Russians beg Tesla: Sell us your 'iPhone on wheels'

Andrey Lemeshko and Yuliya Fedorinova
Bloomberg News

The love wealthy Muscovites have for Elon Musk is costing them dearly.

Almost 100,000 Russians follow Musk's unofficial social media page, yet the Tesla founder seems to be promoting his dream car everywhere but here, forcing enthusiasts like Andrey Vratskiy to go to great lengths — and expense — to own one.

Vratskiy, a 33-year-old software executive, wanted to swap his BMW X6 for a $75,000 Tesla S so badly that he agreed to pay almost double for it. With no sales network in Russia, he had to buy his sedan in the U.S. and spend $12,000 to fly it to Moscow, where it cost $50,000 to clear customs.

When he first started driving his ocean blue Tesla two years ago, Vratskiy said he felt like an endangered species in the wild. Now he's roaming with dozens of other members of the fan club he started and has spotted about 250 more.

"I love gadgets and this thing is pure gadget, like an iPhone on wheels," said Ivan Streshinskiy, who manages most of Alisher Usmanov's $14 billion fortune as head of USM Advisors. He bought a white Model S last summer and is shopping for a red one.

Other Russian owners include billionaire Roman Abramovich and bankers Herman Gref and Andrei Akimov, who head OAO Sberbank and OAO Gazprombank, Russia's largest and third-largest lenders, respectively.

For Gref, who served as economy minister during President Vladimir Putin's first two terms, not even the U.S.-led sanctions that severed his bank from the global financial system can curb his appreciation of the American machine.

"It doesn't pollute nature and it's super cheap and easy to use," Gref said by e-mail.

With such prominent customers already happy and a moneyed class famed for bouts of conspicuous consumption, Tesla could easily sell 2,000 Model S sedans and 2,000 of its upcoming Model X sport utility vehicles a year in Russia if it paid as much attention to this country as it does to China, Vratskiy said. Musk was greeted by rapturous crowds when he traveled to Beijing and Shanghai on a promotional tour last year.

Russia, a country of 144 million people, has just 300 registered electric vehicles, not including Teslas since none are officially sold in the country, compared with about 1,200 in neighboring Estonia, which has a population of 1.3 million.

Vratskiy said he and other members of the Tesla fan club have written to the company several times to urge it to expand into Russia, but the answer is always the same — the country just isn't a priority.

Tesla said it doesn't sell its vehicles in Russia, so it doesn't "provide warranty, charging solutions, service, or assistance with the necessary steps to legally import" its cars. It had no comment about when it might enter the market.

With no entry in site, Tesla fans in Russia like Vratskiy will have to continue paying a premium to the private traders who are stepping in to meet demand. Two dozen Model S cars are currently being advertised on, the country's largest online marketplace for vehicles, for as much as 11 million rubles ($195,000) each.

But Tesla buyers beware of the Moscow fender bender: The nearest service center is in Finland, about 550 miles away.

Stock price dips

Tesla Motors Inc. fell the most in more than four months after Deutsche Bank AG reduced its buy recommendation on the stock, saying Tesla's share price matches most of its growth prospects.

"We've been bullish on Tesla's prospects, based on the company's electric vehicle opportunity," Rod Lache, a Deutsche Bank analyst, wrote Tuesday. "And we believe Tesla could become a dominant player. But at this point, Tesla's shares appear to already reflect this opportunity."

Tesla also has potential to grow in its stationary battery-storage business, Lache wrote. The Tesla rating was cut to hold, even as the price target was increased to $280 from $245.

Shares slid 4.2 percent to $267.88, the biggest daily decline since Feb. 23. The company's stock has climbed 20 percent this year.

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