"The Model S has the advantage in the front of not having a large gasoline engine block, thus creating a much longer crumple zone to absorb a high speed impact," Tesla said in a statement. "This is fundamentally a force over distance problem – the longer the crumple zone, the more time there is to slow down occupants at g loads that do not cause injuries."
The Model S is the best-selling U.S. electric car despite a starting price of $70,000 before a federal tax credit. The company sold 5,150 cars in the second quarter and expects to sell 21,000 cars this year.
Tesla shares have more than quadrupled this year.
"There will be a segment of the population that will find the safety issue a compelling reason to buy the car," said Theodore R. O'Neill, managing director at research firm Litchfield Hills Research LLC.
According to the NHTSA, the agency tests a sample of new cars and trucks "predicted to have high sales volume or vehicles that have been structurally redesigned." It does not rate every car, but all vehicles sold within the U.S. must comply with federal safety standards, the agency says.
—Reuters contributed to this report.