(Bloomberg) -- Tesla Motors Inc. CEO Elon Musk said sales of electric Model S cars in China should match U.S. levels as early as next year, with demand from the world's largest auto market eventually requiring a local plant.
The electric-car maker said the Model S will be priced from 734,000 yuan ($121,280) in China when deliveries begin.
Musk, Tesla's billionaire co-founder, will travel to China in late March to inaugurate the company's entry there.
For Tesla, "it could be as big as the U.S. market, maybe bigger. I don't want to get overexcited about it," Musk said. "Even without building there locally, it's always going to be the second-biggest market after the U.S."
After a rocky start ramping up Model S assembly in 2012, Tesla surprised analysts and investors this month when it said fourth-quarter deliveries were 20 percent above its target.
Musk, 42, has pinned his goal of selling hundreds of thousands of electric autos annually to a global strategy in which China, Europe, Japan and other markets bolster its U.S. business.
If all goes well, Model S shipments to China can match U.S. sales by 2015, Musk said.
"It's not my firm prediction -- it's more like a low-fidelity guess."
The company named for inventor Nikola Tesla more than quadrupled in value in 2013. Tesla shares fell $6.90 to close at $174.60 at the close Friday in New York trading Thursday, amid a broad decline in stock indices.
The price of Tesla's flagship Model S in China, a version equipped with a premium 85 kilowatt hour battery pack, puts it in the same bracket there as Volkswagen AG's Audi S5 sedan and BMW AG's 5-series GT sedan, according to Autohome, a car-pricing Web site.
It's also 50 percent more expensive than in the United States, where the equivalent model sells for $81,070, according to a Tesla statement.
While higher than the U.S. version, the Model S price for China appears "well below expectations," John Lovallo, an equity analyst for Bank of America who rates Tesla underperform, said Thursday in a research note.
Since the Model S is imported to China from California, a duty of as much as 25 percent is added to the price tag, Musk said.
The company also must cover shipping costs and taxes. Tesla could have charged more than $160,000 had it followed standard industry practices.