especially to women, who make up 53 per cent of the SUV market in the US.

The US$132,000 price tag will cut out middle-class women, to be sure. But the US$80,000 version will be accessible to a wider swath. It also helps that the third-row back seat is genuinely as accessible as the driver’s seat and that the double trunk is large enough to hold strollers and a large dog bed with no trouble.

Moreover, since it runs on electricity and has no transmission, the Model X doesn’t need the oil changes, belt swaps, hose checks, or other standard maintenance procedures that require the time and effort that many women, especially suburban mothers, are loath to spend on autos.

That saves money as well as headaches. According to Edmunds.com, the average luxury sedan costs US$7,600 in maintenance over five years; a Porsche Cayenne Hybrid costs US$6,260 over the same period. 

Of course, with its lightning reflexes and dual-horsepower heart, Model X is not average by any stretch of the imagination. But look at those falcon wings - you knew that anyway.