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Tesla's Model X: Finally, an electric car we all want

It's a minivan. It's an SUV. And it's a leap toward the mainstream from wee, eco-friendly vehicles and pricey Roadsters.

Tesla Model X
Tesla co-founder Elon Musk demonstrates the Model X's falcon wing doors.
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Commentary Tesla Motors is helping destroy the notion that electric vehicles are green cars with unfortunate compromises.

The company last night unveiled the Model X, a sleek-looking cross between a minivan and SUV with clever "falcon wing" doors and a new electric all-wheel drive system. People can start placing reservations tomorrow for the Model X, which is expected to be available late next year with prices in the $55,000 to $75,000 range before tax incentives and rebates.

Beyond making an attractive crossover, Tesla has shown how electric vehicles open up new design possibilities. The Model X isn't just an electric version of competing SUVs, it's a luxury vehicle that has useful features that its internal combustion or hybrid cousins couldn't have.

The key to Tesla's cool design is the powertrain, built around a flat battery pack that extends from the front to rear wheels under the car. This provides a low center of gravity for good handling, but also allows for substantially more interior space than a vehicle with a transmission running under it.

In demonstrations with journalists this week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk stood up inside the car to show the ample available space, a feature that makes loading or entering and exiting easier. The Model X has three rows of seats and is able to hold seven adults and their luggage, something other SUVs makers cannot claim.

The electric powertrain is also behind another key feature of the Model X--its optional all-wheel drive system, built around one motor for the front wheels and another for the back.

The precision and instant power the motors provide, which can be adjusted thousands of times a second by the car's computer, will make it a very functional all-wheel drive vehicle capable of driving anywhere, according to Tesla.

The falcon wing doors, meanwhile, don't benefit from the Model X being electric, but they help make Tesla's cars distinctive and appeal to luxury clientele.

The electric powertrain under the Model S and now the Model X is a platform on which Tesla intends to build other variants. During the unveiling of the Model X last night in Los Angeles, Musk reiterated his desire to make a "mass market" electric vehicle with a lower price, too.

Tesla's electric powertrain brings its multiple advantages--great acceleration, good handling, and lots of internal space.
Tesla's electric powertrain brings its multiple advantages--great acceleration, good handling, and lots of internal space. Tesla Motors

Of course, having a disruptive technology and an attractive product isn't enough. Tesla, whose stock price has been volatile since going public, also has to execute its business plan with few mistakes.

Competitor Fisker Automotive has been beset with numerous delays in bringing out its Fisker Karma extended-range luxury electric car. The company earlier this week said it will have to lay off workers and renegotiate its Department of Energy loan because it has apparently not met milestones specified in the contract.

As Tesla is phasing out sales of the Roadster, the company's financial success hinges largely on sales of Model S and the Model X. The Model S is still expected to come out later this year, with higher volume shipments next year.

No one can say with certainty how many consumers are willing to buy a cool-looking EV sedan or crossover. But you can't fault Tesla for not embracing disruptive technology or thinking big.