The Model 3 has helped Tesla more than double its annual sales. Picture. David Zalubowski / AP Photo.

Palo Alto, California - Tesla shares plunged on Wednesday after it reported fewer car deliveries in the fourth quarter than expected.

The high-flying electric carmaker, led by Elon Musk, delivered 90 700 vehicles in the fourth quarter, a bit below the 91 000 expected by analysts, even as deliveries jumped overall compared to the year-ago period.

Tesla delivered 245 240 vehicles in total for all of 2018, more than twice the number from the prior year. More than half, or 145 846, were Model 3 sedans, a car aimed at the middle market that Tesla hopes will push electric cars into the mainstream.

But deliveries of the Model 3 also came in a bit below expectations.

Tesla described its production ramp-up of the Model 3 as "likely" qualifying as "the biggest single-year growth in the history of the automotive industry," with the rate jumping from 120 000 vehicles per year early in 2018 to 350 000 per year at the end of the year.

Tesla said it was cutting prices on the Model 3 and its other two offerings by $2000 (R28 800) to compensate for a drop in the federal electric car tax credit that took effect on January 1.

Musk has been a polarising figure on Silicon Valley and Wall Street, winning fans for creating Tesla and other ambitious tech ventures but also plenty of criticism for flouting expectations of acceptable behavior for top executives.

He has, for example, continued to lambast US securities regulators following a fraud settlement tied to a quickly aborted effort to take the company private.

Shares have been volatile over the last year, falling sharply as Musk's travails dominated the headlines in the summer but rising again following strong third-quarter earnings. 

"Naysayers" of Tesla are "skeptical about the company's bottom line performance after the company reported a surprise profit in the third quarter," said

"Some think the better cost performance was an aberration even though the company guided for further improvements going forward."

Agence France-Presse