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Tesla will introduce the most important car of the year next week

Matthew DeBord
tesla model x 1280x865

(Tesla Motors)
The pressure is on.

Tesla is scheduled to deliver the first of its Model X crossover SUVs to customers next week. The startup carmaker will hold an event at its factory in Fremont, California, September 29, as the first "Signature Series" Model X vehicles roll off the assembly line.

CEO Elon Musk will be there, as well as Business Insider, so check back for coverage.

In the meantime, consider this: The Model X isn't just the most important car Tesla has ever built, it's the most important new car we're going to see all year.

Here's why.

It's the type of car US customers want. Tesla proved that it could be a real car company when it delivered the Model S sedan several years back. Up to that point, Tesla had only been selling the Roadster, a high-performance two-seater. The Model S, priced at around $100,000, tackled the luxury auto market and demonstrated that an all-electric car could rival offerings from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and Porsche.

Unfortunately for Tesla, the US auto market has been SUV-obsessed for the past two years. Luxury SUVs and crossovers have been selling well and churning out profits. As good as the Model S is, it was the wrong car for Tesla's biggest market. That will change next week.

If it's as good as the Model S, it will be one of the best SUVs ever created. The best crossovers and SUVs are currently built by Land Rover and Porsche — the Porsche Cayenne is probably the finest SUV ever built by human hands on Earth, a sports car in SUV guise. Range Rovers are exceptionally capable, and it remains to be seen what the Model X will be able to do off-road.

But the Model S has captivated customers and the automotive media alike. Pretty much everyone who owns a Model S loves the thing. And Consumer Reports hasn't just named the Model S its top pick — it has named the same car its top pick for two consecutive years. And in testing the P85D version of the Model S, CR had to alter its evaluative scale because the Tesla was so good that it broke it.

Tesla Model X launch invite

(Screenshot via Tesla)
The invitation to the Model X launch.

As SUVs go, the Model X's performance is expected to be staggering. The 0-to-60-mph speed will be more like a sports car than a truck — it will be available with the same "Ludicrous Mode" setting that enables the top-of-the-line P90D to break the three-second 0-to-60-mph acceleration barrier, according to Tesla.

It will have exotic "falcon wing" doors. Upsweeping doors of this type have never been seen on an SUV before — they're the sort of thing you expect on a vintage Mercedes or a supercar. There was some speculation that their design was slowing down Model X production earlier this year.

But the problems have been resolved, Tesla says. The automaker has also equipped the doors with sensors to address a big complaint: that the doors won't open properly in garages.

tesla model x

(Alex Davies/Business Insider)
Upswinging "falcon wing" doors.

The Model X is a bridge to the Model 3 mass-market vehicle. Tesla could have remained a small-volume electric-car company, continuing to sell all the Model S sedans it builds, banking $100,000 or more for most cars and leveraging moderate success into eventual profits.

But that would have made it the electric Ferrari. Musk wants to change the world, and his visions entail getting gas-burning cars off the road in significant numbers.

To do that, he needs a mass-market car, but he also needs to expand his current product line to get more money flowing through Tesla.

Enter the Model X, which should only account for a few thousand sales in 2015, but that in a few years could surpass the Model S in deliveries. Additionally, building the Model S and the Model X simultaneously will help Tesla develop the manufacturing expertise to expand far beyond its current production scale of about 55,000 vehicles per year. Musk wants to build 500,000 annually by 2020.

The Model S was a platform to prove that Tesla was for real. The Model X will be a platform to demonstrate whether the auto industry is moving toward the car of the future. The Model S, for all its virtues, is a hybrid of the car of the future and the car of the past. It looks like a luxury sedan, even though it's powered by electrons and can, under certain circumstances, drive itself.

The Model X, however, will for the next two years be a prime test bed for whatever Tesla has up its sleeve regarding autonomous mobility and the connected car. The touchdown scenario here is for the Model 3, which will be a platform for a sedan and a crossover, to be the vehicle that changes everything, establishing new ways for people to get around in the 2020s and beyond.

If the Model X succeeds, it could push Tesla's stock price through $300 and confirm the bullish case for the automaker. Tesla's 2010 IPO has turned out to be a triumph for early investors: If you bought in when the company went public in 2010, you're looking at a better than 1,000% return.

But Tesla is now less a fast-growth Silicon Valley startup and more a real car company. Real car companies have to spend enormous amounts of money. Tesla is building and selling more cars now than it did three years ago, but it still moves far less product in a year than General Motors does in a month in the US alone.

A successful Model X launch will bolster Tesla's stock price, giving the company a funding source if it needs it. And it will almost certainly need it.

tesla factory production

(REUTERS/Stephen Lam )
Tesla will now be building two different cars.

The Model X will vindicate Tesla's design and engineering philosophy. Teslas aren't showy luxury cars. They represent a certain restrained, minimalist, Silicon Valley idea about good design. Franz von Holzhausen didn't style the Model S to outdo Mercedes, BMW, or Porsche — he went with a more subtle approach. Inside, the Model S isn't defined by enveloping luxury but rather by its massive center touchscreen, which controls almost all vehicle functions.

The Model X will follow this philosophy. It's not exactly "less is more," but it is "let's not overdo it." As such, the company's ingenious engineering and design are more mutually reinforcing than at many other automakers, where the designers dream and the engineers say no.

Bringing all these elements together should make the Model X a hit. And a hit it has to be. It's the most important car Tesla will ever build, because without it there's no Model 3. It arrives at a critical time for the company, when it's leaving behind its youth and entering a promising but tricky adolescence.

Frankly, I can't wait to see it.

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