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Musk Picks Up an Idea

Trendsetter Elon Musk follows an existing trend.

By Thomas Anderson  |  September 15, 2019

In keeping with this column's history of documenting surprises from Elon Musk, we will slavishly reveal his next, somewhat unsurprising but nevertheless unexpected announcement from Tesla. Mr. Musk is showing a side of himself that we were unready for: me-too-ism.

The Wall Street Journal is carrying a story about a new Tesla machine which is going to attempt to take advantage of a consumer trend by producing a pickup truck - electric,of course, as are all Teslas.

This was an eminently predictable occurrence given the direction that nearly all automobile brands have taken. But it is a little surprising, if not a little disappointing, what with the leadership role that Musk has attempted to assume with his beloved brand.

However, the me-too aspect of the announcement can be forgiven in many respects because it was one of the few things that Musk could do to expand his offerings for the public. He already has a couple of world-class sports coupes, a 'lower-priced' passenger car, and has been selling more of all of them than he can produce.

So, now is the time to produce yet another vehicle which he will not be able to deliver in sufficient quantities to appease the market. That is a good problem to have, and he seems to delight in the demand/deliverability dichotomy of his cars.

In keeping with his flamboyant marketing, the new "Model P" will be "better than the Ford F-150" as a truck, and a better sports car than a standard Porsche 911. That's a pretty tall order to have both ends of the market covered with one vehicle, which Musk described as "really futuristic-like cyberpunk 'Blade Runner' design."

For all that Musk-ism is trying to hype, the image bore a striking resemblance to the Ford cab-over pickup this writer drove while in the Air Force during the 1960s.  Yes, it has the glitz of a new generation, but the basic design looks as if it were ripped from the old Econoline. 

With body-lean galore, a spectacularly under-powered engine, a handling nightmare that had to be experienced to be believed, and all the other hallmarks of a low-end pickup truck, the Econoline of that era was a star in the heaven of really cheap transportation. The author's 1968 Volkswagen flower-power hippie-sedan at $1995 was a dead-even deal in the price category, challenging the Econoline for cheapest out-the-door buy of the late 60s. The little truck had a weirdness all its own, and a bouncy ride to boot.

This picture shows a truck in pristine condition never observed in the real world: the eagerness with which an Econoline attracted dirt and grime was a marvel to behold. If a thorough washing had just been administered to the truck, potholes would spontaneously appear to keep the Econoline in its place as the grimiest vehicle on the block. It was a status thing.

We wish Mr. Musk and company good luck in this regard. Something about the pristine condition of an electric vehicle in advertisements demands that it be clean and shiny the way the Model P is shown. The resemblance to the Econoline is uncanny, though; we are certain that no copyright infringement was intended.

Musk is promising crashing acceleration and real luxury in his Model P which will help justify the $65,000 price tag. If done properly, a vehicle with the promised running characteristics and the creature comforts to match might be worth the money, and it's not at all out of line compared to other conventional such vehicles by the giant manufacturers. But again, this price relies upon snob appeal and a good amount of hype to make it worth that much – the average consumer will not be interested in spending so much cash to get great gas (electric?) mileage.

Which brings up a question - how does one buy this marvel? The Model P is not even off the drawing board yet, so we decided to find out how much a car that is available would cost. We decided to low-ball the line to see how much an entry-level Tesla would be, namely, the recently released Model 3.

Tesla has a portion of its site devoted to pricing a car that a customer might be interested in, and we dove right in. First option right away was Standard Range Plus (Single Motor, 2 Wheel drive) or Dual Motor All-Wheel drive. We began our trek with the standard range at $32,815 - as opposed to the pricier Long Range version at $41,815 or the Performance at $49,815. (What costs $815, we wonder?)

Going through the entire list of all options would take a long time, so we will not recount all the steps necessary. If you care, the website is here, and you can take as much time as you like to peruse the available options– don't forget your nose-glasses. After going through them, the ribbon at the bottom of the screen told us we had chosen to pay cash, and that our price was $33,815 after 'savings'; the purchase price was $39,990 with the fully refundable down payment of $2500 due today.

One of the gotchas of this process is the 'savings' used to arrive at the $32,815 price is very dependent upon which state you live in and other vagaries of your human existence. Having only seen a Tesla in person once, fleetingly, we had the lingering question as to what this thing looks like. A couple of calls around the Tampa area established that we would need to drive nearly 75 miles, one way, to get a look at one in person. Given that fact, memories of the fairly short-lived view we had gotten of the one we had seen would have to suffice.

One of our automotive type friends reassured us that his first acquaintanceship with the brand had revealed a lot of fit and finish deficiencies, but as the months wore on, these had seemed to become far better, with uneven gaps between body panels and other signs of poor construction having been vastly reduced. He described other measures taken to improve construction quality, and stated that the last few that he had seen were actually quite good.

Pricing other models with equipment we might actually buy if we were serious gave us prices of $48,990 for a Long Range model and $56,990 for the Performance model. We think that the vehicle is on the small side, and that much of the price is attributable to the "look what I got" gloat factor.

Not to worry, we won't actually be buying one: while Tesla does have financing packages for its vehicles, the first stumbling block is a 20% down payment for a car you won't be seeing before the next election.

The 3 certainly expects to be gloatworthy and is priced accordingly; the S is even more so.  What of the P?

Looks are meaningful, and the meaning this writer sees is a clunky looking little faux pickup with a too-short bed, and an ungainly aspect to the whole package. Maybe that is the result from the point of view, or maybe it is the design; we would need to see one in the flesh before we can have a firm opinion.

If Musk can make the looks work, he has some mechanical surprises for us. Twin electric motors and all-wheel drive will produce a vehicle with "crazy-torque." This is probably not an idle boast – electric motors are possessed of that kind of performance if the power is fed to them correctly, which Tesla has established a solid reputation for. The suspension adjusts for load, and sensor features will include sonar (for what?), a 360° camera (because of course it does), and automatic parallel parking (that is soooo last year).

We've been hearing about the new Tesla truck in the vaguest of terms since about the end of 2017, but a few other competitors have been put into production since then. While major manufacturers like Ford and GM have been going through the design process that their mechanized system requires, other, smaller manufacturers have launched pickups to compete in this category – All-Electric, All Wheel Drive trucks. It's another area in which competition has brought out new brands and the market is very confused; or, at least, your writer is confused over all the new stuff.

There are no shortage of interesting products in the offing – some are already on the market – and we will attend to those as they become deliverable. The automotive/light truck market is in total chaos right now. China is hanging fire and other factors will develop; we shall see what we will see.