Tesla to reveal Model Y tonight: Elon Musk bets big on new electric SUV

Nathan Bomey

Tesla CEO Elon Musk will unveil the automaker's newest electric vehicle at an event Thursday night in the Los Angeles area.

The Model Y will make its debut as questions swirl regarding the SUV's design, tech features, exact timing and pricing.

Tesla must deliver a functional interior and improved reliability to appeal to pragmatic, family-oriented compact SUV buyers, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at car-buying advice site Edmunds.

"This is not a sports-car segment," Caldwell said. "These are not young Tesla enthusiasts thinking this is my way into a Tesla. Will it have smart packaging on the interior that will actually work for families?"

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Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive's Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader, said "the clock is ticking" for Tesla to deliver a compelling product because competitors are rapidly catching up. That makes it critical for the company to pull off the Model Y launch without a hitch.

"Every day that goes by, it’s less interesting for any single (electric) SUV to hit the market than what was a day before, and that include Teslas," Brauer said. 

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It could be Tesla's best-seller yet

Americans are having a love affair with SUVs and crossovers, and the Model Y size is expected to line up with the popular compact SUV subsegment.

Compact passenger cars are actually declining in popularity, which is partly why it was surprising that Musk chose the category for the automaker's first mass-market vehicle, the Model 3.

Musk has estimated that Model Y demand could be anywhere from 50 percent more or even double that of the Model 3.

Brauer agreed that Model Y sales will likely eventually top the Model 3.

Higher cost, less battery range

"Model Y, being an SUV, is about 10% bigger than Model 3, so will cost about 10% more & have slightly less range for same battery," Musk said on Twitter on March 3.

The basic version of the Model 3 starts at $35,000, but most buyers have paid well over $40,000 and some have paid more than $50,000 for vehicles with more options.

The starting price for the Model Y likely will approach $40,000, Brauer and Caldwell said. And many buyers will likely pay $50,000 or more, they predicted.

"There will be a lot of questions about the price," Caldwell said. "Not only are we looking for a pricing announcement but some assurance that they’re actually going to offer that vehicle at that price."

You won't be able to get one for a while

If history is any guide, Tesla will likely begin accepting online orders soon after Thursday night's event, if not immediately after. But that doesn't mean you should expect to drive one anytime soon.

Musk has said that production will begin slowly in early 2020 and hit high volumes by late 2020. But Tesla has repeatedly missed production goals in the past.

"They need to confirm that the car has a realistic timeline that they can meet," Brauer said. "This would be a good time to not overpromise and underdeliver."

It's a lot like the Model 3

The Model Y is based on the same architectural platform as the Model 3.

That allows Tesla to save costs by using about 75 percent of the same parts, Musk told investors in January.

Assembled in Reno?

That's an unusual place to manufacture vehicles. Most U.S.-assembled cars are made in the Midwest or the South, with the notable exception of the Tesla Model S, Model X and Model 3 vehicles made in Fremont, California.

The automaker has said it will likely make the Model Y at its battery factory in Nevada, where it continues to expand production. But that will require a major investment in assembly line equipment and employee training to get started.

"Batteries and powertrains will come out and go straight into the vehicle," Musk said in January. "So that also reduces our risk of execution and reduces the cost of having to transfer parts from California to Nevada. It's not a for-sure thing, but it's quite likely, and it's our default plan."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tesla to reveal Model Y tonight: Elon Musk bets big on new electric SUV