Tesla Model X: Era of the all-electric SUV is arriving (+video)

Tesla Model X marks an expansion of all-electric offerings beyond coupes and sedans. Tesla Motors says the AWD version of the Tesla Model X has more zip than many sports cars.

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    Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk unveils the Tesla Model X all-electric vehicle at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, Calif., Thursday.
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The new car from Tesla Motors isn't just a car. It looks kind of like a car, but offers space and design elements that cross over toward categories like minivan or sport-utility vehicle.

Oh, and its design blows the doors off, in a manner of speaking, by having occupants enter through a "falcon wing" opening that lifts upward.

It's not a surprise to see carmakers expanding the roster of all-electric offerings beyond coupes and sedans. That's to be expected as the market for green vehicles continues to mature.

But the move by Tesla and others into SUV or "crossover" territory is winning accolades from many consumers who are glad to have new choices on the green horizon. 

Tesla founder Elon Musk, unveiling the Model X at an event Thursday, said it is offering "more functionality than a minivan, more style than an SUV and more performance than a sports car." 

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But Tesla has a reputation for delivering on comfort and performance, which has moved it into a top-10 slot in a new car-brand "perception" survey sponsored by Consumer Reports

The Palo Alto, Calif., company says an all-wheel-drive version of the Model X will accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in fewer than 5 seconds, outperforming many sports cars.

The absence of a traditional engine and transmission allows Tesla to configure the space in nontraditional ways, to make the most out of a package that looks modest in size from the outside. A "frunk" puts ample storage space in an up-front trunk. The company boasts that passengers will step, not climb, into the Model X. And that "adults find the third-row seats as accessible as the passenger seat."

The electric drive train and luxury features like a "Tesla Touchscreen" on the dashboard come at a price, of course.

Depending on features, the Model X is expected to cost in the range of $55,000 to $75,000, similar to the company's Model S sedan. And even if you order today, you won't be behind the wheel before some time in 2014. (Tesla says deliveries will begin early that year.)

Another company that's offering roomier electric cars, also at a hefty price, is AMP Electric Vehicles in Loveland, Ohio. The company offers modified versions of traditional models from brands like Jeep and Mercedes, substituting a battery system for gasoline-combustion components. The company calls its newly unveiled version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee "proof positive that an SUV can also be 100% electric."

AMP says its Grand Cherokee will fully charge up at a cost of $3 to $4 (based on nationwide average of 10 cents per kilowatt hour). Driving range will be 80 to 100 miles per charge.

Another AMP model, the Mercedes ML, will beat Tesla to market as "the first modern all-wheel-drive electric vehicle," according to Consumer Reports. The price tag for the Mercedes is about $77,400, compared with $57,400 for the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Consumer Reports says.

The Tesla Model X will have a similar range as the SUVs from AMP.

Are these cars worth the money? The answer will depend a lot on what fits in a given car buyer's budget, and the financing deal available.

For the environmentally conscious, all-electric cars offer a dramatic reduction in "carbon footprint," cutting carbon emissions roughly in half from gasoline-powered cars. And buyers reap financial savings on gas every month to offer some payback against the higher price tag. 

To get a sense of how much difference that can make, the auto website finds that the $41,000 cash price of Nissan's electric Leaf has a "true cost to own" of less than $7,400 per year over five years. That's similar to the cost of a traditional sedan like the Nissan Altima, with a cash price of about $20,000.

The "true cost to own" includes everything from gas and car payments to insurance and estimated maintenance.

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