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Tesla's new Model Y SUV hits the right note by playing it safe

Nathan Bomey

The ho-hum reaction to Tesla's new electric SUV is, oddly enough, exactly what the company needs.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk delivered no surprises last week when he revealed the company's brand new electric SUV, the Model Y.

But for a company that needs a little less pizzazz and a little more substance to make good on its promise to become a sustainable force in the auto industry, the Model Y hit the right marks.

It's essentially a crossover version of the Tesla Model 3 compact car, bearing the design hallmarks of a hatchback and sharing the same architectural platform as its car sibling.

That Tesla devotees weren't rewarded with sizzling new features on the Model Y illustrates that the company is getting serious about selling vehicles.

After all, a compact SUV is precisely what Americans want: a driveable vehicle that puts safety first and flash second.

Versions with five and seven seats will be available, with starting prices ranging from $39,000 for the base version to $60,000 for a performance model.

If Musk had tried to break new technological barriers or adopt outlandish styling on the Model Y, he would have risked making the vehicle too difficult to manufacture and unappealing to conventional SUV buyers.

"The Model Y appears to be exactly what Tesla needs it to be – an SUV version of the Model 3," said Mike Ramsey, an analyst at technology research firm Gartner who tracks Tesla, in an email. "With a lower cost and better range, I expect it will be very popular."

Musk, in fact, predicted that the Model Y will eventually outsell the Model 3, Model X SUV and Model S sedan combined. 

That would require sales to soar well over half a million vehicles. J.D. Power reports that Americans purchased 1.4 million SUVs in the range of $40,000 to $90,000 in 2018.

Tesla's Model Y is displayed at Tesla's design studio on Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Hawthorne, Calif.

The first-available model will start at $47,000 and arrive in fall 2020. You can place a refundable deposit of $2,500 to secure your place in line when the vehicle becomes available.

The base model of the Model Y – the $39,000 version – won't be available until "sometime in 2021," Musk said.

Families can make the Model Y their primary vehicle since the battery range goes from 230 miles to 300 miles depending on the version. That stacks up well against other EVs on the market, such as the Chevrolet Bolt's 238 and the Hyundai Kona's 258.

And while techies might not find the Model Y exhilarating, it will come equipped with software and sensors capable of autonomous driving, whenever it becomes legal. But buyers will have to pay for the system upgrade of $3,000 to $5,000.

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The biggest challenge for Tesla is convincing buyers to wait for the Model Y. Shoppers aren't accustomed to waiting a year and a half for a new ride – especially not if they need to replace their primary vehicle.

But for anyone who wants to feel the Tesla buzz for the first time, it might be worth the wait.

There's one big caveat, however: Tesla is famous for missing its own production goals. Is the company capable of delivering on time?

"We remain concerned about the manufacturing timeline," Sanford Bernstein analyst A.M. (Toni) Sacconaghi, Jr. wrote last week.

The Model 3 production ramp-up in 2017 and 2018 was very slow, causing steep losses and raising questions about Tesla's future. The company eventually figured it out, though critics have noted lingering quality challenges that caused Consumer Reports to drop its recommendation of the car.

"I really think the difficulty and value of manufacturing is underappreciated," Musk said March 14. "It's relatively easy to make a prototype and extremely difficult to mass manufacture a vehicle reliably and at scale."

If he's absorbed those lessons the hard way, then the Model Y could stay on schedule.

Dan Ives, stock analyst at Wedbush Securities, suggested that Tesla might have learned not to over promise.

"We believe Tesla is being conservative with its targets to avoid any of the well-documented production headaches it faced with the Model 3 coming out," Ives wrote last week.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tesla's new Model Y SUV hits the right note by playing it safe