For now at least, Tesla (TSLA)  is taking a cautious approach to bringing the Model 3 to lower price points.

The caution likely has much to do with the slower-than-expected gross margin (GM) improvement seen for Tesla's "mass-market" sedan as its production has ramped. And it might also have a bit to do with the company's promise that it will be profitable and cash-flow positive during the back half of 2018, and thus won't need to raise additional capital for the time being.

Three months after opening up Tesla's Model 3 order process to the general public -- previously, consumers had to plunk down $1,000 for a reservation to get on the order queue -- Tesla just announced that it has begun offering a version of the Model 3 starting at $45,000 prior to tax incentives that sports a "Mid Range Battery" with a 260-mile expected range. Like the other versions of the Model 3 that are currently available, its price includes a "Premium Upgrades Package" that Tesla initially sold as a $5,000 option.

Though technically a "cheaper" Tesla, the Mid Range model is easily priced above Tesla's 220-mile Standard Battery Model 3, which still hasn't entered production. Tesla has long been promising a $35,000 starting price for the Standard Battery model -- a price that has helped the Model 3 garner quite a lot of favorable press since the electric sedan was first announced in the spring of 2016.

Meanwhile, though Tesla is still offering the 310-mile, "Long Range Battery" version of the Model 3, it's now only selling the dual-motor, all-wheel drive variant of the car that starts at $54,000. The $49,000 rear-wheel drive version, which had previously cost $44,000 before Tesla started bundling the Premium Upgrades Package, is for now unavailable. And Tesla is still selling a Performance version of the Model 3; it has a 310-mile range, can go from 0-60 mph in 3.3 seconds and starts at $64,000.

As an aside, Tesla has also stopped offering a $3,000 "full self-driving" software option for the Model 3 through its order system, which was previously available to those who were already paying $5,000 to get Enhanced Autopilot support. The obvious explanation for this move: Tesla still appears to be a ways away from rolling out a fully-fledged self-driving mode.

Those wanting to buy the 220-mile, Standard Battery version of the Model 3 will probably have to wait a while longer, too. Tesla has previously signaled that the Standard Battery Model 3 won't enter production until early 2019. And in September, following a visit to the Reno Gigafactory, Tesla investor Worm Capital forecast that Tesla "will likely start producing [its] shorter-range Model 3 in the next eight months." That implies a spring 2019 launch.

Moreover, if Tesla chooses to sell the Standard Battery Model 3 the way it's currently selling longer-range models, it won't sport a $35,000 starting price. Rather, it will cost $40,000, albeit with the Premium Upgrades Package included.

A look at Tesla's Model 3 margin profile helps explain why it's trying to keep the car's average selling price (ASP) well above $40,000 in the near-term. Whereas Tesla once predicted the Model 3 would see its GM reach 25% once production stabilized at 5,000 units per week (it appears to be there now), Tesla has only forecast a 15% GM for Q3 and a 20% GM for Q4.

And that's with no Standard Battery units being sold. Back in May, Elon Musk claimed that Tesla, whose Model 3 gross margin only turned positive in Q2, would "lose money and die" if it began producing the Standard Battery version of the car right away.

Nonetheless, Tesla still has a large backlog of Model 3 reservations to work through -- 420,000 of them as of Q2, before orders were opened up. And a lot of these reservation holders appear to have been lured by the $35,000 base price Tesla originally established for the Model 3.

In that context, Tesla's decision to launch of a "Mid Range" Model 3 trim with a $45,000 starting price, while simultaneously upping the minimum price that would-be owners of a Long Range Model 3 have to pay by another $5,000, is something of a half-measure.

It's arguably an attempt to placate some fraction of Model 3 reservation holders and other prospective buyers who have been waiting for a cheaper version of the sedan to arrive, while avoiding the margin and profit damage that would likely ensue if Tesla immediately began selling $35,000 units in large volumes.

(Editor's Pick. Originally published Oct. 19.)

More from Opinion

Apple Supplier Lumentum's Warning May Not Be as Bad for Apple as Feared

Apple Supplier Lumentum's Warning May Not Be as Bad for Apple as Feared

Why Disney's Streaming Strategy Could Work, Even Though it Won't Topple Netflix

Why Disney's Streaming Strategy Could Work, Even Though it Won't Topple Netflix

Video: What Does Alibaba Actually Do?

Video: What Does Alibaba Actually Do?

Throwback Thursday: Disney Makes Market Magic

Throwback Thursday: Disney Makes Market Magic

As Apple Weighs on Qualcomm's Earnings, 5G Can't Take Off Soon Enough

As Apple Weighs on Qualcomm's Earnings, 5G Can't Take Off Soon Enough