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Sneak Peak at Tesla - Fuels Optimism

Tuesday, 4 Oct 2011 | 4:21 PM ET
Tesla Model S
Source: teslamotors.com
Tesla Model S

As I headed out to California for a sneak peak at the Tesla plant and the beta version of its upcoming Model S electric sedan, I found myself asking one question over and over: Are the people bullish on Tesla buying into fools gold?

Let's be honest, there's no shortage of people who think Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk can do no wrong. And believe me, I hear from them on a regular basis.

Frankly, the fans/diehard enthusiasts interest me far less than the analysts, consultants, and auto industry veterans who believe Tesla is on the right track.

So is Tesla ready for a very big 2012 and 2013?

Much of that depends on whether the Model S will roll out on time.

Tesla's Big Bet on Electric Cars
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At the company's plant in Fremont, California they are still a ways from starting up the assembly line, but Tesla Vice President Diarmuid O'Connell says they are on schedule. Tesla plans to sell 5,000 Model S sedans ($57,400) next year and 20,000 in 2013. O'Connell told us, "We're hitting our marks. We are in fact exceeding them in many cases. Whether it's on the vehicle side, final vehicle engineering, or on the manufacturing side getting the facility up, I think we're gonna surprise folks."

That may explain why investors are buying the message Tesla is selling. The stock is up 22% since it's IPO last year . This at a time when GM has dropped 40% and the entire auto sector has stalled.

But the bulls will be scared away if the Model S fails to live up to expectations. While we couldn't drive the the Model S, what we saw of some limited time on the test track shows the car should deliver.

With 362 horsepower, the Model goes 0-60 in 5.6 seconds. It has plenty of power. And CEO Elon Musk says a sport version of the Model S will go even faster, 0-60 in under 4 seconds. And while we have not seen a model S with a finished interior, this looks like an electric car that will be a true car, and not model with a tiny back seat. Meanwhile, it's loaded with the technology features that Tesla believes will win over buyers with a large touchscreen mounted in the center stack of the car.

For the 6,000 who have ordered a Model S, the sneak peak Tesla provided last weekend will have to tide them over until the middle of next year. It's an early taste that will wet the appetite for more.

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___________________________ Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.comand Follow me on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews

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  • Phil LeBeau is a CNBC auto and airline industry reporter based in the Chicago bureau and editor of the Behind the Wheel section on CNBC.com.

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