Leave it to Tesla Motors (TSLA) stock to zoom, stall and roll back on the edge of a cliffhanger, or two. And for the company's CEO Elon Musk to jump into the drama, calling a New York Times report "fake.
Investors didn't get the look at Q4 earnings many expected early Monday, while a reporter didn't get where he was going in the electric Model S as planned, amid cold-weather range problems. Was that "operator error," as one analyst suggested — or a significant issue for future Tesla car sales
"NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn't actually charge to max & took a long detour," the Elon Musk Twitter account tweeted Monday afternoon. Musk's Twitter account then tweeted that the Tesla blog would soon detail matters, and that the company would arrange for repeats of the same test drive.
With confusion about the earnings report date and concern about the piece out Friday by New York Times energy writer John Broder, "Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway," Tesla stock opened down more than 3% in the stock market today, at 37.98, and closed down 2.1%, at 38.42, Monday afternoon. The stock is still up about 15% in 2013.
Forbes and other business news outlets ran stories citing Monday Feb. 11 as Tesla's earnings announcement date, and investors have been awaiting the key fourth-quarter report to see if the startup's been able to ramp up production — and orders — of its Model S sedan. It's the first big run of an entirely battery-powered luxury car ever, by anyone, and Tesla stock has attracted a market capitalization of $4.33 billion in short-term trading and long-term bets that the company can make a go of it.
Tesla had told IBD Friday that its earnings date hadn't been announced yet and that early news reports citing Monday were in error. Then late Friday, Jeff Evanson, Tesla's investor relations vice president, said by email, in response to IBD's query, that "we will announce Monday AM.
Monday, Evanson told IBD he had erred and that an announcement scheduling the earnings date would be made later this week. [UPDATE: Tesla issued a statement late Monday scheduling the date for its Q4 2012 earnings report as after the market close on Wednesday, February 20.] The New York Times Tesla Model S review hit at a bad time this past weekend, with investors on edge and the Northeast blizzard Nemo slamming home the need for reliable transportation in cold weather.
Model S cold weather testing has been "extensive," Jefferies & Co. analyst Elaine Kwei said in a Monday research note.
The issue of how far electric cars can go before recharging has been one central concern about the emerging green car industry. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the Model S version with an 85 kwh battery as having a range of 265 miles between chargings, and Tesla gives that version of the Model S a 320-mile range between charges under ideal conditions.
In his story, Broder detailed the saga of trying to drive the high-performance Model S sedan from suburban Washington, D.C., all the way into Connecticut on I-95, two weeks ago, utilizing a couple Supercharger stations that Tesla had newly erected to help its drivers span long distances.
Broder called the car a technological wonder, but wrote about how in 30-degree weather the estimated range indicator kept telling him he couldn't drive as far as he should've been able. He had to shut off the heater and make other accommodations, and ultimately the car shut down in Branford, Conn., just after he exited the highway. A tow truck had to be dispatched.
Analyst Kwei suggested operator error had something to do with the experience.
"After digging into the background behind the article, our conclusion is that operator error likely played a primary role, due to improper charging protocol," she said in her research note Monday.
As to earnings, Kwei notes that Model S delivery times are now as short as several months and says the focus in the financial report is likely to be on new reservations. She raised her price target on the stock to 45.
She also told IBD via email that she wasn't aware of any issue in terms of Tesla's earnings report date, and that the company had not given a date. "Last year they reported on Feb. 15 and we're expecting something similar this year," she told IBD.
This year, Tesla has had the strongest stock market performance by far among U.S. automakers. Ford (F) is up 1% and General Motors (GM), which reports earnings Thursday, is down 1%. But Japan's Toyota Motor (TM), with whom Tesla's been working on electric vehicle development, is up 13% — it's the only automaker with a high Composite Rating, 96 of a possible 99.
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