Tesla Roadsters a Tough Sell Mid-Recession? No Way, Says Musk

How do you sell $109,000 electric sports cars in a recession? Slowly, according to a Green Fuels Forecast analysis this week of the sales and backlog numbers for the Tesla Roadster. Green Fuels Forecast crunched the numbers Tesla has revealed so far — the company delivered Roadster No. 500 earlier this month, and as of this week 700-800 customers still await delivery — to put total sales (fulfilled plus unfulfilled orders) in the range of 1,200-1,300 units.

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Problem is, that’s about how many orders Tesla had for the Roadster when it started production last year — suggesting that new orders may not be keeping pace with cancellations, Green Fuels Forecast writes. Earlier this year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company had seen some cancellations as customers dealt with the economic downturn. Other factors also may have come into play, such as the price hike for previously standard options on pre-ordered Roadsters, which the company announced in January of this year.

But Musk tells us that the company is doing better now than at any time in the last year:

“We can say at this point that Roadster sales are substantially greater than cancellations and that we expect to sell out of 2009 production within the next few months. This has been our best week since summer 2008 and I think it will continue due to store openings and general improvements in the economy.”

Tesla has had some high profile wins as of late, which has brought it more attention and potentially customers. New customers could have found confidence that Tesla will actually deliver ordered vehicles — courtesy of $465 million in DOE loans, and an investment from Daimler. The broader auto industry also seen an uptick recently in car sales, which could be helping Tesla. According to Edmunds’ report on the latest vehicle sales figures, luxury cars are on track to make the biggest gains in June over last month’s sales.

But another trend shows that there’s a tough market still ahead for Tesla: the recession has put the brakes on demand for sports cars, specifically. Edmunds expects sports car sales to be “the biggest loser” among all vehicle categories for both May and June, compared with the same months last year. Plug-in cars in general, including cars like Tesla’s planned Model S sedan, might benefit from a spike in gas prices, but it’s hard to see someone considering spending $109,000 on a car basing the decision on how much they’ll pay at the pump.

Tesla, for the moment, seems to have bigger fish to fry than tight mid-recession budgets. It says it’s still bringing in orders for the Roadster faster than it can produce them, and claims to be just weeks away from being able to turn a profit on each Roadster. So right now it seems worth focusing on making good on the orders it already has, and on spending the DOE loan wisely.

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