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Tesla comes good. Image by Newspress.

Tesla comes good
Tesla is now more valuable than Fiat, but is that realistic?
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If ever one needed confirming that the global car market is being turned on its head by both environmental and economic upheaval, that confirmation has been brought by the fact that Tesla is now worth more than Fiat.

To put this in perspective, that is a California-based electric car maker, which commenced operations just a decade ago and whose first car was effectively a Lotus Elise powered by laptop batteries. Tesla sold just 2,500 of those Elise-based Roadster models, but its profitability and production figures are now being driven by the new Model S saloon, which is selling as many as 400 examples a week now. That success has driven profit at Tesla up from $306 million (200 million) in the last financial quarter of 2012 to $561 million (367 million) in the first quarter of 2013. Further perspective is gained by noting that Tesla made just $30 million in Q1 of 2012. Tesla's share price rocketed on the reported profit and the company is now valued at around $8 billion (5.2 billion).

Meanwhile, Fiat is currently valued at $7.8 billion (5.1 billion), yet it is a global car maker, the pride of Italy, and it owns Chrysler, Dodge, Alfa Romeo, Jeep, Maserati and Ferrari. It sold just over one million cars and commercial vehicles worldwide in the same quarter that Tesla sold 4,900 Model S saloons and it posted revenues of $26 billion (17 billion). So how is Tesla worth more?

Speaking to Bloomberg News, Maryann Keller, principal at consulting firm Maryann Keller & Associates, said that "the stock is trading like it's 1999 and we're in the Internet bubble again. It has nothing to do with Tesla's fundamentals. It has to do with pie-in-the-sky aspirations that don't reflect the realities of the auto industry."

Such words will be worrying to investors and Tesla shareholders, but Elon Musk, the billionaire philanthropist owner of Tesla seems able, thus far, to shrug off the vagaries of the stock market's panic mentality. This week he took to his Twitter account (which has 199,000 followers) to announce, somewhat inscrutably, that "There is a way for the Tesla Model S to be recharged throughout the country faster than you could fill a gas tank."

Tesla recently unveiled a plan for a national (and international) network of solar-powered 'Superchargers' - fast charge points that can recharge a Model S's batteries to 80% full in about 30 minutes. Now that's far longer than it takes to refill a conventional fuel tank, so what does Musk have up his sleeve? All he will reveal so far is that it's "part of a mystery announcement. Part five of the trilogy." That last statement seems to refer to Douglas Adam's Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, a fitting reference from a billionaire who also has designs on space exploration and whose Falcon rocket is already carrying cargo to the International Space Station.

Quite apart from Mr Musk's ambitions to become a real-life version of Iron Man's Tony Stark (he even essayed a cameo in Iron Man 2 alongside star Robert Downey Jnr), can Tesla's ambition and undoubted technical prowess keep its share price buoyant? That's rather hard to see, especially as Tesla seems to be an anomaly. Almost every major car maker is currently backing away from pure electric cars (Toyota seems to have abandoned the concept altogether in favour of hybrids and, eventually, hydrogen fuel cells) and sales thus far of pure EV models has been low - depressingly low for the likes of Renault and Nissan, which have jointly invested billions in an electric future.

There is an undeniable swagger and sense of pantomime about Tesla though, a feeling of its being truly cutting edge at a time when many of the grandee car makers are looking close to moribund. If sales of the Model S can be sustained, if the new Model X SUV and a proposed smaller, more affordable saloon can be brought successfully to market, then who knows? That $8 billion might be looking like so much spare change in years to come.

Neil Briscoe - 13 May 2013

2013 Tesla Model X. Image by Newspress.2013 Tesla Model X. Image by Newspress.2013 Tesla Model X. Image by Newspress.2013 Tesla Model X. Image by Newspress.    - Tesla road tests
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