By most metrics, Tesla, Inc. (TSLA) lags its rivals in the car industry. But there is one metric in which Tesla has overtaken rivals. According to calculations by Charlie Bilello, director of research at Pension Partners, the Palo Alto, California-based company has generated the maximum returns this year for any car company listed in the markets.

Since the beginning of this year, investors have earned 63% returns from Tesla stock. Other car companies have produced far less. An investment in General Motors Company (GM) would have produced 3% returns in 2017. Ford Motor Company (F) generated negative 5% returns, while Honda Motor Co., Ltd. (HMC) and Toyota Motor Corporation (TM) produced negative returns of 2% and 4%, respectively. The party is expected to continue. Tesla's stock price has jumped by more than 50% since the start of this year, and based on multiple analyst reports, it has further room to grow. (See also: Tesla Passes General Motors in Market Cap, Becomes Most Valuable Car Maker.)

To be sure, the return numbers are not indicative of actual performance. While they sport similar market capitalizations compared with Tesla, Ford and GM are vastly more experienced in producing and selling cars. This is reflected in the number of cars that they sell each year. For example, Ford sold 6.6 million cars last year versus approximately 76,000 cars sold by Tesla.  

Instead, the run-up in Tesla's shares is a reflection of the market's assessment of the company's prospects in the nascent electric car industry. Consumer tastes have shifted against gasoline and diesel – the fuels that power most vehicles made by car majors. Governments across the world also set mandates this year and promulgated policies to regulate and promote sales of electric cars. As a pioneer in the space, Tesla is expected to be a major beneficiary of this trend. (See also: Tesla Model 3 Expectations Are 'Hitting the Moon'.)

Still, it is difficult to shake off the possibility of a bubble in Tesla's stock price given the massive difference in car production numbers. A good point of assessment for investors may be Tesla's progress with the Model 3, its first mainstream electric car. 

Encouraging delivery and sales numbers for the Model 3 would imply two things. First, Model 3 success would suggest that Tesla's production capabilities have matured to the point where it can take on car majors. Previously, the company struggled with multiple manufacturing and delivery issues for the Model S and Model X, cars that did not have the scale and ambitious numbers of the Model 3.

Second, and related to the first point, Tesla's sales will take off if it delivers the Model 3 on time and without significant problems. The electric car company has already proven its capabilities in the luxury car segment. Successful execution of the Model 3's mandate will help prove Tesla's critics wrong and set the stage for sales to take off. (See also: UBS Believes the Model 3 Launch Will Determine Tesla's Future.)

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